Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pipers--Skill or Success?

#14 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge

Guelder Rose Flowers
P: Peithe, Guelder Rose in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet.

This shrub has many names: Cramp Bark, Snowball Tree; King’s Crown; Rose Elder; Water Elder; Whitsun Rose; Dog Rowan Tree; Silver Bells; Whitsun Bosses; Gaitre Berries (Chaucer’s name for it) and Black Haw. It really isn’t a rose at all, being part of the honeysuckle family (and has no thorns). Canadians call it High Cranberry, substituting its drupes, or berries, for cranberries. The white flowers can be 3-5 inches across, and turn in August to red or purple berries which last throughout the winter.
Guelder Rose Berries
It’s often part of hedgerows and lowland woods, valued most for its astringent bark, used for easing menstrual cramps, in menopause and for asthma and kidney troubles. The berries can be made into jelly—but are toxic if eaten in too great a quantity. It’s associated with Sawhain (Hallowe’en) and with rebirth. 

I always begin telling my signature story, “Granny, the Giant Piper, & the Root Cellar,” by describing how, on one lovely spring morning, I was sitting on the front stoop step with my newest doll, eagerly watching for my granny to come on her annual visit—when I saw a Scottish giant walking down the street towards me.

How did I know he was a Scot? He was wearing a kilt and carrying a set of pipes under one arm. Why did I think he was a giant? Because I’d been properly brought up on tales of the faery folk, including giants—and his head was among the branches of the apple trees lining the street. His name was Alec Macky, a friend of my father’s come to visit, he was 6 ft. 6 in. tall in his stocking feet (and I was small for a three-year-old and sitting down on a low step). I remember looking up and up and UP!
When he doffed his Glengarry cap and bowed to me with a flourish, apple blossoms petals fell at my feet. Is it any wonder I was smitten on the spot, and love pipers and pipe music to this day?

The pipes are one of the three national musical instruments of Scotland, along with the clarsach, or harp, and the fiddle. You’re probably most familiar with the Great Highland bagpipes, often seen in pipe and drum bands, or perhaps you’ve seen the smallpipes or uilinn pipes, where the air is controlled with a bellows under the arm (as Paddy Maloney plays with The Chieftains). But pipes are not only Scottish, and have been played throughout Europe and as far afield as the Persian Gulf area and in North Africa. They were first documented in Scotland in the 16th Century, and may have taken the place of the great bray harps in leading the clans into battle.

In case your only experience of pipers is from seeing them in parades doing martial tunes, I want you to know that there are many kinds of music pipers can and do play, from the Pìobaireachd,  or Ceòl Mòr: (literally "Big music"), the complex classical pipe repertoire learned and performed competitively worldwide, to rock, jazz, and world fusion. 

As a harper, I owe a debt to the pipers and fiddlers for keeping Scottish clarsach repertoire alive when harps were banned after the ‘45. In June, 1999, at the Ohio Scottish Arts School (OSAS) for harp at Oberlin College, Sue Richards introduced us to the Canntaireachd system of vocables, syllables that predated what is now common notation of tunes. Traditionally, Scottish music is taught orally, although now modern notation is also used. It’s said that at an important competition, partway through his presentation, a reed broke in James McIntosh, MBE’s pipes. Unable to play, he switched immediately to the vocables and placed. (This may be a tall tale; I’ve heard it said of other pipers. Even so, it’s a good one!) He was later the first to teach piping as a major in the Conservatory of Music at Carnegie Mellon University, as well as directing the CMU Pipe & Drum Band. I used to hear them practicing on the Cut as I left work at Hunt Library during the '90s.

I’ve written in another blog post about a piper tale, “The Piper’s Revenge,” but there are others, less gruesome, as well. One of the most famous is “The Silver Chanter,” in which the Black Lad, youngest and least–regarded of the three sons of MacCrimmon, of the famous MacCrimmon School of Piping on the Isle of Skye, can only play his father’s pipes, named the Black Gate, when his father and brothers are away from home.

One day he’s playing them outside, when the Banshee (more properly, the bean-sidhe, or fairy-woman) of the castle hears him. “Will you have success wi’oot skill, or skill wi’oot success?” she asks him. He chooses the latter. She gives him one of her golden hairs, bidding him wind it around his chanter, then tells him to place his fingers on the holes of the chanter under hers to play a tune—and after that, he can play any tune wonderfully, ornamenting it better than any others. She departs, and he plays joyously longer than usual, so that the men of his family, coming home, hear him. That night, after his father and the two older brothers play in turn, for the first time he is permitted to play in front of them. His father says, “The music has gone from us to him.” In some versions, she has given him the skill to win a competition in which the prize is a silver chanter, hence the tale's name.

But “thaur’s aye a price to a gift fra the fairies”—and the bean-sidhe has exacted a promise from him to come away to her, under the hill to the castle or cave of gold, in a year and a day. As he says in farewell, “The kidlings on the hills will be grown ere I come back,” and he is never seen again.

Today, on the Isle of Skye, at Dunvegan Castle, pipers come to compete for the Silver Chanter, in memory of that famous tale and the piping family's school.

There’s another well-known tale, “The Cave of the Piper,” in which a young piper, consumed with the desire to play his very best, decides to go learn from the fairy folk in the Cave of Gold, for they prize fine music. The version I learned from my granny was set on the Isle of Barra, but apparently there are versions on Lewis and Skye too.

If you were given the Black Lad MacCrimmon's choice, which would you choose? Success without skill, or skill without success?


  1. Stopping by to say hi from the A-Z Challenge! :)

    Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption
    Minion, Capt. Alex's Ninja Minion Army
    The 2014 Blogging from A-Z Challenge

  2. Thanks! You pack so much into your blog posts! Wow!

  3. This may sound crass but any mention of bagpipes just makes me think of AC/DC's "It's long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll."

    1. Like harps, bagpipes can and are being played in different genres of music besides marches and laments, and that includes Celtic bands playing rock and roll! Not crass at all!


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