Reminiscences and the Bagpipe Chapter XII The Musician and the Bagpipe
Sympathy is the key to
truthwe must love in order to appreciate.
WE may safely assert that
lovers of the Bagpipe during last century, to go no further back, were
to be found among all classes in this country, from that of the little
woman who presided over the wash-tub to that of the Great Lady who
presided over the Empires destinies.
Is the Bagpipe then a
musical instrument deserving of the esteem in which it has been held by
many from time immemorial? Or is it only a squeeling pig in a poke,
owing its popularity to the caprices of fashion, and to a corrupt and
depraved taste? As I take up this subject in another part of the book,
it will be as well to confine ourselves here to one aspect of the
question, which will also be in exemplification of what was suggested in
the last chapter.
To make my meaning
perfectly clear, I will put this matter in the form of a question, and
answer it from my own experience.
Is the Bagpipe
intolerable to the trained ear?
Now if we answer this in
the affirmative, then we must add on to it as a rider, that the Bagpipe
is always intolerable to the trained ear.
A further corollary of
necessity follows upon this, viz., The Bagpipe is tolerable only to the
untrained ear; and if this be the case, then is the Storer type of
critic right, and the rest of the world, including myself, who differ
from him, wrong.
To some ears Bagpipe
music is indeed intolerable. The owners of these too sensitive drums are
out of sympathy with the Bagpipe, and honestly hostile to it.
For such there is no
discoverable tune in the music: no time, no melody, no rhythm, nothing
They cannot love,
therefore they do not appreciate.
Other senses are in like
manner at times abnormally developed. The touch of velvet is abhorrent
to certain men and women, and makes them shiver. The colour yellow acts
upon an occasional unfortunate as an emetic.
I know of one medical man
who cannot sleep on a pillow made of a certain kind of ducks feathers
without having an attack of asthma.
And it is a matter of
common knowledge to most of us that a certain number of people cannot
tolerate cats. If one of these keen-scented persons enter a room where a
cat has been he immediately starts to sneeze, whereupon some
superstitious Pagan present cries out on him, God bless you.
Many other good things,
and useful things, and beautiful things, are intolerable to certain
people, because they were born with a kink in their insides. And it
would be as unjust to condemn Bagpipe music on account of one or two
hyper-sensitives, as to condemn all fur and feather and bright colour
because of a handful of cranks.
I wish, however, to speak
here only of the normal ear, whether trained or untrained.
Tis now some twelve
years or more since I had the honour of entertaining Mons. Guillmon, the
great Paris organist, at my house. He had come to open a new organ in
the Falkirk Parish Church, and he put up with me for the night.
During dinner, Pipe-Major
Simpson, an old friend of mine, played to us in the hall. It was
Monsieurs introduction to the Bagpipe, and he evidently enjoyed the new
sensation, but to the neglect of his dinner, which grew cold in front of
him, as he sat in an attitude of wrapt attention, while his busy fingers
beat time on the cloth to the different measures. When dinner was over,
he must go out and see the Pipes for himself, and compliment the
piper. He was veritably lost in wonder as he examined the instrument. It
was astonishing! marvellous! miraculous! how such tres bien music
could be got out of so simple-looking an instrument. And the fingering!
What a timehundreds of years it must have taken to evolve the system
of notes known as warblers! Then he turned to the piper and paid him
many pretty compliments, and Simpson went home that night proud and
happy, with the words of praise from a brother musician ringing in his
While I was writing the
above, and thinking kindly of my old friend who had disappeared out of
our ken for many years, and of his many good parts, I was all
unconscious of what was taking place not many miles away.
In a quiet Glasgow
churchyard, a firing squad from the Maryhill Barracks was standing with
reversed arms by the side of a newly-made grave, and the bugler was
sounding the last post, for the very man who then filled my thoughts.
This was the sad news that reached me on the following morning from
MacDougal Gillies, of Glasgow, the famous pibroch player.
Poor Simpson was a great
favourite with all of us, and more especially with my wife. He
disappeared from Falkirk many years ago, under a cloud. It was nothing
very serious. He got drinking one evening when entertaining, with his
usual generosity, some sailors from Grangemouth, and afterwards
accompanied them to their ship, which was on the point of sailing. When
on board he got into a state of profound stupor, and when he came to
himself he was astonished to learn that he was in Rouen, deserted and
He was proud, and refused
to come back to Falkirk, and to his friends who would have helped him ;
and after a time he was forgotten, but never by me nor by my wife. He
was a modest man for a piper: honest, upright, honourable, generous,
obliging, possessed of a big heart: a soldier every inch of him, and as
handsome a man in the kilt as ever donned one. Requiescat in Pace."
Life size, done in stucco, to he seen at the door of a curiosity shop in
f)inon. Photographed by Miss Risk.
But now to return to my
subject! After dinner, we went to the church, where Mons. Guilmant,
unaided, kept a large audience spellbound for over two hours with a
marvellous performance on the organ.
He was an old man, and
naturally tired with the effort, so, after supper, I suggested bed.
Bed! said he, but I want to hear the piper again.
Now Mons. Guilmant knew
no English, and I was sadly deficient in French. I had therefore some
difficulty in explaining to him that, owing largely to accident of
birth, or, perhaps, to the mislaying of an important paper, I was not a
Highland chief, with the piper one of my tail,although my tale is one
of the piperthat Piper Simpson was an independent gentleman, as
independent as myself, and a good deal more so, who had come down of his
own freewill to do honour to a brother in the craft ; and that he was by
this time most probably sound asleep in bed.
To lessen the visible
disappointment with which my guest received this news, I offered to play
a pibroch to him myself. I was but a poor substitute for the Pipe-Major,
it is true, and proposed judiciously to perforin as far away as possible
from him. He would not have me play anywhere but in the room beside him.
The room was small, being
only about fifteen feet square.
And in this way, it came
to pass, that I got an opportunityno better possible !of testing the
effect of the Bagpipe on the trained ear.
Mons. Guilmant did not
find it intolerable. On the contrary, I had great difficulty in
satisfying his newly acquired taste.
With a book of
piobaireachd in his hand, he called for tune after tune, scanning the
score of each closely as he went along, and so kept me playing on into
the small hours of the morning.
The variety given to the
music by the introduction of grace notes enchanted him, and he announced
his determination to write a piece of music for the organ, in imitation
of the Bagpipe, whenever he got back to Paris.
This must, however, have
proved an impossible task for himas indeed it is for any musician,
however skilfulfor it is well known that the variation known as
Crunluath cannot be put upon any other instrument than the Bagpipe. At
all events, if the attempt were ever made, the result was not
communicated to me.
Let us now listen to the
opinion of one who is not a musician by profession, but who recounts a
somewhat similar experience of the Bagpipe played in a small room.
Mr Manson will not
object, I hope, to being placed outside of the musical profession, for
the time being at least. He is a journalist, I believe, but his opinion
is none the less valuable to my argument on this account. Now, Mr Manson
tells the reader, in his book on the Bagpipe, of how he was once shut up
in a small room, during a Highland gathering in Glasgow, with a piper,
and of the excruciating half hour he spent there listening perforce to
the Bagpipe. In five minutes the big drone seemed, so he writes, to
be vibrating all through my anatomy, while the melody danced to its own
time among the crevices of my brain. . . It was impossible for me to
take my fingers out of my ears. And all the while much-to-be-pitied
mancopy was waiting to be done. Anything more indescribably
disagreeable than that half-hour it is difficult to imagine.
What a contrast in
opinion we have here ! Mons. Guilmant, the great organistmusic his
life-long mistresswho could not have the Pipes too near, nor the
room too small.
Mr Manson, the literateur,
who under similar circumstances of nearness and loudness, suffers the
tortures of the damned, as he sits with fingers glued to his ears,
trying in vain to shut out the tune.
And so when the question
is put, Is the Bagpipe a musical instrument? who are we to believe?
Mr Manson, the historian
of the Bagpipe, whose appreciation of it is at times somewhat doubtful?
Or the charming Frenchmanone of the first musicians of the daywho
listens and admires and has nothing but praise for this old-world
instrument, semi-barbarous though it be?
Do not, however, reader,
imagine for a moment that we are recommending the Bagpipe as a fitting
companion in a small room. I say in this book, and I have said the same
thing over and over again in my lectures, that the Bagpipe, whether
engaged in leading sheep to the green pastures, or men to the
battlefield, was originally an open-air instrument, and in the form of
the piob mhor at least, is unfitted for indoors.
But this is a very
different thing to saying that it is not a musical instrument. We listen
and admire, or profess to admire, the great organ with all its stops
out, or the brass band of full complement roaring its loudest, in a hall
that is no larger in proportion for it than is the small room for the
But in such a detestable
climate as ours, if you will not have piping indoors, then must you do
without it for a greater part of the year.
Now, curiously enough,
and this fact that I am about to mention partly explains and is partly
corroborated by Mons. Guilmants pleasurable sensations from the Pipes
at close quarters, if the Bagpipe must be listened to indoors, then it
is best heard in a small room and not in a large hall.
In the former, ones
sense of hearing very quickly accommodates itself to the loudness which
just at first is excessive, and very soon the air comes out of the
hurly-burly full, clear, and steady, while not a grace note fails to
reach the listener's ear.
In the latter, the echo
coming back from roof and wall, confuses the issue, and the notes trip
each other up as they hurry to and fro, until all semblance of a tune is
lost in the buzzing sound that reminds one for all the world of the
struggles of an enormous bee in a bandbox.
I am perhaps prejudiced
in favour of the Bagpipe: I confess indeed that I am. I love, therefore
I appreciate, and in this way sentiment at odd times takes the place of
As I have said before, I
like modern instruments, with their improved scale and niceties of
expression; but no modern instrument can recall to me the old home and
the old folk, like the dear old Highland Bagpipe.
It is always associated
in my mind with the kilt, and the tartan, and the heather; and the
cheery summery buzz of its drones wakens up within me sunny memories of
the days When we were boys, merry, merry boys, when we were boys
together. Of the days when the world was young, and care was unknown.
When at a wave of the
wand Youth, fairy castles reared their tall heads to the moonlight in
the twinkling of an eye, and brave knights and fair ladies gaily
dressed, sprang to full life and stature like daffodils at the first
breath of spring. When hope whispered in the murmur of the sea, and in
the sigh of the summer air, and in the silence that lurks in the deeps
of the forest.
When the Pipes spoke to
us boys with no uncertain voice, of the great world that lay beyond our
ken : of its mighty cities and gorgeous palaces, full of life and of the
hearts desire ; where fame and fortune, ripe for the plucking, waited
upon the masterful heart and hand at every street corner; and love
lurked behind every window curtain.
When every tune was like
the Lost Pibroch in Neil Munroes beautiful story, and indeed urged us
to the road,the long road,the straight road, the smooth white road,
that stretched itself out through the mountains, to the worlds end and
beyond. Its story was the story thats ill to tell something of the
hearts longing and the curious chances of life. Folks, said the
reeds coaxing, wides the world and merry the road. Heres but the old
story and the women we kissed before. Come, come to the flat lands, rich
and full, where the wonderful new things happen, and the womens lips
are still to try.
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