The Concise History of the Bagpipe
The Concise History of the Bagpipe in Ireland
"Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay"
Composed by William Barrie
Performed by the
Simon Fraser University Pipe Band
(British Columbia, Canada)
from their CD "Down Under"
Pipe Major Jack Lee

Keep in mind that two of the principal characteristics of the Bagpipe are the continuity of sound, which precludes any break between notes and the absence of any means of varying the volume of a note, so that it sounds loudly or softly. As a result, expression in pipe music is dependent wholly on the varying length of the notes, and also on embellishments by means of grace notes.

(ceol mor or great music)

What is it? Perhaps we should declare what it is not. It is not folk music since it is sophisticated and contrived and has a lack of strict rhythm, which takes it out of the song idiom. It is not a simple music yet its basic melody is at times simple. It is not an exact science and yet in some cases, ending stanzas depart from the expected ending. Some pieces are without a discernible phrase pattern and are difficult to memorise. Although traditional, it is composed in a sophisticated rule bound mode. It makes few concessions to the listener; the pieces cannot be easily danced to or whistled. The principal difference between ceol mor and other types of classical music is that it is purely melodic and has great freedom in time and pitch.

Let us now take a look at what it actually is. It is Scotland's only classical music and her finest contribution to the musical culture of Europe. Apart from the composers of ceol mor, there has not been a Scottish composer of outstanding merit in any generation. The term pibroch (its corrupted English form) simply means piping but it seems older than the Highland pipe itself. There is a strong theory that it is nothing more than harp music. Perhaps it should be called clarsacheachd, yet it suits the Highland pipe exceedingly well. It seems to be a basically Hebridean product, although what is Hebridean is Irish. However, the music today is only found in Scotland. Wherever it came from, it adapted to the Great Highland Bagpipe because the apex of piping lies in the long tonal notes of Piobaireachd and is one of the great facets of good playing. It actually takes this music to bring out the harmonics and tone of the bagpipe. While never being commonplace, it is one of the most elaborately artificial forms of music known to the modern world. The entire style of composition is highly sophisticated suggesting that it is the end product of a long period of musical development. It is the oldest form of pipe music still extant and requires a lifetime dedication demanding analysis and deep study. The one area where the solo performance of the Highland Bagpipe remains untouched is ceol mor. It is built from metrically standard phrases that are frequently repeated with minor variations that indicate that it may have originated from oral compositions, drawing from interchangeable verbal formulae. Most of the history of the pieces has been lost. In only a very few cases can we identify the composer with reasonable certainty or even date the composition. Some compositions appear from their structure to be older than others, but for the most part, this is conjecture. Early published works and manuscript sources show that there has been hopeless confusion as to the names of particular pieces and no reliable conclusions can be drawn from these names. It is also impossible to trace any ordered development in the style of composition over the centuries. No doubt some such development did in fact occur. The great or golden age of Piobaireachd composition was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the same period which saw the flowering of Highland Gaelic society and poetry.

However, we were asking what is Piobaireachd? Well each piece has a similar form and has the power of a symphony played on a solo instrument.  Its interpretation depends on one's mood or even age, a sophisticated contrived mosaic, with a very personal story. It is a recitational art form, whose time signatures change within its frame. A symphonic poem, the music is actually constructed as prose and is the telling of a story by phrases. These phrases are stressed by accenting the first and last notes of each phrase. A prose phrasing which resembles punctuation in speech, bound with rhythm and accent. Compositions are built on different musical phrases or patterns according to definite and certain modes, which have scope for development, a question phrase followed by an answering phrase, which picks up parts of the question phrase, a progression of contrasts and similarities. Let us say that in a three line or primary form of Piobaireachd, there are two lines of equal length phrases and a third line that is shorter and not equal to the other two. In the primary form, line 1 is composed of two phrases, A A and B. Line 2 also has two equal phrases or, A B and B. Line 3 has only one phase, A and B. Try singing:

Line 1: "and this and this and that"
Line 2: "and this and that and that"
Line 3: "and this and that".

There we have musical prose, phrases of question and phrases of answer, the commas and periods of our piece. There are also other forms; secondary Piobaireachd consisting of four phrases, tertiary of five and finally irregular. Most are in a regular or primary three-line form and recognition of the patterns used in composition make it easier to memorise a piece. Some of these phrases must be further punctuated and this is done by simple and complex grace notes.

Nevertheless, there is much much more to Piobaireachd. It is also a variational form of music building itself on extended or expanding variations of more and more complex grace note clusters. The object of some of its variations, the thumb and siubhal (a shule - to walk), are nothing more than an attempt to display the resonant tone of the drones against the chanter. Variations are strict rhythmic passages governed by stereotyped finger patterns or movements (grace note clusters) and are built up around the themal or principal notes of the beginning of the piece, the urlar or ground. In almost all pieces in which they are found, the set pattern embellishments of the leamluath, Taorluath and Crunluath variations are played first as a singling. That is to say, cadences or rests are introduced to mark the end of phrases. These cadences, which are essential to the music, disappear in the doubling or repeat of the variations. The tempo is increased in the doublings, forming a simple and exciting pulsing flow. The climax is reached with the most complicated of ending variation. Here the piper's dexterity is given full scope. Perhaps an a' mach variation, desperate to end the story, will be included in the piece. The piece then flows quietly back to its original theme, the ground. All these variations keep the original melody of the ground by taking the ground's themal notes and stressing them, making the variations dependant upon them. This structure is amazingly akin to Celtic artwork, a simple framework filled with the most complex and minute detail. Piobaireachd is the ultimate challenge; it challenges one's technique to the ultimate. It challenges one's sense of musical perception to the ultimate and it challenges the instrument to the ultimate. One can study a Piobaireachd for a lifetime and yet find new depth in it.

It is felt that perhaps the taorluath and crunluath were later variations introduced to the pipe. We know they were played very early on in Irish harp music.

Let us also return to the ground. The urlar is the opening or story of the piece permitting a great variety to the whole. It sets the tone and character of the entire presentation and it is here that the song is found. This is the only part of Piobaireachd where the musician can put his individual stamp on the development of his piece. The ground sets the mood and is subject to the piper's own expression, allowing him to develop his own style and capture the soul of the music. The expression of the ground is what makes a good Piobaireachd player. The ground may be of maddening slowness to the uninitiated ear but any classical music must be heard often before it can begin to be appreciated. The art of its playing is to be found in the shading of notes, which are done with the touch of the master painter. It obeys its own rules in timing, composition and performance. The correct length of a note is frequently a matter of great subtlety.

Standardisation of playing unfortunately came about in the mid nineteenth century thanks to the efforts of the Highland Society of London.  It, along with the competition system started by the same society in the late eighteenth century has nearly strangled piping. Competition forces a degree of standardisation, demanding uniformity at the expense of expression. Approving only standard or recognised settings to be played is the principal enemy of the art. It has thinned down the music to one common setting of each piece and playing has become mechanised. The Highland Society's of London and Scotland used competition to force a dependence on written music as a means of instruction and "improvement" of the music. Piobaireachd began to rigidify into an increasingly non-Gaelic museum piece. Regularity and conformity became the order of nineteenth century Piobaireachd. In 1838, the (1) MacDonald and (2) MacArthur styles of playing became supplanted by the piping style of one (3) Angus MacKay. His book proclaimed him an absolute authority and was sponsored by the H S L. All the great players accepted him without question; however, his piping style differed from his predecessors. How and why this happened are questions, which have not been adequately answered. He was piper to Queen Victoria; the commanding reputation of his father John MacKay probably gave Angus a stamp of approval in piping circles. This gave him the ability to displace all other styles and settings. The book is accepted as a faithful record of his father's teachings.

The reader may reach the conclusion that the original ancient settings of pieces must have been lost. Remember that the music is in song meter and therefore the only way to transmit it is by song. The only way to express correctly its lights and shades is by vocal phrasing. Thankfully, oral transmission is the only way to learn the music and singing is the only way to convey the nuances of Ceol Mor. This great music was saved through its oral tradition of Canntaireachd which passed down through the ages, the best evidence we have of how past generations performed the music. It is the most accurate and purest method that there is to portray all the song in the music, which cannot be adequately expressed in written notation. The student must go to someone who has been traditionally taught. The finer shades of expression defy accurate translation into written note lengths. Through the medium of Canntaireachd, the music has been reliably preserved and handed down to us.

A large number of Piobaireachd are composed in a pentatonic construction of which, there are three on the pipe chanter. Some use only a limited portion of the scale, not rising above the note E. Some use fewer than six notes, while others use every note of the scale. Piobaireachd does not have a regular beat or recurring rhythm as found in ceol veg (no b in Gaelic) (small music) such as marches, strathspeys and reels etc. Its rhythm is more flexible and subtle so that time taken from one note will be found compensated for at another. It is a melodic art, which is unmeasured and innovative. It has greater freedom than the requirements of modern instrumental music. It is possible that it preserves some form of music, which pre dates it and which may be very old indeed. It may be the only survivor of the musical culture of the Gael as it was in its prime.

The music today is flourishing, being played and appreciated by more people worldwide. Modern pipers feel there are two ways to play a piece, the (4) Cameron or the (5) MacPherson style, and perhaps the old Gaelic adage, that imagination to some is as good as a physic, may offer an explanation of these "styles". Remember the ground of a piece offers each piper his own expression. The accidental progenitors of this myth, Donald Cameron and Malcolm MacPherson would have laughed at a suggestion of "schools" or styles. Certainly Malcolm did! Piobaireachd is a very personal thing and these two master players and their sleight variations in their presentations, were in their personal expression only. It is not suggested that one should interpret this as a licence to do as one pleases, until one perhaps achieves the status of a master player, as these men undoubtedly were.

These references are by members and guests of the Piobaireachd Society whose thoughts and conversations are recorded in the society's yearly Proceedings publication.

(1)  Donald MacDonald (1767-1840) A man before his time. He and his father John were supposedly students of the last of the MacArthurs. Donald, at his own expense, published in 1820 "The Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia", a collection of twenty-three Piobaireachdn with an accompanying tutorial. The book was a gamble because few pipers could read printed scores and it almost ruined him financially. The only people who could afford the book were those outwith piping circles and non-performing judges. He was appointed piper and pipe maker to the Highland Society of London in 1826. Donald's book is the earliest published link that we have with early ceol mor and the first published collection of complete Piobaireachd in full staff notation which was to be adopted by all later writers of pipe music. He pioneered bagpipe music in its modern form developing the writing and publishing of same. His contribution to the art of the Highland Bagpipe is seldom given the recognition it deserves.

Donald additionally published a collection of light music in 1828, of 120 tunes. He also compiled a manuscript of Piobaireachd, forty-nine pieces with historic and legendary notes, without the aid of ghostwriters, which was never published because he could find no financial backer for it. The Anglo Highland Society's were just not interested.

It is claimed today that he had the backing of the Highland Society of London, but his only assist from the H S L was their purchase of five (5) copies of his book. They let him die in poverty, going on to refuse a petition of financial assistance from his daughters. However, this was Scotland!

His books hold a record for longevity, as they were still available in 1932! His main achievement was in designing a clear distinction between melody and grace notes. The result was a clear and orderly presentation. He seems to have been eclectic in his approach; he claimed he followed no other style but his own. However, his style has some resemblance to that of the Macarthurs.

(2)  Angus MacArthur (? - 1823?) Nephew of the celebrated piper Charles MacArthur, piper to Sir Alexander MacDonald, who won second prize in the 1781 competition of the Highland Society of London. The MacArthurs were pipers to the Lords of the Isles and the Earls of Ross and latterly to the MacDonalds of Sleat. They were a celebrated race of pipers who had their own system of Canntaireachd and kept a school for pipers in Skye. Angus succeeded his uncle as piper to Lord MacDonald and in 1796, and accompanied MacDonald to London where he was recorded as playing at H S L meetings in that year as well as in 1815 and 1816. In 1820, he was commissioned by the H S L to produce a collection of thirty Piobaireachd, as he was one of the few remaining pipers fully trained in the traditional school. It took six months for the completion of his manuscript, which he dictated in Canntaireachd and which was transposed into staff notation by the H S L, who intended to publish the work. However, this was never done and it remains as the oldest complete ms. record of Piobaireachd. No example exists today of the MacArthur style of Canntaireachd, there is no indication of it in the ms.

Angus was also involved with the H S L's plans to establish a school of piping for soldiers at Glenelg barracks. He was the composer of at least three Piobaireachdan, three of which are preserved in the ms, the laments for Lord and Lady MacDonald as well as "Lady Margaret MacDonald's Salute". He was one of the last members of a great piping dynasty and with him ended the MacArthur pipers. The Angus MacArthur ms. records for us, the no longer played MacArthur style of piping.

(3) Angus MacKay (1813-1859) Perhaps his greatest claim to fame is that he was the son of John MacKay of Rassay (1767-1848), the keystone of today's piping. Through John, modern teaching has come down to us. His great reputation was largely responsible for the reverence with which pipers came to regard the collection of Piobaireachd published by his son (despite the fact that few pipers could read music at the time) and to which John made many contributions. Angus, became the first piper to a British Sovereign and published in 1838, "A Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd or Highland Pipe Music". The book contained sixty-one pieces and was sponsored by the Highland Society of London. Consequently, some of the pieces were adopted to suit the piano and some were renamed after Highland Clans! Unfortunately, it implied a fixed standard or style, which eventually became the only acceptable manner of playing. It started the dependence on staff notation and standardised Piobaireachd playing. (When the Piobaireachd Society was formed in the early twentieth century, it replicated these same pitfalls.) Nevertheless, it is our first systematic and serviceable collection of Piobaireachd. Angus also left us several ms. encompassing one hundred eighty nine additional, Piobaireachd, some of which were also taken from his father.

The H S L also made space in the book for "historical" and traditional notes on the origin of the pieces, imputing a MacCrimmon origin for most everything in piping. Composed by a James Logan, an alcoholic romanticist who gave a lengthy essay on an invention of the early Victorian period, that of "hereditary" piper. Twelve pieces were now given a MacCrimmon provenance, seven more than in Gesto's book, ten years earlier. (The list would continue to grow as the century progressed.) Much of it seems written by a child and is an embarrassment to the serious student of Scottish history. Such was the new Scotland, which would now mock its Highland history and culture turning it into a Hollywood production of gross fiction and exaggeration. The piper became the fool or jester, a source of merriment or embarrassment to the Anglo Scottish upper class.

(4) Donald Cameron (1810-1868) Pupil of John Van MacKenzie and Donald Mor MacLennan and close friend of Angus MacKay, He won the Gold Medal at Inverness for former winners in 1849, 1850 and 1859. He was known as the 'Great Competitor' and was one of the leading players of his day. He became 'Champion of Champions' in 1867.

(5) Malcolm MacPherson (Calum Piobaire) (1834-1898) Pupil of his father Angus, Angus MacKay, and Sandy (Alexander) Cameron, brother of Donald (3). The Bruce's of Glenelg, who had a direct line with the MacCrimmons, had taught his father. He was an unsurpassed Piobaireachd player who played from the right shoulder. He won the Gold Medal at Inverness in 1866 and 1871 and at Oban in 1876. He gained the 'Champion Gold Medal' at the Edinburgh International Exhibition in 1886.


A Gaelicised Latin word meaning singing, it represents a vocal approximation of the sounds produced by the bagpipe. It is an articulate vocal music to record and teach Piobaireachd, a system of fixed sounds in the form of syllables, whereby a piece can actually be recorded while someone is playing it. It is sung through the nose as well as through the mouth in a rather deadpan style with no loud or soft intonations. It is the transmission of music by a system of language that was chanted all over the Highlands. A myth is that one must be a Gaelic speaker to properly understand its meaning but there is not one connection to the language that has been found. The vocables produced are meaningless in themselves but have musical meaning and convey quite precisely the fingering required for each note as well as the grace notes. However, it is not a fail-safe system, as the length of notes cannot be portrayed and there is a very similar resemblance to it in the chorus lines of some Gaelic waulking songs. There is evidence of harpers also using a canntaireachd system. An Irish reference to Aed O'Shochlain who died in 1226, describes him as "master of Canntaireachd and harp tuning". It was the principal means of transmitting the music until staff notation was introduced in the early nineteenth century. It contains a far richer nuance and detail than a notational staff but it is in itself, not a form of notation but a chanted substitute for a performance on the pipes, a sophisticated form of musical shorthand. It is the Highland manner of recording classical pipe music, probably beginning as an ad hoc system, each teacher using a scheme of his own, finally hitting upon symbols, which resemble each other, producing a verbal or oral system, a record of somebody actually singing. There were different systems all based upon the principal of arbitrary and known sounds. Duration is produced, but not very accurately, by making a vocable sound long or short and not by raising or lowering the voice or altering the vocal tone. Its origins can only be a subject for conjecture. When a pupil heard the syllables repeated by mouth, he could at once reproduce their prototypes on the pipe. However, there was a problem with the cadences or rests. These notes are long and are therefore, not easily expressed in canntaireachd. In addition, there is no indication of how the piece is to be timed. It conveys with complete accuracy, the details of the music without the need for any written score, joining the syllables into words, but indication of the rhythm and phrasing can be conveyed.

A vocable contains several pieces of information indicating not only which note is to be played, but also how it is to be ornamented. It even shows how it is to be approached, whether from a higher or a lower note. It exhibits a wide range of personal styles, using vowels to represent notes and consonants to represent the embellishments. The articulate syllables are built up to represent movements or grace note clusters. The scale would be represented thusly, starting with low G; em en o o (a problem) ah ay vay dee ee. The addition of a G grace note would yield; hem hen ho ho hah chay hay hee. It is a more highly developed system of verbal notation than the cruder methods of solfa. The dithis variation would sound; hinen himen hioen etc.

The taorluadh (cluster) variation would yield; hindered himdared hiodared etc, the crunluath; hinbandre himbandre hiobandre etc. A cadence; hi harin. A D throw or cluster; tra. It can be seen that these produce a series of song musical syllables, which indicate notes and groups of notes. There are also recurring N sounds, which suggest the Bagpipe drone. The vowel sounds change regularly from broad vowels at the lower notes of the chanter to the narrow EE notes of the upper chanter register. The consonants also show some regard for pitch with T and R vocables for high grace notes and D vocables for low grace notes. Let us now try to construct in canntaireachd, our old friend, the primary form of Piobaireachd phrases; A A & B "and this and this and that", A B & B "and this and that and that", A & B "and this and that", with the following shortened and whimsical example. Try singing:

Hi harin    che dar e    ha dar e
Hi harin    ha dar e      ha dar e
Hi harin    ha dar e

Not bad! However, I will bet you sang too quickly. Of course, you had no time signature to guide you. I will also bet you missed the cadences at the start of each line. This is because the length of the note Hi is not easily portrayed. Nevertheless, I will bet that you got each note and grace note cluster correct. One can now appreciate the need for the singing voice to introduce the piece.

Coat of Arms of the Earl of Antrim
Coat of Arms of the Earl of Antrim
Click "Play" below to hear "Lament for the Earl of Antrim" performed by William Barrie.
Note: Stop the player at the top of the page before playing this tune.
Track available on "Ancient Piobaireachd, Volume III." CDs of this beautiful music are available by e-mailing [email protected].

Published: The Piping Times
November/December 1997

Who Was The Earl of Antrim?
A Discussion: On the Possible
Influence of Scottish and Irish
Ceol Mor on Each Other

By Frank Timoney

Whenever I would ask this question of any of the playing greats, I seemed always to get the same reply that he was a Scottish MacDonald and that the piece was of course written for him by a MacCrimmon. Various references to the piece in piping publications claim a link to Rory Mor Macleod, (1) Chief of the Macleod's of Dunvegan. It has been said that this great Piobaireachd contains virtually everything to inspire the player to master its lovely melody, which is carried through from Ground to Crunluath.

Research into this subject has led me to feel that this Piobaireachd may have been transposed from an early Irish harp tradition.

The Earldom was created in 1620 by King James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland), upon Irish born Ranald MacSorley MacDonnell, who was descended from two famous families, one a Scottish Highland and the other an Irish Gaelic family. The Earls however became naturally more involved with Irish matters, as their involvement in Scottish Highland affairs become less successful with each generation.

The Earl's father, one Somhairle Buidhe MacDonald (Sorley Boy) came to Ireland and later on, found quite a lucrative trade in the braining of Spaniards who survived various shipwrecks off the Antrim coast. This was the time of the Spanish Armada and although those who made it to Scotland found a more friendly refuge, Sorley developed quite a taste for Spanish silken shirts and gold. (The Irish today love to explain shipwrecked Spaniards as having been the cause of dark complexioned people among them, but the Irish of the time and their uninvited Highland friends put paid to that tale, long before it began. They made short shrift of any Spanish survivors.) In Ireland, Somhairle Buidhe prospered.

It was not that he came penniless to Antrim. He came with the best credentials. His father, Alasdair MacIain MacDonald was chief of the MacDonald's of Colonsay. Sorley had married the unfortunate Mary O'Neill, daughter of old Conn Bacach O'Neill, First Earl of Tyrone. His brother James (Seumas Colla Nan Capull MacDonald) married Agnes Campbell, daughter of the Third Earl of Argyll. Things went well until Mary's psychotic brother, the famous Shane O'Neill, ("friend to The Queen of England and cousin to St. Patrick") put Sorley Boy in prison for quite some time. James came to Ireland to break Sorley out and Shane killed him and his brother Angus. James' younger brother, Alexander, came over and literally cut Shane into pieces and sprung his brother Sorley.

Mary and Sorley's son Raonull MacSomhairle was created The First Earl of Antrim probably because King James felt the need of a strong Scottish Gaelic presence in Ireland. The MacDonnell's of Antrim were not part of Elizabeth's "planters," King James was himself Scottish. Raonull died in 1636, having held the Earldom some thirteen years. He was related to the Great Hugh O'Neill and was first cousin of Donald MacGilleasbuig MacDonald (James's son) back in Colonsay.

James's widow, Agnes Campbell, had by now married Shane O'Neill's successor, Turlough Luineach O'Neill. These O'Neill's had something. Having become a strong link in the family of the Lord's of the Isles, the First Earl of Antrim had married into them as well, having wed Alice, daughter of Hugh O'Neill.

The Second Earl of Antrim, Raonull Arainneach MacDonnell (Ranald of Arran) became the First Marquis of Antrim in 1645 and died in 1682. He was the second native-born Irishman to hold the Earldom. His second cousin Colla Ciotach MacDonald, James' grandson, was driven from Colonsay in 1639 by his uncle, Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll, and went to Ireland to live with Ranald who himself had married into the O'Neill's.

The Third Earl was Alasdair or Alexander, Ranald's brother, who died in 1696 without attaining the title of Marquis, was very active in Irish nationalism and commanded a regiment in the army of Owen Roe O'Neill at Benburb in 1646. His very famous cousin was the legendary Alasdair MacCholla MacDonald, James's great grandson, who had come to Ireland with his father in 1639. MacCholla went to Scotland with Irish regiments raised on the Antrim estates to serve under Montrose.

All of which brings us to our first flaw in the story. Rory Mor MacLeod went to Ireland in 1595 (and gave us our first clear reference to the belted plaid being worn by Highlanders), possibly with a train of MacCrimmon pipers who must have had nothing to do, because the Earldom of Antrim was not created until 1620! Dead in 1636, there was no one to write for until another forty-one years had passed! We must imagine that if Rory went to Antrim, he went under heavy guard because we all know how the MacDonald's and the Macleod's were bitter enemies. Antrim was thick with MacDonnell's and their kinsmen the O'Neill's and the O'Neill's kinsmen, the O'Donnell's.  The life of a MacLeod or a MacCrimmon must have been very precarious to say the least, what MacLeod would ever have a Piobaireachd written after a MacDonald or a MacDonnell or an O'Neill? Moreover, here were these MacDonnell's already adopting the O'Neill insignia, "Lam Derig Abu" and all that. What MacCrimmon would ever compose it? Perhaps Rory Mor went home leaving his MacCrimmon pipers alone in Ireland. If they composed for the First or Second Earl, they could have only done so between 1636 and 1645 when the Second Earl became the First Marquis. Perhaps the MacCrimmon's stayed in Ireland for a hundred years and composed a piece for The Third Earl in 1696.

This would be impossible because modern day authors remind us that they were back in Skye busily composing. Could the Irish have composed the piece? It is obvious that the earls were as much O'Neill's as anything else.

The Fourth Earl of Antrim was Randal, the son of Alexander who became Earl in 1696, the Fifth Earl, Alexander, was the son of Randal, and he became Earl in 1721.

If the piece was written in Ireland after 1636, it was written for the harp because as we have seen, the loud mouth blown pipe had gone out of style in that country just as the sixteenth century ended. It was unlikely to have been written for the soft, mouth blown English pastoral pipe (later to become bellows fed) that was now being introduced in its stead. Could there be a piece of harp music extant that is similar to the Lament for the Earl of Antrim? Harpers of the Earls of Antrim were in great demand in Scotland. The old order was collapsing there and harpers were becoming scarce in the Highlands. MacKenzie of Applecross was especially praised by one of them as having a most generous hand, because he filled the one hand of the harper of the Earl of Antrim on a visit to Scotland, with gold and the other hand with silver. Perhaps the grateful harper left Applecross with a gift in kind, a Lament! Irish harpers were especially known for their laments, some of which were said to be possessed of magical qualities. In certain Irish families, the profession of harper was hereditary. Many of these harper's had descended from important literary families and were drawn from the stratum of Gaelic society that provided literate professionals. This was in direct contrast to the family pipers of Scotland, with the one possible exception of Clann An Sgeulaiche, the MacGregors of Ruaro in Glen Lyon, Perthshire.

It is difficult therefore to understand why Piobaireachd is not found in Ireland today. Certainly all the conditions were right for it. Until sometime in the early seventeenth century, both Irish music and Highland music were one and the same. The mystery is that in Scotland, Piobaireachd is found in its completed form. There is no missing link to indicate that the music emanated from a more simple or experimental art form. We have seen that Irish culture, poetry, music, language, dance, etc. was devastated by change after 1600.

Take for instance dancing and an account by one Fynes Morison ca 1598. He had seen Irish soldiers dancing around a fire in the middle of a room to the strains of a mouth blown bagpipe. "They dance the MATACHINE DANCE with naked swords which they make to meet in divers comely postures." This certainly does not resemble the stiff like Irish dancing we see today (the product of Rome and London) with hands held rigidly by the sides. We have also seen that poetry declined after 1607 with the loss of syllabic Gaelic verse.

In 1185 we are given a startling look at Irish harp music by Gerald of Wales in this abridged account. "The melody is always begun in a soft and delicate manner and ended the same. They enter on and again leave their modulations with so much articulation and brilliancy, faultless throughout the most complicated modulation, the most intricate of notes, by a velocity so pleasing, rapid and articulate." Gerald went on to say that the Scots and Welsh played the same stuff, the Scots the better all around! If this is not a Ceol Mor format, it is difficult to know what is! However, it is certainly a far cry from the songs and melodies that sprung up in the early eighteenth century which are today looked upon as being "authentic" Irish music.

And what of the strange testimony of Dennis Hempson?

In 1792, the Belfast city fathers finally realised, in probable grateful relief, that the ancient tradition of Irish harp playing was about to disappear forever. It was decided to hold a harp festival for three days and a young music student, Edward Bunting was appointed to transcribe harp music to printed staff. Apparently Irish harp music was taught in much the same manner as Piobaireachd, by oral vocables. Around ten harpers played and in one of them, Edward Bunting became absolutely transfixed. A ninety-seven year old blind and physically deformed harper, one Dennis Hempson, played a strange type of music to the assemblage. So strange to the ears of the audience and other harpers, that they began to ignore his playing.  Here was old Dennis Hempson playing his heart out with an ancient Ceol Mor tradition and all these people laughing and talking while he played. Bunting realised in it, the aboriginal music of ancient Ireland and arranged a private recital. The old man was reluctant to perform exclaiming, "What's the use of doing so, no one can understand it now, not even any of the harpers now living." Hempson played in the ancient manner with his fingernails on wire strings. He was finally convinced to play, but gave Bunting only a fragment of one of his tuning phrases. Hempson had seen the style and repertoire of the Irish harp change radically, a change he continually deplored to Bunting.

Hempson was a professional Harper for some eighty years, and began training at the age of twelve in 1707. Obviously, his instruction was from seventeenth century harpers, men who had experienced the drastic change in the old Irish Gaelic music. He was highly sensitive about the strange pieces in his repertoire and much to his credit; Dennis Hempson clung faithfully to the seventeenth century training and teachers of his youth.

Modern Scottish authors, in accessing Hempson, feel he was mourning for the lost art of playing with the fingernails on wire strings! Modern Irish authors, who overall have no idea as to what Piobaireachd is, feel he was mourning for the loss of tuning preludes, which preceded the famed laments. It seems as if the penny has not dropped yet for either camp, because Hempson specifically complains of the celebrated O'Carolan's music, which, he said, was not of the ancient Gaelic style, but more of the then modern Italian school of music. One aside is for certain however, wire strings, like the rod tension side drum, really would permit all kinds of grace notes, and intricate finger movements. All of the material that Hempson provided Bunting with, still lies dormant in Bunting's original manuscript. I believe this is to be located in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and high time that the Piobaireachd Society had a thorough look at it.

I can think of some questions I would like answered. Take for instance, the adding of double beats on low A, or birls at the ends of some Piobaireachd phrases. It is felt that a four times repeated ending flourish is common to early Irish and Highland music. Indeed Joseph MacDonald (2) in his 1760 treatise on Piobaireachd confirms these ending flourishes. Examples are to be found in "The Lament for Duncan MacRae of Kintail" and "The King of Leix's March". Does Hempson show any of these? Does his work show a regular stressed phrase construction, or is it asymmetrical? Are there second strains with bars longer than the first? Is there irregularity in its cadences?

Could there be any truth in the undocumented story that Donald Mor MacCrimmon (3) came to Ireland for piping tuition? Or did he really come to study the ancient format of harp music? Did he and others later introduce it into a new type of vehicle?

Another Scottish mystery is the fact that the ancient harp music of that country has also disappeared. In 1784, Patrick MacDonald (4) or whoever did his historical notes, reminds us that the harp had ceased to be the favoured instrument, its interest having been transferred to the bagpipe.

Thankfully, we have a few actual samples of Highland harp music reconstructed for the piano in the partially published Angus Fraser (5) ms. Angus was the son of Simon Fraser (6), who in 1816 published Airs and Melodies Peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland. Simon Fraser had collected these pieces from his father and grandfathers and they spanned the period from roughly 1715 until 1760. Persons who remembered them as they were played on the harp supplied these examples to Simon's relatives. The first interesting sample is called "The Royal Lament" (ca 1649), showing a ground and two variations very much in the manner of Piobaireachd, the variations in more simple form. The second sample is an even more interesting setting of "The Lament for the Harp Tree", that when played on the piano, sounds very much like the Piobaireachd that we have today!

One of the things that mystifies on the Irish scene is for instance the Piobaireachd "Frenzy of Meeting". Gesto (7) called this "Tumilin O'Counichan an Irish Tune." Presumably, Gesto knew what he was about because he claimed his Canntaireachd was as the MacCrimmons played it. So here we have Iain Dubh MacCrimmon (8) saying yes, there was an Irish Ceol Mor tradition. The Nether Lorn Canntaireachd (9) calls the same piece "Brian O'Duff's Lament". Angus MacKay and Thomason's Ceol Mor (10) each give the two titles: "The Frenzy of Meeting" or "Lament for Brian O'Duff." Simon Fraser of Australia (11) called it "A Lament for King Brian of Old" and maintained that one Petrus Bruno in Ireland composed it! Over all, there is clearly a message here. The startling thing is that after playing all these settings, one unconsciously conjures up an image of the old Finton Lalor band back in the 1930s playing at the games in Scotland because one suddenly realises all these settings are actually none other then Brian Boru's March! The Irish have always maintained this to be their oldest march tradition and this was long before the mouth blown bagpipe was re-introduced earlier this century to Ireland. Archie Kenneth (12) had it right when he said all this was "too strikingly similar for coincidence." Another thing is for certain, there was a great "frenzy of meeting" on that April day in 1014.

What of the piece "Lochnell's Lament" or "Scarce of Fishing"...? This is supposedly known as O'Kelly's Lament and according to the Piping Times, might have been of Irish origin. However, the Times gave no source for this claim. Incidentally, Spiocaireachd Iasgaich is really Spearhead Fishing not Scarce of Fishing.

There is supposedly a missing Irish "Piobaireachd" called "MacAlistrum's March". It was said to have been written for the cousin of the Second and Third Earls, one Alasdair MacCholla, James' great grandson.

In 1785 at the Highland Society of London's (13) competition in Edinburgh, John MacPherson played the "Piobrachd Ereanach an Irish Pibrach." This is right in the time frame of the last two MacCrimmons. So here, we have a VERIFICATION OF AN IRISH CEOL MOR TRADITION BY THE HIGHLAND SOCIETY OF LONDON, AND ONE WHICH WAS RECOGNISED BY THE COMPETING SCOTTISH PIPERS OF THE PERIOD!

So, what happened to it? Did the Highland pipers take it as part of their own tradition as they appear to have done with their own harp music? It is a curious fact that in Buntings published book of 1796, A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, there is a listing or table of the movements that were used in Irish harp music. A number of Piobaireachd terms are included in that list including a reference to an Irish melody known as "A Ghlas Mheur" or the "Finger Lock" and Bunting does stipulate that his is Irish Material.

To which of the Earls would you give the piece? Two things are for certain. He had nothing to do with Rory Mor MacLeod or the MacCrimmons and he was not a Scot.

Published: The Piping Times 1998
In response to readers' questions regarding
"Who Was The Earl of Antrim?"

By Frank Timoney

Further to my article on the Earl of Antrim (P.T. November and December, 1997), I was stunned when I found an actual example of Irish Ceol Mor. I say stunned because it was in the 1992 Proceedings of the Piobaireachd Society Conference and I note that many of those who attended that conference are current readers and subscribers to the Piping Times. One would have thought that one of those worthies would at least have put pen to paper and added to the general knowledge of all.

There is no known Irish classical pipe music in existence. We have no knowledge of what was played on the Irish mouth blown pipe until the ca. 1900 reintroduction of the instrument in Ireland. It is generally felt that it was never a very strong tradition because of the speed with which the Irish gave it up.

I wish to thank Roderick Cannon for his letter in the September issue of the Times and for his answers to some of my questions. Somehow however, I fear Roderick has run away with my theme.

May I ask him to read my article "Who was the Earl of Antrim" several issues back. There is much evidence in it and "food for thought". However, I never used the term "Irish Pipers" in my article. In fact, I rather bluntly hinted that it was Irish harp music that was adapted to and became part of the corpus of Piobaireachd. There was never any great piping tradition in Ireland on the mouth blown instrument. Irish pipers are not known to have added anything to anyone's musical tradition. It was the Nether Lorne MS. of the late 18th century that first ties in a possible tradition of Irish Ceol Mor having been adapted to the Great Highland Bagpipe. We know that English and Swiss folk tunes were adapted into the corpus of Piobaireachd. Why does Roderick question the Irish possibility?

At any rate, the conference reported on the piece; "The Bard's Lament" and went on to point out that it is listed in the Campbell Canntaireachd, where it is referred to as "one of the Irish Piobaireachd!" Apparently, the Campbell family knew of other Irish pieces. APPARENTLY THERE WAS A WHOLE GENRE OF IRISH CEOL MOR MUSIC THAT WAS ADAPTED TO AND BECAME PART OF THE CORPUS OF THE CLASSICAL MUSIC OF THE GREAT HIGHLAND BAGPIPE AND WAS RECOGNISED AS SUCH AT LEAST UNTIL THE BEGINNING OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY. The piece has a unique variation where the three themal notes are joined by Lemluath movements. It is also found in the MacArthur MS ca. 1830, and in Angus MacKay's MS ca. 1848. The Canntaireachd setting differs from MacArthur and both settings are irregular and do not follow the urlar exactly. The MacArthur and MacKay MSs both call the piece "Cumma a'Chleirich," or "The Clerick's Lament."

Another candidate for Irish "Piobaireachd" is a piece known in Scotland as "Frenzy of Meeting". This piece is also found in the Campbell Canntaireachd (the Nether Lorn MS) where it is called "Brian O'Duff's Lament". In Captain MacLeod of Gesto's Book of Canntaireachd ca. 1828, it is called "Tumilin O'Counichan, an Irish Tune". The Angus MacKay MS Volume One, ca. 1848, calls the piece "Taom-Boileinn na Coinneamh" (very similar to Gesto), "The Frenzy of the Meeting" and "Brian O'Duff's Lament". This piece is thought to be very old from its mode of ABCDE. This construction appears to be of earlier composition than that usually found in Piobaireachd. STRANGE HOWEVER IS THE FACT THAT EACH OF THE ABOVE SETTINGS BEARS A STRIKING RESEMBLANCE TO BRIAN BOROU'S MARCH. There certainly was great Frenzy of Meeting on that April day in 1014. The Irish have long claimed this to be one of their earliest tunes.

An even further example of Irish "Piobaireachd" is to be found in the piece "Duncan MacRae of Kintail," also known as "Colin MacRae of Inverinate's Lament". The piece is in the Piobaireachd Society's Book 4, and in William Ross' collection. Ross gives several variations, the Piobaireachd Society only one. Both are essentially the same in the Ground. The Angus MacKay MS gives the name as "Cumha Dhonncha Mhic Iain." However, there is an earlier setting of the piece in Francis Bunting's publication of 1809, "A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland." He gives the title "Ruairidhe Va Mordha - Rory O Moor, King of Leix's March." The piece now becomes a tune, but Bunting leaves out the second strain. Joseph MacDonald quoted only the first two bars as an unnamed example of a slow "Siciliana" tempo in his "Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe" ca. 1760. An even older version of the tune is to be found in the 1657 edition of John Playford's "English Dancing Master", where it is called "Washington's March." Here the tune is complete, including the missing second strain of Bunting's setting. A number of details in Playford's tune are so similar to the "King of Laois March", that it seems Playford's setting was modeled upon an older and complete version of the Irish tune. However, the Irish tune possesses unique patterns in its composition that prove it to be older then Playford's setting. This is the flourish on low A, at the end of each movement. Each is repeated four times, very similar to the hi harin movement in Piobaireachd. In fact, this quadruple repetition is also found in Piobaireachd. Playford reduced the number of flourishes by half in his setting. Because of this, Playford's setting of 1657 cannot be regarded as the origin of the Irish tune. Evan Angus MacKay reduced these repeated birls. This establishes an early date for the Irish setting. Bunting used many harp settings in his publication. Joseph MacDonald's example of 1760 is given in 6/8 time, Playford's in 6/4 time, or slow 6/8. A number of tunes collected and published by Dr. G. Petrie in 1855, The Petrie Collection of Ancient Music of Ireland, were in 6/8 time also and were collected from Irish Uilleann pipers. Could Playford have taken his setting also from a piper?

In 1785, at the Highland Society of London's contest, John MacPherson from Badenoch played "Piobrachd Ereanach, An Irish Pibrach". The melody of this piece has never been determined.

Finally, there is an Irish tradition that there is a missing Piobaireachd, "MacAlistrum's March," that has never been found or identified.

Clearly, a link exists between Irish harp Ceol Mor and Highland Piobaireachd, but we will not find it until piping missionaries are sent to Ireland with the one true faith of Piobaireachd. Only then will the Irish be able to reconstruct their shattered and lost Gaelic music and regain for us their lost art of Ceol Mor composition.


Joseph Mac Donald
Joseph MacDonald (self-portrait,
ca. 1760)

(1) Ruairidh (Rory) or Roderick Mor MacLeod (1562-1626) 15th chief of the MacLeod's of Dunvegan. Signatory to the Statutes of Iona, knighted by James the 6th of Scotland in 1613. Married to Isabel MacDonald, daughter of Donald of Lagan. His sister Margaret married Donald Gorm Mor MacDonald of Sleat. Two of his daughters were married to Donald MacSwan of Roag and John Garve MacLeod 6th of Rassay, all of whom had Piobaireachd compositions written for them. It is thought, "MacLeod of MacLeod's Lament" was written for Rory.

(2) Joseph MacDonald (1739-1824) Author of the ms. "The Complete Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe" ca.1760; this is the earliest and most informative study of Piobaireachd. Joseph was the first to present this in staff notation and the first ever to undertake a serious piece of writing on the subject. It represents the foundations of Highland bagpipe music before the 1745 rebellion, and succeeds in bringing together, for the use of other players, all the constituents and technicalities in the art of Scots piping. An edited version of the ms. was published in 1803 by someone who changed the original ms. it is positively misleading and contains many mistakes.


(3) Donald Mor MacCrimmon (-?-) Members of this family were supposedly "hereditary" pipers to the MacLeod's of Dunvegan and Donald Mor was supposedly piper to Rory Mor MacLeod. However, the family is not in the Dunvegan or MacLeod records for this period. When explaining  Donald Mor's role on the Dunvegan estate, Scottish historians use the term "it is said", "said to have been", "who is said" which has now become "fact" in Scotland. Donald Mor is shrouded in obscurity and wild conjectures based on nineteenth century and early twentieth century speculations and legends, none of which is supported by any documentary evidence.

(4) Reverend Patrick MacDonald (1729-1824) Brother of Joseph MacDonald, in 1784 he published "A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs". The bulk of the collection was taken from his brother's ms. collection of vocal and song airs.

(5) Angus Fraser Edited for intended publication, his father's  ms. for an intended second volume to the father's published book of 1815.Only discovered in the 1950's,it has become known as the Angus Fraser Ms. in which Angus set many of his father's tunes for the piano. It contains the only authentic Scottish harp music ever to be recovered and is the most important collection of Scottish airs to be discovered in the past hundred years.

(6) Captain Simon Fraser of Knockie Published in 1816, "The Airs And Melodies Peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland." Knockie came from an illustrious family of Highland music collectors. Both his grandfathers traveled the Highlands and were amateur musician/collectors. They covered the period between 1715 to 1745 and lived in the time of the harpers. His father, an officer in the early Black Watch, served in Canada with Wolfe during the seven-year's war. He collected many songs and tunes from fellow Highland soldiers. Knockie inherited all this musical wealth.

Captain Macleod of Gesto
Captain Macleod of Gesto

(7) Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto (1766-1836) Our first piobaireachdologist of record  (one who does not play but knows the music, is obsessed with what the ancients played (who can never be equaled) and the correct setting and fingering of pieces), published a collection of Piobaireachd in its Canntaireachd form (vocables), in 1828. "Piobaireachd Or Pipe Tunes, Verbally Taught By The M'Crummen Pipers In The Isle, Of Skye To Their Apprentices, Now Published, As Taken From John M'Crummen, Piper To The Old Laird Of Macleod And  His  Grandson" etc etc ! It is full of inconsistencies and errors, much mutilated and of little or no value in disclosing any system. The Highland Society of London sponsored the book at a time when they began to foster a devotion to the MacCrimmon pipers and the histories of various Piobaireachd pieces. Gesto lived on the MacLeod estate and was somewhat an eccentric. In his book of twenty pieces, which he dedicated to the H S L, possibly because of the H S L patronage, he stated his music was taken from John or Iain MacCrimmon. He also wrote a ms. of historical notes regarding these twenty pieces that was discovered and printed in 1883, which he claimed to be based on information from the same Iain MacCrimmon. He gave an authorship of one fifth of his pieces to the MacCrimmons. The book seems to be a record of what was actually sung to him but has a resemblance to the MacArthur style of playing. He retained as personal piper, one Alexander Bruce who was a favourite pupil of Iain MacCrimmon's brother, Donald ruadh who was very likely his actual source. After all is said and done however, the "MacCrimmon system" of playing seems to be nothing more than a MacArthur style! It further seems that Gesto did not have the necessary knowledge or skill to reproduce accurately what he heard from anyone.

(8) Iain Dubh MacCrimmon (1772?-1822) A son of the famous Malcolm MacCrimmon, Iain lived on the MacLeod estate at Dunvegan and was a sometime piper to Norman MacLeod 23rd chief. In 1793, he advised the Highland Society of London that he was established at Dunvegan and prepared to take on pupils. The H S L was at this time hotly engaged in what was called the "Glenelg Experiment". The idea was that men recruited in the Highlands could be taught piping at the barracks in Glenelg. Nothing came of Iain's offer, nor the later offers of others. The whole project was totally unsuccessful.

(9) The Nether Lorn ms. of Canntaireachd, Compiled by Colin Campbell of Nether Lorn over a period of some thirty years, commencing perhaps as early as 1765. It is evident that Colin was not just a player, but also a collector so familiar with the form of Canntaireachd, that he could note a piece as it was being played. The 168 pieces are grouped according to their ground formulae, melody notes represented by vowels and diphthongs, grace notes and movements by consonants. There are no indicators of time, tempo, or phrasing. Sixty pieces are not recorded elsewhere. So precise is the ms. that the author can be seen to change his style under constant revision so that pieces can be translated even when they are not known from any other source. It is a written code, one of the greatest finds in Piobaireachd music, certainly the most advanced graphic form of Canntaireachd that we have.

In 1816 it was shown to the Anglo Scottish judges of the Highland Society of Scotland and these "experts and preservers", in an incredible demonstration of their self-proclaimed "knowledge", demonstrated H S S ignorance by rejecting it as being "utterly unintelligible"! (This was Scotland, where an ignorance of pipe music was to predominate the judging scene for over the next one hundred years!) This musical treasure was rescued in the early twentieth century.

(10) General Charles Simeon Thomason (1833-1911) A man ahead of his time, an engineer officer and avid piper, in 1900, he published over 270 pieces in his book "A Collection Of Piobaireachd As Played On The Great Highland Bagpipes. Ceol Mor". His book inspired a new era in the revival and appreciation of Piobaireachd. Offering special prices to professional and army players it was the first book to put Piobaireachd playing within reach of every player. He was the first to classify pieces into different metrical forms influencing every subsequent Piobaireachd publication. Within a generation, the book inspired the use of staff notation by most pipers.

As the first president of the Piobaireachd Society, he was the first to insist that judging should be in the hands of the pipers, and not in the hands of local gentry or amateurs. He was much concerned over the ever-sharpening pitch of the chanter scale (due to the increased interest in light (non-Piobaireachd) music, especially the note high g, so essential in Piobaireachd playing. However, he was much thwarted by the peasant type of minds of those he tried to help! Nevertheless, this was Scotland.

His book-condensed notation by codifying all gracing movements into symbols so that it was possible to lay out an entire piece on a single page, so intent was he in the pursuit of a fixed pitch that he became the first to encourage the development of synthetic materials to replace cane reeds.

(11) Simon Fraser of Australia (1845-1934).  A certified nut case from Melbourne, who during the early twentieth century, filled the Oban Times with letters claiming that he possessed the Mac- Crimmon "secrets," which he said, used Canntaireachd for religious purposes and secret messages and that he was the only person alive who knew their system of Canntaireachd! It is not known how he arrived at this conclusion, since we have no record of actual MacCrimmon Canntaireachd. It is presumed he was influenced by the Gesto collection of 1828. However, Fraser's settings and Canntaireachd do not correspond to Gesto's, and are of little or no value in disclosing any system or secrets.

Amazingly, in a sort of fantasy that closely parallels an emperor's new clothes scenario, he found adherents to his myth in Scotland! Some wrote the Oban Times that they agreed with Simon Fraser! He in turn blessed them as disciples and they proclaimed his sainthood!

Fraser's father Hugh, 1796-1893, had known both Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto and Iain Dubh MacCrimmon before immigrating to Australia. Simon had lessons in Australia, from Peter Bruce, who had emigrated there also. Peter was the son of Donald Ruadh MacCrimmon's favourite pupil, Alexander Bruce (see footnote #7).

In 1979, Dr. Barrie Orme published in Australia, twenty of Fraser's settings, "The Piobaireachd of Simon Fraser with Canntaireachd". These are very musical pieces and seem to portray a MacArthur style!  Sadly, the bizarre claims of Simon Fraser continue to captivate some.

(12) Archie G Kenneth (-?-) A Piobaireachdologist who for many years contributed interesting articles to the Piping Times, his main field of study seems to have been in the Nether Lorn Ms.

(13) The Highland Society of London Founded in 1778, a club of Anglicised Scottish gentlemen, the higher echelons of Scottish Society, obsessed with the false idea that Piobaireachd was dying, it set itself up as the saviour of same! In an effort to present the music of Piobaireachd to the outside world, they encouraged its music to be written in staff notation for the playing of orchestral instruments, perhaps to prove to their English overlords that the newly formed Scotland was not such a savage place after all. In 1781, the society established the first piping competitions in an effort to set up a standard way of playing and is responsible for the rigidity in Scottish piping today. They further became obsessed with the idea of fixed settings for the benefit of teaching army pipers, fostering on dead accuracy and less expression. Their claim that without their intervention, Piobaireachd would have been lost (in twenty years, they spent £18 on prize money, less than £1 a year), is not supported by evidence! Some hold the view that the H S L ruined Scottish piping.

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