Reminiscences and the Bagpipe Chapter XV The Scottish Bagpipe
I have tried to prove in
the preceding chapter not unsuccessfully, we hopethat the Bagpipe is
the only distinctive musical instrument which Scotland possesses.
Do other nations
recognise the Piob Mhor as distinctively Scottish, and not as merely
This is the second test,
and is also a very important one.
At a time when England
and Scotland were still separate nationalities, although under one
crown, Otway, the English poet, who wrote his first play in 1674, said
on one occasion, A Scotch song! I hate it worse than a Scotch Bagpipe.
The Author looks upon this
Pipe as the most valuable in his collection. It was bought for him by Mr
W. S. Macdonald, of Glasgow, and has a very sweet lone.
A Relic of Waterloo "
Inscribed upon the silver
plate is the following :
Prize given by the
Highland Society of London to John Buchanan, Pipe-Major to the 42nd or
R.. Highland Regt.Adjudged to him by the Highland Society of Scotland
at Edinburgh, 20th July, 1802.
The Bagpipe was at the
zenith of its fame in the Highlands, andwith the exception of the
bellows pipehad largely died out in the Lowlands, when Otway made this
spiteful remark. It was the golden age of the Piper in Skye. Many of our
best Piobaireachd first saw the light there, while everywhere in the
Highlands at this time similar music was being written. We can compose
no such fine music for the Bagpipe to-day as the old pipers composed in
those days, without any seeming effort. The name of MacCrimmon was
familiar as a household word wherever the soft Gaelic tongue was spoken,
when of Lowland Pipers of fame there were none, and yet Otway writes of
the Bagpipe in his day as Scotch.
At the battle of Quatre
Bras, when the Seventy-Ninth Highlanders had formed up to receive a
charge of French cavalry, Piper McKay stepped proudly out of the
newly-formed square, and, planting himself on a hillock, where he could
be seen and heard of all, played that well-known pibroch grandest of
war piecesCogcidh Na Shie as unconcernedly as if on parade, with shot
and shell flying all around him. A similar example of pipers bravery
was given at Waterloo, under the eye of Napoleon himself, who might in
all truth have said, Ah! brave Highlanders! instead of Ah! brave
Scots! when he heard the war-pipe sound, and saw the tartan wave, and
witnessed with amazement his best troops dash themselves in vain against
those thin walls of Highland steel ; but there was none ot that
hair-splitting, pettifogging spirit about this greatest of great
soldiers, which some modern critics display ; those critics who would
divide us^ into Highland Scot and Lowland Scot, and who unblushingly
assertor at least insinuatethat the Lowlander is unwilling to accept
any gift which comes to him with the Highland taint upon it.
To the French Emperor the
Bagpipe and the kilt characteristically Highland bothrepresented
Scotland and Scotland alone.
Once again, when
Mendelssohn, the great composer, came over to Scotland that he might
study on the spot the native music, he spent three whole days passing
out and in of the old Theatre Royal in Edinburgh, during a competition
that happened to be going on there, listening to the Bagpipe, because to
him it was the instrument par excellence of Scotland; it was here first,
and afterwards in a visit to the Highlands where he again studied the
Bagpipe amidst its proper surroundings, that he caught the inspiration
for his Hebrides overture and for his Scotch Symphony.
Now as with the English,
and the French, and the German, so with other nations. I have myself
visited many foreign countries, and met with many different peoples, and
the invariable exclamation of the intelligent foreigner, on seeing or
hearing the Highland Pipe, was Ah! Scotch!
To the educated
foreigner, indeed, who often takes a broader view of our country than we
ourselves do, Highland and Lowland are unknown. There is but one nation.
Scotland; and but one people, the Scottish; and but one national
instrument, the Bagpipe.
We will now glance
shortly at the other conditions laid down before proceeding to the
subject proper. The Bagpipe is the only one of the three instruments
mentioned which was not borrowed from Roman, Teuton, Angle or Dane, but
which has sprung from the people, and grown with the growth of the
The fiddle, as we have
said before,a statement which we cannot reiterate too often,was the
invention of an Englishman, a Churchman, who, after a time, made his
home in France, where he ultimately died, and it is an Anglo-Saxon
instrument. It is only of comparatively recent introduction in the
Highlands, and it never attained any great popularity there.
The harp, also an
Anglo-Saxon weapon, was the one favourite instrument of the minstrel
class: a class far removed from the common crowd. At one time, indeed, a
most exclusive class, proud, haughty, and reserved: holding itself
always in touch with royalty and aloof from the commonality. It never
was in universal use in Scotland, although for a short time it may have
been fairly common among the upper classes, especially in the West
On the other hand, the
Bagpipe is Celtic, like the people who in Caesars day inhabited the
island from Lands End to John o Groats. The little pastoral pipe of
the Celt, made of ane reid and ane bleddir, was in universal use in
the Lowlands as well as in the Highlands at the beginning of the
fifteenth century, as history informs us. The fiddle was only coming
into use at this time in the Lowlands, and was not much thought of, and
in the Highlands it was practically unknown.
Now, this fact that the
Bagpipe was in early use in the Lowlands, and a favourite with the
common people, is fatal to Mr Murrays argument. In the Lowlands, he
says, it never had a footinghe has evidently not read The Complaynt
of Scotland, or studied the old exchequer rolls. He agrees with Mr
McBain of Inverness, who blindly follows Sir A. C. McKenzie, in the
opinion that it came from England into the Highlands, but evidently
thinks in opposition to McBainthat it skipped the Lowlands on its way
thither. Mr McBain tells us, indeed, that it came into the Highlands
directly from the Lowlands, where it had been in use for a hundred years
and more, before the Highlanders knew anything about it. Who are we to
believe? The simplest way to get over the difficulty is to believe
neither party, as both are hopelessly at sea on this question. The Pipe
did not come from England into Scotland ; it was the common property of
the Celt in England, and in Ireland, and in Scotland, in the early
centuries, and did not require to be borrowed by the one from the other.
In The Complaynt of
Scotland, a book written in the southern Lowland dialect in 1548 or
early in 1549, the names of the musical instruments and of the dances
then in vogue are given, and the two first instruments on the list are
two Bagpipes of different species. This alone, without any further
proof, marks its popularity in the Lowlands. The fiddle, which Sir A. C.
McKenzie would force upon us as a national instrument, is mentioned only
seventh on the list, and the poor harp, which Mr Murray gives precedence
to over the Bagpipe, is not recognised at all.
We have historical proof
that the Bagpipe was well known in Scotland while the twelfth century
was still young, and if we cannot give written proof of a still earlier
use, it is because there is no earlier history of Scotland written.
Where history fails common-sense steps in, and tells us that it must
have taken centuries to evolve out of the simple Pipe of ane reid and
ane bleddir the rich full-toned Pipe that played at the Court of King
David, and delighted the ear of many an old warrior, grim and stern, who
had won his spurs on the field of Bannockburn, and that it was also
first known in its simpler form to the humble shepherdthe only solace,
indeed, of his lonely vigilscenturies before the first Scottish
historian was born.
This little pastoral
Pipe, however; this little Pipe of one reed, had become as early as the
reign of King Davidand probably much earlierthe Great Pipe, worthy of
the historians notice: the now famous War-Pipe of the Highlander, and
was then and then onlyable to voice the feelings of a warlike race. It
is in truth the greatest war instrument which the world has ever seen.
To-day it stands pre-eminent on the battlefield, where it first became
famous, and there such feeble-voiced instruments as the fiddle and the
harpits two great rivalscannot be compared with it for one moment.
But, lastly, the Bagpipe
has assisted largely in forming the distinctive music of the country
Scotlands national music. Without the Bagpipe what would Highland music
be? As other music. And without Highland music what would there be to
distinguish Scottish music from English, or French, or German? The
characteristic Lowland Scotch music would still be Lowland Scotch no
doubt, but without the characteristic.
Mr Murray says, My
principal object in writing was to protest against the generally
accepted view that the Bagpipe is the national instrument. Whilst the
Highlander adopted it and made much of it, in the Lowlands it never had
a footing. We have already shown that the Highlander did not adopt it,
and that it had more than a footing in the Lowlands where it was,
indeed, the principal or favourite musical instrument with the peasantry
for hundreds of yearseven as early as the fourteenth century.
Our wealth of Scottish
folk-music, he continues, has no affinity with the Bagpipes (sic), and
very many of these old airs were sung in our Scottish homes, long before
the Bagpipe found its way from England to the Highland hills and glens.
Again the same false
assumption, for which there is not one jot or tittle of proof, that the
Bagpipe came from England. The Bagpipe did not come from England ; and
Scotch folk-music has many affinities with Pipe music. Will Mr Murray
give to the world the name of a single tune from his Wealth of Scottish
Folk-Song that can be traced as far back as, say 1365, when the Pipe
was already fashionable at the Scottish Court, and the Piper ranked high
among the members of the kings household? Hey Tutti Tuiti, said by
tradition to have been Bruces march at the Battle of Bannockburn, is
undoubtedly an ancient tune, and I believe it to be as old as tradition
says, but then it is a Bagpipe tune. The oldest part-song in the world
also is formed on the same model, and has a drone bass in imitation of
the Bagpipe. It is an English song, and is called Sumer is icumen in,
and dates from about 1250. What Scottish folk-song can be traced as far
back as 1250?
That the oldest songs in
both countries should be so largely influenced by the Bagpipe is not to
be wondered at, when we remember that the Pipe was a general favourite
in England as well as in Scotland at a time when song-making was in its
infancy. It is well to remember here that musical instruments have
always led the human voice, not vice versa, but while leading they have
also from inherent imperfections and peculiarities of scale, etc.,
imposed limits, thus giving a distinctive character to the songs of the
people. This is most marked in countries like Scotland, where in the
early days but one instrument predominated. Its influence can be traced
most clearly in Highland song, where the singer, like the piper, skips
or slurs certain notes in the scale, irrespective of the character of
the theme. It is the same,
in solemn dirge, or dance
In sad lament, or joyous roundelay,
and it is difficult to
understand on what grounds Mr Murray denies its influence in Scottish
music. In point of fact. he says with an air of authority, but very
few of the airs of even the Gaelic songs can be played on the Pipes. . .
. The timbre of the Pipe makes the instrument impossible as an
accompaniment to the voice, and its use all through has been unconnected
with vocal music/ Now, while the Great Highland Bagpipe is the proper
accompaniment on the battlefield to the noise and din of warfare, it was
never intended to be an accompaniment of song, and no sane writer has
ever said so ; but it is only one of many Pipes, and of these others
several go well to the human voice. At a lecture given by me this winter
I had a choir boywith a rare gift of voicewho sang that beautiful
Christmas hymn, Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, to the accompaniment of
the Northumbrian Bagpipe, and the timbre of the Pipe and the timbre of
the little singers voice were in perfect unison. The French Mussette is
another Bagpipe which goes well with the human voice ; so that it is not
correct to say that its use all through has been unconnected with vocal
music. Hundreds, nay! thousands of French Bagpipe songs were in
existence once, and may be yet for all I know. And as to the bold
statement that but very few of the airs of even the Gaelic songs can be
played on the Pipes, the exact opposite is the truth. Very many of the
old Gaelic songs go excellently well upon the Pipes in the disguise of
march, reel, and strathspey, while practically all Piobaireachdthe real
music of the Pipeis vocal.
But as this subjectthe
influence of the Bagpipe on Highland musicis a large and an interesting
one, it will require a chapter to itself.
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