The Piobaireachd Society
Patron HM The Queen

Articles of interest about Piobaireachd.

The following articles are of interest to the piobaireachd student and come from various sources. The Society is grateful to all those who have kindly made them available to Piobaireachd Society members only. If you are not a member you can join here.

We acknowledge the contribution of Jimmy MacIntosh and the EUSPBA’s ‘Voice’ magazine, and also that of Colin MacLellan who has agreed to the publication of selected articles from his father’s ‘International Piper’ magazine.

There are also further articles of considerable academic and historical interest on Ross Anderson’s Music Page.

There are also further articles of considerable academic and historical interest on Ross Anderson's Music Page.

Canntaireachd - an explanation by Peter McCalister

An explanation of how the music is sung by Peter McCalister

Canntaireachd – Singing the Music.


Piobaireachd is a music which is transmitted orally from teacher to pupil - and for hundreds of years this was the only way to learn the music, until it began to be written down on the 5-line stave in the 19th century.

Although many pipers learn their tunes form a musical score nowadays, this is no substitute for the teacher singing the tune to his/her pupil. All good teachers do sing to their pupils, and this document explains the reasons for this, and gives some examples. The word “Canntaireachd” means “singing” in Gaelic, but rather than this general definition, for pipers it has come to mean the singing of Piobaireachd.

Why is singing more important than the written music?

The traditional ways, or "songs", of the tunes have been taught by singing, because piobaireachd is characterised by free rhythm - particularly in the Urlar of the tune. The "song" cannot be accurately represented on the stave in metrical form, as time signatures and bar lines can constrain and possibly distort the melody. The nuances of expression cannot be conveyed on the stave.

Therefore written music, for example in the Piobaireachd Society books, is not played on the bagpipe, in the same way that it appears on the stave. Quavers, crotchets, and semiquavers cannot be used to express the subtlety of the music. In a single tune (or even a single bar) a quaver could be long, short, or very short, and the next quaver could be an entirely different length.

The gracenotes or small notes, are rightly played very short indeed in the light music (namely marches, strathspeys, reels and so on). But a note written as a gracenote in Piobaireachd is not always short - some are written as quavers (one tail) or semiquavers (2 tails) rather than demisemiquavers (3 tails). So when reading a piobaireachd gracenote, it might be intended to be long or short. It could actually be a theme note in some cases, which means it should sound as long (or even longer) than the note which follows.

The bagpipe is an instrument which has a constant volume, and yet in some way the player needs to emphasise some notes more than others, to make the music flow. On an oboe or violin, these notes could be played louder. The piper must instead play them a bit longer, and/or make the most of the gracenotes on these notes, to express their importance. A teacher, singing to his/her pupil, uses lots of different tones and volumes, to show which notes need to be emphasised. A good teacher’s singing is remembered long after the lesson, when the piper is playing the tune, and recalling the ebb and flow of the music.

How do teachers know what to sing to their pupils?

Most pipers learn from a teacher, and the teachers themselves have been taught by someone singing to them, many years previously. This is known as “the oral tradition” – because in theory, the singing has passed down the music, through the generations of pipers. If you go to a highly respected teacher, it can be possible to work out the links – i.e. who has sung to whom - which bring you the music transmitted orally down the centuries. It may surprise you to work out how few links there are, to bring you right back to the singing of the MacCrimmons.

The words used by teachers when they sing are not important, though many use roughly the same words (see below for details of the Campbell Canntaireachd, an example of words which can be used). What is far more important are the tone and volume, and of course the tempo, of the different tunes. Some teachers use gestures and “conduct” the pupil, again to emphasise certain notes. These small shades of expression cannot be expressed on the written page.

What is the “Campbell Canntaireachd”?

In the early 1800’s the Highland Society of Scotland staged a competition to encourage the writing of piobaireachd on the stave. Pipers came forward with their suggestions, and one person came with a copy of written canntaireachd, produced by Colin Campbell from Nether Lorn. The 2 volumes of this manuscript which have survived to the present day are known as “the Campbell Canntaireachd”.

This document containing 168 tunes was written in about 1797, and instead of representing the music in staff notation, a form of words was used – as if the tunes were being sung to the writer of the manuscript. This is indeed what could have happened: the writer, Colin Campbell, was taught (sung to) by his father, Donald Campbell, who himself was a pupil of the MacCrimmons.

In the manuscript, each note, gracenote and movement had its own individual sound, and this system of sounds is now also referred to as “the Campbell Canntaireachd” or sometimes the “Nether Lorn Canntaireachd”.

For example …

  • a G gracenote on low G is “him”

  • a B would be “0”

  • and the sound for throw on D is “tra”.

If you were to combine these 3 sounds, ie “himotra”, then that would be a G gracenote on low G, come up onto B, and then play a throw on D. See below for how this phrase is the start of the tune “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee”

The Campbell Canntaireachd is described in detail at the beginning of each of the Society’s books of music, and if you want to take a look at it, go to this link. The Campbell Canntaireachd is an example of an attempt to create a record on paper of the tunes, before widespread use of staff notation came about.

One obvious problem when reading the Campbell Canntaireachd, is that there is no indication of how long each note should be. The manuscript shows the pitch of the notes, and the gracenotes in some detail, but that is all. Luckily many of the tunes are known to pipers already (passed down through the oral tradition) so we can interpret them using some prior knowledge. However about 60 tunes were found in the Campbell Canntaireachd, where we have no other record of them. Again, the assumption was that those using these written sources at the time, would either know the ways of the tunes, or would have had recourse to traditional teachers.

How do we interpret these 60 tunes? Some experience of piobaireachd is needed, to begin the task. After that it is remarkably easy to say which notes should be long and which should be short, as piobaireachd is a firmly established and somewhat repetitive form of music. Many of these tunes have been translated, using the experience of pipers who knew how to interpret piobaireachd – the late Archie Kenneth was particularly keen on this. If you look at Book 12 of the Piobaireachd Society Collection, you will see several of these, such as “Port Urlar”. Some of the 60 tunes remain unpublished right up to the present day.

Are there other forms of Canntaireachd apart from the Campbell Canntaireachd?

The short answer is yes – there are as many forms of sung canntaireachd, as there are pipers to sing it. Pipers use their own individual forms of sung canntaireachd to rehearse and to teach. These are usually not consistent and stylised forms; rather, different vocables are commonly sung to indicate the same note, even in the same tune, to achieve the desired effect.

Inconsistency is of no consequence nowadays, as recourse can be had to the printed scores in any case of doubt about an embellishment or the pitch of a note. If the singer/piper knows the tune thoroughly, it will be only rarely that the book will be resorted to. The pupil will be encouraged to use the written score only as an aide memoire and to put it aside as soon as the "song" of the tune has been well learned.

Pipers usually learn piobaireachd with a teacher singing to them – though most teachers don’t use the exact Campbell Canntaireachd words when they sing. While it is not necessary to learn the different sounds in detail, pipers will frequently come across the common Canntaireachd terms. Examples include the common movement called “hiharin”, which is a long E followed by a birl with a D gracenote in between. Also the Nameless tunes are described by the Canntaireachd version of their first phrase – e.g. the frequently heard (and very beautiful) tune called simply “Hiharin Dro o Dro”

A teacher of piobaireachd would tell you which terms are in common usage, and you may wish to learn the whole system – it is not as difficult as it appears. However it is important to note that you do not need to learn it – it is better to sing the music using any words that you are comfortable with.

The history of the Campbell Canntaireachd manuscript, and how it was lost and then found again, can be found here. There is a theory that the Campbell Canntaireachd was probably not sung at the time (1797) – i.e. the method was one of writing or recording the tunes on paper, rather than singing. There are other forms of “written canntaireachd”. A second form of written canntaireachd is well known, namely that used by a writer called Neil MacLeod of Gesto. This can be seen here if you are interested.

An example of a tune, in Canntaireachd and on the stave

Let’s have a look at a tune called “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee”. Here is how the first line looks in the original Campbell Canntaireachd:

The handwriting can be hard to read, so here is the first line of the Canntaireachd typed out  …

Himotra hahohioem hodinhiotra chelalhodin hiharara chehodroe hiharara hahohioem

The last “word” in the above excerpt, does not fit with other versions of the tune which have come down to us, and nowadays might be sung or played as hiaenoem. Seeing the words written down like that isn’t very easy to understand. However a teacher, singing the tune, might sing it like this. andrewwrightcanntaireachd. This excerpt of singing includes the whole theme (or Ground) of this tune

If you were learning this from a teacher of piobaireachd, it is likely you would have the music written on the stave to look at – here’s the first line from the Piobaireachd Society’s version of this tune, as it appears in Book 1.

Lament for the Viscount Dundee from Piobaireachd Society Collection

As you can see there are gracenotes which appear small, and some of these are meant to be longer than you think. For example the little tiny “E” which is a gracenote (but only has one tail) at the very beginning of the line, might last up to half a second long, depending on how the performer wishes to play it. A teacher of piobaireachd would sing the music to the pupil, to show how long these little notes should be.

Here is the same bit of music with the stave and canntaireachd combined:

Lament for Viscount Dundee with Campbell Canntaireachd added

In 1959 a series of piobaireachd books were produced called “Binneas is Boreraig”, from the playing of a famous piper called Malcolm MacPherson. The writer (Dr Roddy Ross) used a different format, which perhaps is closest to the real expression of the music. He did away with barlines altogether, and thus the phrases were easily seen. The long E notes at the beginning of tunes (such as in the Viscount of Dundee) were expressed as normal notes.

Below is the same tune as it appears in Binneas. Binneas uses a 3-line stave which can take some time to get used to. Low A is the note just below the stave, and low G also appears below the stave on a ledger line.

Viscount Dundee as written in Binneas is Boreraig

This method emphasises the limitations of conventional staff notation, with its time-signatures and barlines. Instead, as you can see, Binneas splits up the tune into different phrases, putting an obvious gap between each phrase….

But none of these sources can really tell you in detail how the tune would or should sound. The best method is to go to a teacher who will sing to you.

Here is thhe first part of this lovely tune, played on the bagpipe.


The recent explosion in music on CDs and the internet. has allowed many more people to hear Canntaireachd sung, by the great masters of the past. For example Donald MacLeod, and the Bobs of Balmoral, produced many recordings of Canntaireachd which are now available on CD. Note that some of these were not originally made with a view to wide dissemination, but they are an accurate record of how pupils were taught by these pivotal teachers. These teaching CDs can be bought online here.

Pause Marks

Sometimes pause marks are used in the written music, to show if a note should be lengthened. However even these are unhelpful, as how long is “long”? They might also mean “a denial of brevity”, or “play this note smoothly”.

Archibald Campbell, writer of the PS scores in the early years of the series, and the Kilberry Book, used the pause mark a lot. However he did not think that the written music would ever be used as the primary source of a tune. Rather, he assumed that pipers would continue to be taught by traditionally taught teachers - and that they would continue to rely on their teachers for the "ways" of the tunes. His use of pause marks was an attempt to convey some of the sublety of the received way of a tune, where the inflexibility of the staff notation was too offensive.

In summary his pause marks were not the conventional music "fermata", which indicate that the note might be lengthened. Instead the fermata indicates a pause, duration partly to be at the discretion of the player. Campbell's pause marks are an indication that the note value in the score does not do justice to the "way" of the tune. The note in question should not be cut or played as short as written, but rather should be given slightly more length to achieve a smooth transition to the following note. The length of the note is not entirely a matter of discretion on the part of the player, but rather must accord with the way of the song of the tune. Some players refer to "swelling" a note.

Further details can be found in his accompanying books “Sidelights to the Kilberry Book” and “Further Sidelights to the Kilberry Book”, which can be purchased here.