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For those who were not there, a quick description of the programme for this year’s annual collogue which was, as ever, a good one. Dr Fred Freeman started the day by talking about and playing recorded extracts from his collection of Burns songs. Following the morning coffee break (the chance for a crack with friends old and new), Anne-Marie Summers, Steve Tyler and Pete Stewart gave an illustrated talk on piping in early music. After this the audi- ence thinned as members only remained for the AGM, the agenda for which was cunningly included in the splendidly presented programme (thanks Nigel). After lunch Dr Andy Hunter, helped by Davie Robertson, discussed aspects of the pipe and song tradition. The final presentation of the day came from Xuan Muniz and Simon Bradley, who talked about and played bagpipes from the Asturian region of Spain. We were to hear them again that evening, those who attended the concert, as well as Anne-Marie Summers and Steve Tyler.


Dr Fred Freeman started the day. Many of us had attended the Burns supper earlier in the year, where Fred Freeman gave a truncated sample of his theme. And that theme?

In essence he proposed that Scottish traditional music was a genre difficult to capture, and impos- sible to tame.

With the major part of the CD collection of Burns’ songs at his elbow (and samples at his finger-tips, or at least on the end of his CD player’s remote control) he proposed that many of the songs were composed ‘backwards’. And by that he meant Burns would first find a tune and then contrive the words for it. And the words, he argued, might on their own appear meaningless, but when taken in context with the music provided a large part of the rhythm: a sort of mouth music, to which dancers could step.

Repetitive words, for instance, are used in the jig My Wife’s a Wanton Wee Thing

My Wife’s a Wanton Wee Thing My Wife’s a Wanton Wee Thing My Wife’s a Wanton Wee Thing She willna’ be guided by me.

because they assist the rhythm and the whole make-up of the tune. The words themselves don’t matter so much, but they help the voice function as an instrument.

Burns was a folk musician and fiddler. He mixed with fiddlers up and down the country and took many of their tunes. Burns said Duncan Gray (as a reel) represented horses galloping, and composed it “Swinging wildly on the hind legs of my elbow chair to get the rhythm”.


Burns used marches for political or military songs, like Awa Wiggs Awa, and also for contemplative songs.

Amongst other samples of songs played by Fred were Dance Awa with the Exciseman, a mischievous jig, and Gallowa Tam, a slip jig where the name announced the rhythm, Double hornpipe tunes like Wee Willie Gray, which tend to jump about, and single horn- pipes such as Jacky Lattin

Burns re-jigged tunes from the Borders and put songs to them, tunes that had never had words before. He adapted Irish tunes “provided they are in the Scots taste, otherwise leave them out entirely.” He even used a Russian tune. With his Northeast connections (his father was from Kincardineshire), Bums visited the ports in the area, as ever collecting tunes.

Near the end on the 18th century, while Burns was still collecting (or, as Burns described it, composing), John Thompson, a publisher, approached such composers as Pleyel, Haydn and Beethoven to have some of the songs orchestrated and arranged [as was done for other contemporary popular music of the time. Ed]. The fee was a guinea a tune, and the tunes seemed to be treated with some disdain with no attention to Scottish musical form.

The Viennese composers over sentimentalized them, Fred argued, and put paid to many songs which went underground for a long time. Burns himself was none too happy and wrote to Thompson, saying “Whatever Mr Pleyel does let him not alter one iota of the origi- nal Scots Air, I mean in the song department, but let our national music preserve its native features. They are, I own, frequently wild and un- reduceable to the more modern rule, but on that very eccentricity perhaps depends a great part of their success.”

And in 1794 he wrote, again to Thompson: “I am sensible that my taste in music must be inelegant and vulgar, because people of undisputed and cultivated taste can find no merit in many of my favourite tunes. Still because I am cheaply pleased, is that any reason why I should deny myself that pleasure? Many of our strathspeys, ancient and modern, give me exquisite enjoyment where you and other judges would probably be showing signs of dis- gust... in fact unless I be pleased with the tune I never can make verses to it.”

Others also commented on the “false refinements of Haydn and Pleyel”, and Patrick Mac- Donald in his collection of Highland vocal airs of 1784 declared that “modem harmony weakens native expression.” There were complaints of warbling (vibrato) and smothering of words. So there was a definite back-lash against what was being done in drawing rooms and on concert stages.

As an illustration we were treated to an example of a strathspey being played on the Scot- tish fiddle, contrasted with the same strathspey sung in a rather emasculated form with all the flavour of a Viennese court in the 19th century.

Dr Freeman finished by giving the last word to Burns, who said to Thompson that he wasn’t bothered whether he accepted his songs or not. Brave words from a man who needed dosh and wasn’t getting paid.

“I have long ago made up my mind as to my reputation in the business of authorship and I’ve nothing to be pleased or offended at in your adoption or rejection of my verses.”


Pete Stewart with Anne-Marie Summers (bagpipes) and Steve Tyler (hurdy-gurdy)


Pete used various examples of the research he has been undertaking to suggest that pipers were almost certainly part of the rural wedding ceremony in Europe, from the 13th century onwards, and later in

England and after that the

Lowlands of Scotland.

Anne-Marie and Steve provided examples of some of the early music played - indeed an early 13th century song that Anne- Marie sang described the bagpipe with the big drone.

Pete argued that the Pipers at such functions were paid a fee, and that their repertoire probably developed from the popular music of the time which the piper might himself adjust to suit the pipes. It was also suggested that some tunes had, at some stage been ex- temporized over a ‘ground’, and that later the ‘ground’ had been dropped while the descant melody became part of the piper’s regular repertoire.


Dr Andy Hunter gave us a hint of his background, and how he learned from the Travelers and from such folk legends as Jeannie Robertson. And with traditional songs, he reminded us, we are talking about poetry with a melodic accompaniment. If you slur the words if you have no interest in the words, if you are simply reading them off the page as you sing them (as many recording artists do today), if you do not understand what the words are about, then you are in trouble. Many singers today have no idea what they are singing about, particularly Burns’ songs, because they have lost contact with the Scots that make it up.

It is critical - how can we communicate a song if we don’t understand it?

It explains the rise of instrumental music in the Scottish folk revival, he argued, and the demise of such groups as the Corries and the McCalmans - they sang for words. Young peo- ple today don’t have the grasp of that sort, they hide behind instrumental music.

Andy then considered the particular aspects of singing and playing smallpipes at the same time. He suggested that such songs seem better at a slower tempo, and with classical ballads good singers will maintain a narrative style.


For the choice of song, the tune has got to be within the nine-note scope of the pipes. It is, of course, possible to fake notes on the Scottish smallpipes by going up or down an octave, but that doesn’t really work. Northumbrian pipes have a better range of notes.

The key of the pipes has to be compatible with the voice, and the pipes should not be too loud, or you end up competing with your own voice. Using just the bass drone can some- times help since it is pitched an octave below the voice, whereas the other drones, which are pitched close to the voice, sometimes tend to obscure it.

It is possible to sing to Border pipes, despite their louder volume, the pitch being an octave higher than the human voice, but he tried it once and found it to be quite a strain.

It is important, he suggested, to add variety, and this could be done in a number of ways. Harmony between voice and instrument which, although difficult, has been done with good effect. Glissando (sliding from one note to the next), vibrato, and perhaps preceding the voice part with a few notes indicative of the melody about to be sung. If the words include a question and answer sequence, then perhaps the question can be accompanied by chanter and drones, while the answer has drones only.

Between verses you can play a few bars or even a large part of the tune which gives time for the singer to relax and compose his or her thoughts. Accompaniment is highly instinctive, very delicate and cannot easily be taught.

Finally Davey Robertson came on to sing and play a few tunes. “Davey doesn’t play like a Highland piper, he plays as if he is in complete sympathy with the song”, Andy explained, and we were treated to some songs that amply illustrated the points which had earlier been made.

The Bonnie Laddie’s lang lang a-Growing. The Twa’ Corbies.

Are Ye Sleepin ’ Maggie.


The Twa’ Corbies by Arthur Rackham

(public domain)


Xuan Muniz and Simon Bradley demonstrated the Asturian bagpipes which are mouth-blown, with closed fingering. The top hand notes are chromatic, and it can over-blow to half an octave. Traditionally set in the key of C, and with just one bass drone for solo playing (with or without a drone), the set played by Xuan was in Bb, with bass and tenor drone for pipe band requirements.

He played various different types of tunes - for dancing, weddings or funerals. He started with a very old victory celebration tune from about 2000 years ago played when battles were won against the Moors or the Romans.

During the Franco regime the Asturian pipes nearly disappeared. Twenty five years ago, Xuan told us, there were only about 20 pipers remaining. But many of those were very good, and they taught the young people who wanted to learn after Franco’s death. And now there are 3000 pipers in a population of one million.

Asturia has it’s own government which doesn’t support the piping revival in any way.

At the beginning of each tune an Asturian piper plays a short intricate passage called a floreo - kind of flowering, each piper having his own particular version as a sort of personal signature. The volume of sound is strong, the tone rich. The ornamentation sounded precise and strong without being too ornate - some movements could be mistaken for the Highland G,D,E gracing.

Both Xuan and Simon spent some time answering questions from the floor and showing different types of fingering to produce the particular effects, and although this reduced the time available for playing tunes, we were to hear more from them that evening in the rather more formal atmosphere of the concert, where pipes and fiddle played together in unison.