Piobaireachd Society at crossroads with future direction
The 118-year-old Piobaireachd Society could see significant changes in its future, as the organization shifts the location of its Annual Conference to the National Piping Centre and will reportedly elect a new president in March.
Although incumbent president Jack Taylor, who has held the role since 2007, would not indicate his plans, it is widely rumoured that he will not stand for re-election if nominated.
Over his 12 years as president, Taylor has continued the work of predecessor Andrew Wright to welcome fresh thinking into the tradition-entrenched organization, which has taken credit and responsibility for the preservation and perpetuation of ceol mor, largely through standardized settings of tunes via the society’s 16-volume Collection.
The 609-member organization has worked for more than 100 years to prescribe “set lists” of piobaireachds for the competitions at the major gatherings at Oban and Inverness, thus ensuring that a variety of tunes will be learned and played, rather than allowing pipers to play the same favourite pieces.
Over the last 20 years the group has worked to accept alternative piobaireachd settings and “modern” compositions, although comprised almost entirely of tunes no younger than 50 years old.
As with any leadership change, there is some trepidation with members that the Piobaireachd Society’s current path could be altered negatively, even though the organization is still seen by many as a protectionist group led by an older generation, barely in the conscious of younger pipers, if at all.
“The wrong president could kill it,” said Piobaireachd Society member Euan Anderson, who is also a member of the Solo Piping Judges Association. “The Piobaireachd Society has the perception of being aloof and estranged from the modern-day player. The Piobaireachd Society Conference died, hence the move to the National Piping Centre. The incumbent needs to take it forward and connect with the current crop of competitors and harness the elder statesmen who may be about to retire. The Society desperately needs credibility, and top players joining the ranks would help immensely. The website is good and informative, but you need to be more proactive and engage with the current competitors. They are moving in the right direction, but the new president requires a dynamic personality, who can communicate with its partners and the piping community.”
Recent years have seen younger pipers experimenting with piobaireachd composition, questioning and challenging traditional structures and norms. Amateur piper David Hester’s Alt Pibroch Club strives to promote such change, publishing new settings and compositions by authors such as accomplished piper and avant-garde classical composer Matthew Welch. The Piobaireachd Society under Taylor has welcomed the Alt Pibroch Club’s efforts.
The Piobaireachd Society’s Annual Conference until this year has almost always been held in relatively remote settings, almost requiring attendees to book into a hotel. The move to Glasgow and the National Piping Centre on March 22-23, while common-sense to some, is a relatively radical change for the society.
“Moving to Glasgow is a new venture for us, and the National Piping Centre is an ideal venue,” Taylor said.
On the conference agenda are items that very much look at the traditional aspects of the music, including Taylor delivering a talk on new evidence about the old competitions.
“This has only been available to a few people thus far, and it is proving fascinating,” Taylor said. “It includes the notes made by the judges year on year in the early-1800s, and a judging dispute at the Northern Meeting that involved royalty.”
Taylor’s discussion will feature performances by renowned soloist Iain Speirs and the up-and-coming John Dew, each playing tunes and setting submitted by competitors in 1844, with Dew performing on a replica of a Donald MacDonald bagpipe of the era.
BBC commentator Gary West will chair a panel discussion with amateur piper and former judge James Burnet, Inverness Clasp-winner Tom Speirs, and piobaireachd the legendary piobaireachd authority Andrew Wright.
The new movie, MacCrimmon’s Gold, will be screened at the conference. The film is the story of Breton piper Patrick Molard’s foray into Piobaireachd and the Campbell Canntaireachd, and his relationship with one of the Bobs of Balmoral, Robert Urquhart Brown, with whom he had lessons in the 1970s.
One of the first challenges to the Piobaireachd Society’s de facto monopoly on the music was Dr. William Donaldson’s Set Tunes Series on pipes|drums, which started in 2000 and now numbers more than 180 pieces, each with exhaustive analysis of all known published settings. Until Donaldson and pipes|drums recognized the potential of the internet, pipers would have to secure rare paper copies of old manuscripts public domain, usually from the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, or be limited to the Piobaireachd Society Collection or the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor.
Donaldson openly challenged the original motives of the Piobaireachd Society in his seminal book, The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950, contending that Archibald Campbell and other early leaders of the group knew little about the then-thriving and evolving art form, yet set about standardizing piobaireachd to suit their aristocratic needs, often ostracizing great exponents of the art in order to get their way.
The compositions prescribed by the Piobaireachd Society for the 2019 major competitions are a return mainly to familiar old pieces.