Scotlands Culture\|Scotlands Songs

Pibroch songs and canntaireachd

Lone piper at sunset

Pibroch or Ceòl Mór sounds quite slow and stately and a single piece of music can be several minutes long. It is an elaborate theme and variation form with very specific rules on the different variations, which progress in increasing complexity until the theme of the pibroch returns at the end.

Pibroch is played on the Highland bagpipes only, by a solo piper, and is considered one of the most difficult genres of music in the piping repertoire.

Pibrochs are usually written for solemn events or occasions. They include:

  • Salutes - tunes addressed to someone of importance
  • Gatherings - tunes used to gather members of a clan
  • Laments - tunes expressing sadness at someone's death and tunes connected with historical events.

The tune 'I Got a Kiss of the King's Hand' is said to have been composed in 1651 by a member of the most famous piping family in Scotland, the MacCrimmons of Skye. They were, and still remain, the pipers to MacLeod of Dunvegan in the north west of the island. When King Charles II held a review of the Scottish army at Stirling, he was told that MacCrimmon was known as the Prince of Pipers, and the King let the piper kiss his hand. The piper was so pleased that he composed this tune on the spot.

A pibroch begins with a theme called an ùrlar or ground, which is then varied throughout the piece. These variations become gradually more complex and rhythmic as the piece goes on. At the very end, the basic theme is sounded again. One thing that makes the variations more complex is the amount of ornamentation that the piper must play. Ornamentation consists of the little notes called 'grace notes' that are not part of the main melody. These notes are essential to all pipe music. Each variation has a particular name related to the kind of ornaments used in it - the names are all Gaelic.

In the examples, the small notes are the grace notes and the large notes are the main melody. You will see that the time signature changes between and within variations. Because of the amount of ornamentation, we can only give a few bars of some of the variations.

We show the first few bars of the ùrlar, which has 16 bars, and three of the seven variations which are played in this tune. You will hear the first six bars of the ùrlar, followed by the same 'line' played in the seven variations, then the ùrlar again to finish. The order of performance is ùrlar, dìthis, dìthis doubling, taorluath, taorluath doubling, crunluath, crunluath doubling, crunluath mach, then ùrlar again.

Pibroch Ùrlar

Graphic showing musical notation for a pibroch urlar

Pibroch Dìthis

Graphic showing musical notation for a pibroch dithis

Pibroch Taorluath

Graphic showing musical notation for a pibroch taorluath

Pibroch Crunluath

Graphic showing musical notation for a pibroch crunluath

Ceòl Mór or pibroch as it is sometimes called is a Gaelic art form. It is not surprising then that there are songs in Gaelic oral tradition which have strong links to Ceòl Mór. Some of these songs have a direct connection to pibrochs that are still well known and performed by modern pipers. The pibroch known as 'Lament for the Children' was written in the 17th century by Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon after the death of seven of his eight children from smallpox, all in the same year. 


Donald MacPherson plays 'Lament for the Children'. 


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Lament for the Children (Donald MacPherson)

'Cumha na Cloinee' performed by Donald MacPherson

From The Master Piper, LCOM9013, Track 12, Lismor


There is also a Gaelic song version related to the Lament, called 'Fhir a’ Chinn Duibh', 'Black-haired Lad'. It is thought the words of this may relate to the loss of the favourite son amongst the seven.


The RSAMD students play an unaccompanied harmonised version of the original traditional song.


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Fhir a’ Chinn Duibh (RSAMD Students)

'Fhir a’ Chinn Duibh' performed by RSAMD students

From No. 1 Scottish, CDTRAX310, Track 12, Greentrax


Calum Johnston plays an original recording of the same song.


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Fhir a’ Chinn Duibh (Calum Johnstone)

'Fhir a’ Chinn Duibh' performed by Calum Johnston

From Scottish Tradition, Calum and Annie Johnston, Track 2, Greentrax


The pibroch known as 'Pìobaireachd Dhòmhnaill Duibh' is one of the most famous of these, and its composition is associated with the First Battle of Inverlochy in 1431. The tune is claimed by both the MacDonalds and the Camerons, who fought on opposing sides in the battle.


The pibroch known as 'The Piper's Warning to his Master' is another of the most famous pibrochs we hear today, and its background is an interesting one. It was made for a man called Colla MacDonald. He was also known as Colla Ciotach (Left-handed Colla). He belonged to the branch of the MacDonalds in Islay and Kintyre. Colla was at sea in his galley one day, and decided to send his piper and some of his men to capture a castle on the mainland of Argyll. Unfortunately, they were captured by the Campbells. Some of the men were killed, and others including the piper were imprisoned.  

Some time later, Colla's galley was seen, sailing into the sound near to the castle. The Campbells were delighted when they saw their enemy coming, and they told the piper to play a tune, as if to welcome his master. They did not realise that Colla would recognise from the tune that he was in danger. When Colla and his men heard the music, they realised immediately that something was wrong, and made their escape. It is said that the piper had his hand cut off as a result of his action.


Mary Morrison of Barra sings 'A Cholla mo Rùn'. Listen to the way in which she uses her voice to imitate the notes in the pibroch. This style of singing is known as canntaireachd.


Margaret Stewart and Allan MacDonald perform a modern version of 'A Cholla mo Rùn'.


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Colla mo Rùn (Margaret Stewart and Allan MacDonald)

'Colla mo Rùn' performed by Margaret Stewart and Allan MacDonald

From Colla mo Rùn, Track 11, Macmeanmna


Canntaireachd (which means chanting) was the pipers’ way of singing music for the pipes, and the different sounds and vocables reflect both the melody and the ornamentation of the music. It was used by pipers to pass music on from one person to another at a time when it would not have been written down. There are very few people alive today who can still sing this special kind of bagpipe-related music. One person who can is Rona Lightfoot (you can hear her sister Mairi Robertson and her mother Kate (Mrs Archie) MacDonald singing elsewhere on this site). Rona is a piper as well as a singer, which gives her an advantage when it comes to singing canntaireachd.


Rona Lightfoot is accompanied here by another great piper, Iain MacDonald.


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Canntaireachd (Rona Lightfoot)

'Canntaireachd' performed by Rona Lightfoot

From Eadarainn, SKYECD28, Track 6, Macmeanmna


Mary Morrison from the island of Barra was a celebrated singer of canntaireachd. She wasn’t a piper, but she took the canntaireachd singing and made it a virtuoso speciality of her own.


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Canntaireachd (Mary Morrison)

'Canntaireachd' performed by Mary Morrison

From The Carrying Stream, CDTRAX9020, Track 1C, Greentrax


Some pibroch songs are very short, for example the song 'Maol Donn', whose subject is a cow lost in a peat bog. There is a famous piece of ceòl mòr which is related to this song, though it is sometimes published with the title 'MacCrimmon's Sweetheart'.


Fred Morrison plays the beginning of the ground on the pipes.


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MacCrimmon's Sweetheart (Fred Morrison)

'MacCrimmon's Sweetheart' performed by Fred Morrison

From The Broken Chanter, Track 12


Rona Lightfoot sings 'Maol Donn' - you can then hear Iain MacDonald playing it on the pipes, and Rona singing the pibroch canntaireachd at the end.


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Maol Donn (Rona Lightfoot)

'Maol Donn' performed by Rona Lightfoot

From Eadarainn, SKYECD28, Track 3, Macmeanmna


There are also songs in the oral tradition which have similarities to ceòl mòr, though they cannot be linked to a specific pibroch that we recognise today. One of these is the song 'Chuir iad mise dh'eilean leam fhìn' ('They left me alone on an island').


 

More from Education Scotland

Highland and Lowland pipes

A short history of the two main kinds of Scottish bagpipe.

Related resources

I Got a Kiss of the King's Hand

A pibroch tune composed by Patrick Mor MacCrimmon after meeting King Charles II at Stirling.