John G. Gibson’s Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping 1745 – 1945

cover art for Traditional Gaelic BagpipingThere are several traditions regarding the history of Scottish bagpiping that have been passed down from piper to piper over the last few hundred years. These doctrines are that the Disarming Act following the Battle of Culloden was responsible for the decline of piping, and that pipers who played the great music (classical form of pipe music) were not the same pipers that played the light music (dance music.) These firmly-held beliefs are held up to meticulous scrutiny by John Gibson in this new and authoritative work, Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping. Supporting his claims with well-documented evidence, Gibson puts forward that these beliefs are misguided at best, and flat-out wrong at worst.

This book will no doubt be controversial among the many pipers who have been brought up believing these mantras of piping history. The debunking of myths has always been met with ridicule and scepticism by those who wish to believe. But if one examines the evidence, it is clear that there is much to Gibson’s claims. Although the Disarming Act of 1746 clearly bans “arms and warlike weapons” as well as “any Tartan or party-coloured Plaid,” the bagpipe is certainly never specifically mentioned. There may be some evidence that the bagpipe was classified as an instrument of war, but there is also convincing evidence that piping continued by many, in both the Ceol Beag (light music) and Ceol Mor (classical music) forms, well beyond the date of the Disarming Act.

There is no question from the documentation provided that piping and dancing continued to be paired in Scottish culture throughout the end of the 18th century. Gibson provides no lack of documentation, with four vital appendices, including the text of the Disarming Act itself, and over 70 pages of endnotes, documenting the sources of his claims.

Gibson’s detailed history of the Ceol Mor, or pibroch, form of piping makes this book well worth studying. (See David Daye’s Bagpipe Page for a complete overview of piping in general.) Tracing the traditions of the pibroch from 1745 to the present, Gibson comes up with an uncompromising claim that the modern version of this form is very different from that which was played at a time when the Ceol Mor was more popular with the masses. It may very well be that this form has been made less popular by the demands of judges in competition. (Lismor Records, a noted source of great Scottish music, notes on its Web site that piobaireachd – anglicised as ‘pibroch’ – is the term applied to a species of music composed solely for and played solely on the Highland pipe. It cannot be satisfactorily reproduced on any other instrument. The word itself is translated simply as ‘piping’.)

Another great contribution to the history of piping is Gibson’s thorough look at what perhaps did lead to the loss of traditional piping in Scotland, the emigration of those from all but the bottom of the social ladder. He traces this loss of culture, finding a vast pool of resources in Nova Scotia, where piping and other traditional Gaelic art-forms continued “well within living memory.” Crediting isolated Gaelic-speaking communities as part of the reason for the continued pursuit of traditional (rather than modern) piping, Gibson tells of a culture where piping was an innovative and spontaneous art form, used to accompany dancing and express emotion. The concept of pipers improvising on the melodies they learn would today be considered scandalous by many pipers.

Although unquestionably a scholarly work, this book is quite readily readable, even in the opening chapter, which is heavily laden with facts and information. (In the introduction, the author himself admits it is dense.) While not a light read, this is still not a heavy enough volume to scare off the average history buff.

There are a few deficiencies to this book, however, including a hard-to-forgive inconsistency in the use of names. Gibson freely interchanges the Gaelic and English versions of names, leaving the reader to sometimes figure out who is who. He also frequently uses the term “Gaelic piping,” which is never clearly defined. I conclude that he is speaking of piping, which was done within a primarily Gaelic-speaking culture, but it would have been much better to define this from the beginning.

I also take some exception to his claim that one would have to speak Gaelic (as a primary language, no less) in order to truly understand the traditions of the idiom. Although it is unquestionably true that the isolated Gaelic communities undoubtedly kept their traditions purer and longer than those with outside influence, there are (and I suspect always have been) those who have managed to keep the piping traditions without growing up with the language.

Overall, this book is an outstanding contribution to the history of piping, and perhaps to the history of Scotland as a whole. While focusing on the aspects of history that relate to the bagpipe, Gibson’s in-depth study of the Disarming Act, emigration, and highland culture give a hearty course for anyone interested in Celtic history.

(NMS Publishing/McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998)

Jo Morrison, a superb Celtic harpist, has also reviewed for Green Man Review A.D. Schofield and J. Say’s Billy Pigg: The Border Minstrel (a bio of a Northumbrian piper) and Hugh Shields’ edited collection Tunes of the Munster Pipers: Irish Traditional Music from the James Goodman Manuscripts. Jo is married to Wayne Morrison, a most accomplished bagpiper well-known in celtic music circles.