“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
I think there is.
Is there a demand for a
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
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
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
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
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,