“You know what they say about the pipers...tuning half the time and the other half out of tune...” So says Allan Macdonald as he warms up his pipes for a Friends of Highland Music lecture at Eden Court, Inverness. He is tuning small pipes - “a bit more friendly in your ear, probably” - fastened with straps round his chest and arm. This instrument has become increasingly popular in the last 10-20 years; it can be played with other instruments and gives the player the opportunity to sing whilst piping. Allan, a natural orator and gifted musician, has carried out detailed research into the history and culture of Scottish piping.
Allan has been playing bagpipes since he was a child, and in early adulthood started to question what he saw as the conformist nature of pipe playing in Scotland. This led to a lifelong interest in the traditional roots of bagpipe music and the changes that have occurred as piping moved from an oral to notated tradition.
It seems likely that bagpipes arrived in Scotland via Ireland or England. Early references are sparse, but it seems probable that bagpipes arrived in Scotland in the thirteenth century. There is a record around 1362 of James I giving payment to pipers. Rosslyn Chapel has an early carving of an angel playing a one-drone bagpipe.
In the 1500s Scottish borough pipers would wake people in the morning, and had duties throughout the day. The earliest reference to military usage of pipes is in 1547 at the Battle of Pinkie where a Frenchman reported that “the wild Scots encouraged themselves to arms by the sound of their bagpipes”.
As piping developed in Scotland different traditions emerged - in1598 the poet Alexander Hume referred to Highland, Lowland and Irish pipes. By the 1600s piping was entrenched in the Scottish cultural structure, with pipers being part of the retinue of clan chiefs. The old Gaelic kingdom, stretching from Kerry to Braemar to Lewes, fostered sophisticated development of piping as part of a wider musical and literary tradition. The hereditary Scottish piper became part of the Gaelic tradition, the longest piping dynasties lasting for 8-9 generations.
Allan Macdonald contends that the advent of piping competitions (the first of which took place in 1781) led to a standardisation of piping music. Allan has gone back to the earliest sources of his musical tradition. He believes that what were musical decorations or ornamentation have become part of melodies, changing the nature of pipe music and losing original tunes. He talks of notated musical texts being frozen - “they don’t move any longer”. Allan finishes the lecture by playing a request – his own composition which he has never written down, part of the keening tradition of pipers at gravesides which he says was suppressed as a threat to ministers, surviving in small pockets on places like Barra. His music is high, announcing, repeating, majestic and lingers in the air long after he has gone.