Tag Archives: ceòl mór

Harp Concert in St Andrews

Today was the first in my series of lunchtime harp concerts in St Andrews. This is the first year that we have not been running these in the Cathedral ruins so I was apprehensive both about the new venue, and how many people would come.

In the end the venue was wonderful. All Saints church hall is a very atmospheric place, with lovely carved oak panelled walls decorated with painted wooden plaques, and big high arched windows letting the light from the sky stream in. The acoustics of the room are very nice for the harp as well.

Turnout was modest, but no less than we used to get at the cathedral for the first event of the season.

I played Cogadh no Sith, an epic half-hour pibroch. People were entranced; more than one commented that it felt like a lot less than half an hour, how they were “sucked in” to the music.

I’m looking forward to the next in the series on 2nd July already!

Standard Variations in Pibroch

We have democracy in Dundee! As a break from the hardcore work on gestures we have been doing recently, I had prepared handouts for a new tune that I was planning to give my harp class this afternoon.

However at the beginning of the class, some of them who had been here last week were chatting to those who had missed it, about the pibroch figures we had been looking at. So in the interests of fairness I put it to a democratic vote, new tune or more slogging though the complex ornaments? No-one voted for the tune, and with one or two abstentions everyone else from the youngest to the oldest wanted the standard variations! I was very impressed at their ambition and dedication to this difficult music!

So we returned to the standard variations class handout, and worked through crunluath, crunluath a-mach and crunluath fosgailte; we scrutinised the pipe notation and sang the cannteraichd, before discussing strategies for translating this onto the harp. I was pleased to see everyone managing by the end to play though an octave scale for each one.

Next week I think we’ll leave the pibroch for a bit and try the new song air.

Playing ceòl mór from Donald MacDonald’s 1820 printed book

I am intrigued by Donald MacDonald’s arrangements of ceòl mór or pibroch, because on his title page he indicates that he is not setting out the tunes in “pipers tablature”, that cryptic system that looks confusingly similar to staff notation; instead, he describes his work:

A / collection / of the / Ancient Martial /  Music of Caledonia / called / Piobaireachd / as performed on the / Great Highland Bagpipe / Now also adapted to the / Piano Forte, violin and violoncello…

By setting the music on two staves, treble and bass, he intends that the purchasers of his book, price one guinea (£1 1s, or a few hundred pounds in today’s money) to play this music not on the pipes (what wealthy, musically literate book-buyer in 1820 owned or played pipes?) but on the piano; if they had musical guests at their Edinburgh townhouse they may well also try it as violin and cello duets.

Donald writes a single bass line very simply in the bass clef, which looks to me quite old-fashioned for 1820; I think by that date many music arrangers were writing chordal and thicker textures in the bass.  On the other hand the modal, drone-based nature of the music may have discouraged anything more complex.

He writes the melody in a more nuanced way, setting the tune in large notes with their stems all pointing down, and using little notes with the stems up to indicate the characteristic bagpipe grace-notes. I imagine he expected piano and fiddle players to ignore these in performance, but to appreciate them as exotic talking-points read in connection with the “instructions” at the beginning of the book.

How did he decide which notes to make big, and which small? This is the vexed question of all early pibroch scholarship, since there seems to have been a strong movement through the 19th and 20th century to shift the musical emphasis in a big way, with melody notes becoming swallowed up into bundles of gracenotes, and rogue grace notes being held so long that they speak as stressed melody notes.

My opinion is that he wrote the big notes so that when played normally on the fiddle or piano, the melody sounded as he imagined in his head that it should, based on his knowledge of the expected traditional expression of this tune on the pipes (and perhaps also on the fiddle, seeing as the fiddle pibroch tradition may have still been reasonably strong at this time)

More on Ronald MacDonald of Morar’s Lament

Today I tried playing the Lament for Ranald MacDonald of Morar on the harp, and I discovered two very interesting things about this tune.

First, it really does not sit well on the harp.

Secondly, it is a minor-mode tune. The notation gives it in a, as is usual for Highland bagpipe music, as the pipes usually play an a major scale: a b c# d e f# g a, plus low G, with drones sounding all the while on A.

This tune is mostly pentatonic, moving over g a b – d e – g a, with passing notes on f# and on c natural. The c natural is not at all what one would expect to hear in a pipe tune, yet not only does c# sound very wrong but the notation clearly gives only one sharp in the key signature.

Listening to the only pipe recording I have to hand (and ignoring the substantial changes to pulse and accent) I note that the issue doesn’t arise on the pipes, because the sequence that Donald MacDonald writes very clearly as d (G) c (G) b, i.e. a descending series of 3 notes d c b, separated by low G gracenotes, becomes in modern performance d G(c#)G b, i.e. a sequence of two notes d  b separated by a burble on low G. So the tune remains pentatonic on the pipes.

I checked in Joseph MacDonald‘s book, where he has a section on the “keys” in which ceòl mór is set on the pipes, he doesn not really deal with this type of scale; he only talks about laments omitting c# and concentrating on the low end of the scale. Other than that he is mainly interested in music set in modal equivalents of g major, a major and d major.

Cumha Raonuill Mhic Ailein Òig

Today I have been working on Cumha Raonuill Mhic Ailein Òig, the  Lament for Ronald MacDonald of Morar. It is working very nicely as a fiddle tune. I am following Donald MacDonald’s 1820 printed arrangement:

It continues for three more pages with the variations; so far I have been concentrating on the first variation and its doubling. Donald MacDonald’s setting is strangely assymetrical with startling developments of the melody in the second half of the tune; Angus MacKay’s manuscript seems to be the same though I don’t know if MacKay was just copying MacDonald or whether he had the tune independently from oral tradition. All the later sources hack about with it and remove bars to make it four-square and much less dramatic.

I’m tuning the fiddle a-e’-a’-e” (though as usual I keep it one note lower than modern pitch), as this allows the tune to be played mainly on the two highest strings, with the two lowest acting as intermittent drones. I’m finding this tune sits very well on the fiddle, with pleasant string-crossings and open intervals.

I’m not planning to play this on the harp, out of respect for Ranald – if he was, as tradition says, one of the last of the old harpers, whoever composed this fine lament after he died would not have been a harper, though they may well have played fiddle as well as pipes.

Hopefully I will put up a Youtube of it at some point though I already have a backlog of things to record!

Ceòl mór or pibroch for the clarsach

Right from the very beginning of my harp studies I was fascinated by the idea of ceòl mór on the harp. I started studying the first tunes (Fair Molly, the Butterfly and Burns March) from November or December 1999, and I think it was just a couple of months later that I found a cassette tape copy of Ann Heymann’s Queen of Harps in an Oxford Celtic/New Age shop. That recording, apart from eternally smelling of patchouli, of course has Ann’s 30 minute performance of her version of the pibroch, Lament for the Tree of Strings.

I think I was taken by the intricate repetitiveness of the music, like a journey through a landscape, or perhaps more pertinently like the folded geometric patterns in medieval manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. I was also interested in the abstract nature of the tunes, which are very different from the more “tuney” tunes more commonly found in traditional music nowadays.

I made a page on my old website about ceol mor, where I searched for inspiration and information.

The first ceòl mór tune I played on the harp was Cumh Easbig Earraghaal, the lament for the Bishop of Argyll, the manuscript source for which is reproduced in Alison Kinnaird’s and Keith Sanger’s book Tree of Strings. I think it took me a long time to get to grips with this tune but in some ways it made perfect sense to me – this is exactly what ancient harp music is meant to sound like, the contrasts between the different variations, and the opportunities for exploring different timbres and idioms as the variations progress. I continued to play and develop this tune and included it on my first CD, Clàrsach na Bànrighe, in 2008.

Ceòl mór is a genre of music that is best known nowadays as pipe music, played on the great highland bagpipe, where it is known as pibroch or pìobaireachd. I say “best known” though in fact you rarely hear pipers playing this type of music; it is rarely included in concert programmes, living instead in a rarefied world of piping competitions. I worked for a while with historical piper Barnaby Brown, on projects including promoting both piping and harping on the internet and developing online teaching resources. His unusual insight into the historical pibroch traditions gave me some useful understandings of the nature of this music and how it might live nowadays. Traditionally it belongs to the pipes and the fiddle and the old Gaelic harp with metal wire strings, and I feel each of the three instruments brings something different and unique to the music. None of them is “imitating” the other, each wholly owns the music and expresses some true deep spiritual essence of it in its own way.

I have continued to work on Gaelic harp ceòl mór; my latest CD Tarbh is entirely pibroch tunes (and I wonder if it is the first CD ever to be 100% harp ceòl mór). It is hard to market; it is serious music but it does fall between stools – too serious for traditional music followers, too traditional for classical and early music people. Pipers who play pibroch seem intruiged by it. When I perform concerts and include a big 10 minute ceòl mór tune, I am always nervous as to how the audience will react – will they be bored and restless? But afterwards I find people come up and say, that was the best piece of the whole concert!

Ceòl mór is such a huge world for me, I think I could spend the rest of my life just studying and playing this repertory. There is something truly meditative about the power of the music. More than one person has said how it is reminiscent of Indian Raga music, and I think it is the way that it selects just two or three notes and then cycles meditatively around them. There are points in some of the pibroch where a new tone appears and hits you with the force of emotion and power – I find it fascinating that such emotional intensity can be built up from such apparently simple material. Perhaps it has that intensity because of its deliberate, austere simplicity.

Ceòl mór at the cathedral ruins

The Priors House was packed out for today’s cathedral concert. I was apprehensive about presenting a concert of music from my new CD; these grand epic compositions take about 10 minutes to unfold which means that in a half hour concert there’s time for just two. I always wonder if people will just switch off when faced with such a huge wall of music, but once again I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged with this music people were.

My theme for today was “Ranald and the ghost” and I told the story of the Colainn gun Cheann, and the epic battle on the road at midnight between Ranald and the spectre, and I finished the story with the little song that the ghost sings as it fled. Perhaps this kind of all-engrossing narrative with its strong personalities and unexpected plot twists is what keeps the subsequent 10-minute pibroch relevant and engaging. (having told them that the variations are describing the story in music, perhaps there is more pressure on me to draw those different emotive and dynamic aspects out of each variation).

Either way, both of today’s tunes were very well received and people left well satisfied. It’s only a shame that, due to funding cuts, there were only two cathedral concerts this year. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to continue working with Historic Scotland next year on another series of cathedral harp music.


My new CD released today features five solo harp tracks of late 17th or early 18th century music attributed to a great local hero of the West of Scotland – Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig. These grand formal tunes come from the pibroch tradition of the pipes, and also from early fiddle and vocal sources, and I have turned them into dreamy, beautiful clarsach meditations. Each tune has a very different atmosphere, and the CD booklet includes five full-page illustrations made by Ealasaid Gilfillan especially for this project. These unique and intense montage images really give you a sense of the meaning of each tune.

For more info, please visit www.earlygaelicharp.info/tarbh

As a companion to the CD I have also made a set of web pages all about Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig – Ronald MacDonald of Morar, said to have lived 1662-1741. The pages include all the references I used as sources for the CD and also include links to a number of fascinating songs and stories on archive audio recordings at Tobar an Dualchais – the online portal for the tape recordings preserved in the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.

Pìobaireachd – what it might mean for the clarsach / John Purser

At the Edinburgh Harp Festival on Tuesday April 9th, 11:00 am, at Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, John Purser is giving this interesting presentation:
Pìobaireachd – what it might mean for the clarsach

I have already booked a ticket – it will be fascinating to hear what he has to say. John has been working with Bonnie Rideout for some time now on the fiddle pibroch repertoire (see Bonnie’s CDs in my Emporium) and so I hope he will have some useful insights about harp ceòl mór.

I was thinking about who has already been working on this and there are quite a few people who have recorded piobaireachd on the clarsach – Alan Stivell, Alison Kinnaird, Ann Heymann, Violaine Mayor, and more recently a number of youtube experimenters including Brendan Ring, Dominic Haerinck, Chris Caswell (who passed away very recently), and Sue Phillips. Quite apart from Grainne Yeats and Charles Guard who have recorded Burns March – in my opinion the archetypal Gaelic harp ceol mor.

Both of my previous CDs included ceol mor or pibroch – but the next one will be “wall to wall”. I have also put some experiments on youtube – here’s a very early and rough version of a classic piobaireachd that I adapted for harp:

I’ll be on site during the harp festival week with my Emporium bookstall – if you are there do come along and say hello.

MacCrimmon, Piobaireachd & clarsach traditions

“…I had the good fortune to meet a direct descendent of the Borreraig MacCrimmons,
 … he told me that the clarsach influenced the pipe pointing out how the [pipe] music of the late 16th or 17th century stood above all others [later] in merit.
He went so far as to say that piobaireachd renderings on the clarsach were common at one time…”

From The Oban Times, 26 August, 1933, via pmjohngrant.com