John Murdoch Henderson (1902-1972)
The John Murdoch Henderson Music Collection
Menu > Pipes and Pipers > A Piper's Notes Search | Contact Us

A Piper's Notes
David Low discusses Henderson's bagpipe music books

The Sources

Henderson's bagpipe music collection consists of four editions published during the mid nineteenth century. Music publishing was not so sophisticated then as it is now and it has been difficult to assign a precise date to each. A preface page, dated 1835, in the collection by Donald MacDonald apologises for the very problems of meeting publication deadlines, but according to Henderson's painstaking annotations, an identical preface was apparently present in an earlier edition of 1828. An order of publication would appear to be:

1. Donald MacDonald & Son Collection, 1831
2. Angus MacKay: The Piper's Assistant, pre 1847
(The first 56 pages of the work closely correspond to William Mackay's Complete Tutor for the Great Highland Bagpipe, which was revised by Angus Mackay in 1843. Cannon tells us that the latest possible date for the work would be 1847, when the publisher's address changed).
3. John McLachlan: The Piper's Assistant 1854-77
4. Angus MacKay: Tutor for the Highland Bagpipe 1878

With the exception of Donald MacDonald's Collection (published by Donald MacDonald and Son) the books were published in Edinburgh by members of the Glen family whose name had been synonymous with pipes and piping since the time of the legendary Adam Glen.

Although these books' age and usage has led to some damage, they have, nevertheless, been very carefully restored over time and it is clear that certain pages have been reproduced from other sources and / or editions of similar collections. It is especially interesting to see the care and attention given to the transcription by hand of a series of preface pages in the MacKay Tutor, and likewise the tracing of the artwork for the title page of McLachlan's Piper's Assistant. This has all contributed to maintaining each edition's degree of completeness. MacKay's Piper's Assistant has been embossed with "Castle New, Strathdon, Aberdeenshire" on the title page and "Charles Forbes" (the laird of Castle Newe) on page 55. This implies a certain exclusivity in ownership. These collections would not have had large print runs and therefore might be described as luxury items. In addition, Henderson notes that the collections may have been gifted or resold within the piping fraternity, viz. reference to G. S. McLennan's ownership of these and comparable editions.

Go to A History of the Great Pipes from McLachlan's Piper's Assistant


Henderson's Annotation

Henderson obviously spent considerable time in the study of these editions, comparing in detail the changing versions (or in piping terms "settings") and titles of tunes. For a contemporary student, even with an extensive modern-day knowledge of pipe music, or a corresponding personal repertoire, it is a very demanding task to make sense of what he achieved. Henderson was absorbed with making connections and the many months (if not years) he must have invested in these researches, mean that a student today would need to invest a substantial amount of time to derive any profit from the study of these editions. It appears that Henderson was keen to interrelate other music collections (e.g. fiddle) and there are cross-references to a wider field or sources other than those associated with pipe music. One of the interesting debates of modern times that continues to engage musicians is that over origins - whether the pipe, fiddle, harp or vocal - of particular melodies. This may well have been in Henderson's mind.


Notation of Bagpipe Music

It must be remembered that when these collections were at first edition stage, the practice of writing bagpipe music in staff notation was in its infancy. Music had hitherto been passed to the student orally and aurally, and indeed the "classical" forms of pipe music, i.e. piobaireachd (or Ceol Mor) were taught by Canntaireachd (can-ter-ach) systems through much of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. (CANNTAIREACHD meaning the chanting or singing of melody using a system of vocables to interpret the exact and appropriate notes and technical movements required on the instrument).

Angus MacKay first produced his collection of Piobaireachd in staff notation in 1838, and this still remains a definitive work. The collections of John Murdoch Henderson however are of lighter and more popular airs and melodies extending over the complete range of tempo, time signature and character. Many of them are still played today, some identical in name, while others have had not one but several alternative titles. It is also not unusual for some to have their whole character transformed: a very well-known example being from Donald MacDonald's collection, "Posadh Piuhar Jain Bhain", ostensibly a jig, but undoubtedly the forerunner of the modern slow air "My Home."


Diversity of Titles and Structure

Many of the airs / melodies are predominantly two-parted and remain so in present times, equally, in common with today's collections, the majority of the melodies are eminently forgettable - tunes which never captured the popular imagination widely enough to be adopted in most piper's repertoires. From John McLachlan's Piper's Assistant the well known tune "Bonnie Ann" appears as a four-parted march attributed to Daniel Ross. In its score there is little elaboration or accenting and the parts are not repeated.

Bonnie Ann Piper's Assistant, McLachlan

Today the tune is highly ornamented with grace-notes and is accented ("pointed" is the piper's term) to the point where the ability to actually march to it is threatened. This is the feature of the "heavy" or competition-type march which was being developed at the time of these publications. Other similar four-parted but much lighter tunes are "March of Donald of the Isles to the Battle of Harlow" and "The 79ths Farewell to Giberalter [sic]". Both scores, complete with repeats, are almost as they are played or written today. A yet further example is the air "Miss Proud" ("D. Rowan's Favourite") and is one of the few four-parted reel tunes, the structure of which holds up as of today's versions. In Angus MacKay's Tutor there is a very full version of "Piobaireachd Dhomnail Duibh" ("Pibroch of Donald Dhu") or "Lochiel's March." It is comparable to many present-day regimental settings, though here the score shows no repeats. Yet in another collection of David Glen, published towards the end of the century, one finds the tune expanded to no less than eleven parts, the latter parts requiring advanced Ceol Mor technical skills.

The need or demand to elaborate on a simple tune comes from the aspiring player's need to demonstrate ability and technical skill. This is a recurring phenomenon, as with two current settings of "The Mason's Apron" and "Pretty Marion", each respectively having eight or ten parts. Over time, it is interesting to see how an air begins to evolve from its original two-part beginning. This early stage of development is best seen by examining two 9/8 jigs, settings of which occur in three of these editions. In MacKay's Piper's Assistant (p.86) additional parts for "Go to Berwick, Johnnie" and "Kenny Would Dance with the Maid" are listed.

Go To Berwick Johnnie - Piper's Assistant, MacKay

In each case, while the additional part three takes the tune forward, part four is simply a repetition of part two, so the total structure is part one, part two, part three and part two. This is actually stated at the foot of page 16 - for no apparent reason - the tune above it is called "If I'd Get a Dram I'd Take It." Henderson contends this is an alternative version of the tune on page 50, "Greig's Pipes" and if one checks the third additional air on page 86, the extra part is for this latter tune. Henderson asserts that "Greig's Pipes" = "Greig's Pipe" = "Fill the Stoup" = "The Daft Dairymaid" = "Fill the Measure" as well as "If I'd Get a Dram I'd Take It", and right he is.

Fill The Stoup - MacDonald Collection

Equally, he has established that "Kenny Would Dance with the Maid" = "Saw Ye the Carl(e) of Late (Lately) - "The Rigs of Yarrow" and further titles "Kick the Rogues Out", "Would the Minister Dance", "Guzzle Together", but these may be from non-pipe music sources. Incidentally, a modern recording of "Guzzle Together" seems to be stretching the musical connection to the first air just a bit too far. It does seem that the interchange and linking of similarity of airs and titles had become a compelling (and at times confusing) issue for Henderson.

Kenny Would Dance With The Maid - Highland Bagpipe Tutor, MacKay


Playing Style and Interpretation

Tunes were more simple, gracing was slightly less elaborate and certainly the accenting was often left to the player. Quite often one finds that Henderson has added his own, or what seems generally accepted, for a particular tune. In McLachlan's Piper's Assistant, the well known "Muckin' O' Geordie's Byre" does not appear to have been accented. Again, in MacKay's Tutor, a setting of "Gille Calum" (the Sword Dance) has been accented throughout and despite being in 2/4 time (the dance is more of a strathspey), only, some of the couplets sound "back to front" to a modern interpretation.

Gille Calum - Piper's Assistant, MacKay

The effect is more noticeable when one compares MacKay's Assistant's setting of "The Green Hillock" with his Tutor's setting of "Tulloch Gorum" (i.e. the same tune). Nothing at all is accented in the former, while only the opening four bars are accented in the latter.

Tuloch Gorum - Highland Bagpipe Tutor, MacKay

The writer cannot conceive that a whole part of what is predominantly a dance tune could be played so uninspiringly. That being said, the more modern G. S. McLennan allegedly made little accenting to many of his own compositions, a particular case being his classic reel "The Little Cascade", thus leaving much to the player's interpretation. Returning to Donald MacDonald's collection, and specifically to "Posadh Piuhar Jain Bhain", given that there is not a single piece anything but a dance tune, it would be entirely justifiable to play this as a jig, despite the melody line of the slow air "My Home" ringing so close.

More pipe tunes selected and played by David Low

back to the top of the page