Piobaireachd: The Classical Music Of The Great Highland Bagpipe

Chris Bissell on Scotland’s distinctive and complex classical bagpiping tradition.

Piper at the Highland Society’s Caledonian Games, Sydney Showground, 1935. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales. Shared via Wikimedia Commons, source here.

         By Chris Bissell

The word piobaireachd is literally the Gaelic for ‘pipe playing’ or ‘pipe music’. The term (often anglicised as ‘pibroch’) is now normally restricted, however, to the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Another name for it is Ceòl Mòr, meaning the Big Music (that is, ‘art music’), which distinguishes piobaireachd from other forms of pipe music (marches, reels, jigs etc.) which are referred to as Ceòl Beag – the Little Music (‘light music’).

Ceòl Mòr has its counterparts in Scottish and Irish fiddle and harp music, and is also related to the Welsh genre Cerdd Dant  (literally ‘string music’).


Bagpipes have been known in countries throughout the world, and are still used in folk music in many rural areas. We know of early bagpipes from depictions both in unsophisticated woodcuts and from classical paintings by the likes of Dürer and Breughel. But the origin of the emergence of the pipes is obscure, and old instruments in museums are difficult to date. At least one Scottish family (the Menzies Clan) claims to be in possession of instruments dating back to the fourteenth century – in this case the remnants of a pipe carried in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 – but the claim is extremely unlikely to be true.

The traditional view is that the Great Highland Bagpipe was developed about 1600, but recent scholarship, particularly by Hugo Cheape, has called this into question, and has demonstrated the complexity of the historiography of the instrument. What is certain is that as early as 1760 Joseph Macdonald published his Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe, the first treatise/tutorial on the topic. The particular musical form piobaireachd or Ceòl Mòr is highly stylised, often slow in tempo, and tends to celebrate famous figures or events in lament form. It is normally performed while the piper processes slowly, often in a circle in the open air, especially in piping competitions. The playing of piobaireachd is now followed with enthusiasm other parts of the world, especially in areas with close Scottish connections such as Glengarry and Guelph in Canada; British Columbia and other places in the USA; and in Australia and  New Zealand.

Construction and sounds of the Great Highland Bagpipe

A set of Great Highland Bagpipes is constructed of four main parts: the blowstick, the bag, the chanter and three drones. The piper blows through the blowstick into the bag, filling it with a constant air supply. The bag is first filled by the piper before playing starts and is continuously refilled as it continues, thus allowing the piper to create continuous sound. The drones are tuneable, and each contains one reed. The chanter, also provided with a reed, produces the tune by the piper covering and releasing finger holes, rather as in a recorder. Owing to its construction, a bagpipe generates an unusual scale.

Technicalities, notation and structure of piobaireachd 

There are a number of technical problems in the notation of piobaireachd, partly due to the characteristics of the instrument, but also because even a fairly strict interpretation of a tune almost always displays significant individual variations between pipers, particularly in the often highly complex ornamentation.

The bagpipe scale. lg = low G, ha = high A.

Tonality and notation

This deceptively simple basic bagpipe scale hides a number of difficulties. First, although the pitches of the drones and the tonic note on the chanter are referred to as ‘A’, they are actually much sharper than this on the modern Great Highland Bagpipe (indeed, higher than B♭). Measurements have shown that modern chanters tend to tune between 470 and 480Hz instead of the standard 440Hz. For this reason, tunes are sometimes written with a D or even an A key-signature containing the accidentals for the benefit of non-pipers trying to reconcile bagpipe tuning with conventional classical notations. Second, the pipe scale is far from equal temperament: the nine notes available on the chanter are fixed, but not in the same relationship as in classical, Western instruments, and there is even still some debate as to precisely what they should be.

The Campbell Canntaireachd 

In the early 1800s the Highland Society of Scotland staged a competition to encourage the writing of piobaireachd on the stave. A number of pipers submitted proposals, but one competitor – Colin Campbell – came up with a radically different approach now known as the Campbell Canntaireachd [Gaelic for ‘chanting’]. His document, containing 168 tunes, was written in about 1797; instead of representing the music in staff notation, a form rather reminiscent of the sol-fa system was adopted – as if the tunes were being sung. Images of the tunes in the manuscript can be found on the Ceol Sean website. The story goes that Colin Campbell was taught (sung to) by his father Donald, who himself was a pupil of the piping dynasty the MacCrimmons. The distinguished piper and musicologist Barnaby Brown has reported his own experience with the canntaireachd technique in an interesting project supported by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council

The following example is paraphrased from the Campbell Search website. The beginning of the tune called Lament for the Viscount of Dundee appears in handwritten manuscript canntaireachd form as below.

An example of canntaireachd notation.

This is more easily read in the transcribed version:

Himotra hahohioem hodinhiotra chelalhodin hiharara chehodroe hiharara hahohioem

Anyone learning this today from a teacher of piobaireachd, is likely to have the music written on the stave:

A short extract of piobaireachd notated in standard classical form.

Note there are gracenotes which appear small, and some of these are meant to be longer than one might assume. For example the tiny E which is a gracenote at the very beginning of the line, might last up to half a second long, depending on the performer. A teacher of piobaireachd would sing the music to his/her pupil, using the canntaireachd syllables, to demonstrate how long these little notes should be.

The following figure shows three common types of such gracenotes.

Source: Wikipedia Glossary of Bagpipe Terms.

From 1959 onwards a series of highly influential piobaireachd books was published by Roddy Ross called Binneas is Borereig [loosely translated as ‘Sweetness of the Pipes’], using a different notation format, probably closer to the real expression of the music. Bar lines and time signatures were omitted, to render the phrases more easily seen, and the long E notes at the beginning of tunes (such as in The Viscount of Dundee) were expressed as normal notes:

A short extract of piobaireachd notated in the Binneas is Borereig form.


A classical piobaireachd tune starts with the ground/urlar, which usually follows a regular pattern – for example with three lines of music, the first two being six bars long, and the last line having only four. In the so-called ‘primary’ pattern, the ground is composed of two two-bar phrases, A and B, played in the following order:

  • AAB
  • ABB
  • AB

There are, however, several other forms the ground can take.

Some modern musicologists have criticised the traditional, rather simplistic, urlar structure given above. Their approaches are too complex to be discussed further here, however, and require a good familiarity with piobaireachd; indeed, typically, hundreds of tunes were analysed in order to come up with the more elaborate schemes.

The initial urlar is followed by a number of formal variations, some of the most important are the taorluath (related to the Gaelic for ‘noble’ or ‘free’), and the crunluath (probably meaning ‘crowning movement’) which follows the taorluath in a piobaireachd tune. To complicate matters even further, each can be doubled, or exist in a number of sub-forms! Dublachadh, ‘doubling’, is a quicker version of a variation, played in strict tempo (comparable to the use of the term in a Baroque dance suite).

The ‘classical’ repertoire

The majority of the piobaireachd repertoire to this day consists of the ‘classical’ corpus of tunes, largely collected and printed in the 19th Century. The most important of these was Angus MacKay’s 1838 Collection Of Ancient Piobaireachd (illustrated below) although more recently some have questioned its historical and musicological accuracy. The National Library of Scotland holds many relevant manuscripts, easily found by searching for piobaireachd in the National Library of Scotland Manuscript Collections.

A useful fourfold classification of titles / themes is:

  • Salutes, laments, marches and gatherings
  • Names reflecting musical characteristics of the piece
  • Quotations from song lyrics, usually the opening words
  • Names of places, people and events

Detailed lists of Ceòl Mòr titles can be found in the Piobaireachd Society’s online library and on Ceol Sean’s Website. These fall overwhelmingly into the first category above: for example, 159 out of 252 in an analysis by Roderick Cannon.

In addition to MacKay’s book, a slightly earlier publication by Donald MacDonald (1820/1826) is the other major source; for reasons that remain obscure, serious collecting appears to have ceased soon afterwards.

One of the characteristic features of the piobaireachd repertoire is that, like many other musical traditions, great pride is shown by players in their ‘piping genealogy’ as a series of master-pupil relationships. Indeed, many, if not most, of the distinguished players of recent times trace their piping ancestry to the great piping families the Camerons, the MacPhersons and the MacCrimmons. (Again, however, Hugo Cheape has criticised this ‘tradition’.)


As is the case in many genres of highly-skilled traditional music, competitions play a large part in the social life, the maintenance of identity, and the education and training of piobaireachd players. The most prestigious of the piobaireachd competitions is probably the Northern Meeting, held in Inverness, but there are also many local competitions and performances at local and national Highland Games, as well as another celebrated national annual event in Oban and the North American Winter Storm gathering.

Competition rules have become stricter over the years, and are now characterised by (usually mandatory) repertoires, expert adjudication, and long preparation by the contestants.

Listening to piobaireachd

To the beginner, approaching piobaireachd as an art form is often problematic; it is certainly truer of piobaireachd than of many other genres that some knowledge of form and structure is vital.

The embedded video is a full performance of Donald Duaghal Mackay’s Lament played by the distinguished piper Roddy MacLeod at the Glenfiddich Championship of 2016 (the recording is introduced by some interesting remarks given by the Master of Ceremonies).

Experienced musicians may find the full score of interest. Such musicians will find this extract straightforward to follow initially (apart from a very different approach to the ornaments in the performance), but as the piece goes on it is easy to get lost even for those skilled in reading a score. There is no very obvious distinction between the various structural elements and melody, and ornaments are often difficult to disentangle (often modified by the performer); if one’s attention wanders it can thus be difficult to pick up the reading. For this reason, it is better for a novice interested in piobaireachd to be introduced to the art by attending an event, preferably with a knowledgeable companion, in order to experience the social context of piping performances as a whole. As with many other musical genres, listening to piobaireachd requires active engagement, rather than simply passive exposure.

Contemporary developments

By the beginning of the twentieth century piobaireachd was in decline: difficult, unfashionable, and often backward looking. The establishment of various specialist and interest-groups, however, such as the Piobaireachd Society (formed in 1903), and The College of Piping (founded a few decades later in 1944, and devoted to pipe bands as well as piobaireachd) played a vital role in putting the form on a sound musicological basis, thus ensuring the future of the genre. The original aims of the Piobaireachd Society were – and remain – clear and simple: ‘to encourage the study and playing of piobaireachd’. To this end, the Society has collected and published many important available piobaireachd manuscripts, and has a well-designed and comprehensive website including audio files, texts, images, and much else. While many documents and recordings are restricted to members, a significant proportion is freely available to users. Nevertheless, the Society is largely conservative, concerned above all with the preservation and editing of the classical piobaireachd tradition. Even the so-called piobaireachd ‘revisionist’ movement is concerned with re-interpreting such tunes in the light of rigorous modern research and scholarship.

Many younger pipers, however, have experimented with highly novel approaches, such as composing and playing music with a ‘fusion’ ethos or in unusual ensembles. For the latter, the tuning issues of the bagpipe must be addressed. If all the instruments can be appropriately re-tuned (predominantly strings) there is no problem. Barnaby Brown, Allan MacDonald and Matthew Welch are some names to watch, incorporating other genres such as jazz, eastern music, and so on.

Using a bagpipe with a whole range of orchestral instruments, however, is always problematic. Peter Maxwell Davies’s entertaining An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise is a case in point: the drones and chanter have to be tuned to a standard A of 440 Hz – that is, the pitch must be lowered by about a semitone, an enormous modification for a bagpipe. It is possible to buy a special chanter (expensive if used only for rare performances) or modify an old one (difficult except for music technicians). The resulting, modified, instrument feels and sounds very different, and depending on the auditorium and the position of the piper, it might be necessary to ‘lead’ the orchestra by a significant amount.

The more avant-garde and revisionist modern attempts, on the other hand, have not been universally well received in the piping community. Barnaby Brown has noted in a blogpost the absence of a review of the newly released and (in some quarters) widely admired Dastirum in Piping Times; when he queried this, the editor is said to have explained, ‘I don’t have a good word to say about it. It would lead people astray’ – in other words, it’s not ‘real piobaireachd’.

The bagpipe is one of the great cultural symbols of Scotland, known the world over and popularised by drum and pipe bands, the military connection, and the romanticised image of the ‘solitary piper’. In spite of such romanticisation, and the many myths surrounding the bagpipe, the classical music of piobaireachd is a complex and highly-developed art form, understood, performed, listened to, and appreciated by a small minority of Scots. Nevertheless, its circle of enthusiasts is probably greater than ever before, with societies large and small, and activities ranging from the most modest local events to the great piping meetings in Scotland, North America and the Antipodes.

Chris Bissell is about to retire from nearly four decades as an academic at the Open University, where he has taught mathematics and technology, and researched the sociology and history of these areas. He has also had a long-standing interest in music, and is currently a student of the Open University MA in Music. This essay derives from his Master’s studies; thanks are due to his tutor, Lucy Cradduck, for her perceptive comments.