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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XVII — Gaelic Song and the Bagpipe


NOW pibroch music, or as the Highlanders call it, “Ceol Mor,” is essentially Highland.

There is nothing like it in any other country in the world.

Whatever merits, therefore, it possesses must be claimed for the Highlander. Under the fierce light of modern criticism—so called—the Highlander has had a poor time of it lately.

The kilt has been taken from him, and the tartan proclaimed a modern fraud, and the Bagpipe has been held by the same authority to be but a borrowed instrument—borrowed from England too, of all places—with nothing Highland about it except the third or large drone.

But the most rabid hater of the Sons of the Mist cannot deny their claim to pibroch music.

He may sneer at it, as he has done at everything else Highland, but he cannot, with all his perverted ingenuity, father it upon any other race. The genuine Celtic Highlander alone appreciates it at its true value, because he alone understands it. It was written for him, and by him, and has always had for him a powerful fascination. Many of the tunes are rhymeful and haunting. They get into the crevices of the brain, and will not be dislodged nor are they easily forgotten, in after years—you have got to learn them, once having heard them, whether you will or not: they dominate the musical faculty for the time being just as the latest popular song controls the street boy’s whistle, nor do they ever grow stale.

In the old days there were schools or colleges throughout the Highlands where piping was taught. To these resorts, the chief generally, or one of the leading gentlemen of the clan, sent those youths who showed a decided talent for the “ Pipes.” Here they were taught all the intricacies of pibroch during a course of lessons extending over many years, by one of the great masters of the art,—by a M‘Crimmon, or a MacKay, or a MacKenzie, or a MacArthur, as the case might be,—and you may be sure that after so long an absence from home their return was looked forward to eagerly by one and all, from the chief in his castle to the poor squatter on the black hill.

These young men left their native villages with perhaps a gift of fingering inherited from a race of pipers, and able to play tolerably well the simple airs known in their respective districts, but without any knowledge whatever of music in general, or of “Ceol Mor” in particular.

Now, after seven or eight, or even ten of the best years of their life had been devoted to the study of their favourite instrument, they returned home fully trained musicians, and frequently with a reputation which had preceded them. They brought back with them, too, the finest of tunes learned at first hand from the composers themselves, and played them in the finest of styles—and how excellent that style was, is known only to a few players to-day.

The skill acquired at these colleges—as the training schools were called—and the superior knowledge of music gained during these years of hard study, gave the young piper a standing in the clan of which he was justly proud, and which he seldom abused. He was looked up to by his neighbours, and treated by all as a gentleman of parts ; and he never forgot that he was a musician.

So that it was in no mere idle spirit of boasting, or in ignorant pride—as the narrator of the story imagined—that the piper of a regiment at Stirling once referred to himself, when there was a dispute as to whether the drummer boy should precede the piper on the march or not. “What!” he said, “is that little fellow who beats upon a sheepskin to go before me, who am a musician?”

We can understand then how these young pipers, trained in the best schools, and filled with the enthusiasm and inspiration of their teachers, exerted so powerful an influence upon the musical taste of the people among whom they settled down on their return.

Their piping would be a revelation to the local players, who would be thus stimulated to further and better efforts. It would also be a never-failing source of delight to the listeners at the ceilidh or evening gathering.

The bard, too, would find in the many new and beautiful airs fresh inspirations for his muse, and in this way all the old pibroch tunes also became vocal.

And if this is true of the “Great Music” of the Bagpipe, or Ceol Mor, it is also, but even in a greater degree, true of the “Little Music,” or Ceol Aotrcim.

Nearly all the lesser Pipe tunes, whether marches, reels, or strathspeys, were sung in the old days to words.

To give a complete list of such would be to fill pages of this book needlessly.

The names of a few of the better-known songs composed to Bagpipe airs will not, however, be out of place. “Tullochgorum,” “Highland Kitty,” “Hech! How! Johnnie, Lad,” “Roderick of the Glen,” “There Grows a Bonnie Briar Bush,” “Cabar Feidh,” “Blyth, Blyth and Merry was She,” “Bonnie Strathmore,” “There came a Young Man,” “A Man’s a Man for all that,” “Scots Wha Hae”—these last two in spite of Mr Murray’s criticism—“Lochiel’s Awa’ to France,” “Highland Harry’s Back Again,” “Kate Dalrymple.”

The last three tunes, and indeed nearly all the others, are to be found in MacDonald’s collection of “Quicksteps, Strathspeys, Reels, and Jigs,” published about 1806.

It is one of the earliest, if not the very earliest book of the kind published in Scotland, and I have taken the tunes from this old book to avoid spurious or modern imitations.

I happened to play “Roderick of the Glen”—a tune not often heard now-a-days—on board the steamer Glencoe when crossing over from Islay last autumn.

The captain, who was a fine old Highlander, and—as I soon found out—passionately fond of the “Pipes,” came strolling up, as if by accident, to where I was playing, and listened gravely. The tune had an extraordinary effect upon him ; the tears came unbidden to the old man’s eyes, and turning to me when I had finished, he said quietly, “Man! I haven’t heard that song since I was a laddie at my mother’s knee : she used to sing me to sleep with it.”

This was good news to me, as letters were appearing at the time in the Glasgow Herald denying that Gaelic songs were sung to Bagpipe tunes, or could be put on the Pipe. I did not know until then that it was an old lullaby song. There is nothing in the name to suggest such, and it is given in the book as a quickstep. True, I had often played it at social meetings to slow time, and not as a march, but I had nothing to guide me in this beyond instinct: and here was Captain Campbell confirming my intuition.

“Did your mother just croon it over to you?” I said to him.

“Oh! no,” he replied. “She sang it to words; I can give you some verses of it now, if you would like to hear them : your playing has recalled them to my mind.”

And he was as good as his word. He sang to me, as we two stood close together under the storm deck, the wind the while whistling its accompaniment outside, half-a-dozen verses in the dear old tongue, soft and mellifluous as the tune itself. He also sang me a beautiful old Gaelic pibroch called “Cum ha Fear Aros,” a lament for the laird of Aros : a very different tune from the one given in Caintairacht by MacLeod of Gesto; resembling somewhat the Macintosh’s Lament, but yet quite distinct from it.

Let me close this short list of Pipe tunes that are also songs, with the names of two of the most truly beautiful and purely Gaelic songs known; two songs that “are also Pipe tunes.” These are “Ho! Ro! Mo Nighean Donn Boidheach ” and “ Mo Dileas Donn”

So much for Mr Murray’s dictum that “very few of the airs of even the Gaelic songs can be played on the Pipes.”

No one would for a moment dispute his assertion that the Bagpipe is unfitted as an accompaniment to the human voice if he means by Bagpipe, the Great Highland Bagpipe. But there are other Bagpipes besides it, several of which I have in my collection, and which make very good accompanyists to the human voice.


The Cusleagh Civil of Ireland.

Bought through the late Mr Henderson, Bagpipe Maker. Glasgow.

Inside the green baize cover was found the following unstamped receipt :

Glasgow, May 23rd, 1845. "Archd. Wilson Bought off (sic) Arthur Finnigan, Broker, \ 1 “ Bridge Gate, a Pair Union Pipes Silver Mounted at £3 o o “sterling. ^

“ Arthur Finnigan."

The Great War Pipe of the Highlander on the other hand, as I have said more than once, makes a good accompaniment to the roar of battle—for which it was intended—when bullets are flying and men’s patriotism burns brightly : or to the voice of nature in her wilder moods as heard in the storm on the mountain side, or in the booming of the surf by the lone sea shore, or in the roar of the torrent thundering down the glen.

It is only in a drawing-room instrument, like the bellows pipe of England and of La Belle France, that you can look for and expect to find in the Bagpipe a fitting accompaniment to the human voice.


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