There are probably over 300 tunes in the piobaireachd repertoire. Many of these tunes originate with the MacCrimmon family on the Isle of Skye and piping families like them during the 17th and 18th centuries. The names and histories of the tunes reflect life in those times: many of the tunes are laments, commemorating a person or event; some are salutes, others are gathering tunes. There are tunes with arcane, cryptic names, like â€œThe Fingerlockâ€, â€œThe Groatâ€, â€œThe Red Speckled Bullâ€, â€œToo Long in This Conditionâ€ and â€œScarce of Fishingâ€. There are tunes with beautifully descriptive names, such as â€œMy Dearest on Earth, Give Me Your Kissâ€ and â€œThe Sound of the Waves Against the Castle at Duntroonâ€. Lest the names sound a little fanciful, I should add a caveat here: During the course of the 19th century, as military marches and like tunes became the staple of pipers, piobaireachd was played by fewer people. This, combined with the Victoriansâ€™ predilection for romanticizing the cultures they were assimilating, resulted in a number of tunes gaining suspiciously elaborate provenances. Despite this, a significant number of tunes have no name – oral transmission being what it is, the tunes remain â€œNamelessâ€, unless researchers can dig up new manuscripts.
Beginning in the early 1800s people began to write the tunes down using standard western musical notation. About 100 years later a small group of enthusiasts, led by a man named Archibald Campbell (non-de-plume Kilberry) founded The Piobaireachd Society. Its stated goal was to
â€œencourage the study and playing of piobaireachd, the classical music of the Highland bagpipe. It has collected the available piobaireachd MSS and from these and the knowledge of the existing experts and players published 15 books with the piobaireachd, written in staff notation accompanied by notes on the sourcesâ€
The effect of this was certainly to preserve piobaireachd as a music, but also to codify its execution under the control of a handful of arbiters, often not the pre-eminent pipers of the day. Despite this, 100 years later, interest in piobaireachd is probably as widespread as it has ever been, and (due in large part to hard work on the part of the Piobaireachd Society) more manuscripts and sources are available to the interested piper than ever. For better or worse the influence of the Piobaireachd Society on the music is strong and, as long as that influence is correctly understood, it is probably more benign than harmful in the long run.
So now you’re totally intrigued, and want to listen to some of these great tunes. How can you do that?