By Scott Williams


The Cairn on the Hill

Piping by the late Pipe Major Robert U. Brown, M.B.E.


Donald Lindsay of the Invermark School of Piping has done a great service to pipers and piping enthusiasts around the world by releasing "The Cairn on the Hill" which features recordings of solo bagpipe music performed by one of the world’s foremost teachers, Pipe Major Robert U. Brown, M. B. E. (1906-1972).

Pipe Major Robert Urquhart Brown was born near Banchory, Kincardineshire, Scotland in 1906. He received his early instruction in piping from Pipe Major Ewing and G. S. Allan. In 1927 he began his twenty years of study with John MacDonald, M. B. E. of Inverness. He won the Gold Medal for Piobaireachd at the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban in 1928 and followed that up with the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting in Inverness in 1931. He went on to win the Clasp at Inverness in 1947 and again in 1951. Brown served as Pipe Major of the Gordon Highlanders through the war years and for about forty years as the Sovereign’s piper at Balmoral where he worked as a stalker and a fisherman, as well as piper, retiring in 1970.

Bob Brown was renowned as a teacher. Many of the top competitive pipers of Scotland made their way to his door and were never turned away. Donald Lindsay, of the Invermark School of Piping in the US, first heard him play in Scotland in 1964 at a funeral where he played "The Earl Of Seaforth’s Salute" in sub-zero temperatures. The quality of the performance nearly blew Donald away! Later still, he heard a BBC Radio broadcast of Brown playing "Lament for Alasdair Dearg MacDonnell of Glengarry" and he had never heard it played that way before. "All the piobaireachd I had been taught was like hearing the music in black and white while Bob Brown was playing in colour," says Lindsay. "He was so expressive."

Donald and his father arranged to bring Bob Brown over to the US to teach at Invermark in 1966, and from 1968 to 1971 he came over every summer during which time he made a number of recordings of the music he was teaching at the School. It was from these tapes that Donald Lindsay later went on to produce the recording being reviewed in this article. Brown’s teaching was, in fact, in great demand worldwide. During an extensive teaching and performance tour of Australia and New Zealand, however, he became ill and died at Balmoral in April of 1972.

While Bob Brown’s death was a great blow to the piping community around the world, his teaching lives on through his many students, a series of commercial instructional CDs, and through recordings of his live performances, such as "The Cairn on the Hill". This CD contains eight tracks, five of which are samples of his vast repertoire of light music and the remaining three are of piobaireachd. Admittedly, Brown was a bit past his prime when the tapes were made, and the pitch of the bagpipe is a bit lower than that of recent years, but these criticisms are insignificant when compared to the historical value of the recordings themselves.

In Track 1, Brown plays three lovely slow airs. John Wilson, who later immigrated to Canada, composed the first tune, "Loch Rannoch", which is followed by two traditional selections, "The Cairn on the Hill" and "Mull of the Mountains". Three competition-style marches, "The Abercairney Highlanders", "Bonnie Ann" and "Leaving Lunga", follow in Track 2 with three strathspeys, "Maggie Cameron", "MacBeth’s Strathspey" and "Tulloch Gorm", and three reels, "Caber Feidh", "Miss Proud", and "The Man From Glengarry", in Track 3. These tunes are commonly heard at Highland Games, but Brown plays them in a free and loose style that is, perhaps regrettably, rarely heard on competition platforms today.

The first piobaireachd, called "Glengarry’s March" or "Cill Chriosd" is featured on Track 4. Cill Chriosd is the name of the Old Church in Muir of Ord, Ross-shire that was said to have been burned down by the Macdonnells of Glengarry. When making a raid on the MacKenzies, the Macdonnells found some of the clan inside, tied the doors shut, set fire to it, and killed all who tried to escape the flaming inferno through the windows. A triumphant victory march or a sad lament? The listener will have to decide.

The disc’s second piobaireachd is found on Track 5. This time it is "Lament for Alasdair Dearg MacDonnell of Glengarry". Alasdair Dearg was the son of Donald of Laggan, for whom another wonderful Lament was composed by Patrick Og MacCrimmon. Alasdair Dearg died before his father and this fine tune was written in his memory.

In Track 6, Brown returns to the lighter music with three more competition-style marches, "Tullochmacarrick" (also known as "Leaving Glenurquhart"), "The 74th’s Farewell to Edinburgh" and "John MacDonald of Glencoe". Track 8 has two more strathspeys, "Lady Madeline Sinclair" and "Monymusk", and two more reels, "Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay" and "The Chief’s Reel". The final track returns to piobaireachd with a performance of "Cronan na Cailliche", The Old Woman’s Lullaby. Also known as "Seaforth’s Lament", this tune is a classic example of the older ‘crooning’ laments and is often played at funerals.

"The Cairn on the Hill" was produced by "Invermark at Home", P.O. Box 143, Thetford VT 05074 USA and should be available wherever piping supplies are sold. You can also check out Invermark’s website at