The Magic of Piobaireachd

This week-end marks the date for our annual Robbie Burns party, at which much scotch will be consumed and much bagpipe music played in honour of the Scottish bard.

From where I sit, the marches, strathspeys, reels, hornpipes and jigs heard erupting from most bagpipes today are all well and good. However it’s the ancient classical music of the pipes, a form known as piobaireachd (pronounced pee-brock), that touches that “beyond time and space” place deep inside of me.

Piobaireachd is a very old style of theme and variation in which a melody (called the “urlar” in Gaelic where it means “ground”, as in most basic part) is played followed by variations of increasing difficulty. It’s only recently that the music was written down…traditionally it was passed from teacher to student orally. To look at the score is to leave the uninitiated thoroughly puzzled, since there is no time signature and no continuous lines, but rather just ‘snatches’ of notes to indicate how the piece might be played. My understanding is that a piper still needs a teacher to learn this music, and Joe was lucky to have had one of the best teachers in Canada. Jimmy McMillan was a sweetheart who taught world champions but who took a liking to Joe and decided to work with him on this classical music.

Apart from the music itself, the stories about which the music was written make for some wonderful telling. For instance, Joe plays a tune called MacKintoch’s Lament. The story goes that this piece was written about a clan chief who had a fine black stallion. The chief’s wedding day was approaching when the prancing stallion caused an old woman to be unceremoniously pushed into a ditch along the road. The old crone cursed the chief and said the horse would be the death of him.

On the morning of his wedding, the clan chief remembered her words, and decided to play it safe. He shot the stallion and left it dead on the side of the road. Then he proceeded to the church with a more sedate mount. While returning home after the ceremony, the more sedate horse reared as they passed the dead stallion, throwing the chief and killing him. The bride was thus maiden, bride and widow all in one day. She composed this lament and is said to have sung it as the coffin was carried to the graveyard, marking time on the coffin lid with her hands. This marking of time can be heard in the piece.

There is a version of this tune on YouTube in two parts…here and here. This music won’t be for everyone, so be forewarned. I’ve heard some complain there’s no music to it at all. But personally I find it impossible not to be affected by this haunting piece of audio.


One thought on “The Magic of Piobaireachd

  1. I watched a documentary about this and it was much more interesting than I would ever have anticipated. Personally, I prefer to hear my pipes played out on the moors where the tunes can drift on the wind. I’ll have to have a listen to your links.


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