One of the first books on piping that I ever read was
Alistair Campsie’s The MacCrimmon Legend: the Madness of Angus
MacKay. It was first published in 1980, so I’d been at the
pipes for a few years. I thought it was pretty interesting at the
time, but when I started to get a sense of the reaction from the
piping establishment I realized just how important tradition is to
seasoned pipers and how change-averse they can be.
Even to a smart-arse teenager, the book seemed to me to be a
researched study by a professional journalist. It appeared to me
then, as it does now, to be ultimately harmless to the music
itself. I’m all for giving credit where it’s due, but, really, does
it matter who composed what tunes or if the “history” of the music
of the Highland bagpipe might be based more on myth than
Over the years there are many examples of academic studies that
challenge common assumptions. Allan MacDonald ruffled feathers when
he argued that there is a strong connection between piobaireachd
and Gaelic song. Willie Donaldson’s Highland Pipe is a
brilliant exhibit of thorough, irrefutable historical evidence
challenging the piobaireachd “traditions” invented over the last 80
In those instances, I think the establishment was threatened (see
last week’s “Back in the Day Syndrome” blog post), so some set out
to discredit the research summarily.
I haven’t yet read Hugh Cheape’s soon-to-be-released book, but I
gather it will again shake things up, mainly because it’s not what
the establishment wants to read, much less accept.
This is where people confuse history with music. Our new music is
continually challenged by those who want to preserve a folk
tradition. Ultimately, history I think should have nothing
substantial to do with music. If someone challenges conventional
thinking, so what? It has nothing to do with how the music is, can
or should be played.