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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XI — The Delicately-Attuned Ear and the Bagpipe


‘I have no ear for music.”—Elia.

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 gentleman’s 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 music.”

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 so—that he told them, among other things, of the fascination the Scotch Bagpipe had for him. No matter what his business might be—no matter how pressing—if 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 anguish—“Oh! 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 traveller’s yearning for the Bagpipe at the greatest crisis in a man’s life,—this instrument, so despised of some—that 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, M‘Vurich. 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 hero—one of Scotland’s 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 conviviality.

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 listeners.

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 look—the 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 boy’s 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 spinning-wheel.

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 night—under the very same roof indeed—quite a different “part” in life’s drama was being played.

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 death’s door that, as Tom Hood once said, “he could hear the creaking of it’s 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 attendant.

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, hoping—ay ! and praying—that 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 Irving—for it was the great actor, and none other, who lay ill upstairs—craved for a tune, they at once sent the piper to him. The invalid had his heart’s 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 arms—could 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 soldiers—few 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; Jessie’s dream was answered ; and Lucknow was relieved. I have loved the Bagpipe ever since.”

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 Edinburgh.
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 this—ah ! 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 was—if 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 King’s hand”) and “ Maol Donn” (“ Mac-Crimmon’s 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 classes—men and women, highly-trained in the fine arts, well educated, and with delicately attuned ears, but space forbids.

It has—I need hardly say—always 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 summer’s morning I was practising in the garden at the back of the house. A poor widow—a washerwoman—who 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 didn’t 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 mean—for 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.


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