Book review: Joseph MacDonald's compleat theory of the Scots Highland bagpipe by Roderick D. Cannon

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JOSEPH MacDONALD'S COMPLEAT THEORY OF THE SCOTS HIGHLAND BAGPIPE Edited by Roderick D. Cannon Piobaireachd Society, £40

THE story of how this book came to be written is almost as interesting as its contents. As explained in the extensive notes that accompany this modern edition of a musical classic, the author was a son of the manse born in 1739 and raised in Durness, the village 20 miles from Cape Wrath on the far north-western tip of Scotland.

Born into a musical family, MacDonald absorbed Gaelic culture and learnt the pipes. His ambitions to follow a musical career, however, were frustrated and, like so many other Scots, he found work with the East India Company. He sailed to the subcontinent in 1760 – a long voyage that saw him pass the time by writing down all that he had learnt about pipe music. Three years later MacDonald was dead, the victim of a fever contracted in Calcutta. It was a short life, but MacDonald's writings on bagpipe music left a valuable legacy. Yet despite the book's significance, MacDonald's Compleat Theory has spent most of the last two and half centuries out of print.

Now, however, a definitive edition has been published by the Piobaireachd Society, the body which fosters the playing of piobaireachd, the classical music of the bagpipe which solo pipers regard as the highest form of their art.

The melodies that make up this ancient and sophisticated musical form were originally passed on by the singing of gaelic vocables (canntaireachd).

Unlike the more accessible marches, strathspeys and reels played by pipe bands, piobaireachd is not easily represented on the conventional musical stave. Writing down piobaireachd in a way that accurately reflects its expression has been a challenge that modern pipers have grappled with for decades. The book gives a remarkable insight into the techniques used by 18th-century pipers and is a valuable resource that sheds light on the origins of today's interpretations of piobaireachd heard on the competition platform and in the recital hall.

MacDonald's writings take the form of a 1760 bagpipe tutor complete with diagrams of the fingering positions required to form the notes. Much of what he writes will be familiar to serious students of piping.

But, intriguingly, he describes some musical embellishments that are even more complicated than the movements that are used to decorate classical pipe music today. It would seem that some of these movements, which would require incredibly dextrous technique to play effectively, have fallen out of fashion.

A nice touch is the inclusion of facsimiles of the original text written in a ship's cabin. But easily the most valuable addition to the original book are the painstaking notes added to the text by Dr Canon. They shed a penetrating light into what might otherwise have been regarded as a rather obscure publication.

Admittedly, it is not a book ever likely to give Harry Potter a run for his money. But it is a seminal text for a much-neglected art form that lies at the heart of Scottish culture.