At this point I have access to over 100 different piobaireachd tunes, gleaned from various sources – many freely available on the web. I have decided to spend some quality time with a few of the tunes for which I have multiple performances, to get a handle on how different pipers interpret the tunes.
Ken Eller, on his estimable site “The Captain’s Corner”, has made available many recordings of recitals and performances he has attended over the past two years or so, and it is from his archives that I draw my two examples for today.
“The Old Men of the Shells” is one of those intriguingly titled tunes that just begs an explanation. Two possible backstories are given at the end Dr. William Donaldson’s article on the tune, which is part of his excellent series on Andrew Berthoff’s Pipes|Drums website. Whichever story you believe, the tune apparently commemorates a series of reciprocal deaths by drowning, hence the allusion to prolonged life among the creatures of the sea bed.
As far as the tune is concerned, the various manuscript versions available are nicely discussed in the Donaldson article, but whichever path you take through the tune it is a very beautiful and lyrical one. This beauty is heightened in the thumb variation of the urlar, which swoops across the entire register of the bagpipe – very dramatic!
I mentioned earlier, two recordings are available on The Captain’s Corner website. Listen first to Lionel Tupman playing the tune at the William Livingstone Memorial Invitational Competition in 2007 and then to Andrew Hayes playing at the same competition one year earlier. Both performers take the same route through the tune, but Tupman plays the tune at a considerably slower pace. I thought that the juxtaposition of these two tempi was interesting, and I invite your comments. I will not tell you which tempo I preferred, but either way, enjoy the tune – it’s a classic!