March 29, 2013


The annual lists of Set Tunes for the big piobaireachd competitions are important to maybe a hundred people in the world. When you’re not competing in the Gold or Silver medals or one of the dozen or so elite competitors in the Senior events, the Set Tunes are, if anything, just a curiosity. I doubt anyone not in the current crop of hard core contestants is on the edge of their pipe box anxiously wondering what will be the chosen few.

I’ve been back at playing regularly these past months with the intention to have a walk around the boards this summer – just for fun. And “fun” is the operative word. Between the ages 19 and 40 I spent maybe 15 of those years playing at the tunes set for either the Silver or Gold medals. There were the very occasional own-choice years, and rare seasons when the lists were populated completely by melodic classics. By and large, though, these set tune lists featured two or three piobaireachds that I enjoyed playing and obvious choices, and the rest informed a process of deciding which was the easiest to memorize, get through accurately, and then hope for better options in next year’s list.

I remember Captain John MacLellan at a lesson saying “Abercairney’s Salute” must have been written by a personal piper who thought, “Hmmm, Abercairney’s birthday is tomorrow, so I’d better write a piobaireachd.” I would try to convince myself that dreary things like “The MacRaes’ March” and “Sobieski’s Salute” were great pieces of music, for why else would an esteemed organization like the Piobaireachd Society prescribe them for the Gold Medal? But in my heart I knew they sucked.

It seemed inevitable that I’d have things like that picked for me on the big days, while the one or two great classics I submitted went to someone else. Despite trying to convince myself that I didn’t care what they picked, it was always deflating. I always did better with tunes that were actually good music. But many were the times when I’d be puffed up, awaiting to know what tune they’d picked, thinking along the lines of, “Please be ‘Lord Lovat’s Lament,’ please be ‘Lord Lovat’s Lament,’ please be . . .” only to be punctured with some obtuse “Weighing From Land” type of thing.

I suppose it’s all part of the test, musical or psychological or a combination of the two. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve heard pipers talk about “trying to make something musical” out of a set piece of dreck, and there’s a sense of celebration when someone popular deservedly wins big with a great tune.

Perhaps sadly, every piper I know would be perfectly happy playing “Stairway to Heaven” if it meant winning a Highland Society of London Gold Medal.

It’s all to say that now without (as the great Hugh MacCallum described it) “the treadmill” of the set tunes, playing only piobaireachd that I really like to play is a new and liberating experience. I find that with each practice session, rather than having a mental checklist of tunes I must run another lap around, I can pick from 10 or so piobaireachds currently on the go. And then I’ll think of another tune I’d like to brush up and have a go at that. It’s long-forgotten fun.

Sometimes the lists look like they were put together by a preservation society rather than a music organization. For sure the piper who wins a big prize with “The Battle of Bealach nam Brog” (or “The Beelin’ Brogues,” as a friend calls it) will convince him or herself that it’s a musical masterpiece beyond reproach.

It’s all part of the mind game we agree to play, and the “test” we create for ourselves to bring life to the monotonous, all for the thrill of victory.


  1. As someone who has loved the instrument a lifetime but who struggles to play more than three tunes in a row without screwing up. ( I am well past 60) to be faced with the struggles you have so aptly described let me just say this.
    Suck it up buttercup! I have heard you play the big music. The majority of pipers cannot even aspire to this at the local games. Don’t forget you are in what for pipers or lovers of the instrument is a rarified atmosphere. You and those of your ilk don’t need Stairway to Heaven (though that would be interesting) we who listen to you for the most part don’t know what the piece is that you are playing we just feel that you have either gotten us or you haven’t.
    Just share the gift and keep the cerebral deconstruct for your fellow pipers.
    It’s not you or the piece, it’s the music and how it is felt.

  2. I am one of those People that struggle with competition v just playing, nothing like being judged and criticised to make you improve. As much as there is nothing like winning, there is nothing like losing when you felt you deserved the win either.

    I remember there was a piece on a piper here that got into piobroch late in life and his goal was to get one of these silver medals, and I thought it was pretty yucky how a person could be inspired by the music and set his goals on winning a competition. It seemed to me his default setting was, aimed at winning a prize in the competition first, and love the new found love second, something not quite right with that for me.

    This is perhaps well off the topic, but anyway, I know of a guy who loved surfing and would like nothing more than to have had a life where he got paid to surf all day, (ie a professional). He had a daughter who also loved the surfing and she managed to be so good she became a professional. You would think the father would be pleased for her right? Wrong! he hated the very notion of competition and thought the money and aspect of being paid for the fun, took the fun out of it. Maybe that is what you are getting at above Andrew, I struggle with the thoughts of making people compete too, and the idea of sending my children to compete and tell them, that the are better on this day today, and a loser on other days, to their childhood friends, doesn’t seem right to me.

    Christy Moore said something along the lines of its dangerous once you start getting paid to play music, the cost of integrity must be what he is getting at.

    Do you really need the medals? and the prizes? can’t you just love piobroch and get on with not competing? problem solved, no more cruel learning.

    Regarding the actual post, you do pose a good question, who are the people that select the tunes? and maybe it is best that they are not musicians, that may just pick the favourites on the boards at any given time. Better they know nothing, and then maybe an accidental gem will be found among the dross? Not that I think that, it just may be an outcome.

    flighty thought session over 🙂

  3. I have been thinking abou the set lists myself lately and wondering whether to adhere to them or not. As was mentioned in the articl, unless you’re going to play in the Silver Medal competitions(s), then why bother picking from “the list”? So, recently I have concluded that with life getting shorter all the time, might as well learn and play what you want to play, and play it well, rather than force yourself to learn tune(s) that don’t interest you or will likely never be tested. And if those tunes happen to be on “the list”, well, all the better.

  4. I think the blogpost expresses a really accurate point about the nature of the set tunes list, and the “training chore” it sets for aspiring medallists and senior event winners each year. I have made the effort to learn set tunes for events in the past, and I have learned some tunes that I continue to play and enjoy, and some that I’ll likely never play again, and didn’t enjoy.

    However, I wonder if the set lists haven’t—as their proponents hoped—expanded the list of tunes that are currently in circulation, and also expanded the knowledge base of our top players?

    I would expect that the players such as Murray Henderson, Jack Lee, Roddy MacLeod, Willie McCallum (and I know there are many more) would likely have a far greater repertoire of tunes, and a wider knowledge of the whole repertoire, than many players of past eras. The rigour of learning set tunes, and then teaching other set tunes would surely contribute to the kind of knowledge base that we see demonstrated on their music and teaching sites?

    It would be interesting for the Piobaireachd Society to survey its most senior judges and competing members on the perceived advantages and disadvantages of the system.

  5. I’m a supporter of the set-tunes concept, although I think it has gone badly wrong in the past twenty or years or so. We’ve had year after year after year of lists filled with far too many mediocrities and obscurities. It’s very easy to be an armchair critic, but there is good reason to comment.

    The list for 2014 is a refreshing change in thought and structure. It’s not a collection of random tunes as has often happened in the past There’s been a deal of thought put into the selection, with a much better balance of tunes of even weight. It’s pleasing to see the breakdown of fosgailte/breabach/conventional/amach tunes in the Silver Medal list – this was an idea of Archie Cairns’ about twenty years ago and was suggested more recently. Hopefully this can continue and the farce of seeing the Black Wedder’s White Tail being pitted against the Daughter’s Lament in a Gold Medal list will be a thing of the past. Not that the formerly – mentioned Black Wedder is a poor tune, it’s just a completely different entity in length, technical difficulty, and standard than the Daughter’s.

    Of course there are so many genuinely good tunes out there – I mean, when was the last time we saw the great MacCrimmon tunes set? I don’t think I’ve been witness in my lifetime to the Lament for the Children being set at Oban and Inverness. Nor quite a few others of that ilk. Perhaps it has been, but if so, once, and I missed it. One has to ask the question, why is that? What is wrong with giving the pipers the best tunes to play? A measure of over-control, perhaps.

    And what about the damage done by the outright refusal to have “free list” years as was a regular occurence a few decades ago? It appears that the reason for this has become lost on those who recently are in charge of the process. The free lists every two or three years allowed competing pipers to develop their repertoire of tunes – to learn the big classics, the tunes which they like, and the tunes which they want to play. I have pupils who are expert players who have reached the middle stage of competing who still have a pretty limited repertoire of these big classics, reason being because they have spent the past ten years on the “set tune treadmill” which you refer to. They can’t play the Children, they can’t play Donald Duaghal MacKay, or Colbeck, or Morag. But they can play the Rout of the MacPhees, the Parading of the MacDonalds, The Menzies Salute and Sobieski and any number of other desperate tunes which were immediately, necessarily, and thankfully added to the recycle bin of piobaireachd as soon as Inverness was over. They quite simply haven’t the time to learn the great tunes because they are forced to learn a conglomeration of pieces which they have no interest in ever playing again unless they happen to be subsequently set, which they frequently are.

    Surely it’s time to get rid of the “let’s work the pipers as hard as possible” mentality and turn instead to creating a constructive and more balanced approach which will serve audiences, competing pipers, and piping much better.

    1. This is a very good point. The set tunes system also can work the other way. I know several pipers who managed to win the Silver and/or Gold medals quickly, and say that they know hardly any of the smaller tunes. When it comes times for them to teach or judge pipers who need to learn or play those smaller tunes, they’re a bit lost. If it weren’t for the time constraint, I’d say that there’s no real reason why Silver or Gold medal players can’t tackle the “big” tunes and in many cases play them just as well as the Senior-level players.

  6. Well…Andrew I have heard you called a lot of things, both good and bad, but “buttercup” is a first! :>)
    I think long hours could be spent on the merits of both sides of this complex dilemma. In short I would tend to lean more towards Colin’s points.
    Having written that, I for one am delighted to read you are “playing regularly” again. Have fun “buttercup”!

  7. I read these comments with interest.
    While I agree with alot of what Colin says, I think that the Music Committee should be applauded for introducing obscure and non mainstream tunes. If they werent on the List who would even concider playing them? The result would be that tunes would be “lost”.
    I think what has been done with the Silver Medal tunes for 2014 is pretty spot on,
    Wasnt there a free year only 2 or 3 seasons ago?
    The trouble with free years is you always seem to hear the smae old stuff, while I enjoy it I think that it would get a bit monotonous.
    Maybe there should be a balance, 2 or 3 set tunes and the remainder own choice?

  8. There’s an interesting paradox to be considered when it comes to set tune lists and competition in general. Are set lists, in fact, keeping less well-known repertoire alive by requiring it? Or does the competition milieu discourage larger repertoires by putting such a high premium on execution? Is popularity just fashion (and thus dangerous, in that we risk losing great music when it falls out of fashion) or are some lesser-known tunes lesser-known for a reason (and thus, no great loss if we lose them)? What effect does ubiquitous recording and text reproduction capability have on all of this (are we really going to lose tunes, in today’s world, if people don’t play them for a while)?

    Frankly, only the best players are going to be able to play many difficult tunes flawlessly. The rest of us will invest whatever practice time we have into being as good as we can. Should we be spending that time trying to get as close to technically-flawless as we can with a small number of tunes or do we do our art form more good by maintaining a larger active repertoire?

    I think both Colin and Andrew made great points above and I’d add that I think we need to give some real consideration to why it is that we compete. Is it really the best way to keep our music alive (the standard of play in the classical music world would suggest otherwise)? Can and should we be separating the preservation of our repertoire and our teaching approach from what we do on the boards? I suspect that my feelings on the subject are clear from my tone :).

  9. I learned my first piobaireachd well over 40 years ago. At that time I was told that we were preserving the music from the “golden age” of piping to pass it on until the next golden age. I think that was from Seumas MacNeill. In those days only Pipe Majors considered composing tunes (light music). Then something magical happened, as has been recounted by Andrew in the past. Summer schools brought piping to the hinter lands. Young people in Canada and else where began composing some pretty incredible stuff. Some tunes will fall by the wayside because they are not as good as others, this is a form of evolution. Others have been have been altered to be more musical. What Grade 1 band doesn’t do this? It seems that the golden age is alive and well in light music.

    40 years ago the settings were mostly from the Piobaireachd Society Collection, Kilberry or those setting passed down by John MacDonald. Now more manuscripts are available to the piping community. It is clear that there were more varied ways of playing than that of John MacDonald, or Sandy Cameron. I write this even though most of the piobaireachd I learned was from a pupil of John MacDonald or a pupil of a pupil of John MacDonald. Wouldn’t it be interesting to give the Senior and Clasp competitors the leeway to take some of these more obscure and less desirable tunes, many of which were added to the collection only for completeness, and make them more musical. I know of no other musical idiom where a judge sits looking at a book to make sure that the player doesn’t play a “D” instead of an “E” gracenote. Why not let the “golden age” return to piobaireachd? I think that the judging panels of today are capable of knowing what is and what is not musical and in the piobaireachd idiom. It would certainly make these tunes more interesting for the players.

  10. I think the best course of action would be to stop setting obscure tunes that shouldn’t have made the books in the first place and let the players choose the tunes they want to play every three years. I want to hear the top players playing what they want to play for a change.



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