Reminiscences and the Bagpipe Chapter XVII Gaelic Song and the Bagpipe
pibroch music, or as the Highlanders call it, Ceol Mor, is essentially
There is nothing like it
in any other country in the world.
therefore, it possesses must be claimed for the Highlander. Under the
fierce light of modern criticismso calledthe 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 instrumentborrowed
from England too, of all placeswith 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 yearsyou 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 boys whistle, nor do they ever grow
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 MCrimmon, 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
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 stylesand how excellent that style was, is known only to a few
The skill acquired at
these collegesas the training schools were calledand 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
So that it was in no mere
idle spirit of boasting, or in ignorant prideas the narrator of the
story imaginedthat 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 Mans a Man for all that, Scots Wha Haethese last two
in spite of Mr Murrays criticismLochiels Awa to France, Highland
Harrys Back Again, Kate Dalrymple.
The last three tunes, and
indeed nearly all the others, are to be found in MacDonalds 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 Glena tune not often heard now-a-dayson board the
steamer Glencoe when crossing over from Islay last autumn.
The captain, who was a
fine old Highlander, andas I soon found outpassionately 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 mans eyes, and turning to me when I
had finished, he said quietly, Man! I havent heard that song since I
was a laddie at my mothers knee : she used to sing me to sleep with
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 Macintoshs 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 Murrays
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.
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 battlefor which it was intendedwhen
bullets are flying and mens 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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