Spellweaving: Ancient music from the Highlands of Scotland

Ancient music from the Highlands of Scotland
Barnaby Brown, Clare Salaman, Bill Taylor
Delphian DCD34171. 74’37

DCD34171_coverHindorõdin hindodre (One of the Cragich),
Cumha Mhic Leòid (McLeod’s Lament),
Fear Pìoba Meata (The Timid Piper),
Cruinneachadh nan Sutharlanach (The Sutherlands’ Gathering),
Hiorodotra cheredeche (a nameless pibroch),
Port na Srian (The Horse’s Bridle Tune),
Pìobaireachd na Pàirce (The Park Pibroch),
Ceann Drochaid’ Innse-bheiridh (The End of Inchberry Bridge).

Opening with the sound of a rowing boat, seagulls and breaking waves is just the start of an extraordinary aural journey exploring the ancient music and instruments of the Scottish highlands. This recording, and its related research activities, aim to trace the evolution of ‘pibroch’ (pìobaireachd), translating as ‘what the piper does’. One thing a piper probably did not do was to use such a vast range of instruments to perform the music. For another part of their project involves studying the ‘Strange and Ancient’ instruments of our musical past. And so, rather than an hour of traditional bagpipes, we have the haunting sounds of a vulture bone flute (copied from an 30,000 year old original), a Highland clarsach (20-string harp) wire and gut stringed lyres (from originals found at Sutton Hoo and Sweden), a medieval fiddle, hurdy-gurdy and, perhaps most unusually, a Hardanger fiddle, an instrument dating back only to the mid 17th century. I doubt that these instruments were well known to Highland pipers or, indeed, collectively, by anybody in pre-modern days.

There are other caveats, one being that the music is all based on realisations by Barnaby Brown of the collection made by the Highland piper Colin Campbell in 1797 from an oral (or should that be ‘aural’) tradition. Campell’s ‘Instrumental Book’ uses a notation that stemmed from that used by the Highland piper clans, the MacCrimmons and Rankins. It was written in response to a fear that the historic music of the Gaels would fade away after the patronage of elite Highland pipers declined after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. A prize was offered for coming up with a form of notation for the music. But Campbell’s notation, based on the Hebridean mouth music, or chanting (canntaireachd), was unintelligible to the Edinburgh judges and was overlooked.

This project is part of a PhD research project, funded by the AHRC research project Bass culture in Scottish musical traditions, the European Music Archaeology Project, Huddersfield University and Delphian Records. As well as the detailed programme notes, there is more information available here. The technical information in the programme notes takes some study, but can be safely ignored if you just want to emerge yourself in a fascinating and unusual sound-world.

Trio-with-instruments-1With only two exceptions, each track focuses on one of the instruments. Most of the pieces have an extraordinarily hypnotic, almost trance like feeling, aided by constant repetitions of tiny little motifs underlying a narrow-range melody over a long time-span. Track 4 is an example, the Sutherland Gathering, played on Hardanger fiddle and lasting around 15 minutes; as is track 6, the minimalist Horse’s Bridle Tune. There are two samples of canntaireachd, the Gaelic vocalising of bagpipe music used as a learning tool by pipers. The interpretations are imaginative and beautifully played.



2 thoughts on “Spellweaving: Ancient music from the Highlands of Scotland

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