(pronounced 'PEE-b'rukh')

by Dave McKenzie

The word that inspires awe, and more often, a sense of dyslexia… It’s Gaelic; go easy…

Meaning “Piping” or “bagpipe playing,” the term has been used for at least the last 150 years as THE label for “Ceol Mor” or the “great music” of the Highland bagpipe. This is the “big music,” literally, and refers to THE classical idiom of the Highland bagpipe.

Piobaireachd is the oldest and most complete form of pipe music yet documented. This musical art form is unique to Scotland and has remained uninfluenced by all other European music of the last 400 years or so. It is intimately linked to the Gaelic language and culture from between the 16th and almost halfway into the 18th century. The entire repertoire consists of a little more than 300 tunes, some of them recent compositions from the late 20th century, which has seen a rise in interest and enthusiasm for piobaireachd by pipers and non-pipers alike, especially in North America. Piobaireachd has its own tonal systems, or “modes” which effectively allow the piper to play in different “keys” within the ever present soundscape created by the drones. Complete with its own complex metrical forms, piobaireachd could be described as the epic poetry of the Highland bagpipe.   

All piobaireachd consists of a theme and at least one, more often, more, or a series of variations based on the original theme. The “theme”, called the “urlar” in Gaelic literally means “floor” or “ground.”  Based on this theme, a successive elaboration of variations begins and the melody of the urlar is retold in many different guises. As the variations progress, the melody of the urlar is necessarily simplified- essentially boiled down to a limited number of theme notes- as the technical demands of the variations themselves grow more complex culminating in the “Crunluath” or “Crowning movement.” Sometimes a ”Crunluath-a-mach” will be heard after this, taking the variation a step further. This is where the true acoustic fireworks mark the finale. The urlar is always repeated at the end of the tune to give a sense of continuity, completeness and, as with so many Celtic art forms, a cyclical or circular nature by ending where you began. 

We find piobaireachd in its golden age in the 17th and early18th centuries in the Gaelic culture of the Highlands and islands of Scotland, already in a highly developed state. It’s complexity and construction even then dated back two centuries and the earliest dated piece which can be verified with reasonable accuracy is the “MacRae’s March”, circa 1491. We can infer that piobaireachd had evolved from an earlier musical form or forms stretching back to the beginning of the second millennium A.D. and probably earlier. 

The MacCrimmons are the premier pipers in the history, legends and development of this high Gaelic musical art form. We owe most, if not all of what we know in modern piping to them. Beginning sometime in the late 16th century, the MacCrimmons became the hereditary pipers to the Clan MacLeod of Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye and continued an unprecedented tradition of being the finest players, composers and teachers for three centuries up until the mid 18th century. After the founding of the piping college in Borreraig, on the Isle of Skye, many prominent piping families grew out of MacCrimmon tradition. Among these are the MacKays of Gairloch, pipers to the Clan MacKenzie, the Camerons, the MacPhersons, the MacArthurs and others. The MacPhersons and the Camerons even developed their own styles or “schools of thought” on piobaireachd interpretation during the 18th century and afterwards based on original MacCrimmon teaching.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of piobaireachd is that it continues to be taught in an oral tradition, as so much of Gaelic folklore still is. Piobaireachd is still handed down through the generations, teacher-to-student, by means of “Canntaireachd” (CAN-tar-akh). This is a method of singing piobaireachd using vocables- specific combinations of vowels and consonants that represent the melody notes and grace notes, respectively, of the tunes. Although piobaireachd has been written in western staff notation for at least the last 150 years and canntaireachd for a time before that, it has always been taught by word of mouth which continues right up to this day. At one time the canntaireachd system was taught as a highly complex, very specific prescription for communicating and documenting the music. The “Nether Lorn” is used in the Piobaireachd Society Collections in tandem with the staff settings, and the MacLeod of Gesto system can be found in Dwelly’s Gaelic dictionary between pp. 159-161 under the “canntaireachd” entry. During the “Great Compiling Period” in the middle of the 19th century “Western” staff notation was introduced to the music of the Highland Bagpipe in the manuscripts of Angus MacKay, Donald MacDonald, Colin Campbell, and others. This is when the formal teaching of canntaireachd began to wane, though its use persists right through to the present. Piobaireachd almost became extinct along with all other pipe music during the 37 years between 1745-1782; after the Jacobite rebellion lead by “Bonnie” Prince Charlie; the “Dark Ages” of Gaelic culture, when the pipes were outlawed along with all else indicative of the Scottish Highlander. Today, pipers continue to communicate tunes to one another by using vocables, but every piper really has each his own method; very much in the same way Cuban and Caribbean musicians, especially percussionists, communicate their music to one another; and canntaireachd is hardly the rigid system it once was. Canntaireachd and staff notation present each problems and advantages at documenting a living, breathing music on paper that, so far, has defied being written down with any absolute accuracy or agreement using either method. The Canntaireachd tradition, though, has survived in the teaching of piobaireachd to this day because it is so well suited to the music. This is due to the nature of piobaireachd itself. Rather than being a music defined by strict tempo and rhythm, piobaireachd has more of an “internal beat” or “free rhythm” – a pulse defined by musical phrases that ebb and flow giving light and shade to the music, especially in the urlar of the tunes where the essential emotion(s) and musical statements are established. The human voice is the only vehicle other than the bagpipe itself that can convey the music with all of its infinite variety of power and subtlety. 

Piobaireachd shares many features with many other kinds of traditional and tribal non-western music that I believe are the ancient common threads that run through all of them, linking the music and the musicians together in an ancient common heritage. Among these are the use of pentatonic, or five-note scales, found so often in Asian, African and Native American music. This is reinforced by the fact that pentatonic scales are very common in Gaelic vocal tradition in the “Waulking Songs” (Gaelic working songs developed around the rhythmic shrinking of tweed and other textiles) and puirt-a-beul (pursht-ah-byawl), or vocal dance music. Also, by the very nature of the instrument that piobaireachd is played on, namely the Highland Bagpipe, droning is another shared feature with Indian, Native American and Australian Aboriginal music where the aspect of a droning sound is both a vocal technique and an aspect of the instruments used in each tradition. Examples are the Sitar and Tambura, stringed instruments of India, dating back three millennia before Christ, as well as the didgeridoo and cascading, atonal singing of the Aboriginal Australians that dates back some tens of thousands of years. These aspects and the essential theme/variation structure of piobaireachd are the features that link it to the classical music of India, China, and Japan; especially in the Shakuhachi tradition of Japan. This traditional bamboo flute music of Japan is also largely based on “free rhythm” and theme & variation structures and while there is no music anywhere else in the world that is exactly like piobaireachd, even in Ireland, where so many Gaelic cultural traditions originate, it is certainly not unique.

Piobaireachd evokes many emotions, although I’m sure that all depends on whether one is a piper or not. It is certainly a meditative music and conducive to inward focus. Piobaireachd has the notorious reputation of inducing a hypnotic, trance-like state at best to the uninitiated and outright boredom and a comatose-like stupor to the deaf ears of the unenthused. To the unfamiliar ear an Urlar can sound like so many meaningless notes strung together, meandering musically nowhere. Since the bagpipe lacks dynamics, that is, the ability to play louder and softer for musical emphasis, piobaireachd has developed phrasing such that emphasis is conveyed by playing some notes longer and others shorter. This has the effect of rendering an Urlar deceptively slow, sad, simple-sounding and uninspired. Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, slowness is a characteristic of Highland music and certainly fitting for the many piobaireachd that are laments. However, many piobaireachd are played and certainly taught as a musical balancing act of taste in the face of centuries of traditions and champions. So many of the tunes that are “Salutes” or “Gathering” tunes are to be played aggressively without being rushed yet deliberately without dragging. Emotions that are to be conveyed here are pride, dignity, and solemnity. Some tunes even evoke anger and rage, albeit artistic. A good example of this is “A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick”. An excellent example of art imitating life is “The Desperate Battle of the Birds”. This is a tune in which the goal is to sound as much as possible like two birds chirping, calling, and, in the end, fighting (the “crunluath” and “a-mach” variations) within the context of creating a musical performance. It is said that the old pipers of long ago could imitate any sound in nature as well as convey nearly every human emotion.

This parallels the Shakuhachi music of Japan, where imitating the sounds of nature, especially birds, is central to the technique and reflected in some of the most famous pieces of Japanese flute music- “Tsuru no Sugomori” and “Shika no Tone” or the “Tenderness of the Cranes” and “The Sound of Deer calling”. This is also indicative of the technique used in playing the Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo. Once the essential droning has been established using the circular breathing technique, a huge vocabulary of sounds imitating animals, especially birds, weather and nature are used to create a melody especially for story telling and it has always played a very practical, functional role in the oral traditional of Aboriginal people as well as being a purely artistic and recreational endeavor.

Piobaireachd has always been as much an emotional experience as a musical one to those who play it and those who appreciate it. It is a music that invokes a spiritual experience to both player and listener. It has always been the defining music for pipers to master and any piper with a reputation at being a good piobaireachd player by his peers has reached a level of musical maturity. To summarily paraphrase the late piobaireachd scholar and compiler Archibald Campbell of the Piobaireachd Society – “The competition system has always encouraged playing for dead accuracy and mechanics alone at the expense of the spiritual side of the art.” I believe he was trying to say that piobaireachd is a way that pipers might pray without words.


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