Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter VIII — Wanted: A Book on the Bagpipe


“To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is in labour.”

Robert Louis Stevenson.

SOME time in 1901 there was issued from the well-known publishing firm of Alexander Gardner, Paisley, a rather voluminous work, entitled “The Highland Bagpipe, ” by W. L. Manson.

This volume, containing so much interesting and varied information, must have cost Mr Manson an infinite amount of trouble, and every true Highlander will readily acknowledge his indebtedness to him for the interest he has displayed in, and the learning he has expended upon, the unravelling of the tangled skein of Bagpipe history.

It is so far the only work wholly devoted—as its title indicates—to the “History and Literature and Music of the Pipe.”

It is indeed the only work of the kind in this or in any other language, so far as I know, if we are to except a small French book written by Mersenne in 1631.


Photograph: a small wooden piper playing on a one-drone Pipe. Found al Dinon, in France. Supposed to be taken from an old church when it was being dismantled.
Presented by Miss Ella Risk of Bankier.

With Mr Manson’s goodly-sized volume before us, then, is there any need for another book on a subject interesting only to the few, and about which so little is known?

I think there is.

Is there a demand for a new work?

I believe so. And having the courage of my opinion, I mean at any rate to put it to the test, and if the world proves me in the wrong, by leaving my book to dissolve itself away in the butter shop—Well! better books have gone there ere now, and “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is in labour.” My reason, however, for so thinking is this: Mr Manson’s book has itself created the demand for further information.

His praise like his blame is ill-balanced and somewhat erratic.

He blows hot and cold by turns, and never seems long in the same mood. And it is the unexpected that you meet with more frequently than not on turning over the page.

He says too much or too little. He leaves many interesting questions unanswered, after just whetting our curiosity ; and our hopes of arriving at some safe conclusion are raised at one moment, only to be dashed to the ground at the next.

In short, his opinions, to which one looks for guidance, are too often only half formed, and, like all things in the process of formation, are nebulous and want crystalising.

On this account the reader generally rises from a perusal of Mr Manson’s book unsatisfied, and with a feeling of irritation that is quite intelligible.

He wants something more definite than is there ; he asks for bread, and refuses to be content with a stone.

He wants more definite praise : more definite blame, if you will!

He does not like to be told in one chapter, e.g., that “Some have invented contrivances and modifications for bringing the instrument nearer to all-round music, and are not likely to succeed”; and in the next chapter, to learn that in Mr Manson’s opinion “The Bagpipe is the result of an evolution process, and we may yet see it further improved.”

Nor can one wonder if the intelligent Highlander doubts whether a writer knows anything about the “Pipes,” who asserts that the instrument can be modulated during playing, as the following quotation from this book seems to indicate: “The more hot and deadly the fire became, the more highly strung became the pipers’ feelings, and the louder squeeled the Pipes.”

I don’t want to quarrel with the word “squeeled,” applied to the Pipe, although it is not a very complimentary one, but I may point out, without, I hope, giving offence, that the loudness of the Bagpipe is the same throughout the tune, and does not vary, and is quite irrespective of the feeling of the piper or of the number of bullets knocking about.

We are also informed by Mr Manson that “The old pipers could indeed so regulate their instrument as to make their music almost as sweet as that of the violin, but,” he adds, “sweetness is not the outstanding feature of the Bagpipe.”

I do not know that the old piper could regulate his instrument more than the modern piper. The only regulation is the difference in tone between a soft and a hard set of reeds.

In the tail of the last sentence, you will notice, there is a sting only half veiled.

Such pin pricks meet one at every turn in this work, and are thrown in, I suppose, as a sop to those who dislike the Pipe; but as these are the very people who will never open the book, it is “love’s labour lost” in appealing to their understandings.

But, again, no one has ever attributed sweetness as “its outstanding feature” to the great War Pipe of the Highlands. Kid gloves and sweetness are not always desirable on the battlefield, as we learned to our cost in South Africa, and the Bagpipe is first and above all things a war instrument.

Still many people are pleasurably affected by the Bagpipe even in times of peace; and to such this “rude and barbarous instrument,” while not in itself sweetness, can discourse sweet music pleasantly.

What air, for example, is sweeter than the old Pipe tune “Bonny Strathmore,” or softer and more melodious than “Bonny Ellen Owen,” or more filled with pathos than is that delightful little air called “After the Battle?”

Chevalier Newkomn, the friend and companion of Mendelssohn in his tour through Scotland in 1829, strikes the right key-note in his criticism of the Bagpipe when, in answer to some carping critic, he wrote, “When you traverse a Highland glen you must not expect the breath of roses, but must be content with the smell of heather. In like manner Highland music has its rude wild charms.”

One other and last example well illustrates the difficulty of getting at Mr Manson’s real opinion on any subject connected with the Bagpipe. To say that it has an “actual language,” he calls a “wild fanciful notion.” “Of the speaking power of the Pipes about 75 per cent, exists in the vivid imagination of the Highlander . . . the Bagpipe cannot speak any more than it can fly.”

As it stands this opinion is definite enough ; but what are we to think of the writer when a few pages further on we read the following :—“The Piobrach of ‘Daorach Robbi’ contains the keenest satire ever levelled at the vice of drunkenness. The ludicrous imitation of the coarse and clumsy movements, the maudlin and staring pauses, the helpless imbecility of the drunkard as he is pilloried, in the satire with the ever-recurring notes, 'Seall a nis air’ (look at him now) are enough to annihilate any person possessing the least sensibility.” Is this not speaking! and plain speaking too? If the Bagpipe can express half of the above, if it possess notes that can sneer, and notes that scathe with their keen satire, it has surely an “actual language.” I do not know this marvellous tune by the name of “Daorach Robbi," but if it is the same as the pibroch called “An Daorach Mhor” or “The Big Spree,” it is one of my favourites, and trips out of the chanter with uncertain steps, like a merry Bacchanal. No tune gives my little ones greater pleasure, after they have retired for the night, than this one, the piper playing and acting the tune backwards and forwards along the nursery floor, previously cleared of all impedimenta.

Staggering along to the irregular measure of the pibroch, one can give a very good imitation of a man who is being gradually overcome in his cups. The effect is entirely due to the halting measure of the tune; the satire, if it can be called satire, is eminently good-natured. Tennyson gets a similar effect in his “Northern Farmer”—a rhythmic effect—where he imitates the jog-trot of the farmer’s old mare by the idle refrain “Proputty, proputty, proputty.”


Return to our Book Index Page