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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XVI — Bagpipe Influences at Work


IN 1819, Dr. MacCulloch published his book called “ A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland.” That he was prejudiced against the Highlands and things Highland, is to be seen on many a page of his book. When therefore he speaks favourably—which he seldom does—of such matters as Highland music and the Bagpipe, his opinions can be accepted unreservedly.

At one time, he tells us, that according to report St. Kilda was famous for its music. The learned doctor found nothing to justify this reputation when he paid a visit to the island, there being neither Bagpipe nor violin in the place. His search here and elsewhere, however, led him into a learned dissertation on Scottish music, which is becoming to our argument at this stage.

“The airs which are recorded as originating in this place,” he says, “are of a plaintive character; but they differ in no respect from the innumerable ancient compositions of this class which abound in the Highlands.” These are interesting, “as they appear to be the true origin of that peculiar style of melody for which Scotland is celebrated.” The “Highland airs of acknowledged antiquity” he divides into two classes. “Pibroch, a distinctive class by itself, similar to nothing in any other country; and airs of a plaintive nature often in a minor key. The more ancient appear to have consisted of one strain only : the second strain so often found attached to them at present is generally a recent addition; wandering commonly through a greater extent of the scale, and not often a very felicitous extension of the same idea. In some cases these airs appear to be purely instrumental ; in others they are attached to poetry and song by the milkmaid at her summer sheiling, or the cowherd on the green bank. One peculiar circumstance attends nearly the whole, namely, that they equally admit of being played in quick time. Thus they are often also the dancing tunes of the country.” In another place he says, “ In Scotland the Bagpipe must be considered as the national instrument. By this instrument the characters of these melodies seem to have been regulated, as they appear to have been composed on it. In examining all the most ancient and most simple they will be found limited to its powers, and rigidly confined to its scale. The pathetic and the lively, the pastoral airs of the Tweed, and even the melodies of the Border, thus equally appear to have been founded upon the Bagpipe.”

“It will often, indeed, be found that the same air which is now known as a Lowland pathetic composition is also a Highland dancing tune.”

“To the peculiar limited powers of the Bagpipe therefore must probably be referred the singularities which characterise the national melodies of the Highlands. On that instrument they appear to have been first composed, and by that has been formed the peculiar style which the voice has imitated. In no instance, indeed, has the human voice appeared to lead the way in uttering a melody or the ear in conceiving one. They follow at a distance that which was originally dictated by the mechanical powers and construction of the instruments which have been successively invented.”

These are the opinions of an acute and accurate observer, formed on the spot, and at a time when the materials out of which to form a correct judgment were more plentiful.

I have not yet ventured to quote any expert’s opinion on the Bagpipe as a musical instrument, which may seem strange. But, as a matter of fact, the average trained musician knows as much or as little about the “Pipes” as the man in the street. This is not his fault, indeed, as I mentioned before, but is due to the fact that the Pipe is seldom, if ever, mentioned in lectures on music, and is almost entirely ignored in musical text-books.

When, however, it comes to the question of what influencies were at work in the formation of our national music, then is an expert’s opinion of the greatest of value.

Now, Mr Hamish M'Cunn, than who no better judge of Scottish music exists at the present day, working along the same lines as Dr. MacCulloch —who you will see I am not putting forward as an expert—comes to much the same conclusion as the learned doctor. He acknowledges the large influence which the Bagpipe wielded over Highland music, and the preponderating influence which the latter exerted in the formation of our national music: with which conclusions I also am in agreement, but would substitute “Bagpipe music” for “Highland music,” as it is surely unwise to ignore the influence of the Bagpipe on the Lowlander during the long centuries when it was with him too, the favourite musical instrument. Years of piping in the Lowlands must at least have prepared the soil for the Highland seed that was one day to fall there, and root, and flourish, and blossom into the glorious harvest of national song.

The influence of the Bagpipe in the Highlands in days of old is undoubted : pibroch is its real business, as MacCulloch says, and all ancient pibroch is vocal as well as instrumental. “Pibroch of Donald Dhu,” “Macintosh’s Lament,” “Macleod of Macleod’s Lament,” “I got a kiss of the King’s hand,” “My King has landed in Moidart,” “Bodach Nam Brigais,” “Patrick Og M‘Crimmon’s Lament,” “Cha till MacCruimein,” “The Piper’s Warning to his Master,” are all well:known songs, and the very flower of pibroch. The influence of the pibroch was so great indeed in early times that the poet wrote his sonnet to its changing measures. “Ben Dorain,” a Gaelic poem written by Duncan Ban M‘Intyre in the eighteenth century, is one of the last and one of the best examples of this style of Highland composition. One of the earliest is the “Lay of Arran” by Cailte, the Ossianic bard. The ancient Erse composition known as “Chredhe’s Lament,” is, I believe, another, from which I take the liberty of quoting a few lines.

The haven roars, and O!
The haven roars,
Over the rushing race of Rinn-da-bharc
Drowned is the warrior of Loch-da-chonn.
His death the wave mourns on the strand.

Melodious is the crane, and O!
Melodious is the crane,
In the marshlands of Druin-da-thren! ’tis she
That may not save her brood alive: the gaunt wolf grey,
Upon her nestlings, is intent.

A woeful note, and O!
A note of woe,
Is that with which the thrush fills Drumqueens vale!
But not more cheerful is the piping wail!
The blackbird makes in Letterlee,

A woeful sound, and O!
A sound of woe,
Rises from Drumdaleish, where deer stand moaning low!
In Druim Silenn, dead lies the soft-eyed doe:
The mighty stag bells after her.

This lament, which I have arranged in metre form, as it falls naturally into it, is to be found in the “Book of Lismore.”

It is a lament for Cael, Crimthan’s son, who was overtaken one day by the quick-rising storm, and sucked under by the swirling seas.

To the writer’s Celtic imagination, the mournful booming of the surf on the shore is but the wave’s solemn requiem over the white body which lies entangled in the wrack beneath, tossing idly to-and-fro, with the swing of the restless waters.

This is the whole story: a lover overtaken by the fate that ever follows closely on the heels of all such as “go down to the sea in ships,” and the tumultuous sea—the instrument of a cruel fate— mourning over its own handiwork.

And this story or theme, told in a few simple words, is repeated, like the “urlar” or groundwork of a pibroch, at least twice in the middle of the poem, and once again before the lament comes to a close.

And here, too, as in pibroch, there are no preliminary trivialities : the teller puts his whole story into a nutshell, so to speak. True, there are embellishments—the variations of the pibroch—but these follow after and are rounded up, once and again with the one essential : the sea mourning over its dead. There also runs through this tale of woe, like a golden thread, the sympathy of nature for man in distress. The story opens abruptly to the accompaniment of the noisy sea, calling aloud in anguished voice at the catastrophe which has overtaken Cael.

“The haven roars, and O! the haven roars,” and it is with the sound of angry waters in our ears, as the foaming waves plunge along the weather-beaten shore, that we reach the end of the tale, and rising, close the book, with a sigh for Credhe the Desolate.

A woeful melody, and O!
A melody of woe
Is that the surges make on Tullacleish’s shore
For me, hard-hit, prosperity exists no more,
Now Crimthan’s son is drowned.

In this very old and beautiful lament the writer in her sorrow turns to nature for consolation.

She suffers! but she is not alone in this. Nature gives her a peep behind the veil, and shews her at every turning, sorrow keen as her own.

Do not the very waves that have swallowed up the drowned man mourn his cruel death? True, the crane watching over her little brood nestling in the lonely marshlands makes melody just now, but her singing will soon be turned into mourning; for is not “the wild dog of two colours intent upon her nestlings.”

Even the merry thrush in Drumqueen woods is sad as she finds her nest harried; the tuneful blackbird wails in Letterlee ; and the hills give back a thousand echoes to the mournful belling of the stag bereft of his doe.

There is a great deal of repetition in these old laments, and alliteration often—I might almost say always—takes the place of rhyme. Sorrow—the burden of the story—begins and ends the strain; and the first line, sometimes even the first word, is also the last.

This constant repetition, varied only slightly, gives a length and an apparent sameness in structure to such pieces, which make them distasteful or wearisome to the modern reader.

But to the lover of pibroch there can not be too much variation on one theme: no length is too great ; and there is a certain charm in what may be called the recurring sameness of the music, that has to be felt to be understood.

If any one doubt this, let him make a study of pibroch for himself, then attend a few of the leading Highland gatherings : listen to the champions playing some old tune, such as “MacLeod of MacLeod’s Lament” or “The Earl of Antrim’s Lament,” and if he does not fall under the spell of pibroch music, then is there something awanting in him.

Now, if I am correct in thinking that “Credhe’s Lament,” like “Ben Doran” and many another of these old-world poems, is pibroch made vocal, then at least was this form of music familiar to the Celt long before the oldest written pibroch of authenticated date which we possess.

And this would explain to some extent the wonderful completeness of the oldest known pibroch. There is no hesitancy, no doubt, no amateurishness about these old pieces, such as one would expect to meet with in a first attempt, but a roundness, and a finish, and a perfection of workmanship that is truly astonishing.

If the Bagpipe, as some say, was introduced into the Highlands about the fifteenth or sixteenth century, how are we to account for the early appearance of pibroch music there? The Macintosh’s Lament was written, it is said, in the sixteenth century; M‘Leod of M‘Leod’s was certainly written in the middle of the seventeenth century, and these are not the oldest pibroch by any means which we possess to-day. If the Bagpipe was only introduced into the Highlands in the end of the fifteenth or the beginning of the sixteenth century, pibroch, with its scientific completeness, its complicated fingering, and its beautiful method of variations— these variations growing naturally the one out of the other, the simpler passing by gradation into the more complex—must in that case have “growed” with Topsy, and not have been born ; but this is absurd on the face of it.

It is entirely against the theory of evolution in things great or small that such marvellous music as this, so classical in form, so advanced when we first meet with it, could have sprung to full stature in one day, or at the bidding of one man.

Pibroch must of necessity have been of slow growth : the work of plodding musicians for centuries and centuries, as Mons. Guilmant said.

Other countries practising the Bagpipe, yea! even for thousands of years, have failed to produce anything like it, or anything worthy of the name of music.

But when once the foundation had been fairly laid by the continuous efforts of many generations of Highland Celts, then a creative genius like M'Crimmon built upon this foundation, and gave to the world some of the most beautiful and original pieces of music, with a profusion and a celerity that seem to us, even to-day, little short of marvellous.

Now, to-day, although there are more pipers in Scotland than at any time since the ’45, there is no writer of pibroch among them with whom I am acquainted.

Nor do I know of a single pibroch written in the present generation that is worth the playing, or whose fame will survive the death of its author.

From the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the eighteenth century was the golden age of pibroch. Of what went before we know little ; of what came after but little need be known.

This gift of the old masters might well, indeed, be called “the vanishing gift.”


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