Large areas of the repertoire of the Lowland Piper still remain virtually unexplored. Here North American piper John Dally offers his thoughts on approaching the performance of Lowland reels

To call Pete Stewart’s Welcome Home My Deasrie (Hornpipe Music, Pencaitland, 2008) masterful, seminal, fascinating and indispensable is still inadequate.  My copy is frayed around the edges, and yet it still seems new to me.  It never ceases to inspire and inform.  I have read it several times through, studied passages and still find more to learn and absorb every time I open it up.  And yet the music itself remains mysterious, which is another attractive feature of the collection.  This is a report on my own progress playing the tunes, especially those written in common time, included in Pete’s important book.  
Before considering ornamentation, fingering technique and tempo we have to make some decisions about rhythm.  The inadequacies of written music are immediately made manifest.  Written music at best is like a sculpture of a dancer.  You can get an inkling of the dance, but you still cannot see its flow, hear it, or feel it.  These are dance tunes, or performance tunes based on dance tunes, so the first assumption is that the rhythms are based on the movement of the human body, and I have to rely on my own (worn out old boot) as a gauge for whether or not a certain rhythmic approach works.  
Can we assume that the rhythms we take for granted today are the rhythms played in the past?  When it comes to tunes in common time I don’t think contemporary reel rhythms work very well.  These tunes are like an ancient wood: tread carefully and keep your senses alert.  I want to be historically accurate and respectful, and yet leave myself room to put my own accent on the tune.  I suspect there is something very exciting beyond historical reenactment or trying to fit these old tunes to modern rhythms and tempos.  To paraphrase Hamlet, “There are more beats in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your drum machine.”  
The time signature of a tune indicates its rhythm, but it is only an indication.  Listening to a few bars of music will tell you much more about it than reading the time signature.  The top number of a time signature tells us how many beats there are in a bar and the bottom number tells us what kind of note gets a beat.  There are also pulses or stresses.  The time signature of a strathspey is 4/4 or “C” for common time.  It tells us there are four quarter note (crotchet) beats to the bar, but it doesn’t tell us they are each accented and that the first is more heavily stressed than the others.  If a quarter note in a bar of 4/4 is broken up into eighth notes (quaver) the tails of those two notes will be tied together.  If the next beat is also broken up into eighth notes the tails will also be tied together.  To tie the tails of both beats together, so that four eighth notes are tied together, is confusing because it indicates that there are two rather than four beats to the bar.  The time signature for this is 2/2 or cut time, signified by a “C” with a vertical line through it.
The conventions of the time were to tie the tails of notes together in patterns that sometimes did not comply with the time signature, sometimes following different conventions within the same tune. It is up to the piper to determine what is going on.  Is it just written convention or is some very subtle rhythm indicated?  Any one time signature can indicate many different rhythms.  So, try four beats to the bar, then two beats to the bar.  Tunes that seem to work nicely in cut time will lead you along seemingly familiar ground, playing in what we might call a Cape Breton style, especially if the tune is as well known as “Sleepy Maggie” or “Tail Toddle.”  But then you come upon a group of sixteenth notes (semiquaver) that even if played cleanly sound crammed and jar my internal dancer.  There must be a different way.
At this point it would be good to look at a few tunes.  “A Pretty Wench” (p 132) is available on the LBPS web site.  “Lasses Pisses Brandy” (p 133) is a tune that looks simple enough, but it soon reveals its own rhythm (see below).  “Lass if I Come Near You” (p. 144) is good example of a tune that at first glance looks like it should be played like a modern reel.  “Willie Winna Hae Her” (p 136) is another.  These are not courtly tunes.  The ribald titles indicate a sweaty looseness, a casting off of decorum, and a dainty, careful approach is out of place.  These tunes sent me back to a recording of Willie Taylor playing his own reel, “Nancy Taylor.”  It’s not 4/4 or 2/2 or a rant rhythm.  Whatever you call it, it fits these old pipe tunes.

A Pretty Wench (Macfarlane MS 1740)

Lass I I Come Near You ( Aird's Airs, 1760)

‘G’ grace notes sound chirpy on a Scottish smallpipe.  Using an ‘f#’ grace note rather than a ‘g’ reduces the chirping.  Ripping fast birls might not accentuate the rhythm.  Playing birls open or using low ‘g’ grace notes to break up the low ‘a’s might be more rhythmical.  The birl as we know it today was called a “nasty Glasgow habit” by some old pipers Barry Shears met in Cape Breton.  Early collections of Highland pipe music contain many useful, interesting and forgotten ornaments.  John McLachlan’s THE PIPER’S ASSISTANT (Edinburgh, 1877) is full of clever devices.  I would also encourage pipers to vary their approach not only part to part but phrase to phrase.  Keeping in mind the tonality of Scottish smallpipes, low ‘a’s can often be substituted for high ‘a’s to get the effect of a false rest between notes.  The chromatic Border pipe chanter allows half tone gracing, which some pipers slide out of to the melody note.  Scottish smallpipe chanters with keys, such as ‘c’, ‘f’, high ‘g#’ and high ‘b’, can also provide this option, although keys make sliding almost impossible.  See the ‘f’ grace note before the ‘f#’ at the end of the second bar.

The tunes seem to demand a relaxed tempo and relaxed approach to ornamentation.  Experimenting with the way I was taught to play competition style reels, a choppy 4/4, the results are equally unsatisfactory.  There appears to be no place for heavy movements like a taorluath even if you were tempted to put one in.  
A 4/4 march rhythm works well enough for getting all the notes in, but my internal dancer is soon bored.  A slight increase in tempo, seeking out the stresses where they seem to want to fall, in essence, letting the tune show me how it wants to be played, I end up with a sprung 4/4 rhythm that is neither plodding common time or strict 2/2 reel  rhythm.  It is somewhere in between, just like the way it is written.  The lack of heavy taorluath-like ornamentation doesn’t mean these tunes are easy to play.  The batches of sixteenth notes require very clean fingering.  Crossing noises lurk beneath them. A fine example of these challenges is David Young’s ‘Lasses drink at Brandy’:   The first version is from Vickers’ 1772 manuscript followed by three strains from Young’s.

Lasses pisses Brandy (Vickers MS, 1772)

Lasses Drink at Brandy (MacFarlane MS, 1740, strains 1-3)

Once you decide upon a certain rhythm you must develop it, make it danceable, and rub some dirt into it.  One trick that you may find useful is to find a traditional dance on that fits the rhythm you are working on, turn the sound off and play to the dance.  Morris, Breton, English clogging are some that I have tried.   The recordings of David Faulkner, Paul Martin and Matt Seattle, to name only a few, are required listening, although it would be a mistake, I think, if anyone were to slavishly replicate their individual styles.  Joe Hutton’s Northumbrian smallpipe recordings shed a great deal of light on the various rhythms you can use with these tunes, whether they be reels, rants, marches, or some other type based on 4/4.
All that and I have ignored the many excellent and fun tunes in other time signatures.  Some of the best tunes in the collection, for me at least, are composed in 6/4, 9/4, 6/8, 9/8, ¾ and 3/2.  These tunes are a lot of fun and lend themselves to a lot of different interpretations.  They are not as problematic as the tunes discussed above.  It is a good idea to start with some of these, especially if you have never played this kind of pipe music before, because it will give you a sense of what Lowland pipe music is all about.