Piping Sung: Women, Canntaireachd and the Role of the Tradition-Bearer


  • Joshua Dickson




Canntaireachd (pronounced ‘counter-achk’), Gaelic for ‘chanting’, is a complex oral notation used by Scottish pipers for centuries to teach repertoire and performance style in the courtly, ceremonial ceòl mór idiom. Its popular historiography since the 19th century suggests it was fixed and highly formulaic in structure and therefore formal (as befitting its connection to ceòl mór), its use the preserve of the studied elite. However, field recordings of pipers and other tradition-bearers collected and archived since the 1950s in the School of Scottish Studies present a vast trove of evidence suggesting that canntaireachd as a living, vocal medium was (and remains) a dynamic and flexible tool, adapted and refined to personal tastes by each musician; and that it was (is) widely used as well in the transmission of the vernacular ceòl beag idiom - pipe music for dancing and marching. In this paper, I offer some remarks on the nature of canntaireachd, followed by a review of the role of women in the transmission and performance of Highland, and specifically Hebridean, bagpipe music, including the use of canntaireachd as a surrogate performance practice. There follows a case study of Mary Morrison, a woman of twentieth century Barra upbringing, who specialised in performing canntaireachd; concluding with a discussion on what her singing of pipe music has to say about her knowledge of piping and the nature of her role as, arguably, a piping tradition-bearer.




How to Cite

Dickson, J. (2013) “Piping Sung: Women, Canntaireachd and the Role of the Tradition-Bearer”, Scottish Studies, 36, p. 45. doi: 10.2218/ss.v36.2705.