The present article is an analysis of the literary devices Kirsty Gunn has employed in her novel The Big Music to recreate in writing ceòl mór – also and arguably more commonly known as píobaireachd: the classical music of the bagpipe. This avant-garde experiment blends and incorporates two artistic forms – music and literature – and it does so on a number of levels which I have been able to discuss with the author herself: from sentence structure to thematic exploration and ‘chromatic’ rendering of notes into words. The unexpected, almost hidden, yet prominent role of a female character of the novel in this process also brings a feminist touch to what has been traditionally seen as a male-dominated world: the performative side of bagpiping. The Big Music is the twenty-first century result of traditional connections between píobaireachd and song in Gaelic culture, and literary interface between music/sound and the page encompassing Gaelic poetry and Modernist fiction; in this sense, it is a testimonial of Scotland’s current cultural standing and awareness.
In order to understand the position of The Big Music in a bagpipe-related literary context I provide a few instances of the instrument’s presence in literature, and its role and symbolism, as well as an overview of the structure of píobaireachd. Kirsty Gunn’s choice to focus on píobaireachd rather than bagpipe music more broadly takes the understanding of Scottish music to a higher level. The choice is furthered by her engagement with existing, non-fictional archival material which she inserts copiously in the work, creating an unusual structure. Gunn takes the inspiration for her work from concrete elements of Scottish culture; the choice shows a desire to demonstrate the potential of píobaireachd as a highly distinctive, unique element of Scottish culture.