Lowland/Border Piping Core Repertoire in Print Again

Gordon Mooney’s Collections of Music for Lowland and Border Bagpipes, by Gordon Mooney. 2007. Lowland and Border Piper’s Society. 72 pages, 95 tunes.

During the early 1980’s, Gordon Mooney was one of a small group of musicians who shared a vision to revive and reinvent the Border and Lowland piping traditions. The line of transmission from player to student had been broken by the early 20th century, and this form of music and its instruments were not available except in libraries and museum collections. This intrepid group of mostly Highland trained pipers began experimenting with making bagpipes, and also started searching out tunes in books and manuscript archives to find traditional music for the instruments to play. Some, like Hamish Moore and Julian Goodacre, became leading bagpipe craftsmen, eventually developing the beautiful and reliable Scottish smallpipes and Border/Lowland pipes that we know today. Others, like Gordon Mooney, and a little later Matt Seattle and Pete Stewart, concentrated on finding the music.

By the time I became aware of Border and Lowland piping over a decade ago, Gordon Mooney’s books “O’er the Border” and “The Choicest Bagpipe Music” had been out of print for years. I, like many others, learned a number of the tunes by listening to various recordings, attending workshops, or finding them here and there in other collections. Thanks to the Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society, Gordon Mooney’s two important early collections of pipe tunes are once again available.

The book is printed in large format (approx. 8.5 x 11 inches), with very legible fonts for both music and words. The tunes are Gordon’s own arrangements of traditional melodies, often transposed as written in other keys, for other instruments. The LBPS editor of this new compilation, George Greig, took the liberty of converting the key signatures for as many tunes he thought possible to two sharps, from Gordon’s original three, conforming to current pipe music writing practices. There are some tunes here that still need the G#. I also counted nine that are in the key of G major (with a sharp 7th) and that go outside the normal Scottish pipe chanter range. These are also part of the tradition, and sit easily on the Northumbrian smallpipe chanter. Thankfully, all of the arrangements are free of grace notes, allowing the piper to decide what embellishments are necessary or desirable.

Having never seen the originals, I can only assume that the essays in the preface by Gordon Mooney titled “The Music of the Scottish Borders,” “The Collectors,” and “The Bagpipes of the Borders” were originally featured in one or both. They are short, and insightful, but much has been added to our historic understanding of these topics since the early 1980s.

What makes this a real treasure, beyond the number and quality of the tunes, is that each tune is accompanied by Gordon’s annotations. These vary from a sentence or two to half a page, and many contain at least some of the words to songs that have been put to the melodies over the years. Some of the commentaries barely address the adjacent tune, but most provide tasty historical tidbits. For example, those of you who thought the tune “Johnie Cock Up Your Beaver” was an example of our predecessor’s bawdy lifestyle might be interested to learn that “a beaver is the lower face piece of late medieval armor,” and thus this phrase is akin to saying “get ready to fight.” This tune’s first written appearance was apparently in 1686 in Playford’s “Dancing Master.” Gordon cites his original sources for all of the music. I very much appreciate having the related historical information on the page with each tune, rather than in notes at the back of the publication. Many pages are also enlivened with old illustrations, sketches and some photographs (mostly unattributed).

Some tunes that I was especially pleased to see in the book that I’ve not found elsewhere were “Jenny Nettles” and “The Last Cradle Song.” The former is a lively reel I learned at my very first smallpipes workshop with Iain MacHarg, and the second is a haunting air in B minor (I think) that I always loved from Gordon’s “O’er the Border” recording. Produced in 1989 by Temple Records, that album was an early example of the ensemble possibilities of the quieter bagpipes, and it was the inspiration for many to take up the bellows piping, myself included. It appears to still be available in cd form, at least in the UK. For those who find it helpful to hear the tunes first rather than sight reading them, all 32 works on the recording are in this book. I also recall that many of these tunes appeared on Hamish Moore’s seminal albums “Cauld Wind Pipes” and “Open Ended” which were , unfortunately, never transposed to cd format. Some of my favorites on those recordings which appear in Mooney’s book include “Maggie Lauder” (with vocalist on Hamish’s album and words in Gordon’s book) and “The Mill the Mill O” (with an actual millstone grinding away in the background of the recording).

For those who want to learn more about the Border and Lowland musical tradition, and those who just want some great, classic, mostly simple tunes to play, you can’t do better than “Gordon Mooney’s Collection.” My quibbles with the publication are few. The contents page that lists the tunes is seven pages into the book (I want it right at the front). Also, the binding is just double pages folded in half with only two staples through the center. I’m afraid it will fall apart with the amount of use it is sure to get. However, I’m sure this was one factor that helped keep the price so affordable.

“Gordon Mooney’s Collection” may be purchased from the LBPS on-line shop for a mere 12 GBP (plus shipping), see http://www.lbps.net/merchandise/lbpsbooks.htm. That web page links to a complete list of tunes in the book as well as a handful of corrections. LBPS members receive a discount on all purchases, as well 2 issues per year of the excellent journal Common Stock. More than enough reasons to sign yourself up.

by Glenn Dreyer