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Best Sets Full Liner Notes:

Internationally, Scottish Bagpipes are perhaps most famous as a martial instrument; emblematic of the British Empire or even patriarchy in general.  It can be difficult to separate these bagpipes from the pageantry of dressing up in Victoriana and marching about in a paramilitary fashion.  Indeed, most of us learn the instrument in this milieu of the pipe band and its expression in the competition format.  The music of the instrument is however, inextricably linked to fiddle music, singing, and dancing and arguably constitutes the largest proportion of that repertoire which links the various elements that go to make up the national music culture of what is now Scotland.  Today, we are in the fortunate position of having legions of young people writing new/original music for the pipes but there exists yet, an ocean of music for the highland bagpipe which warrants further exploration.  The old collections offer a portal into the style, thinking, and execution of previous generations of players:  This informs the Scottish musicians today as strongly as the works of William Shakespeare or Geoffrey Chaucer do so for the student of English language and composition:  To ignore it is the definition of “foolhardiness.”


Bagpipes are a wild and volatile instrument and it is the fiddle which is most able to both cope with and indeed complement its vagaries of pitch and tonality.  This “wildness” is perhaps what makes the pipes most attractive, or most interesting to the listener or even the player: On a good day anyway.  The flexibility of the fiddle, in the right hands, enhances the bagpipe’s singular mode of communication. On this recording, we seek to convey as vividly as possible, the excitement of tone and ornamentation existent in this classic duo format.  These sets are played on Scottish small pipes in the keys of both “A” and on “C”, as well as the big pipes which are nominally in “B-flat” and in each case, the fiddle has been re-tuned to fit.  The repertoire here is largely, though not exclusively, from nineteenth century collections of bagpipe music and where possible, we use the ornamentation provided; at least for the first time around the tunes.  As much of these grace note combinations are today unfashionable, if not unheard of, there is an element of guess work as to how these tunes were played at the time of publication.  It is not our claim that they “were played”, or that they “must be played” in this manner:  Only that “They can be played thus”.  In any event, we have used these old ornaments to enrich the style and ask questions of what the rhythm and tempo of some these tunes might have been, or indeed, can be now.  More importantly, this recording only scratches the surface of a great wealth of traditional Scottish bagpipe repertoire, which although readily available, is seldom played.  


Most of the lesser known tunes played here are contained in the following collections:

The Piper’s Assistant by Angus MacKay (1844)
The Caledonian Repository of Music Adapted for the Bagpipes by William Gunn (1848)
David Glen’s Collection of Bagpipe Music (Numerous volumes from 1876)
The Cowal Collection of Modern Highland Bagpipe Music (1905)
The New and Complete Tutor for the Great Highland Bagpipe by Thomas Glen (circa 1844)


Thanks to the work of Steve Scaife, all of these collections are available free online at his website  Even if you have the cassette tapes, it is handy to see the gracings and titles as they were written at the time.  

1. Let the Bottle Circulate:    

Fad as. Thar nam Beann (Over the Hills and Far Away) - Traditional
The Islay Lassies - Traditional 
Ridhladh am Botul mòr (Let the Bottle Circulate) - Traditional
Glen Saul – John Maclellan

This set commences with two quicksteps:  The precursor to the more athletic, four-part, 2/4 march played for competitions and dances today.  There is an abundance of this sort of music in older collections.  Over the Hills and Far Away comes from the Gunn Collection and The Islay Lassies from Glen’s.

John Maclellan, Dunoon (1875-1949) was a man of many talents:  Piper, fiddle player, painter, poet, soldier.  Although not oft celebrated, his talent as a composer of melodic music is perhaps without peer.  The Bloody Fields of Flanders, Lochanside, Southhall, Colonel MacLean of Ardgour, Glen Caladh Castle are just a few in his canon.  We had no intention of featuring John Maclellan especially on this recording but the sheer quality of his tunes have frequently chosen themselves as we trawled through the old books.  Glen Saul is one of these gems. 

2. First Jig:

First Jig - Pipe Sergeant Ewan MacDonald
Bruachain Mhelinis (The Braes of Melnish) - Capt. N. MacKay

There appears in the 1st volume of the Scots Guards Manual Standard Settings of Pipe Music a series of three jigs in different keys: First Jig, Second Jig, and Third Jig.  They were all written by a Pipe Seargent E. MacDonald 2nd Battalion (1921-1934).  We believe his name was Ewan but cannot find out anything else of him as of yet.  The great Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band of the 1970’s recorded this tune under the direction of Pipe Major Iain MacLeod.

The Braes of Melnish is an old favourite in the Edinburgh session scene and has grown arms and legs over the years.  Most believe it to be traditional, but in the Gunn Collection it is clearly stated to be “composed by Capt. N. McKay”.  Again, we know nothing of this person but we have employed some of the grips in the first part.  It is possible that “Melnish” refers to “Melness” in Sutherland.

3. Sweepers:  

An Nighan ghoirid (The Stumpy Lass) - Traditional 
Sweepers - Traditional  
Chasing De Wet - John Maclellan

“Stumpy” seems a rather unfortunate description and it is hard to say whether the lass in question is merely young, or if the 19th century piping fraternity was just very plain-spoken concerning those of less than average height. This version is from Gunn’s.

Allan MacDonald recorded Sweepers some years ago on the disc Fuair mi pog Everyone who has this record plays this tune as it is so unusual.  It comes from the Duncan Currie manuscript of 1917.

John Maclellan joined the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) in 1892 when he was 17.  He saw action in the Boer War: so, it is presumably for Christiaan de Wet that this tune is named. De Wet was a famously successful guerrilla leader fighting against the British army during this campaign.  

4. Chasing the Kaiser: 

Dugald MacColl’s Farewell to France (1914-1918) – John MacColl
The Banks of Drumpeller – Neil Ramsay
Chasing the Kaiser or Willie Cumming’s Rant – D.C. Mather

John MacColl (1860-1943) is considered one of the greatest ever composers of 2/4 marches.  With this in mind, it is no surprise he was also an accomplished fiddle player.  As well as this, he excelled at dancing and athletics and amassed a comparative fortune winning all of these events on the Highland games circuit which paid much better then, than it does now.  It is said he could make £40 in an afternoon: forty 19th century pounds is a considerable sum (roughly £1,000 in today’s money).  This version comes from the Cowal Collection which is contemporary to this tune’s writing. From 1908 until 1936, John MacColl worked as a manager in R. G. Lawrie’s bagpipe shop in Glasgow.  During this period some of the most sought-after pipes were produced.

Drumpeller, or Drumpellier, is a place in Coatbridge, home of the composer.  This tune comes from the Cowal Collection.


Willie Cummings Rant appears in John MacFadyn’s Bagpipe Music (1966) as “arranged by Duncan Johnstone” and it is this version that is commonly heard.  The setting we play here is slightly different and comes from the Duncan Currie Manuscript: a fairly rare item of which Allan MacDonald luckily has a copy. There are only a couple of slight variations in the first two parts but we find them interesting and this alternative title is superb. 

David Charles (D.C.) Mather (1870-1943) was born in London. Another renaissance man, he won prizes on the games circuit in both piping and athletics.  As well as this tune, He also wrote the reel, Lochcarron so his reputation as a composer is pretty much sealed. He emigrated to the United States through Canada in 1901 to prospect for gold.  He continued to compete at Scottish games in North America into his 60’s and eventually died  in Montana.

5. Kessock Ferry 

Kessock Ferry - Donald Cameron
The Oak Wright - Traditional
Brahan Castle - Donald Cameron

Donald Cameron (1811-1868) Stands as one of the true legends of Scottish piping.  Both he and his equally famous Brother Alexander (Sandy) were born in Strathconon but they are generally associated with Maryburgh in Ross-Shire.  Originally taught by Big Donald MacLennan of Moy, Donald Cameron received tuition from Angus MacKay and John Ban Mackenzie.  Aficionados of Piobaireachd are particularly enthusiastic about this detail as it connects the Camerons of Maryburgh with the authors of much of this “free rhythm” form of bagpipe music and therefore the intended interpretation of these slow tunes. Here however, we are concerned with strathspeys.

A vital line of communication and trade, the Kessock Ferry connected North Kessock on the Black Isle with South Kessock which is now part of the city of Inverness.  This ferry ran from sometime in the 15th century until 1982 when it was replaced with the Kessock bridge which is now the modern A9.

Brahan Castle sat near Dingwall and was built by the MacKenzie’s who were the earls of Seaforth.   As a competitor, Donald Cameron won everything there was to win in his day and was also the piper to Sir J. R MacKenzie who i gave him the best house in Maryburgh for his services.  The versions of all three of these tunes comes from Glen’s collection.

6. Not Now Sir

Punch for the Ladies - Traditional
Nuair’ chunnic mi ‘n tòs thu dheaninn do phòsadh (I Would Have Preferred Thee at First, But Not Now Sir) - Traditional
Bochd liath na‘n Gobhair (The Grey Buck) - Traditional

James (Seamus) Goodman (1828-1896) was born near Dingle in County Kerry.  A fluent Irish speaker and Uilleann piper of note, it was as a Church or Ireland Canon near Skibereen that he collected over 500 tunes and song airs from that area during the 1860’s.  This collection Tunes of the Munster Pipers provides insight into pre-famine Irish music from that part of Ireland and indicates that piping was very strong there at that time.  Punch for the Ladies comes from this collection.  Latterly Goodman was professor of Irish at Trinity College Dublin.

I would have preferred thee first but not now sir is a fabulously Victorian translation common in these older collections of bagpipe music.  The Gaelic title fits rhythmically with the tune so it is highly likely a Puirt a beul although we do not know what the rest of the words are.

The Buck is the tune of a very old Gaelic song but most of the piping world knows this tune as The Maids of Kintail and often it is attributed to Donald MacLeod.

7. Carle’s Rant:

The Carle’s Rant – Traditional
The Garron Trotting – Traditional
An Tè bha ris’na caorich (The Sheep Wife) – Traditional
Donald in the Pig Pen – Traditional

The Carle’s Rant appears in “A new collection of Marches, Quicksteps, Strathspeys, Reels and Jigs, consisting of 120 Tunes edited by John McLachlan, Late Piper to Neill Malcolm esqr. Of Poltalloch.” (1854). Allan MacDonald has a copy of this fascinating, out of print collection and it is from him we get this version. Thankfully, it is also available online from the National Library of Scotland if you search about for it.  This strathspey provides a glimpse into the plurality of strathspey styles in the past.  Given the notation, it would be nonsensical to crow-bar this tune into the modern style. The Malcolms of Poltalloch were formally Macallums and made their money in Jamaica in the new world through sugar and slaves.

This version of The Garron Trotting comes from a cassette tape Allan MacDonald gave to Mike nearly thirty years ago of himself playing all these tunes from old, out of print piping collections.  This was before the internet. As such, it has no doubt mutated slightly in Mike’s memory, but there is a very similar version in Thomas Glen’s A new and Complete Tutor for the Great Highland Bagpipe c. 1840. The titles here are A’n Cambealach Dudh (Black Campbell’s) and in English, Roy’s wife of Aidivalloch.  This kind of Strathspey links The Carle’s Rant to more modern style of strathspey playing, and the cut style of jig playing you sometimes hear from melodeon players and some pipers. 

This third tune is the Gunn version of the well-known classic pipe reel The Sheepwife.  Several reels appear in the old collections with this name: some recognisable as portions of the six-part version we play now.

Donald in the Pig Pen is a tune possibly from Prince Edward Island but common in Cape Breton definitely.

8. Heroes of Vittoria

Heroes of Vittoria - John Maclellan
Craigmillar Castle - Pipe Major William MacDonald

John Maclellan (Dunoon) was by all accounts very shy.  This is borne out by the fact that although many of the tunes in the Cowal Collection were his own compositions, he did not put his name to them.  Presumably, as he compiled the 1st edition, it was evident to him that the reader would understand that any non-attributed tune was his. As a consequence, many of his tunes appear in subsequent collections with no composer. The Heroes of Vittoria is another bit of genius from John Maclellan.  His regiment (H.L.I.) fought at the battle of Vittoria (21st June 1813) in the peninsular war. And although we have no evidence of this, it is fair to guess that this beautiful slow tune is a tribute to those of the H.L.I. who fought in this battle.


Craigmillar Castle appears in the Scots Guards Manual among others but normally no writer is attributed to it.  It is only in one of the volumes of the Glen collection does one William Macdonald of the King’s own Scottish Borderers appear as the author.  Of him we know nothing more.  The actual Castle lies on the south side of Edinburgh. 

9. Gay Gordons:

The Wee Highland Laddie – Donald MacLeod
Captain Murray’s Quickstep – Duncan McKerrachar
The Day we Gae’d tae Brodick – John Maclellan (Dunoon)

John MacFadyen’s book Bagpipe Music of 1966 states “second part by D. MacLeod” but it is generally thought that the whole of The Wee Highland Laddie is Donald MacLeod’s composition.

In Gunn’s, this second tune is Captain Murray’s Quickstep.  He gets a bit more deference in Glen’s collection where the tune is called Capt. the Right Hon: James Murray’s Quickstep.  Both are attributed to “McKerracher” and “D. McKerachar.”  This is most likely the Perthshire fiddler, Duncan McKerracher (1796-1875) from Inver near Dunkeld. Many of his tunes appear in Glen’s collection of bagpipe music.  Also Known as The Dunkeld Paganini, Duncan McKerracher Taught and performed to the landed classes and his party piece was to play the The Mason’s Apron while rigged out in full Masonic dress; apron and all.


The Day We Gae’d Tae Brodick comes from the Cowal Collection, the first volume of which, John McLellan compiled. No composer is attributed on the page but it is believed to be one of his tunes.


10. Lucknow

Seonaid Donn, Lucknow (Jessie Brown, Lucknow) - Traditional
Lord Lovat’s Strathspey – Traditional 
Nellie’s Strathspey - Traditional
Donald and Marion - Traditional
Bodachan a’ Ghàraidh (The Jolly old Gardener) - Traditional

Jessie Brown or Highland Jessie was a figure often depicted in stories, poetry, and portraiture. During the Sepoy Rebellion (1857-1859) the British Empire in the guise of the East India Company was under siege in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. The details of this story change slightly depending on which version you choose, but the salient points are these.  

Young Jessie, the Scottish wife of a corporal, hears in her hysterical exhausted state of duress, the sound of the bagpipes of the 78th Highlanders amongst the din of cannons, muskets, shouting and general warfare.  Only she can hear these pipes of course as she is the Scottish person in the company. She alerts the rest of the besieged brits that help is on the way.  Clearly the veracity of this could be questioned but it was a popular story of the day.  The Spectator even published a story in 1860 rubbishing the whole thing. A cynic might argue that the publishers of this esteemed organ were not so keen on the popular idea of a bunch of “brits” under siege from hordes of Indians, being saved by a gaggle of Bagpipe-wielding “jocks”:  one suspects this idea still holds little charm for the venerable Spectator.   The further complication to this whole story is that the tune here comes from the Gunn collection which predates the Sepoy Rebellion.  

Lord Lovat’s comes from William Ross’s Collection (c. 1869).  This William Ross was pipe major of the Black Watch from 1849-1854 and then piper to Queen Victoria from 1854 until his death in1891.

Nellie’s appears in John MacFadyen’s Bagpipe Music. 

The two reels here are common in the older collections but then seem to become less fashionable in subsequent books of bagpipe music. “Donald and Marion” appears with a few variations of name. 

      - ‘Se Donul a rinn a bhanis (Donald’s Wedding – Gunn) 
      - Domhnul a’ bh’air a’ Ghille  – Angus MacKay’s Piper’s Assistant. 
      - Donald and Marion (Donald was the laddies name) – Glen’s. 
      - Johnny Lad (Morag is Domhnull) - Donald MacDonald Collection
      - I’ll Kiss Ye Yet – Thomas Glen.

The Jolly Old Gardener is in these 3 books.  Donald MacDonald’s; Mackay’s; and Gunn’s.

11. Rennie:

Pipe Major Robert Rennie – Willie MacDonald (Benbecula)
The Knightswood Ceilidh – Donald Macleod

Robert Rennie was pipe Major of the H.L.I (Highland Light Infantry) after the war.  He died in 1958 and is buried in Kingussie.  Willie MacDonald served in both the H.L.I. and the Cameron Highlanders and is considered one of the finest pipers of the 20th Century.  We never had the pleasure of meeting him but he is overwhelmingly remembered as one of the great characters of piping in living memory. His son Roderick “R.S.” MacDonald is an excellent piper and noted composer.

In 1949, the Knightswood Highlanders of Glasgow Association held a tune-writing competition. The winning composition was Pipe Major Hector Maclean’s The Knightswood Highlanders followed by this.  In third place, John Maclellan’s Allan Rowan of Port Appin.  Tough competition indeed.

12. The Unjust Incarceration:

The Unjust Incarceration - Traditional
Johnny Cope - Traditional

Both of these tunes come from William Ross’s Collection of Pipe Music (c. 1869). From the same page in fact.

The first is very unusual.  Although it is written in 9/8 time, it shares its name with a famous Piobaireachd but any melodic relation to that piece is less than evident.  In our estimations it is a fine tune be it played slow, as a march, or a slip jig. 

Versions of Johnny Cope abound throughout Scotland and Ireland as an instrumental piece, often with many parts. These all relate to the tune of the well-known song, praising the Jacobite victory at the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745.  


13. Hey My Nanny!

Dhamhsadh Coinneach ri Inghinn (Kenny’s Dance with his Sweetheart) -Traditional
Mrs Chisholm’s Delight – Traditional
Hey! My Nanny –Traditional  

A version of Kenny’s Dance with his Sweetheart appears in Donald MacDonald’s A Collection of Quicksteps, Strathspeys, Reels, and Jigs, Arranged for the Highland Bagpipe (1828) with the title Guzzle Together.

Mrs. Chisholm’s Delight comes from Angus Mackay’s Piper’s Assistant.

The peculiarly titled Hey! My Nanny is another gem from the Glen collection. 



Allan MacDonald is instrumental in introducing this older repertoire to us and helping with titles.

Chris Waite at Gran’s House for engineering, mixing, and mastering.

Ian Kinnear for Albion Scottish small pipes in both “A” and “C”.

Dougie Murray for new chanter reeds.

Ian Duncan and Allan MacDonald for various chanter and drone reeds to go in these old chanters.

Matt Mancuso for bow rehairing and pick-up/mic fitting

J.P Hesser at Castaway7 studios for excellent engineering.

Anna Colliton for album design

Dave Castro for cover photo.