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Report by Nigel Bridges


LBPS members travelled from the North and South to converge on Morpeth on Saturday 5th October 2002 for a joint LBPS/NPS meeting. This event formed part of the Northum- brian Traditional Music Festival.

The day was hosted by Barry Say of the NPS and took place at the Chantry bagpipe museum. This museum houses a splendid collection of pipes from all over the world but focused on Northumbrian pipes. Sets range from a petite set of Northumbrian pipes from the 17th century to Highland and Border pipes with a fair representation of exotic European varieties as well.

Our day’s business was split into four presentations. First Colin Ross gave a most interest- ing talk on reedmaking. I later bought his comprehensive booklet ‘Reedmaking for Northumbrian and Scottish Smallpipes’. I have no intention of ever making a reed but the booklet is nice to have in case 1 am ever in the jungle (when I probably won’t have the booklet with me!).

Hamish Moore gave a most interesting talk on strathspeys and their different forms. This was accompanied by taped illustrations and a lot of foot tapping.

After lunch Iain MacInnes went through the BBC archives and played some taped extracts of Northumbrian and Highland piping. He also played some remarkable recordings of conversations between famous Highland pipers, such as Willie Ross and D.R. MacLellan. We got some lovely anecdotes concerning the origin of well known tunes, such as ‘The Kilworth Hills’. A typed list of BBC archive recordings of interest to Northumbrian pipers was given to the NPS by Iain.

The last talk of the day was given by Matt Seattle on the subject of ‘Harmonic Proportion’ which Matt indicated should have his trademark symbol attached to it. He then showed how tunes can be split into cordant and discordant elements. Many of the Dixon tunes show a structure that is also found in other pipe music.

The evening concert took place in Morpeth town hall (a building designed by Vanburgh). We heard sets from Fin Moore played in the Cape Breton style followed by Dan Parkin playing Northumbrian tunes (including a few Scottish ones). I particularly enjoyed his ren- dition of ‘Madam Bonaparte’. Don Anderson then played some tunes he had learnt on the ‘half longs’. I had never seen, or heard, a set of these played before and they struck me as being louder than contemporary sets of Border pipes. We also heard Malcolm Robertson playing some fine sets including Irish slip jigs before the interval.

After the interval we heard Fin Moore and Malcolm Robertson playing sets of Scots tunes. The committee of the NPS then gave a joint performance on stage which was most impres- sive.


The pace seemed to quicken as Andy May dazzled us with his electric fingers. The audience had one last surprise in store. Fin Moore was called to the stage by Andy and proceeded to play Irish jigs on Border pipes in A with Andy playing Northumbrian pipes in G. It was sen- sational! The day was long but worth it just to hear that last duet and this pair should record together.

After the concert everyone dispersed and some weary members did not get back home be- fore the very wee hours of Sunday morning.


Talk given by Hamish Moore

“Of all Scots music it is the strathspey that is quintessentially Scottish, with characteristics not found in other cultures.”

So Hamish Moore opened his talk, and he

proceeded to explain that the strathspey has many forms. The characteristic time signature of the strathspey is 4/4. The playing of the beats within each bar (internal rhythm), and the correct treatment of this internal rhythm, is important in the strathspey. It is also tension that is so characteristic of some strathspeys.

This tension is relieved by the break into the reel and it is this break which can produce some of the most magic moments in Scottish music - and we later heard examples of breaks (i.e. the passage from one tune to another) from strathspeys into reels. The best examples were seamless with the same tempo being maintained between the strathspey and reel.

Switching from 4 beats to 2 beats per bar releases the tension of the strathspey.

Hamish discussed the origins of this form of music. No one can be entirely sure of when, or how the strathspey evolved (further detailed research is required). However written refer- ences to the strathspey start to appear from the mid 18th Century.

According to “The new companion to Scottish culture,” edited by David Daiches, the ‘Drummond Castle manuscript’ c 1740 included a section entitled ‘the best Highland reels’. This apparently includes numerous tunes later classed as strathspeys. The use of the word Highland would suggest these tunes came from Gaelic speaking Scotland.

It is known that one of the earliest recorded composers (and a premier one too) of strath- speys was William Marshall, a self-taught polyglot, born in 1748 in Fochabers, Morayshire (source - Mary Anne Alberger - ’Scottish fiddlers and their music’). William Marshall, who died in 1833, became the factor for the last Duke of Gordon, and although he was not a professional musician he was a skilled fiddler.


He recorded that he did not like Italian influences but preferred the ‘good old strathspey’. This phrase tends to suggest that strathspeys were not new. Hamish noted that William Marshall’s first tongue would probably have been Gaelic, and this he felt was important also.

Between 1760 - 1780 there are written records of ‘strathspey-reels’ and it may be that the name strathspey or strathspey/reel came to describe a way of playing Highland reels and to distinguish them from normal or what were known as Atholl reels. It is interesting that William Marshall’s first collection, dated 1781, was entitled ‘A Collection of Strathspey Reels with a Bass for the Violoncello or Harpsichord’

One of the early written references, in 1790, occurs in Robert Burns, ‘Tam O’ Shanter’,


And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight! Warlocks and witches in a dance; Nae cotillion brent new frae France,

But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels, Put life and mettle in their heels.

Burns’ line describes the four main dances in Scotland at that time. The poet has Auld Nick playing bagpipes, so strathspeys on bagpipes in 1790 were obviously familiar to Burns. It is often inferred that this style of tune originated with the fiddle. Perhaps, as the bagpipe was supplanted as the main instrument used to accompany dancing, fiddlers adopted traditional piping repertoires but developed their own style of playing.

Converting reels to strathspeys would presumably require a sub division of 2/2 time to give the two beats per bar. The difference between 2/2 and 4/4, when the total time value in each bar is the same, is presumably one of accenting. Speculation followed as to whether the melodic listening strathspey preceeded or followed the dance strathspey in origin.

Regarding tempo, Hamish went on to quote an English officer, Captain Topham, who, writ- ing in 1770, compared the strathspae (sic) to the minuet but a ‘galloping minuet’. Hamish again pointed out that the Cape Breton pipers still play strathspeys this way today. Until recently a Cape Breton piper playing strathspeys, learnt by aural transmission, would have been sneered at by many literate and formally taught pipers.

The Cape Breton style of strathspey playing is due to the survival of step dancing. Dance has been ‘the anchor’ in Cape Breton that has ensured the survival of an old style of play- ing, long since vanished in Scotland (but once indigenous). This style of strathspey playing is governed by the rhythmic and tempo requirements of dance.

This fast style of playing might be close to the sentiment of ‘rant’, an alternative name for a strathspey (the word rant is often seen in reel titles also). This style is very different from the slower North East style which evolved during the 19th Century.

There followed a discussion with members of the audience about the link between dance and rhythm.


The list of strathspey styles offered by Hamish was as follows,

Highland dance strathspey - always played by a piper at games/gatherings for dancing. Country dance strathspey - Rhythmically specific.

Competition pipe strathspey - highly artificial style designed to show technical skill of piper. Both designed for solo or band - 2 forms differ in tempo.

Competition accordion strathspey - very different from piping equivalent but same purpose. North East of Scotland slow strathspey - exaggerated rhythm.

Step dance strathspey - based in the Highlands (The rant?) - Many tunes not melodic but rhythmic - taken to Cape Breton.

Highland melodic strathspey - not used for step dance but a listening strathspey.

Colin Ross questioned Hamish about tunes they would call ‘Schottische’ and whether these were the same as Strathspeys. Tunes such as Monymusk and Orange and Blue might be played by Northumberland pipers at 180 beats. Also - 2/4 marches now popular in the Highlands for this form of dance - typical would be Father John MacMillan of Barra.

The audience was then treated to recorded examples of the different forms starting with The Glasgow City Police playing at 176 beats per minute (bpm) recorded in 1954 under the leadership of Seanie MacDonald of South Uist. Donald Shaw Ramsay PM of the Edinburgh Police Pipe Band playing for the Highland Fling at 152 bpm. Here Hamish noted that modern dancing is now slower and more technical.

We heard the classic step dancing strathspey The Cameronian Rant, played in a very differ- ent form, as a solo competition strathspey, at 120 bpm with strict Heavy: Light Medium: Light beats in each bar. To contrast with this we then heard a competition pipe band rendi- tion of Maggie Cameron at 138 bpm. This was very typical of how we might expect a pipe band to play the tune for competition.

The next excerpt was Tulloch Gorum played for competition at 114 bpm (again with Heavy:light Medium: light beats in each bar), followed by Joe Hughie MacIntyre, of Cape Breton, playing the same tune at 160 bpm, very round and with 4 even beats per bar. This was still very much a strathspey and had been learnt from a South Uist emigrant by ear.

We then heard Dave Maclsaac play a melodic strathspey on guitar followed by a listening melodic Highland strathspey played by Paul MacNeil and Jamie Maclnnes from Cape Breton on pipes.

Next was a step dance strathspey played by John MacLean, of Cape Breton, at 180 bpm (This can be heard on the 2nd LBPS Concert CD).


After we had heard examples of each of the categories defined by Hamish we listened to other musicians playing strathspeys. This ranged from the late Tom Hughes (of Jedburgh, in the Scottish Borders), an ear trained fiddler who got a lot of his music from his father, to Jimmy Nagle, who is Tom Hughes’ great nephew, and carries on this tradition (and who fea- tures on Fred Freeman’s ‘Border Traditions’ Fiddling CD).

We heard William Marshall’s composition The Marquis of Huntly’s Farewell played by Hazel Wrigly in the style of Scott Skinner - Slow NE a-rhythmic style. It is interesting to note that this style of playing emerged in the late 19th century and the tune would not have been played like this by Marshall.

The Scottish Country dance strathspey is unique in having two beats to the bar. This is to accommodate the travelling step. We heard John Macgregor, on accordion, playing Mony- musk in that style.

Hamish played extracts of Gaelic puirt a beul (mouth music) sung by Mairi Maclnnes, and it was here that he felt that the strathspey may well have originated. It certainly ties in with his early evidence suggesting this was a Highland and Gaelic song form, which existed long before strathspeys existed in the NE fiddle style. In County Donegal, Ireland, strathspeys are known as ‘Highlands’. These were taken to Ireland with the Highland settlers who emi- grated from Scotland.

The wide range of tempos, rhythmic accenting and embellishments serve to underline an important point, i.e;

There is more than one way to skin a cat - but - there are horses for courses!

The practical consequences of this talk should be to make the player less bewildered when confronted by the many different versions of the same tune and the different forms of strath- speys. Take your pick and enjoy the tremendous richness of this musical seam. But always try to keep them within the their own context. The different ways of playing the strathspey are all children of their times, are closely related to their function and social context and ALL correct in their own right. It gives the player tremendous scope for exploration.


The 2nd LBPS Grand Concert CD, which features John MacLean,

of Cape Breton, as mentioned in this article.


Talk given by Matt Seattle

The brief summary of this talk, together with that of Iain MacInnes, was made possible with cassettes kindly provided by Barry Say. The photos were by Nigel Bridges - many thanks:

J A.


 When Matt first got up to speak he gave a health hazard warning that not everyone might feel the urge to stay and follow his theories. He went on: “When I talk about musical theory I’m talking about an analysis to see what works.”

Then he asked everyone to keep in mind that the drone arrangement on his Border pipes (pitched in A) were A a e, which is part of the harmonic series.

[The harmonic series forms the basis of a primary chord. The harmonic series on the bass drone A, can be described as going: A, e, a, c’#, e’ etc. Ed].

Using his pipes he demonstrated that some notes were consonant (sounded good) with the drones. Others were dissonant - they left you with the feeling that the business was unfin- ished, the music needed moving on to a resolution. He played the open chord [i.e. the series of notes of A, C#, E, A to let those present hear the first, and G, B, D, G to illustrate the second.

The first gave a resolution to the harmonic tension caused by the other.

He then demonstrated a tune that was in existence towards the end of the 18th century. He had two versions of it. One came from Scotland, from James Gillespie of Perth called Licht the Ladle Sandy of 1768, the other from William Vickers (1750) with the title Lasses Pisses Brandy. He showed how Vickers’ version finished on the unresolved chord, and mentioned that Scottish tunes tended to end on an A (tonic) chord.

Newmarket Races (nowadays called Fenwick of Bywell) could, he suggested, be the same as

Cock Up your Beaver if it were displaced by two bars.

Moving to some of the tunes in William Dixon’s manuscript, Matt showed that bars or phrases could alternate between, say, an A chord and a G chord or, as in the case of Lads of Alnwick, an A chord and B minor chord. Which means that sometimes the drones would be consonant with the notes, at other times they would be distinctly dissonant. And it is this contrast which is part of the attraction he suggested, of pipe music played against properly tuned drones.


Using a board to draw circles and figures to explain his theories Matt discussed the frame- work on which many 18th century, and some 17th century tunes are based.

(Working from a tape, I haven’t seen these either, but below is an illustration from ‘The Master Piper’ where it is all explained more fully). And it wasn’t just pipers who used these patterns on which to build their music, fiddlers did as well, and as an example he mentioned Neil Gow’s Farewell to Whisky.

Matt uses a code to build up the shape of a tune, giving the letter X to bars that are made up of consonant chords, and Y to those that are dissonant. With this example of Elsie Marley the layout of the tune is XXXY + XXYY;

Other patterns (or ratios of X to Y) are also found during the same period, and Matt quoted Cuckold Come out of the Amery; Bobby Shaftoe; Stool of Repentance; Noble Squire Dacre; Will ye go to Sheriffmuir; Keelman O‘er the Land.

And if all this working (perhaps) to a framework sounds fanciful, then what about our own compositions today? Usually we tend to work to a four bar structure and AABB sequence without even thinking about it.

For a good tune we need two things, he argued: Inspiration and craft. The inspiration should produce a good melodic idea, and the craft allow us to mould that idea into an acceptable tune.


Talk given by Iain MacInnes

Iain gave some glimpses into the piping broadcast archives he had been investigating. He said that quite a good proportion of the piping that was broadcast between 1960 to 1970 has been preserved, much of it on vinyl. There were interviews he had discovered with Pipe Major Willie Ross (who had left behind an impressive collection of light music) and D.R. MacLellan. Several recordings were played - some going back to the 1940s and 1950s. An unforgettable sound in one was provided by a pipe band playing at the crossing of the Rhine, with gunfire almost drowning out the strains of Scotland the Brave.

Later there was a sample of half-longs being played - Noble Squire Dacre - complete with baritone drone, flattened 7th and using Highland piping embellishments. It was also some- what out of tune.

The present broadcasting, Iain explained, of the piping programme from Scotland is devel- oping a very large global audience via the internet. A good demonstration of the depth of interest that exists for this type of music. (Iain is currently taking a year’s sabbatical from Radio Scotland where he presents the piping programme).


Talk given by Colin Ross

Colin Ross gave a demonstration and talk on making chanter reeds for smallpipes. He pointed out that at a very early stage in the Scottish smallpipe revival it had been found that Northumbrian smallpipe reeds worked well in the Scottish (open-ended) chanters without modification. He used his recently published book on reed making as a reference [See CS Vol 17 No 1 p.47].