January 18, 2010


When I was maybe 14, after attending a piping summer school (or “camp” as the kids often refer to them now), I was told by an instructor (from the Brown-Nicol Camp) that “that” Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor was complete rubbish, and that only the Piobaireachd Society Collection would do.

Well okay then. I loyally relayed this information to my parents, who, as ever, dutifully did whatever was needed for their child and found the money to secure the 13 separate PS books (all that were published at the time). This was an expensive proposition, but they did it anyway. Not only that, but after a year of carting around these separate volumes, they got them professionally bound in one of those hulking tomes that I’ve used since

Today, a complete, 15-book, bound PS Collection costs about $500. They’re occasionally awarded as a prize at amateur piping competitions like the Sherriff Memorial, and I’ve heard competitors say that the big book is to them even more valuable and practical than a prize chanter or set of drones. The bound collection I received (complete with Angus Nichol’s calligraphic dedication) for winning the MacGregor Memorial way-back-when remains a treasure.

I understand from the president’s message that the PS books aren’t selling well these days. It’s not surprising, since people are used to a more a la carte approach to music. Most people I know download from iTunes just the track that they like, and not the whole CD. When it comes to bagpipe music, they generally either go to PipeTunes.ca to snag that tune they specifically want, or get a photocopy from a friend if the tune was published eons ago in Ross or Edcath. They should buy the whole collection but the reality is those people have been in the minority for decades now.

The thinking applies to the PS books: why buy a $25 Book 12, full of stuff you’d rather not hear, let alone play, when the only tune you really want is “Lament for the Harp Tree”?

If the Piobaireachd Society really wants to further the playing and accessibility of ceol mor, it would 1) offer the tunes individually, 2) make the music available online in pdf format, and 3) provide it for free.

The Piobaireachd Society could still offer its printed books or the entire, bound Collection at a break-even price. That’s fair. But perhaps it’s time the society also made the non-copyright music available in electronic form as part of its membership, or even free to everyone and anyone who wants it. Seems to me that that would foster the organization’s fundamental goal to “encourage the study and playing of Piobaireachd” like never before.


  1. Good thoughts, and true. Some will always want a complete collection, few want to spend $30 to buy one tune [which you have to do if buying a single Book]. Currently, single copies are available through the Piobaireachd Society’s one official dealer [perhaps the subject for another editorial], but I have to admit that I have been sending people to the free, original manuscripts on pipetunes.ca and if you want modern contests settings, you can annotate those from Donald MacLeod, Roddy MacLeod, Bobs of Balmoral, et al recordings. The PS has an extensive and very good sound file collection for members, and lots of free manuscripts. I suppose their argument is they need to make money from “something” to make it all possible. Perhaps with free written settings, free recordings, and slightly higher membership fees, they could achieve it all?

  2. I agree with this, as I’ve been looking for a free (or reasonably priced) version of a tune for several years. While I enjoy playing piobaireachd I’m hardly a fanatic; I have a few tunes I like, and I stick with those. Most of the tunes in my Kilberry book will go unplayed. I’d much rather have a pdf of sheet music than a book; it’s not as heavy, doesn’t take up as much space, and doesn’t get dog-eared with use. I really like Roddy MacLeod Piobaireachd for this reason.

  3. But I sense that everything is moving more and more towards the ‘free and open’ with the PS. Look at the wealth of stuff freely available on the website, and for a very small annual subscription, a whole load more unfolds before your eyes. My feeling is they want to make everything as accessible as it can be, and work along with people, not against them. I’ve been around in several discussions about the COP having a kind of monopoly on sales of PS things. I don’t think they make a profit from them. I’m never sure what I personally think about it, but perhaps channelling everything principally through one outlet, does tend towards the ‘closed’ rather than the ‘open’. People who want the big bound volume are going to be real enthusiasts who I think would pay way more for it. Piobaireachd written by people long dead imho would be better being made freely available. Modern composers of piobaireachd would seem to me to be entitled to have the dues. The PS people are very open to suggestions and keen to do what they can for us members. I know that they take the suggestions very seriously and implement where they think its a good thing. Even I have made some, and they have responded quickly, in full, and been welcoming and grateful for the ideas. And at the rate the website has developed with more being added all the time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see electronically-available copies on there at some point.

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