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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter VII — The Why and the Wherefore


“To mind the inside of a book is to entertain one's self with the forced products of another man’s brain. Now, I think a man of quality and breeding may be much amused with the natural sprouts of his own.”

Lord Foppington in The Relapse.

GENTLE READER, if you wish to know the why and the wherefore of this little book, written in our so-enlightened twentieth century, upon so archaic a subject as the Bagpipe, these are to be found—if I have made myself at all intelligible—in the introductory chapters.

As, however, you may not care to wade through what are, after all, little better than half-forgotten reminiscences, loosely strung together, and probably interesting only to the writer of them, I will here state shortly the reasons which have induced me to take up the pen—an instrument which I most thoroughly detest!—and appear before the world as an author at a time of life when most men seek seclusion and ease.


The bag made from the whole skin of a small doe or gazelle. The blow-pipe, which is carved, is the leg-bone of a flamingo or other bird. The horns are used as terminals to the double reed of the chanter.

The first reason then is this. In my youth everything Highland was discouraged and held up.to ridicule. The old language, the old dress, and the old music shared a common fate. The Highland sentiments which found untrammelled expression in private when we boys were alone of an evening, telling stories round the garret fire, and which should have been treasured and guarded as a something “better than rubies,” were ruthlessly stamped out. The Highland instincts with which I was born, and which should have been zealously fostered and nursed into full growth by my parents, were severely repressed.

And this book is the outcome of the reaction which set in after mature years.

It is my protest against a treatment which might have destroyed—but which, luckily for me, did not do so—all those Highland tendencies and aspirations of my youth, to which I still cling as to something that is dearer than life, and which makes it possible for me to-day—for me, who, perforce, have lived the better part of my life among the cities of the plain—to “turn mine eyes to the hills,” when in travail, as did of old the sweet Singer of Israel, and to say in all sincerity and love, “My heart’s in the Highlands.”

My next reason is this!

Scotsmen—not to say Highlanders—have shewn themselves, by their writings and otherwise, wondrously ignorant of the main subject of this book—the Bagpipe and Bagpipe music.

Take for example these common words—slogan, coronach, and pibroch.

Slogan, I need hardly say, is the war-cry or gathering word of the clan. And yet in the latest and only book on the Bagpipe, Mr Manson (p. 133) gravely tells us that the piper “ began to play the slogan of the clan.”

I hold in my hand at this moment a piece of music sent to me from Aberdeen, and set to the “pipes,” entitled “General Hector MacDonald’s Coronach.”

Coronach, cronach, is a crying or shouting together; from comh (together) and ranach (an outcry). It is the wailing and clapping of hands by the old women gathered round the bier. It is the kreen or keen of the Irish, and is still practised in Ireland. It has nothing to do with pipe music and never had ; and yet a gentleman who, if not a Highlander, appears constantly in the Highland dress, and is looked upon by many as one of the leading exponents of Highland music, writes a piece of Bagpipe music, and calls it “General Hector MacDonald’s Coronach.” How this mistake in the meaning of the word coronach arose, or when, I do not know, but it was some time after the ’45. The earliest example known to me occurs in a book written in 1783 by one W. F. Martyn, where he says “The Highland funerals were generally preceded by Bagpipes, which played certain dirges called coronachs.”

Now the dirge on the Bagpipe is a lament (Gaelic, cumha) and not a coronach.

But even Logan in “The Scottish Gael,” 1831, mixes up the cum ha or lament of the “pipes” with the coronach or lament of the old women. In vol. ii.. pp. 284-5, he says, “The piobrachd, as its name implies, is properly a pipe tune, and is usually the crunneachadh or gathering, but also - includes a cumha, coronach or lament, and a failte, salute or welcome.

And to make sure that his meaning shall not be mistaken, he adds, “Their characters are much alike, with the exception of the coronach, which is of course particularly slow, plaintive, and expressive.”

John Hill Burton, the historian, makes a double blunder in the use of this word. He talks of a war coronach. In his “Life of Simon, Lord Lovat,” published in 1847, we read, “Before these outrages”—perpetrated by Simon—“the Frasers seem to have been enjoying a degree of repose and tranquility, which in their hot mountain blood must have been felt as an unwholesome stagnation. It would be to the delight of their fierce natures that one morning the war coronach was heard along Stratheric and Strathglass, and the crossterie or fiery cross passed on. It may be said that the “war coronach” here means war pipe, and not a pipe tune at all ; the word, of course, has no such meaning.

Fifty years later, Dr. Walter C. Smith, writing in “Kildrostan,” says “Eachain Macrimmon is playing a coronach, as it were for a chief.”

No wonder that with such authorities before them, smaller writers are busy to-day perpetuating a blunder, that an acquaintance with the great writers of the past should have prevented them from ever making.

Simon, Lord Lovat, in a letter to President Forbes, date 1745, writes, “If I am killed here it is not far from my burial place; and I will have, after I am dead, what I always wished, the cronach of all the women in my country to convey my body to the grave ; and that has been my ambition when I was in my happiest situation in the world.” This wonderful man, whose whole career was full of strange happenings, and of whom it might be said with truth, that “ Men’s bad deeds are writ in brass, their good deeds writ in water,” had the unique experience of hearing his own coronach. Knowing that their captured Chief was already as good as dead; knowing full well that they would never see his face again, now that a cruel government had got hold of him, the wail of the old women, singing his coronach, followed the litter on which lay Morar Shime—long a helpless cripple from gout—as he was being carried through his own beloved country of Stratheric on his way to London and the scaffold.

In “Humphrey Clinker,” published about 1771, Smollet says: “attended by the coronach of a multitude of old hags who tore their hair.”

And, again, Pennant, who published his book in 1774, mentions “the coronach or singing at funerals.” While Sir Walter Scott, in 1814, writes, “Their wives and daughters came clapping their hands, and crying their coronach, and shreiking.” These three things together—the shreiking, and crying, and clapping of hands—constituted the coronach.

The third word, pibroch (Gaelic, piobrachd or piobaireachd), is also being constantly misapplied for Bagpipe and march.

I am often asked, “ How is the piobrach getting on?” meaning how is the Bagpipe getting on ; and a few weeks ago I took the following quotation from a daily newspaper:—

“Ichabod is the watchword for the Highlands and Islands, and the piobrach may skirl the lament,” etc.

Writers constantly talk of marching to piobrachs, which is a little absurd, when we remember that the piobrach is a piece of classical music, in which the time is constantly varying from the largo or andante of the air (Gaelic, nrlar) to the allegro of the closing movement, the crunluadh, and cannot therefore be marched to.

In poetry this use of the word piobrach is perhaps permissible.

“Sound the piobrach loud and high,
Frae John-o-Groats to Isle of Skye!”

As this old song has it, it is at least poetical, although it is really the Pipe which is sounded.

In Lord Byron we read, “For when the piobrach bids the battle rage;” an expression that offends neither eye nor ear, although not correct, strictly speaking.

And Miss Mary Campbell, in “The March of the Cameron Men/’ that proudest and most patriotic of Highland songs, makes the chorus repeat again and again :—

“I hear the piobrach sounding, sounding,
Deep o’er the mountain and glen,
While light-springing footsteps are trampling the heath,
’Tis the march of the Cameron men.”

One poet, in that well-known song, “The Hundred Pipers, and a’, and a’,” even goes the the length of making the soldiers, after they had crossed a swollen river, dance themselves dry to the piobrach’s sound. Now piob is the pipe, piobair the piper, and piobaireachd the piper’s special music, and the one should never be substituted for the other.

A third reason for taking up the pen is this.

I have got together a collection of Bagpipes belonging to various peoples and countries, which will, in all probability, one day get scattered. It is the fate of most collections of curios; and I wish to perpetuate by means of photo-illustrations in this book not only the pipes, which are interesting in themselves, but the many lessons to be learned from a study of them.

And my last reason for venturing upon the troublous sea of authorship, at this time, must also be my justification.

I have got a message to deliver to my brother Highlander!

When Mr Carnegie of Skibo Castle was addressing the students of St. Andrews University as their recently appointed Lord Rector, he spoke with the light of the flaring torches reflected from a hundred opposing windows, bringing into relief, out of the darkness, the faces of the great crowd that surged in the street below. And he finished up a happy speech with words to this effect—‘‘Let your motto be, ‘I will carry the torch of truth into the dark places of the world.’” These words, spoken under such circumstances, had an added significance that must have impressed itself upon the receptive youths around. Now the history of the Bagpipe needs illuminating badly. It is one of the dark places of the world, so to speak. I believe that I can throw some light upon it. My torch may be only a rushlight, but if it brings into view a single hidden truth, however small, I have no right to hide it under a bushel. “Let your light so shine, that it may be seen of all men/’ is the command of the Master.

It is enough for me then, that I think I have some truth to unfold, something new to say, or something to say in a new way, and this must be, after all, my sole justification for troubling an already book-ridden world with one more volume.


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