5 Tunes I Wish I Had Written

December 19, 2008 on 7:27 pm by Michael Grey | In Music, Stories | 4 Comments

We all have our favourite tunes, pieces of music that we love to play or love to hear – or both.  Pipe tunes are such short little things – pibroch aside – it’s hard to keep a Favourite Tune List brief.  My own FTL changes a fair bit, and often.  I think it depends on what I’m listening to, what’s on the radio, what I’m practicing, what the band is playing, my mood; I think all of these variables are among the drivers of my FTL.

A different sort of thing is the “tunes I wish I wrote” list.  This list changes less frequently.  Different from the FTL, for me this list is a very reflective acknowledgement, or recognition, of the genius in a composition: the turn of phrase, the melodic line, the phrase construction or just a certain indescribable je ne c’est quoi.  

5 tunes I wish I had written, in no particular order:  

“Brown Haired Maiden” (March) – Okay, so it’s really a pipe version of the Gaelic song “Ho Ro Mo Nighean Donn Bhòidheach”, I don’t care, it is a firm part of the Great Highland Bagpipe repertoire.  It’s one of the Tunes of Glory; simple, stirring with a melody that works at a vast range of tempi.  When played well this is one of those tunes that makes the pipe speak.

“Pipe Major George Ross’s Farewell to the Black Watch” (March) – Composed by Willie Lawrie at the start of the 20th century this is the most technically challenging 2/4 competition marches ever made.  This is a “power” tune in every way: tonality, rhythm and phrasing all emanate with every step.  This is one of those tunes that almost feels like a story is being told through the notes. I put Lawrie’s other masterwork, “Captain Carswell” on the same level.      

“The Little Cascade” (Reel) – George Stewart McLennan’s greatest composition.  This has genius stamped all over it.  There’s a playfulness to the melody, an interplay of phrasing, that reminds me of two kids teasing each other in the school yard: listen to part four and its almost like a kid taunting, “na-na na-na naaa”.  Probably the greatest non-pibroch tune ever made by a piper for the Great Highland Bagpipe.            

“Susan MacLeod” (Strathspey) – This tune by Donald MacLeod and his “Duncan Johnstone” hornpipe a toss up as the great man’s best compositions.   Written in the 1950s for his daughter, MacLeod managed to create a compelling, original  and evergreen strathspey long after the golden age of strathspey composition.  This is the most melodically sophisticated tune in the competition piper’s strathspey repertoire.          

“Mist Covered Mountains” – (Slow Air) – Another stroke of minor key brilliance with Gaelic roots, the standard pipe version is lifted from the immigrant’s song, “Chì Mi Na Mórbheanna”.  Like most of the best airs there is an irregular structure to the melody, no cookie-cutter A-B-A-B melodic line, the tune is one seamless melodic surprise that never fails to move – or get old.   As a by-the-way: the 19th century songbook compiler, Archibald Sinclair, notes that the tune is called “Johnny Stays Long at the Fair,” and that it was composed in 1856, by Iain Cameron.  I suggest 150 years isn’t really a long time in the context of music so perhaps this melody is far from “traditional”.  I don’t know. 

So there you go.  My covetous list.  Next up: 5 tunes I’m glad I never wrote.



  1. Thank you for the interesting article.

    I went back and listened to “P/M George Ross’s Farewell” (Colin MacLellan’s performance of it on your “Real to Reel” album). It’s a serious tune. Wonder why more bands don’t air it out for their sets? (I’ve heard a couple “Captain Carswell”s before, but never this one.)

    I first heard “The Little Cascade” on an old Edinburgh Police album – the pointed, MSR version – and, perhaps because I first heard it this way, I enjoy the pointed more than the round. Of round versions, the one I heard Scottish Power play on YouTube (Scottish Championships, Dumbarton 2008, medley at 4:54) is my favourite because their arrangement preserves the cool, clever syncopation (or whatever you’d call it) of that fourth part you cited, giving it the same effect it has in the pointed version (whereas the 78th F.H. version does not so much, IMHO).

    Your comment on “Susan MacLeod” is fascinating. I’ve never heard anyone pronounce upon the melodic sophistication of a tune. It’s interesting to hear someone talk about actual melodies of pipe music, rather than just their “tone, phrasing, technique, and execution”.

    “The Mist Covered Mountains” is a tune that I’ve found myself humming to myself many times — courtesy of the 78th F.H. concert albums.

    Thanks. I’m anxiously awaiting your 5 tunes you’re glad you didn’t write! 🙂

    Comment by ChrisZ — December 23, 2008 #

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Chris. I think Geo Ross is (a) just too hard for pipe corps to deliver (at least without all the technique stripped out) and (b) due to the multitude of 16th notes and scarcity of quarters just not attractive to percussionists. You make a good point regarding interpretative bias and early exposure to a particular style … pibroch, especially, is rife with predispositions of that kind! M.

    Comment by mike — December 23, 2008 #

  3. A very Merry Christmas to you Michael. It’s a long time since our paths crossed.

    I was very interested in your choice of tunes and in particular ” Pipe Major George Ross”. This is also one of my favourite marches. My post however is not about the tune, it’s about the man himself. P/M Ross moved to Australia after UK Army service and spent his final years here. One of the guys in my band was very fortunate to buy the bagpipe he was presented by the officers of the Black Watch upon his retirement. The instrument is in pristine condition and complete with a beautifully inscribed shield on the bass drone.


    Roddy MacDonald

    Comment by R S MacDonald — December 25, 2008 #

  4. Excellent update, Roddy! Very interesting. Great to hear from you! Oz was/is the beneficiary of so many great players, pipes and artifacts!

    And how does this pipe sound?

    Enjoy the holidays!!


    Comment by mike — December 26, 2008 #

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