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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter I — Introductory


THIS little book is the first serious attempt made to put the Story of the Bagpipe upon a proper footing, to trace its origin from ancient history, and to examine the claims of Greek and of Latin to its invention.

The task has been to me a fascinating one, and although still far from completion, I sigh farewell to it, with keen regrets.

Some one of more scholarly attainments may one day—nay, will—I hope utilize my labours as a stepping-stone to better things.

I have dallied with the subject for years, for very love of it; not caring much whether I ever finished the book or not.

My Highland instinct discovered the importance of the task before it was well begun; kept me at it— in a fitful manner it is true!—when its magnitude dawned upon me and all but dispirited me; and has guided me in my treatment of it right through the book.

But if not a complete treatise on the Bagpipe, still as a small contribution to the subject it should appeal to the true Highlander, be he situated where you will amidst the busy haunts of men in some great city, or on the confines of the mighty empire, in some secluded spot, the solitary sentinel of civilization.

There are Highlanders, it is true, who have proved themselves false to the old ideals. Such, when they become citizens of the world, deem the two citizenships incompatible, and deliberately sink their national characteristics in the great maelstrom of life, assimilating themselves to their new surroundings like the chameleon, and nervously afraid lest something in dress, manner, speech, or bearing, should betray them, and make known the truth, that they are not quite “like unto these.”

These are the men who, believing a sacrifice necessary, have sacrificed the past to the present; have forbidden Gaelic in the house; made the name of the ’45 anathema, maranatha; suppressed all references to the brave deeds of their forefathers; and tabooed “the tales of old.”

These are the Highlanders who have, in short, turned their backs for ever on the old life, with the pinch and the toil in it, the little pleasures, and the poor monetary rewards; who have preferred for themselves and for their children the stuffy atmosphere of a dingy, ill-ventilated office in some crowded city to the sweet airs, with healing on their wings and fresh from heaven’s hand, which blew round the old homestead ; and who see more beauty in the piles of yellow gold upon the dusty counter, gathered often so wearily and at such a price, than in the glorious purple mountains, girdled by the sea.

There are others who go further than this, and scoff at the land which gave them birth.

Some little time ago I was dining along with a number of other Highlanders in the Grand Hotel, Glasgow. The man on my left roused my curiosity. He seemed out of place in such a gathering although he wore the kilt. I noticed that the kilt was of—we will call it—MacWhamle tartan. He was a tall, stout, rather handsome-looking fellow, with refined—I had almost said overrefined— manners. His speech was very Englified in tone, with here and there a dash of the Cockney in it, and he dropped, or tried to drop, I verily believe, his h’s occasionally, but not with much success. There was not the slightest flavour of peat-reek about him anvwhere. Who are you, and what are you doing here? Why are you making yourself uncomfortable in a kilt?—were some of the questions which I put to myself, but without evoking a reply; for I could see that he fidgetted about in the strange dress a good deal during dinner. At the interval between the second and third courses I was introduced to the stranger as Mr MacWhamle from London.

MacWhamle then was his name, and MacWhamle was his tartan.

“You are from London,” I said.

He bowed largely.

“But I suppose,” I said, looking at his dress, “you came from the Highlands first?”

“I left the Highlands when I was but a boy,” he replied.

“Do you visit the old home occasionally?”

“Never been there since I left.”

“I am glad at all events,” I remarked, “to see you still wear the kilt.”

“Yes,” he answered; but, turning to me as if for sympathy, added quickly, “a d-d uncomfortable dress though! ”

And I could see that he spoke feelingly. A kilt never sits well on a “corporation”; and his kilt kept creeping higher and higher, and growing tighter and tighter, in a way that a kilt alone can do, as dinner proceeded, until goaded to desperation, he stood up and unfastened the waist straps and took the chance of a catastrophe.

One other remark I ventured on to Mr MacWhamle: "Do you like the Bagpipe?”

“Yaas! oh yaas! at a distance”—pause on the word distance—“and the greater the distance the better.”

This was cheery for a Highland Gathering, wasn’t it? It made me feel as if there were something wrong, something out of joint: the Highland Gathering had no right to be there, or friend MacWhamle had got, so to speak, into the wrong shop.

In the King’s Arms Hotel, Kyle Akin, I met another Mr MacWhamle in the following autumn.

He amused himself at dinner-time by running down the Highlands, or perhaps I should say, the Highlander, with a self-assurance in his own wisdom, and with an air of infallibility, that ought to have made—but didn’t—any doubter of this “Daniel come to judgment” blush for shame at his own temerity.

He had one doubter in my daughter, who sat on pins and needles, while this slanderer of the people she loved, rambled along in his pompous way. It was only by constant pressure of the foot under the table that I could restrain her impetuosity. She was boiling over with indignation at each fresh insult, and yet this Solomon blundered along, quite unconscious of how near he was to a living volcano.

And so it came about, that when he appealed to her for confirmation of some heresy, worse than another, not knowing that she was a Skye lassie,—born on the island—he got a look from her that would have annihilated a less sensitive person, and a contradiction along with it as flat as words could make it.

He appeared highly astonished at being pulled up so sharply, and more than a little indignant that any one should venture to question the wisdom, not to say the truthfulness, of his remarks, and dare to tell him plainly that all his fine talk was little better than so much ignorant twaddle. A little colour mounted to his brow,—a small sign of grace I took it to be—as he realized that he had been snubbed, and that he had himself invited the snub; and for a time the smooth flow of his words became broken—his speech halted and limped along painfully.

After a time, however, he seemed to recover his equanimity, and “went” for the poor Skyeman as viciously as before. He would “clear every mother’s son of them out of the island.” He would make Skye a desert, except—oh ! notable exception—for three months in the summer. “To suit the convenience of tourists like yourself?” I put in. He paid no heed to my interruption, but rattled on, heaping abuse upon the islanders. Idle, lazy, ill-fed, ill-clad, content. Oh, the scorn in this rich man’s voice as he said content!

That these people whom he affected to despise, because they preferred the fresh air and the quiet, and the contentment of the country, to the smoky atmosphere, and the noisy streets, and the seething discontent of the town—a people in whose life his unseeing eye could detect no colour but a dull grey; uniform, constant, unvarying—should dare to be content, pained the good man exceedingly.

“Contentment is better than riches,” I ventured to remark; but again he took no notice: he turned a deaf ear to me, and refused to be drawn into a discussion.

He had but one rule, by which he measured everything, the rule of the almighty dollar; the rule of the golden thumb. “Why,” he said, “I had a man rowing me on the loch all day, and he was content with the two shillings which I paid him. If that man went south, sir, he could make thirty shillings a week in the mills, and here he is content to take two shillings for a day’s work.”

The table listened in silence to the well-fed, well-dressed, sleek-looking man as he preached his money gospel.

I did not ask Mr MacWhamle, as perhaps I should have done, why he, a rich mill owner, had refused a millhand’s wage to the old Highlander who rowed him about the loch so patiently all day.

Such are not true Highlanders, and it is not for such that this book is written. The true Highlander, methinks, is one who forgets not the good blood which flows through his veins in spite it may be of a lowly upbringing ; who forgets not to visit the friends of his boyhood’s days, because they have preferred the old and simpler life; who forgets not that his ancestors followed Prince Charlie, not blindly, but with eyes wide open and with ultimate failure staring them in the face, preferring a lost cause with honour to success without it. The true Highlander is one, methinks, for whom not distance from home, nor length of years, can destroy the constant yearning for the old life among the hills ; whose ear detects and loves the soft sweetness of the old tongue; whose heart warms at the sight of the tartan ; and who knows no music, with the story in it, and the charm in it, like the rude wild Pibroch.

And of all Highland things, what is more Highland and what more worthy of being preserved than the Bagpipe?

It grows handsomer as it grows older, and it is as useful to-day as when it led the Roman legions of old. It is as Highland in the streets of London, or in the suburbs of Melbourne, as in the wilds of Stratheric, or in the backwoods of Canada; and will be with us when the tartan is faded and the Gaelic tongue is silent, a signpost to an unbelieving world, reminding it that there once lived north of the Grampians an old and a gallant race—a race of warriors as brave as the world has ever seen.


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