Matt Seattle asks some pertinent questions

Why would we need to talk about a Highland pipe tune in a magazine for Lowland and Border pipers? It’s an obvious question, and the first part of the answer is that it isn’t actually a Highland pipe tune. It’s a fiddle tune, presumed Highland because of its Gaelic name, which has been adopted and adapted by many Highland pipers over much of two centuries, with almost all of them making a questionable job of it. The second part of the answer is that, as a fiddle tune which spread beyond the Highlands to the Lowlands and Borders, it is also fair game for Lowland and Border pipers to adopt and adapt, should they so desire.

Let’s start at the beginning of the tune’s documented history. The three earliest known versions all come to us courtesy of David Young, one of the most important – and most neglected – Scottish musicians of the 18th century. They consist of 2, 4 and 22 strains respectively, so we’ll begin gently with Young’s 2-strain version which is No. 12 in his manuscript A Collection of the newest Country Dances Perform’d in Scotland Written at Edinburgh by Da.Young. W.M. (W.M. = Writing Master; this manuscript is presently housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.)


Being a unique production, notable for its calligraphy as well its contents, we don’t know what kind of circulation the manuscript enjoyed, but its 2-strain Caberfei, covering a compass of nearly two octaves and containing a fair sprinkling of accidentals, establishes the essentials of the tune. If we fast forward to c. 1760 we encounter Robert Bremner, the successful Edinburgh publisher who moved to London and whose A Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances is sure to have reached and influenced a wider circle of players. The first two strains of his Caper Fey are broadly similar to Young’s, while the third is a simpler version of the first but played on the lower strings, and the fourth varies the second with a repetitive killywimple. (We have not reproduced Bremner’s rudimentary bass.)
Taking these two settings together, we see that although they specify different key signatures, when we take account of their accidentals they both feature a repeated pattern of 2 bars in C major (all notes natural) followed by 2 bars in D major (with f# and c#), the exception being the c natural in bar 7 of Young’s set. This is a more thoroughly ‘double tonic’ tune than is usually implied by the term.


We’ll look at one more fiddle setting before we get to the pipers’ versions, and it’s the one which in 1992 gave me the impetus, as a then novice player of Scottish smallpipes, to make my own adaptation. William Vickers’ manuscript is dated 1770 and was, we believe, written in Newcastle upon Tyne. As Vickers had a consistently shaky grasp of key signatures and accidentals I’ve taken the liberty of correcting his setting following Young and Bremner.


Looking at the three sets together, their shared features are:
 a consistent implied bass (C | C | D | D |) x 2, which is explicit in Bremner’s published set
 odd-numbered strains built round the shifting tonic note
 even-numbered strains based on a familiar arpeggio figure
 ascending phrase in bar 7 of odd-numbered strains contrasting with descending phrase in bar 7 of even-numbered strains

Caber Feidh is more a set of parameters than a fixed melody, but within these parameters there is much room for manœuvre, hence the great variety of versions on paper and in performance.

We turn now to Highland pipe versions. These first appear in the 1840s, a full century after the earliest fiddle versions. The C-D double tonic is of necessity transposed to G-A, and without the accidentals of the early fiddle versions, so that the G and A passages become respectively lydian and mixolydian rather than major in flavour; of course we also forego the much larger compass of the fiddle sets, and need to squeeze the tune into a 9th.

Angus MacKay’s Cabar Féigh (from The Piper’s Assistant, 1843) is a short, sound 2-strain version which, within these constraints, keeps to the tune’s parameters apart from copying the ascending strain 1 bar 7 phrase into strain 2.


Appearing soon after MacKay’s version, William Gunn’s 4-strain Cabair feidh in The Caledonian Repository of Music, Adapted for the Bagpipes &c. (1848) set the template for subsequent Highland pipe versions.


The ascending tag phrase again occurs in strain 2, but much more worrying is strain 3: the G-A double tonic, the very foundation of the tune, is suddenly jettisoned. This is seemingly the result of an attempt to copy strain 2 of a fiddle version without transposing it – and without noticing the resulting clash with the rest of the tune. Instead of G and A the underlying chords suddenly become C# diminished (or A7) and D, and though we now get the descending tag phrase it is out of context with the rest of the strain. It is a serious misunderstanding: if David Young can maintain a double tonic sequence for 22 strains it shouldn’t be too hard to do it for four. Blithely returning to solid ground as though nothing had happened, Gunn’s low-note strain 4 is fine – but it really ought to be strain 3.
Later in the century David Glen seems to have been aware of the strain 3 problem, if not the solution: he puts a 1 # key signature at the start of the tune, cancels it for strain 3 and reinstates it for strain 4. This would put the tune into G-A minor (strs 1, 2 & 4) and C-D minor (str 3), but only if the relevant accidentals were in fact available on the instrument. It is of course now traditional to play the tune broadly with the content and in the sequence established by Gunn, whether it be as a reel, march, strathspey or jig, but ‘tradition’ is a value-neutral term, and not of itself ‘a good thing’.
You may or may not be convinced that there is a problem here, but if you are so persuaded it would be unfair not to offer you a solution. My pipe version of Mr Salvin’s Reel is scored such that it can be played on a 9-note chanter by ignoring the higher-octave notes and the accidentals, or exactly as written if these are available. An early version of the setting, with 4 additional syncopated strains, appeared in The Border Bagpipe Book (1993, out of print) and a more recent version in Over the Hills & Far Away (2006, still available).
It would be remiss not to mention that as well as the Lowlands and Borders, the tune has long flourished in Ireland under its Rakish Paddy alias, and a youtube search will lead you to a great variety of interpretations, many of them stunning in their virtuosity. Gordon Duncan in turn put Rakish Paddy onto the Highland pipes (Just For Seumas, 1994) and also turned it into an excellent 9-note jig (Just For Gordon, 2007) which, though it essentially consists of just 2 strains, features fresh ideas on each repeat.

1. From Wikipedia: Chiefs of Clan Mackenzie are titled as Caberféidh (translation from Scottish Gaelic: “Deer’s antlers”). This Gaelic title is derived from the crest of a stag’s head in the old Mackenzie Coat of Arms.
2. David Young’s 4-strain Caper Fei is in his “Duke of Perth” manuscript, a xerox copy of which is in the National Library of Scotland, as is volume 2 of his “MacFarlane” collection which contains his 22-strain version (see for Ronald MacDonald’s brave reconstruction of the damaged original). As well as its physically damaged state the MacFarlane version may be incomplete: two instances of neighbouring strains with ascending tag phrases suggest that two strains with descending tag phrases might have been omitted. The 16-strain version in Charles McLean’s posthumous A Collection of Favourite Scots Tunes &c., 1772, is similar in character, with many semiquaver passages and some syncopation.