Reminiscences and the Bagpipe Chapter XI The Delicately-Attuned Ear and the Bagpipe
I have no ear for
THE delight which I took
in Bagpipe music is one of my earliest recollections; a delight which
has lasted until now, and which fades not with the years, but, like the
eagle renewing its youth, rejuvenates with each fresh Spring,an
ever-growing delight, which has stood well the test of half a century.
The first sound to fall
upon my ear, I fain would have it also the last. I have never tired of
it, I never shall tire of it, and I must confess to having a difficulty
in understanding the antipathy which some musicians express towards it.
When I read the adverse criticisms of certain writers who should know
something of musical matters, I cannot help asking myself this question:
Is the love of music confined in the scholar to that of one instrument
only? Or this other question: Can a Doctor of Music not speak
favourably of the Bagpipe without hurting his reputation? Can he not
enjoy its old-world melodies, because the scale to which they are
written is one of neuter thirds?
I am not a musician by
profession certainly, and assume no right to speak as one, but I will
yield to no professional in my passionate love of music of all kinds
when it is good. But I am not ashamed to own that the Bagpipe is my
favourite instrument. This foolish fondness, according to the Storer
gospel, is of course due to my want of ear for music. But I maintain,
in spite of the learned gentlemans judgment, that I have an ear for
music; and who is a better judge? My partiality for the Pipe, however,
does not prevent me, as I have said, from enjoying the music of other
and more modern instruments. I appreciate the Bagpipe the more I hear of
its old-world strains, but I am also a Cosmopolitan in taste where music
is concerned. The solemn organ and the lively fiddle equally affect me
when I am in the mood.
I can even extract
pleasure from the tinkling notes of the common hurdy-gurdy that goes
grinding its slow way along the street. Nor are the pleasings of the
lascivious lute entirely thrown away upon me. But in spite of this, the
warm corner in my affections is dedicated to the Bagpipe. It is just
because I have an ear for other music that I am so pleasurably affected
by Pipe music.
And if I can judge other
lovers of the Bagpipe by myself, I do not think that it is in the least
true to say that it is appreciated only by people who have no ear for
Men of refinement and
letters, artists, actors, soldiers, have professed to find a charm in
Pipe music that is quite peculiar to it, and shared by no other
instrument. Many of the most accomplished musicians of the day have
listened to it with pleasure, and have spoken warmly in its praise. A
great musician in London, who died quite recently, was lecturing some
years ago to a mixed audience which included more than a sprinkling of
Highlanders. It may have been to please the latter although I hardly
think sothat he told them, among other things, of the fascination the
Scotch Bagpipe had for him. No matter what his business might beno
matter how pressingif he heard the sound of the Pipe down some alley or
side street he immediately turned aside from the business in hand and
set off in quest of the piper, and having found him had one or two quiet
tunes all to himself.
It was not to the fiddle
nor to the harp, but to the Highland Pipe that Mendelssohn went for his
inspiration when he was composing his Scotch symphony.
Mr Murray, the modern
critic, can find no inspiration, Scottish or otherwise, in the Pipes. I
would like very much to see a new Scotch symphony written by him, or any
one else however competent, with Bagpipe music and all that it stands
for left out.
I give here one or two
examples out of many, shewing the fascination which the Bagpipe exerts
upon people of different tastes, and in different walks of life.
One day, when far from
home, Gordon Cumming, the lion hunter, lay tossing uneasily upon a bed
of sickness, which ultimately proved to be his deathbed. Sleepless and
exhausted, his thoughts turned to the old home in the Highlands, and to
the old music that he loved as a boy, and he cried aloud in his
anguishOh! for a tune on the Pipes. His wish was granted almost as
soon as spoken, in quite a miraculous manner, but with that we have
nothing to do here.1 It was the distinguished
travellers yearning for the Bagpipe at the greatest crisis in a mans
life,this instrument, so despised of somethat claims our attention.
Again, when Cameron of
Fassifern, who fought and fell at Quartre Bras, was told by the surgeon
that he was dying, and that there was no hope for him, he called to his
piper, Come here, MVurich. Play me the Death Song of the Skyemen. My
forefathers have heard it before me without shrinking.
Orain an Aoig, said the
piper, shouldering his Pipes ; and as the mournful notes of the lament
rose above the din of battle, and floated along on the soft morning
breeze, the spirit of the heroone of Scotlands truest sons and
best!passed away on the wings of the music he so loved.
Some years ago there was
a gathering of Highlanders in a Glasgow hotel. Old men who had grown
grey in the service of the great city were there, and young men fresh
from their native glens.
It was a night of
Highland song and
sentiment ruled with undisputed sway, and of these the Gaelic song and
the Gaelic word held first place in the esteem and affections of the
Over and over again the
applause which greeted speaker and singer was hearty and prolonged ; and
between song and speech there was the constant buzz of animated
conversation, which proclaims a meeting in harmony with itself, while a
cloud of tobacco smoke mingling kindly with the aroma of the water that
comes over twenty faals, rose heavenwards with a sweet incense that
assailed grateful nostrils.
When the piper at length
marched up the room playing the Pibroch of the evening, a Lament in
whose notes there throbbed the sorrow and the sadness of the broken
heart, a hush fell upon the room.
On the face of more than
one that evening, as the Pibroch shook itself down into the full steady
rhythm of the melody, there came a far-away dreamy lookthe look of the
taibliseadciir or seer.
The spell of the music
was upon these children of the mist, stirring up the old Celtic
imagination, and tenderness, and love of nature.
And the dreamer,
forgetful of companions, forgetful of the palatial hall in which he sat,
forgetful of the wakeful city outside, forgetful of the pipe which had
gone cold between his fingers, was back once more in the little thatched
cottage at the head of the glen, taking a boys delight in stoning the
ducks in the pool at the bottom of the garden, or in harrying over again
the field bees nest for the sweet morsel of honey that was hidden
there. Or it might be that the dreamer was thinking of the warm autumn
days when he trudged barelegged and bonnetless through the growing corn,
hot on the heels of the thieving cattle, or when tired and drowsy at the
end of the day, he sat in the firelight and listened to his mother
singing the old songs timed to the soft whirr of the busy
When the last note of the
Pibroch had died away, these dreamers awoke from their dreams, and
joined in the well-deserved applause to the piper that thundered forth
from every part of the room, shaking the window frames like so many
giant rattles; making the wine glasses jingle joyously on the table, and
the lamplights dance in their sockets.
On the same evening that
this gathering of Highlanders took place, and almost within earshot of
the sounds of revelry, which continued far into the nightunder the
very same roof indeedquite a different part in lifes drama was being
In a little room
upstairs, as far away as possible from the noise and din of the city,
there lay a sick man who for days had been so near to deaths door that,
as Tom Hood once said, he could hear the creaking of its hinges. Now
this sick man was tired of everything around ; I had almost said, tired
of life itself; he was tired at anyrate of his own company; tired most
of all of the necessary quiet enjoined upon him by his medical
To his listening ears
there stole up from the room below the sound of the great Highland
Bagpipe. The cheery buzz of the drone carried with it into the sick room
a message of hope and life. It swept through the chamber like a breath
of clear mountain air, heather-scented. It revived like a deep draught
of clear cold water on a hot day. For many days the whole world had
stood on tiptoe, expectant, at that chamber door, hopingay ! and
prayingthat the shadow which now darkened it would quickly flee away ;
that the man who lay there would appear once more with renewed health
and vigour to delight it with his art as he had so often done before.
Ringing the bell for the
manager, the invalid asked him, when he appeared, if he could tell him
where the music was coming from.
And when he learned that
there was a gathering of Highlanders downstairs, he said, I am very
fond of the Pipes. Do you think the piper would come up, if I requested
him, and play me a tune? When the Highlanders heard that Sir Henry
Irvingfor it was the great actor, and none other, who lay ill
upstairscraved for a tune, they at once sent the piper to him. The
invalid had his hearts desire gratified, as that proud functionary,
marching up and down the passage opposite the sick room, and putting his
whole soul into the playing, threw off in quick succession march,
strathspey, and reel.
When the music ceased,
Irving called the piper into his room, and shook hands with him kindly,
and thanked him warmly for the treat which he had given him.
Sit down beside me, he
said, and I will tell you a story of the Bagpipe. It was during one of
my first visits to Glasgow that I first heard it. I was acting in a
piece called The Siege of Lucknow, which was staged on the boards of
the old Theatre Royal in Dunlop Street. The scene was the interior of
the Residency, the outer walls of which had been battered down almost to
the ground. A group of listless, pale-faced, starving women some with
little children in their armscould be seen listening to Jessie Brown,
as she recounted her dream of the morning to them, and prophesied
assistance at hand ; while outside, keeping the rebels at bay and
waiting calmly for the last assault, stood a band of soldiersfew in
numbers, and wasted with disease, but still determined.
At this moment I had to
march on to the stage, and my advance was the signal for the Pipes to
strike up. The piper began to play outside of the theatre, I think, and
advanced slowly into the house, marching round the back of the stage.
The effect was magical. I shall never forget the wave of enthusiasm
which swept over that great audience, as the first notes of the Pipe
fell upon their ears the Highlanders were coming; Jessies dream was
answered ; and Lucknow was relieved. I have loved the Bagpipe ever
I do not pretend to give
the exact words of the story which Sir Henry Irving told to the piper,
nor could I expect to rival his eloquent manner of telling it, but I
have given the gist of it correctly as told me by the piper.
Two Specimens ok Irish Stocks with
Regulators and Drones.
The one on the left hand of the picture presented hy Mr David Glen, of
By this ingenious arrangement the drones and regulators are brought
within easy reach of the bellows arm.
Having finished his
story, Sir Henry once more complimented the piper on his playing, and
well he might, for the player was one of the best in Scotland, and a
champion of champions. But not content with thisah ! kind heart now at
rest!he pressed upon his acceptance at parting a handsome golden
souvenir in remembrance of the occasion.
Here was a man most
delicately attuned to harmonies of all sorts, to harmonies in colour as
well as in sound, asking of his own free will for a tune on the great
Highland Bagpipe at a time too, when mere noise would be intolerable.
In 1901 I happened to be
in Camp at Barry with the Stirlingshire Volunteers. I there had the
pleasure of meeting with Dr Anderson of Arbroath, who was acting as
Brigade Surgeon. We soon became very great friends, and one day he told
me that he was very fond of music of all sorts, but that the violin
wasif I remember aright?his favourite instrument. Nothing, however,
moved him so strongly, he said, as a Highland lament on the Bagpipe. I
had many opportunities during the pleasant month I spent in camp of
verifying his statement ; because when he found out that I was a little
bit of a piper myself, it was a rare day that did not find the Colonel
at my tent in quest of a tune at midday when the camp was quiet.
There, reclining upon the
little bed which served during the day for a couch, he called at his
ease for his favourite piobaireachd, and listened, as he sipped slowly
of the cool deep draught of Fashoda, that lay ready to his elbow.
I at first played bright,
cheery pieces to him, such as Huair mi pog o laimh an RigJi (I got a
kiss of the Kings hand) and Maol Donn ( Mac-Crimmons
Sweetheart), or war pieces in keeping with the camp life around, with
the ring of battle in them, like The Piobroch of Donald Dhu and Cath
fuathasac, Peairt (The Desperate Battle). But one day he asked me for
a Lament, and I gave him that masterpiece of Patrick Mor MacCrimmon,
Cumha Na Cloinne (The Lament for the Children). When I had got the
piece well under way, I looked round at my companion to see how he was
enjoying the melody. Big tears were coursing each other down his cheeks.
Afraid that I had recalled some unhappy memories to the old man, who had
hitherto been so bright and cheery, I ventured to stop playing, when he
cried out, Go on, go on, never mind my tears, I am enjoying myself
entirely; I am perfectly happy. After this I always played my laments
to a finish in spite of tears.
I could give many
instances of the attraction the Bagpipe possesses for the better
classesmen and women, highly-trained in the fine arts, well educated,
and with delicately attuned ears, but space forbids.
It hasI need hardly
sayalways had an attraction for the masses, a fact which no one
denies, but on the contrary some writers have used this fact to its
disparagement, as if only the wealthy classes could enjoy good music.
One little story showing
that the masses still love it will therefore suffice. Early one summers
morning I was practising in the garden at the back of the house. A poor
widowa washerwomanwho was hurrying along to her work heard me, and
stopped for a moment to listen. Just for one little moment.
The moment lengthened
itself out into minutes ; so, concealing herself behind one of the gate
pillars, where she could hear and not be seen, she remained rooted to
the spot, oblivious altogether of time, and of the clothes that were
waiting to be washed, and of the angry lady behind the clothes ; and in
this way she lost her engagement for the day rather than miss one note
of the music. But I didnt mind that, she said to a neighbour, who
told me of the circumstance long after; the music was worth it.
Similar testimony, only multiplied a hundredfold, might be produced
here, but space forbids, and it seems to me absurd, with such testimony
before us, to say that the Bagpipe is only for those who are incapable
of appreciating music.
I have no ear. Mistake
me not, reader, writes Charles Lamb, nor imagine that I am by nature
destitute of those exterior twin appendages, hanging ornaments, and
(architecturally speaking) handsome volutes to the human capital.....I
was never, I thank my stars, in the pillory.....When therefore I say
that I have no ear, you will understand me to meanfor music.
We are not all so honest
to-day as Charles Lamb was when he wrote the above confession. And I
have more than a suspicion that it is the people without an ear for
music who oftenest sneer at the Bagpipe, in the vain hope of thus hiding
their own defect.
These people, in short,
knowing nothing of music themselves, have been content to take their
opinions from the scorner, and having no discrimination or judgment of
their own, hug the delusion that the Bagpipe is a safe Aunt Sally for
every earless person to shy at; or think because they have heard it
called by one who should know better a barbarous instrument, capable
only of making an intolerable noise, that they, too, may safely pose as
hostile critics of this fine old instrument.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.