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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter VI — A Royal Instrument


THE Bagpipe is an instrument of great antiquity. All authorities are agreed upon this.

The great Highland Bagpipe, which is the perfected pipe, is also a handsome instrument when decorated with silk tassel and fluttering ribbon, and bright tartan cover. And the piper, with shoulders well back and head erect, is a pleasing sight as he marches backwards and forwards to the rhythm of the music.

There is an old proverb that says, “Handsome is as handsome does,” and here the Bagpipe takes precedence of such puny competitors as harp or fiddle; for of all Scotland’s instruments, what other can compare with it for usefulness? For centuries it has done the nation’s turn handsomely.

It has always been where war’s alarms were thickest, from the day when it led the clansmen at the bloody battle of Harlaw, or piped reveille in Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s camp, or carried a message of hope to the beleaguered garrison of Lucknow ; to but yesterday, when it cheered on the sons of the empire at Elandslaaghte, and stayed the rout on that disastrous day at Maagersfontein.

But again! What other instrument in times of peace has entered so closely into the daily life of the old Scottish Celt? Sweetening the toils of his labours with its old-world songs ; enlivening his hours of recreation with its merry strathspeys and reels; soothing the burden of his sorrows with its plaintive laments.

At once the saddest and the liveliest of instruments, this “antique” appeals from a past that is gone for ever, and—in all its old-world panoply of neuter-third scale with droning bass—challenges attention, and claims a hearing, and will not be denied.

At one time the welcome inmate of the palace, the companion of kings and princes; at another time a dweller in the slums, the associate of wandering minstrels and beggars.

At one moment the darling of the upper classes, made of costly woods inlaid with precious stones, or fashioned with beautiful ivory, with silver keys attached, and clothed in purple velvet rich with the embroidery of fair hands. Anon! The herdboy’s plaything, made of “ane reid and ane bleadir,” deposed from its high position, and driven out of society as “a rude and barbarous instrument.”

When fallen upon evil days, the piper of yore, shouldering his “pipes,” and shaking the dust of the city from off his feet, retired to the old home among the mountains, where he was sure of a welcome from the lonely goatherd, whose favourite instrument it was from the earliest of ages ; whose invention it was; and where he could bide his time waiting for better days. The Bagpipe has in this way survived the royal displeasure, the neglect of the great and wealthy, the denunciation of bard and minstrel, and the criticism of hostile musicians; and it is still a living force in the world.

A Jew, who once visited Strathglass in the Highlands, nearly a hundred years ago, was much struck with the power which this rude instrument wielded over the Highlander.

Now this Jew hated Bagpipe music as he hated the Evil One. When his Highland host, profuse in hospitality to the last, sent a piper to play him some miles on his way at leaving, he returned his hospitality by saying ungraciously—only after he left the Highlands well behind him, you may be sure—“My young Highlander played me on the road five miles, and I would gladly have sunk the portable screech-owl appendage.”

He hated the very name of Bagpipe. To him in his ignorance this love of the Highlander for the Pipe was incomprehensible. He felt himself completely out of touch with a people who could appreciate such music. It annoyed him; and in his wrath he cried aloud, “To think that this squeeling pig in a poke should be the great lever of a people’s passion.”

We want no better testimony than this of the Jew —prejudiced as he was—to the influence and power of the Bagpipe in olden times. “The great lever of a people’s passion ” it was in all verity.

And should this not be so?

Its history is one of which every Scotsman should be proud.

Its power over the Highlanders in Strathglass and elsewhere was not a mere flash in the pan. More than once, as history tells us, the soldier refused to advance in battle except to its music; and under its influence the dying man has often cut his moorings, and drifted out into the unknown sea with a smile on his face.

Its influence over men’s passions goes back to early times as well.

Nor has this power been exerted upon only one race, nor confined to only one age. Centuries ago civilised Europe adopted it as the instrument of instruments. All sorts and conditions of men: Greek, Latin, Roumanian, Bulgarian, Austrian, Hungarian, German, Frenchman, Spaniard, fell under the influence of its sway, and sang or danced to its pipings.

And centuries before this, while history still “lisped in numbers,” the Bagpipe was held in high repute. For are we not told of kingly feet dancing to its music as early as the second century before Christ, and of royal hands fingering the chanter in the first century of the present era? It is of this instrument then that I would speak.,

A handsome instrument withal.

One of the oldest musical instruments in the world, but to all seeming blessed with perpetual youth. It is fresh and vigorous to-day as when it sounded in the ears of Rome’s Imperial master, or when, still earlier, Antiochus, the proud Syrian monarch, danced to its measures. Nor would our late noble Queen, Victoria the Great, have kept a piper if she did not delight in its strange quaint music, so different indeed in character, and in its effect upon the listener, from the cultivated melodies of to-day.

The Highland Bagpipe is as old as the Highlander himself, in spite of what the modern critic says, and notwithstanding the silence of the historian.

The Celt took it with him to the Highlands when he migrated there, along with his household gods, and many another thing not mentioned in history, and not yet labelled in the collections of the antiquary.


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