A website by Barnaby Brown


This page reveals an arcane Scottish tradition, providing composers with a springboard for new creativity. Although written with the revival of the northern triplepipe in mind, it offers any composer, educator or music-lover wishing to connect with one of Europe's most intriguing and remote musical cultures a crash course.

Pibroch flourished in Gaelic Scotland between 1550 and 1750. An elite class of pipers became the highest-ranking court composers, accompanying chieftains on official trips and composing works to mark events, display power, summon clansmen, for contemplative pleasure, or to contact divine forces. Their excellence became a vital status symbol and many patrons achieved immortality, insofar as their laments are still played, year after year, three or four centuries later.

A repertoire of about 300 works was written down by pipers in the early nineteenth century after generations of oral transmission. At this stage, it became known as ceòl mór, or "big music". This distinguished it from the dance and military music which was rising in status while pibroch was becoming archaic.

The following MP3s illustrate pibroch's defining characteristics and range of musical diversity. In some you hear a traditional teaching chant (canntaireachd). This imitates the sound of the bagpipe and is a time-proven method for making its music easier to comprehend. The examples are organised by Urlar design, a system of classification developed by analysts since the 1890s. As full works last 7-12 minutes, these examples are all excerpts, summarising in 40 minutes the tradition as it stood around 1800.

Geometrical designs

Geometrical Urlar designs are a higher level of binary measure: each unit (A or B) typically incorporates a measure (such as 1 0 1 1). In many cases, the measure of A is inverted in B, so if A is 1 0 1 1, then B would usually be 0 1 0 0. To make these analyses more clearly relate to real music, A always represents the more consonant unit (because the pitch of the drone is A) and B the more dissonant one (as it usually prolongs the pitch B). Half-length units are represented as a and b. This group of five design families accounts for 68 per cent of the pibroch repertory.

A A B A  B B A B — Woven

Ex.1  Chehotrao hodro
As in launeddas and solo Baroque traditions, pipers play a "Voluntary Prelude" in preparation for the main musical work. Variations 3-5 omit the 3rd, providing large-scale tonal contrast.

Barnaby Brown 1999 (first released at

Ex.2  Pioparich aon Cnocan
Here the B phrases are not repeated exactly, but develop, unveiling the scale one note at a time.

Barnaby Brown 1999 (Band-Re: Strathosphere)

Ex.3  An Tarbh Breac Dearg — The Red Speckled Bull

by Ronald MacDonald of Morar (1662-1741)

In the Doubling variations, unit B is halved in length. Asymmetrical phrases used to be normal in pibroch, but fell out of favour after 1850; another example is Colla mo Rùn (Ex. XX below).

Allan MacDonald 2005 (Dastirum)

Highland pipers have omitted the key signature of two sharps in bagpipe scores since the 1820s. Music readers, beware! In the following scores, all Cs and Fs are sharp. Modern instruments also sound a semitone higher than written.

Woven designs often begin with the more dissonant unit B:

Ex.4  Ceann na Drochaide Bige — The End of the Little Bridge

In this excerpt, units expand from 2 to 4 beats, then contract to 3 beats. The tonality brightens as pitches rise, one by one, in successive variations.

Allan MacDonald 2005 (Dastirum)

baB A B  abA B A — Well-woven

Ex.5  Am Port Luinneagach na An Ailteachd — The Comely Tune or The Ditty
Here I imitate the sound of the bagpipe using a didactic chant known as canntaireachd. Designs like these may have evolved on the lyre, a tradition which died out in Scotland in the 16th century. DADGAD guitar is the closest modern equivalent.

Barnaby Brown & Gianluca Dessì 2004 (Band-Re: Strathosphere)

aaaabaB — Ornate
aaaaB A
baB A B
abA B A'

Ex.6  Port na Strìgh The Tune of Strife
Only four pitches are used. This may be a musical charm, weaving a spell or invoking divine assistance. Its short, repeated motifs may be connected to the stilo concitato (excited style) developed by Monteverdi in the early 1540s to evoke the emotion of battle. Note how the second half of this design is the same as the Well-woven design above.

Barnaby Brown 2007 (first release)

baB baB  abA B A — Lyrical Well-woven

Ex.7  Màl an Righ The King's Taxes

Donald MacPherson 2000 (first release)

A B A ... B A B .... — Interlaced

Ex.8  Cogadh na Sith — War or Peace
This design signals its close with a bold reiteration of low A. Represented "...." in the analysis, this final cadence is more pronounced than the intermediate cadence ("...") which reiterates the note B.

Barnaby Brown 2007 (first release)

Lyrical designs

Lyrical Urlar designs account for 32 per cent of the pibroch repertory, including most of the laments. The music tends to be less abstract and intellectual, more melodic and approachable. Creative musical expression often reaches great heights in the Urlar; it follows that Lyrical works generally require fewer variations than Geometrical works to achieve equivalent musical weight.

A1 A2 A3 A4 — Progressive

Ex.9  Cumha Dhòmhnuill an Lagain — Lament for Donald of Laggan
Composed in 1645, orally transmitted until 1797. Attributed to Patrick Mor MacCrimmon (dates uncertain). In the Doubling variations, the last "Quarter" (A4) is halved in length and a chain of identical figures broken by a single note-change, precipitating the return of the Urlar.

Allan MacDonald 2005 (Dastirum)

A1 A2 A1 A2 B1 B2 B1 A2 — Rounded

Ex.10  Colla mo Rùn — The Piper's Warning to his Master
This proto-Sonata form is found in many Scottish airs, e.g. "Flowers of the Forest" and "Neil Gow's lament for the death of his second wife".

Barnaby Brown 2007 (first release)

A A B C — Free

Ex.11  Hihorodo hiharara

Barnaby Brown & Mick O'Brien 2007 (recorded at Glasgow's Piping Live! festival)

Further Reading

Barnaby Brown 2004-5 — “The design of it: patterns in pibroch”, The Voice, Winter, Spring & Summer issues.

Barnaby Brown, ed. 2007 — track notes to Allan MacDonald - Dastirum

Alexander J. Haddow 1982, reprinted 2003 — The History and Structure of Ceòl Mór

Colm Ó Baoill 1994 — Gàir nan Clàrsach, The Harps' Cry

This page first published 30 Dec 2007
Supported by The Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama
Contact: barnaby(at) +44 (0)78 1000 1377