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