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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XIII — A Highland Instrument


TO-DAY is the day of trial for the poor Bagpipe.

Its ancient claims are being challenged one by one. We have already had one example of the professional critic, who would fain have us believe that the Bagpipe is not a musical instrument at all. We are now told that it is not a Highland instrument : the harp is the Highland instrument. It is not even a Scottish instrument: it is an English instrument, and never was a favourite with the Lowlander, and cannot therefore be the national instrument of Scotland. We are further told,—and this by a Celt, and quite recently, too,—that it is not even of Celtic origin ; that we Highlanders took it from the Lowlander, who in turn borrowed it from the Anglo-Saxon : all of which is, to put it mildly, so much ignorant twaddle and tommy-rot. There is an old and well-known proverb which says “Jack is as good as his master,” and it would be strange indeed if the critics of the Bagpipe were limited to those who have a knowledge of music.

A facile pen, and an unscrupulous wit, and a large ignorance of the subject, give a right to the owner of these somewhat doubtful qualities to pronounce off-hand an expert opinion on any matter relating to the Bagpipe or to Bagpipe music. Only yesterday there was a letter in the Glasgow Herald giving an extract from a late number of the Saturday Review, which illustrates this well. The date of the article in the Review is October 24, 1903. The article is from the pen of its musical critic, and continues as follows:—“Of all the faculties known to me the most wondrous I have observed is that which enables a person to appreciate Scottish music,” —poor man, and we are supposed to be living in the twentieth century!—“and to tell the difference between one tune and another. To be more exact, until lately I recognised only two Scotch tunes— one quick, lively, jerky, undignified ; the other mournful and slow. In dances it is the negation of any dignity of movement, and in songs it becomes a mere squeal. The instruments on which Scotch music is performed are three—viz., the human voice, fiddle, and the Bagpipes. Of these the Bagpipes is by far the most horrible. There is no music in its empty belly.”

All the three Scotch (?) instruments are evidently horrible to this cheap penny-a-liner: the Scotch voice, the Scotch fiddle, and the “Scotch” Bagpipe, but of the three “the Bagpipes (sic) is by far the most horrible.” In its empty belly there is indeed no music, but I forbear to press the point : it is too patent.

Could we have a better example of the facile pen, and the unscrupulous wit, and the vast ignorance? Only a month or two since, a Scots lassie, a real Falkirk Bairn—with a “Scotch” voice, I presume —was sent for by Royalty to come and sing to it “The auld Scotch sangs.” But an hundred such incidents would make no difference to this scribbler, who mixes up “Scotch” and Highland matters in delightful fashion, and finds nothing good in either. “Write me down an ass,” said Dogberry: and the breed is evidently not yet extinct.

In the same number of the Glasgow Herald there is a second letter, in which the writer, Mr W. H. Murray, asserts that the Bagpipe is not our national instrument. “It is time,” he says, “that the notion that the Bagpipe is the national instrument of Scotland were exploded. It has never held that place in the Lowlands, and the clarsach (harp) is much older in the Highlands. True the clarsach was supplanted by the Pipe,” etc.

Now it is not true that the harp is older than the Pipe in the Highlands, or at least we have no proof that such is the case; nor was the harp ever supplanted by the Bagpipe. The Bagpipe was the shepherd’s instrument, the instrument of the poor and illiterate, and it therefore remained for centuries unnoticed in the Highlands; the harp was the bard’s instrument, the instrument of the cultured and the powerful, and it was taken notice of from its first appearance: and if the bard and the harp disappeared the Bagpipe was not to blame: but I will take Mr Murray’s assertions and answer them in inverse order. He says, “the clarsach was supplanted by the Pipe.” What authority has he for this statement? It would be truer to say that the clarsach for a time usurped the place of the Pipe. The harp was an innovation in the Highlands at a time when the Bagpipe although of native growth was still only a pastoral instrument, rude, and feeble, and not worthy of mention by the historian, ill suited to the cultivated ear, and all unfit for war as it then was. The bards were the travelled people in those days, and to them the introduction of the harp is due. They picked it up in the South during their travels and retained it, because they found it of great service as an accompaniment to the voice in their incantations or recitations. Its use spread down to the people from the bards, not up from the people to the bards, and I suppose—at least George Buchanan says so—it became popular for a time with the common people, and then declined, not through its usurpation by the Pipe, but because it was quite unfitted to the genius of a warlike race. The old Highlander looked upon it with contempt; he called it a Nionag's or maiden’s weapon, and considered its strings fit only for the sweep of feeble fingers. It is an Anglo-Saxon weapon with an Anglo-Saxon name, and it is not at all likely that the proud Celt would adopt his hated enemies’ instrument, and make it into the national instrument of the Highlands, preferring it to his own native Piob. The name harp is the old English or Anglo-Saxon hearpe and hearpa. In Gaelic there are two words that denote the harp : Cruit, which is just the British crowd or cruth, and the Welsh ctvvth, a kind of fiddle that was played upon with a bow, but without the neck of the modern fiddle; and clarsach, a name evidently given to it from the appearance of the sounding board, clar in Gaelic meaning a plank, a lid, a trough.

If the Highlander had invented the harp he would have given it an original or root-word name, and would not have gone to Saxondom for a title. But this he has not done. The harp also was in universal use among the Anglo-Saxons from the earliest times. It was the minstrel’s weapon par excellence. Early in the 9th century, Alfred the Great, with harp in hand, penetrated the camp of the Danes and learned their secrets, which he turned to good account in the battle which followed. And later on the compliment was returned by the Danes, when one of their leaders entered the British camp disguised as a harper, and picked up much valuable information from the unsuspecting Britons. But nearly four hundred years before this incident in the life of Alfred the Great, the very same method was adopted by the enemy during the siege of York to get news to the besieged, who were on the point of surrendering, as the British had cut off the water supply, and the food supply was all but run done. The leader’s brother, disguising himself as a harper—we are told that be shaved his head, and put on the minstrel’s cloak on this occasion—passed unsuspected through the besiegers’ lines, beguiling the simple soldiers with many songs to the accompaniment of the harp. All day long he sang his way nearer and nearer to the fosse surrounding the doomed city. When night fell he changed his tune ; was recognised by his friends inside the beleaguered town; by means of ropes he was drawn ( up over the walls, and the news which he brought of reinforcements at hand saved the city.

The fiddle also, like the harp, is an Anglo-Saxon instrument, invented by an English Churchman, and called by him a fithele. It was from England that the fiddle spread to other countries. The Norman tongue could not get round this word, and so they called it fiel or viel, which is just the modern viol, with its diminutive violin.

The Bagpipe, on the other hand, is a Celtic instrument, with a Celtic name—Piob-Mhalaidh (Piob and Mala) ; and it seems strange, to say the least of it, that the Highlanders, a Celtic people should be denied having any art or part in the invention of this, their favourite instrument; one, too, which they alone have brought to perfection, and which they alone can play artistically by means of a system of fingering as original as it is effective, and so subtle that it must have taken hundreds and hundreds of years to evolve out of the rude fingering of the past, and make into the fine art which it now is. And, further, is it not passing strange that these same Celts should be accused of borrowing this “ military weapon ” with the Celtic name from the Sassenach. It is difficult to carry the absurd any further, but it has been done! We are bravely told by one learned Highlander—alas, that I should have to write it down !—who is seated high up in the temple of music, and who speaks as one having authority, that the Celt’s Bagpipe is not only an English instrument, but that the English fiddle is the Lowland Celt’s national instrument. Such reckless statements carry their own refutation writ large on the face of them.

Further proofs of their incorrectness will be given from time to time, and the claim of the Bagpipe to be looked upon as a Celtic instrument made good, which latter will be equivalent to proving that it is also a Highland instrument, and not one merely borrowed by the Highlander.

While the Bagpipe of to-day then is thoroughly Highland in character, it is also—as I hold—the only distinctive musical instrument which Scotland possesses, or which Scotsmen all over the world— be they of Highland or of Lowland origin—can justly and proudly claim as their own.

Now, what constitutes a national instrument?

Firstly. It must be distinctive of the nation using it.

Secondly. It must be recognised by other nations as the national instrument.

Thirdly. It must be, and must have been for a long time, a general favourite with the people, and be in general use. I use the word people here advisedly, because it is from the people : from the shepherd and the plough-boy, and not from the lordlings who rule it over us for a day, that all national musics have sprung.

Fourthly. It must be the invention of the race using it, and not merely borrowed from some other nation.

Fifthly. In order to attain this position of national instrument, it must be in consonance with the character and the aspirations of the race.

Sixthly. It must have assisted largely in shaping out the national music by impressing upon it its own peculiarities. I could name other characteristics, but these will suffice for my purpose here. Let us test by means of the above the three musical instruments which have been put forward for national honours.


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