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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XII — The Musician and the Bagpipe


“Sympathy is the key to truth—we 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 Empire’s 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 but noise.

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 duck’s 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 Monsieur’s 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 time—hundreds 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 ears.

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 alone.

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 piper—that 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 opportunity—no 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 him—as indeed it is for any musician, however skilful—for 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 man—“copy” 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 organist—music his life-long mistress—who 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 Frenchman—one of the first musicians of the day—who 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 “Pipes.”

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. Guilmant’s 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, one’s 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 argument.

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 heart’s 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 Munroe’s 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 world’s end and beyond. “It’s story was the story that’s ill to tell —something of the heart’s longing and the curious chances of life.” “Folks,” said the reeds coaxing, “wide’s the world and merry the road. Here’s 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 women’s lips are still to try.”


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