May 28, 2013

p|d Set Tunes Series 2013 – collection approaches 150 piobaireachds

pipes|drums Magazine is pleased to announce that Dr. William Donaldson’s Set Tunes Series continues with eight piobaireachds from the list of compositions set by the Piobaireachd Society for the major gatherings in 2013.


The Set Tunes Series started in 2001 and now number nearly 150 piobaireachds, making it by far the most comprehensive multi-setting compilation of ceol mor ever produced.


William Donaldson and pipes|drums have from the beginning made each tune available to all for free, with an aim of opening eyes to the rich history and tradition of a diverse and varied thriving art that existed before 1900.


A pupil of the great Robert Nicol – who, along with Robert Brown was part of the legendary “Bobs of Balmoral” – for nine years, William Donaldson is a renowned scholar on Highland bagpipe music and traditional Scottish music and is the author of the seminal and controversial book, The Highland Pipe & Scottish Society.


The 2013 Set Tunes Series, which will begin this weekend, adds eight tunes to the overall series. The balance of the tunes set for 2013 are already available in the series on pipes|drums.


We caught Willie Donaldson for a brief interview on the 2013 Set Tunes Series.

pipes|drums: It must give some satisfaction that the Set Tunes Series, now in its thirteenth year, is coming in sight of 150 tunes.

William Donaldson: Yes. It is beginning to form the basis of a reliable variorum edition. Instead of a single composite text as we get in the Piobaireachd Society Collection and The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor, this is an edition containing all the significant settings of any tune drawn from a range of authentic contemporary sources. We are reaching the point where only a half-dozen or so new tunes need to be added in any year, and a comprehensive collection covering the whole central repertory of the classical music of the Highland pipe will shortly be within reach.

p|d: Is it really viable to think that these alternative setting will actually be played in competition?

WD: There does remain a problem with people feeling able to play these rich traditional stylings in public. Ceol mor is predominantly heard in competition, and it is asking a lot for people to risk months of practice, their travel and accommodation expenses – very substantial if they have come several thousand miles to attend an event – and their carefully-nurtured reputation as successful competitors – by playing in a style which, however correct, may be rejected by conservative benches out of hand.

I remember, not many years ago, a fairly notable player – let’s call him “Donald” – who approached the bench and indicated that he intended to play a setting from the right-hand page of the Piobaireachd Society’s Collection. This was considered an act of utter recklessness and he was greeted with the words, “Are you mad, Donald?” What he was proposing to play was not an obscure setting from an out-of-the-way source, but taken from the Piobaireachd Society’s own Collection. But it wasn’t the Holy Writ on the left-hand page, and this was sufficient to damn him.

p|d: When we started the Series in 2001 things were a little different, no?

WD: There may be signs of change. Recently people have been talking of typesetting the old MSS and posting them to the net, which would do a lot for their accessibility, and there seems a growing groundswell of interest in the older settings. It is difficult looking back even 10 years to remember just how hard it was to get a hold of the older, authentic settings. Nearly all of these, both manuscript and printed, are now freely available online, a radically different state of affairs than when the Set Tunes series began in 2001.

In terms of available information there has been a revolution; but its effects are yet to be seen. These old scores should be a constant resource for the performer. It is now quite easy to assemble all the older versions of a particular piece, and from them it is usually obvious how it should be interpreted, allowing for the fact that the music slowed significantly during the twentieth century as benches of judges responded to Archibald Campbell’s dictum that “Slowness is a characteristic of Highland music” by rewarding ever more ploddingly laborious timings. One must also bear in mind that, in response to another of Campbell’s doctrines that piobaireachd shouldn’t resemble real music, benches penalized what he would have considered as “tune-y” performances. Hence the ugly, charmless modern way of playing.

p|d: How do you know for certain that Archibald Campbell of Kilberry had such a willful control over the music?

WD: Now that Archibald Campbell’s editorial papers have been deposited in the National Library of Scotland, we can see how the Piobaireachd Society settings were actually arrived at, how shockingly inaccurate they are and how badly they misrepresent the music. This ought to be a game-changing realization.

It also raises a number of very uncomfortable questions. How much longer can we expect top-flight performers to pocket their musicality when they mount the piobaireachd boards and play in a style we know is inauthentic and wrong? How can the Piobaireachd Society continue to promote the 15 volumes of its Collection and the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor, books compiled with very little input from its members – even the Music Committee who usually never even saw the volumes issued in their name? It places a question mark over the role of the Society in its present form and perhaps even its continued existence.

The 2013 Set Tunes Series will begin the next few days with eight tunes, each featuring text and manuscripts and an interpretative audio file by William Donaldson.


  1. As a player with a curious mind, I often wondered about the rigidity of piobaireachd playing. Every cadence, grace note etc. had to be played as in the book. In addition I always wondered where this magic music originated. I knew from readings, that there were manuscripts, but where were they? Who had them? What did they look like? What did they reveal? I never thought that I would actually see their contents. Well, thanks to Dr. William Donaldson and others eg. the Piobaireachd Society there they were. It is as if a cloak has been removed. The light bulb light. Much of the mystique removed. Having gone through some of the “manuscript settings”, they are wonderful. My hat off to those who have provided this knowledge, in particular Dr. Donaldson for his scolarly presentations. Thanks for removing some of the mystique. Well done! Reay Mackay

  2. Would love to read additional commentary on this subject from Dr. Donaldson, who has provided us with a tremendous resource of Piobaireachd research. Opinion and commentary from other authorities would be interesting as well! Thanks for posting!



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