allendale 2019

Big Music for Small Pipes – The Allendale Piobaireachd Weekend, 26–28 April 2019 – A review by Allan Sturrock

Seven of us descended on the charming town of Allendale in rural Northumbria, for the purpose of studying Ceol Mor, the Big Music. Also known as Piobaireachd (pibroch for short) this is the classical music of the Highland bagpipe; indeed it was virtually the only music of that instrument until the early 19th century, when the British Army took up piping in a big way and required tunes that soldiers could march to. Our purpose was to learn to play pibroch on the smallpipes, under the guidance of Allan Macdonald. Allan has been a great exponent of playing this music and indeed of singing it as well.

We forgathered on Friday evening at Wooley High Hall, the home of Chris and Anne Bacon. This was to be our venue for the teaching and evening sessions, but it was also where we were fed right royally by Anne, to whom we extend our sincere thanks. Friday supper, plentiful and very tasty, was delivered by the local Indian restaurant; the proprietors, like most people in the area, were friends of the Bacons. This was followed by a lively session as we all got our pipes going and got into the mood, before dispersing to our various B&Bs in the town. (In previous years participants have stayed in Deneholme, a local residential centre, which also provided the evening meals and was conducive to late sessions. However, this year the group size meant that B&Bs were more suitable, but we hope that Deneholme can be used again for future events.)

On Saturday morning we returned to Wooley High Hall for a morning of tuition from Chris who started us on “The Unjust Incarceration” or An Ceapadh Eucorach. This tune had been studied at last year’s event but for most of us it was completely new. Some had never played pibroch before, or even listened to it, while for others it was a long time since.

On Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning we had workshops with Allan who has a very appealing “off-piste” approach to pibroch. Originally this music was never written down but passed on through singing. Canntaireachd is a formalised method of singing tunes to bring out the music, the melody, the timing and the, sometimes intricate, decorations that give pibroch its unique character. Joseph Macdonald of Durness was one of the first to put pibroch down on paper in his “A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe”. Nowadays the collections of The Piobaireachd Society and The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor are the bibles from which pipers start to learn their tunes. The trouble is that paper cannot properly express the music of the tunes and there is a danger that modern pibroch playing, especially in the competitive arena, is becoming too prescriptive.

Allan has turned away from the printed score (other than as an aide memoire for pupils) and bases his interpretation of tunes on the Campbell Canntaireachd. This is how he was teaching us – first by singing the tunes then by playing along with him. The results seemed to be much smoother and more interesting. The teaching focussed on the “Urlar”, or ground of the tunes, so we were not fighting with the intricacies of crunluath and crunluath a mach fingering.

Other tunes studied included, Siubhal Sheumas, Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay and Lament for Mary Macleod, the last learned completely by ear with surprisingly tuneful results.


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The 3rd LBPS Pibroch weekend – A review by Iain Allen

The 3rd LBPS Pibroch weekend took place towards the end of April in Allendale, Northumbria, the tutor for the weekend was Allan MacDonald.

This is the second time I’ve attended this particular course which is aimed at all levels of playing, you don’t even need to be a piobaireachd player although a working knowledge of the embellishments is an advantage.

The course was aimed at playing and interpreting the early piobaireachd sources and where appropriate bringing the tunes, cantaireachd and the songs closer together. With this in mind not only have some of the embellishments changed but also the rhythm compared to how we are used to hearing the tunes in competition today. Allan has done a lot of work on this subject and has recorded two excellent albums with singer Margaret Stewart exploring the relationship between the piobaireachd and song.

We began on Friday night with everyone meeting at Chris Bacon’s house for an Indian takeaway followed by a gentle session playing together in his music room. Saturday was our main study day. Throughout the day we concentrated on four piobaireachds. Allan explained his sources for the tunes and demonstrated the changes to embellishments such as Hiharin and Cadences, before playing and singing the ground, after which we joined in. The day progressed with various breaks for tea and lunch until it was time for the evening meal. We were joined in the evening by a few local musicians playing guitar, dulcimer and singing.

Sunday was our final day and once again we went through the grounds and variations we had looked at on Saturday, in some cases we continued through the whole tune. As lunchtime approached the pace slowed down as we chatted about some of the music and what we had learned. Allan then introduced another tune which he demonstrated in both modern style and the style in which it was originally written. After hearing this my personal preference is for the earlier style, and I doubt I’ll be playing the modern style much in the future. After lunch photos were taken by Ian McKay before we all started to disperse.

Chris and his wife Ann deserve special thanks for generously opening their home to everyone on the course and were fantastic hosts, Ann worked throughout the weekend preparing tea, coffee and various meals.

Whether you like piobaireachd or not, Allan has a refreshing approach which may just change your mind about the genre. It was a very enjoyable weekend and well worth taking part, not only did I get to play lots of great music but did so in good company with new friends.


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Smallpipes and Pibroch, April 2019 – A review of the weekend by Caroline Barden

Wooley High Hall is a lovely setting for a pibroch weekend, high on a hill in Northumberland with stunning countryside that resounds with the calls of curlews. We had a warm welcome from our hosts, Chris and Anne Bacon, and were very well looked after the whole weekend with delicious food at regular intervals!

The weekend started on Friday evening. After we had settled into our respective B&Bs in Allendale we met up in one of the pubs by the town square to catch up with old friends and meet with new, before heading up to Wooley High Hall for an Indian meal. When the meal was over, our pipes came out and the session began. I enjoyed playing with so many experienced pipers and my fingers soon found the rhythm in many of the tunes, while for the fastest tunes I sat back to listen.

The pibroch workshops started on Saturday morning. The first workshop, led by Chris Bacon, was held at a steady pace and involved lots of discussions for experienced players. This was perfect for someone like me who is new to pibroch.

The workshops on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning were led by Allan Macdonald, who inspired us with his knowledge and enthusiasm. The pace picked up; by then I was feeling a little more confident and starting to get some understanding of the form. We played as a group and I gained so much from listening and watching the fingering while I played; I also found that when Allan sang the tunes this really helped.

A few people were able to extend their stay into the evening but most of us headed off after lunch on Sunday. For me the weekend was over all too soon. I had played nearly non-stop for two whole days – so much more than usual – and thoroughly enjoyed it, I came home with a renewed love of my smallpipes.

It was a great weekend and I am already looking forward to next year’s event!  

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 Many thanks to Ian MacKay for all the photos.