Piobaireachd (pronounced roughly “pee-broch”) is a Scots Gaelic word meaning “bagpipe playing”. It is a term, however, that has come to refer to the ancient or classical music of Scotland’s Great Highland Bagpipe. This bagpipe music arose in the Highlands of Scotland as a late mediaeval extension of the old bardic tradition of court supported musicians and poets. Another Gaelic term, ceol mor, is used synonymously and interchangeably with piobaireachd. That term literally means "the Great Music".
The structure of piobaireachd evolved over centuries. It follows a stereotypical pattern of variations upon a melodic theme called the “ground”: urlar in Gaelic. The piper first plays this urlar followed by increasingly ornamented variations. The technical complexity of the variations build until, finally, the piper returns to a final rendering of the ground to complete the performance. Historically, the piper might also return to the ground at specific points within the performance the way a singer returns to the chorus of a song.
Intimately associated with the Scottish clan system, the music of piobaireachd was often composed to commemorate events in clan history, celebrate clan prowess, to lionize or memorialize important members of the clan. Some of the most emotion laden compositions are the great laments. One of those, “The Lament for the Children” has been called the finest single line melody in European music.
Like any traditional art form, nurtured in a largely oral culture, there arose regional styles of ceol mor which might be likened to the dialects or accents of a language. By the end of the 19th century there were two such broadly recognized styles in piobaireachd. One was associated with the family of MacPherson pipers and the other with an equally famous family of Camerons.
In modern times the distinctions have faded and blurred, but a core group of pipers continue to champion the Cameron style as the last unadulterated expression of the old traditions.
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