(December 2008) : The Sutherlands' Gathering * The Big Spree * Glengarry's March * Lament For Donald Ban MacCrimmon * The Rout Of Glen Fruin * Lament For The Earl Of Antrim * The Marquis Of Argyle's Salute * The Finger Lock.
More old settings of piobaireachd, providing a direct link back to the playing of the MacCrimmons of Skye and preserved by Simon Fraser in Australia.
Showing the exceptional musical quality of the old playing - the rich ornamentation, with movements and gracings no longer in fashion today, are a great source of inspiration for innovative players.
Have you ever wondered what the old style of piobaireachd playing was like? When older men say that modern piobaireachd is a pale imitation of the real thing, do you wonder how they know? Now we have recordings of the music as handed down in a tradition which originated with the MacCrimmons in Skye without having been touched by the ‘standardisation’ of the music when written in staff notation. This older style was taken to Australia in the early 1800s, and preserved there in an isolated family of pipers, mainly in canntaireachd syllables, both sung and written, so that what they taught their pupils is an independent example of the old style.
What immediately strikes the listener is the richness of the ornamentation. The player uses movements and gracings no longer in fashion today, as well as unusual settings with variations unknown to modern players. The timing, too, differs from that of modern players, with emphasis on the ‘threes’ - the division of the line into three phrases with each theme note held twice as long as the following shorter note. It appears that the standard Piobaireachd Society settings cut down or eliminated the old embellishments, in order to make judging easier, and gradually the music has lost much of its character.
Dr Barrie MacLachlan Orme, in Victoria, Australia, learned his piping from two sources: his first teacher was Dan (Donald) MacPherson, of a well-known family of pipers in Glendale, Isle of Skye - this too was the older style, as Dan had emigrated before the standardised settings were published. Barrie then heard the playing of Hugh Fraser and was captivated by not only his style of fingering but by the unusual and musical settings. He went to Hugh for piobaireachd lessons, and the recordings he has made are the tunes he was taught by Hugh Fraser.
Hugh’s father was Simon Fraser, who had inherited the settings from several sources: the tunes in canntaireachd syllables as sung by both of his parents; the teaching of Peter Bruce, son of Alexander Bruce of Glenelg, a MacCrimmon pupil; and written manuscripts of canntaireachd which came to him from Niel MacLeod of Gesto, Skye - these had been written down from the singing of Iain Dubh MacCrimmon, the last of the Skye piping family, and brought to Australia by Simon’s father, Hugh Archibald Fraser, in 1828.
Simon Fraser transcribed the canntaireachd vocables into staff notation, writing down in both staff and canntaireachd the music he had been given orally or in manuscript. It has been said that he was himself a poor player with little understanding of what he had been told about Ceol Mor, but this is not possible: no-one lacking full comprehension of the music could have produced these first-class settings, so musical and so much in keeping with all we know about the structure and traditions of piobaireachd. He may have been an indifferent player, who was past forty when he began to take his piping seriously, but he certainly understood the music.
Barrie Orme set himself the task of bringing Simon Fraser’s settings to public notice, recording and preserving his teacher’s style of playing. As well as publishing several books, he has made a 3-hour video film of himself demonstrating how to play the different movements used in the old style, movements no longer current today, and showing how these were employed in the different compositions. He then made a DVD out of this, a shorter performance of the movements, without the tunes. He has also made six CDs of the tunes he learned from Hugh Fraser. A selection from these forms the present CD.
The first book he published, in 1979, The Piobaireachd of Simon Fraser with Canntaireachd is known as ‘The Red Book’, from its cover. A second edition appeared in 1985. As well as the music of some 140 piobaireachd settings in both staff and canntaireachd, it has a short section on the canntaireachd system and a few pages of teaching the techniques of playing the movements; of great interest is the biographical material about the Frasers, the Bruces and MacLeod of Gesto, with photographs. It includes some of the unorthodox religious beliefs which many find unacceptable, now thought to be based possibly on Masonic practices from the early 19th century; Barrie included them because Simon Fraser believed they were essential to the basic understanding of the music.
Barrie’s second book, known as ‘The Blue Book’, entitled Piobaireachd Exercises with some selected Ceol Mor in the style of Simon Fraser, is a Tutor, with a short introduction about Simon Fraser and the MacCrimmons; it contains piobaireachd exercises for learning the Fraser style, and has eighteen tunes written out in full, in both staff and canntaireachd, enabling both systems to be read simultaneously.
Barrie’s latest work, published in January 2007, only days after he died, is a revised Tutor with 46 tunes. All three books are a valuable contribution to our understanding of piobaireachd.
Simon Fraser’s settings of Ceol Mor met with a frosty reception in Scotland, partly because of the weird religious theories, but more because the establishment set its face against them. A few pipers were more welcoming, notably Pipe Major Willie Gray, who bought many manuscript copies from the Frasers. Copies of these are now in the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh. When the Red Book was first published, however, in 1979, the Piobaireachd Society was promoting its own standardised settings, introduced to make judging easier in competitions, and the powers that be had no wish to encourage a colonial upstart whose excellent, singing music would show up their own sterile approach. Led by Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, they declared the Fraser settings to be ‘rubbish’, and denigrated them at every opportunity.
With his calm and uncontroversial approach, Barrie Orme did much to present the Fraser music for a fair assessment. In the present more enlightened climate of opinion, pipers have sufficient confidence to start exploring the differing styles, and Barrie was able to widen their horizons. The piping world is in his debt.
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