Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay

Usually, when I write about the Isle of Colonsay, it is in connection with the Clan Macfie. This, of course reflects my family’s links to the clan and the island. It should be noted, however, that the Macfies gradually left Colonsay during the 17th century, after which they became part of the ubiquitous worldwide Scottish diaspora. Over the next century or so, a new family became predominant on the island, the MacNeills, a situation that is still in place today.

John MacPhee’s book, “The Crofter and the Laird” documents his year on Colonsay in the late 1960’s, during which time he interviewed a number of the MacNeills of Colonsay. For the most part, they had dispensed with the name MacNeill for everyday business (since they all had the same name), and substituted the places on the island where they lived as working surnames. Thus, Andrew MacNeill, who farmed the land on the island of Oransay (to the south of Colonsay, and ephemerally connected at low tide by spit of sand) was known as Andrew Oransay.

This Andrew Oransay turns out to be a major piping authority, and not only that, but a link to one of the two schools of piobaireachd. Piobaireachd players like to trace their piping lineage, through their various teachers, back to the MacCrimmons of Skye in the 17th and 18th centuries. The path back to the MacCrimmons splits (somewhat contentiously) in the 19th century, with two schools of thought claiming “correct” interpretation of the big music. One style ultimately came to predominate, although the second has always had its adherents, and Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay (as he is known in the piping world) turns out to be one of the latter. He won a few competitions before the Second World War, and appeared to be a rising star but, on returning from the War, never made the promised impact on the competition circuit. Still, he was much in demand as a teacher and a mentor, and it becomes clear that many influential pipers who did go on to competition victory could thank Andrew for his assistance in doing so. One who benefited from his help was William Barrie, a Canadian piper, who later wrote one of the most famous “new” tunes of the past few years, “Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay“. This tune has been recorded by the current World Pipe Band Champions, the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band.

He was also ready to help out anyone who asked for his piping help, including several members of the Bob Dunsire Piping Forums, an online forum for piping discussion (of which I am a member). Recently, one of the regular members asked fellow posters to supply any memories they may have of Andrew. A very interesting discussion has developed, during which at least one person has revealed he possesses a large amount of correspondence and taped material from Andrew.

The discussion is still ongoing (and I have yet to find out in which year he died), but little did I know when I walked/paddled across to Oransay with my family on a soaking wet summer’s day in 1985 to visit Oransay Priory, that I may have been yards away from one of the major figures in 20th century piping.

A Pastoral Moment

Last night I played for a outdoor wedding at a beautiful and secluded ranch in the mountains outside Salt Lake City. I was asked to play for about a half hour prior to the service, while the guests were arriving.

About half-way through this, the wedding organizer came up to me and asked if I could hear the bull in the next field. Sure enough, after each set of tunes there was a distinctive bellow coming from the field behind the trees. I asked if she thought the bull was happy, or unhappy with the piping. She said she couldn’t tell.

There is a piobaireachd tune called “The Red Speckled Bull”. I decided to play the ground of the tune just for the bull and see if he liked it. When I finished, I listened. Total silence. I wasn’t sure if this signaled approval or not, and I was getting ready to play another tune – this one about a cow – when the wedding party arrived and I had to switch to more traditional tunes. So I still don’t know if the bull was happy with my choice of tune, but I’ll bet not many pipers get to play that tune in the presence its namesake.

Familiar Piobaireachd, less familiar version

If you like the tune “Too Long in this Condition” (and what’s not to like?) you should check out this week’s edition of Pipeline.

The tune is played by Pipe Major Roddy Weir (formerly of the Army School of Piping) but, unlike most performances I have heard recently, Roddy chooses to play the Binneas is Boreraig version. This version of the tune includes a variation not usually played. It falls between the ground and what is usually played as the first variation and takes the form of a kind of triplet variation. It’s interesting because it appears to interrupt what is usually the increasing level of complexity in a tune as the variations progress.

Justin, if you’re reading this, have a listen to the tune and tell me what you think.

I’m back…and I choose a tune from my previous two posts!

For reasons too numerous to mention I have not posted for nearly two months. I didn’t really notice the time passing (which is either good or bad), so now I ought to rectify the situation.

It seemed reasonable (after such a long break) to start back by referencing my previous two posts, and I can do so without artifice because I really have had to make a choice which involves them both. The 2008 competition season has arrived for this lowly piper and with it a choice of tunes in piobaireachd for the upcoming competitions. All winter I have been putting off the decision: should it be my eponymous web tune, “I Am Proud to Play a Pipe” or my family-connected tune “The Rout of The MacPhees”? Both tunes are on the Piobaireachd Society’s Silver Medal list for this year, both have reasonably straightforward grounds and 1st variations (that is all I have to play in my grade), and both have compelling reasons for me to choose them.

Well, the wait is over – I finally made my choice. I picked The Rout of the MacPhees. It comes up in the competition list a lot less frequently than I Am Proud to Play a Pipe and is perhaps a little less technical. And there is that wonderful family connection. Still, I’m going to have to work on my edres and D-throws, since the ground is stuffed full of them. I will also have to get inside the tune, since on the face of it, it is quite repetitive. That makes interpretation very important, or the tune will just end up being boring. My instructor (and soon-to-be belt winner) Justin Howland will help me with that, I have no doubt.

Well, I’m back. I’ll try not to be silent for quite as long this time.

A bittersweet piobaireachd

In 1615 James Macdonald of Islay, beginning what was to be the final chapter in the Macdonalds’ struggle against the rule of England and Scottish surrogate rulers, escaped from Edinburgh castle to fight one last time with the clans against the crown.

Among the clans he gathered to his cause were the Macfies of Colonsay under their chief Malcolm. Late in the year Colla Ciotach MacDonald,or Colkitto (a Macdonald who had secretly joined the forces of the crown under the Earl of Argyll), betrayed Malcolm Macfie. Malcolm was forced to give up the clan’s hereditary right to rule Colonsay. For a few years Malcolm remained on Colonsay, but it must have been a strange existence. In 1623, as colonists were unwittingly founding a new nation in Massachussetts, Malcolm Macfie was killed by Colkitto on Colonsay, bringing an end to the little island nation of the Macfies. The Macfies gradually dispersed from Colonsay over the following generations.

This, then, is the backstory to the tune The Rout of the MacPhees. The tune is on the list of Silver Medal tunes from the Piobaireachd Society for 2008 and thus stands a reasonable chance of being heard during this competition year. Still, it is probably not a first choice of pipers given that it is not as “tuneful” as others. I’m not sure who wrote the tune – if it was a Macfie, a Macdonald, or some other person. Knowing this might help to understand the tune a little better, but in the meantime I am choosing to interpret the tune as one of those “angry” tunes which appear occasionally in the repertoire.

At the recent Winter Storm competition in Kansas City only one competitor played the tune out of a field of nearly 30. But one is better than none, and we can be grateful for Captain Ken Eller’s omnipresent recording device.

Visit The Captain’s Corner and scroll down to enjoy David McNally’s performance of The Rout of the MacPhees, the first recording available of this tune in recent years. Thank you David for choosing to spend some time with this tune – this Macfie appreciates your efforts.

I Am Proud To Play A Pipe – new performances

Because this wonderful tune is on the Piobaireachd Society’s Silver Medal Tune List for 2008, I have a feeling we will be hearing a lot of it this year.

Alex Gandy (Bruce Gandy’s son) played it at the Winter Storm competition in Kansas City a couple of weeks ago. You can hear Alex’s performance courtesy of The Captain, Ken Eller, on his website. Alex was second in the Silver Medal ceol mor with this performance.

Also, you can listen to (and watch) new arrival to the United States, Dave Mason, play the tune on YouTube. He has posted his performance for EUSPBA grading purposes, but has given me permission to link to it.

Allan MacDonald has already brought his talent to bear on his interpretation of the tune on his new CD Dastirum.

Now we can hear how (slightly) lesser mortals play it.