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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XIX — No Prehistoric Bagpipe in existence


“And they sewed fig- leaves together and made themselves aprons. ’—Gen., chap. iii. ver. 7.

“An’ music first on earth was heard,
In Gaelic accents deep,
When Jubal in his oxter squeezed
he blether o’ a sheep.”

WE now come to the history of the Bagpipe.

Everyone has heard of the famous “ Breeches” Bible, but not everyone knows or remembers how the error, which cost the printer his life, crept in.

It was somewhat in this way.

The printer’s wife, who was a strong believer in “woman’s rights,” was looking over some type which her husband had just set up, and saw the objectionable word “ aprons.”

A most unbecoming dress for one thing, she thought. And so, her husband’s back being turned, she slyly substituted the word “breeches” for the original word.

The printer, who did not discover the mistake until after the Bible was printed, and many copies of it had been sold, was seized by the authorities and thrown into prison.

He was tried for the serious crime of altering: the text without authority, and, worse still, of altering the text with the deliberate intention—for so it seemed—of putting woman on a level with her lord and master, man, if not even of making woman his overlord.

He was unanimously found guilty, and condemned to death ; but as some sort of compensation to the poor man, who should know it by this time, his better-half, by this one act of insubordination, has gained for both herself and him a certain unenviable immortality.

She was a German, this meddlesome woman who wanted to wear the breeks.

If she had been Highland, the sentence would no doubt have run thus: “And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves kilts.”

This would be a more correct translation, and one with which but little fault could be found.

There would also be this double advantage in it; it would have put woman on a level with man, which was really the printer’s wife’s intention, and it would have settled once and for all the much-vexed question of the antiquity of the kilt.

The antiquity of the language, however, is still— thank God!—unchallenged.

The poet’s assertion that the Bagpipe gave first utterance to it in Eden may be disputed, but not its antiquity; some good scholars, as I have said before, now believe that Gaelic— the much-despised Gaelic : Dr. Johnson’s “rude and barbarous tongue”—was the original Aryan speech. But a little story which appeared in the Edinburgh Dispatch lately, supports the poet’s contention thus far, that the Bagpipe—whether or not it was heard in Eden—speaks at times in this ancient language to certain people.

The story, shortly told, was that of a servant girl from the Highlands just come to town. It was her first place. She had never been from home before. She arrived at night, feeling home-sick and depressed; everything was strange and cheerless to her. The lady of the house, hoping to brighten her up a bit, told her she would soon feel at home and be quite happy, as the Bagpipe was played every night in the square by a young man who lived close by, and was taking lessons on it.

Next morning, in reply to a kind enquiry, the maid informed her mistress that she did hear the young man play, “But, ma’am,” she added sadly, “his Bagpipe was not speaking the Gaelic.”

Which meant, I suppose, that this young man, vulgarly speaking, “couldn’t play for nuts,” and so failed to touch the proper chord in the young Highlander’s breast.

Now, while the claim of Gaelic to be one of the oldest of languages is allowed, the counter claim of the Bagpipe to be an old Highland instrument has been denied. I dissent entirely from such pernicious doctrine. There is no proof of this latest craze.

The Piob, as the Gaelic-speaking race invariably calls the Bagpipe, is a Celtic instrument, and this at once stamps it as Highland.

Piobmhala (pron. Peevaala) is the full title of the Bagpipe: it is made up of piob, a pipe, and mala, a bag, both Celtic words.

Piob Mor is the special designation of the great War Pipe of the Highlands, distinguishing it from the smaller Reel Pipes and others, such as the Lowland Pipe.

The Piobmhala is to be found in many countries, and is in most of these still a rude and barbarous weapon, with little or no music of its own. In Italy, for instance, there are not more than three or four real Bagpipe tunes, and yet the Italians have been playing the Pipe for two thousand years.

In the hands of the Celt only has it come to anything like perfection ; and the Highlander alone, of all Celtic peoples, has put the finishing touches to it without destroying its original character. Other nations, in trying to perfect it, have invariably killed it ; in tampering with its peculiar scale and tone, they have destroyed its originality, which is its charm.

The Celt alone has made it both useful and artistic.

He alone has had the genius to elaborate the intricate, but strictly scientific system of fingering, which adds so much to the beauty of the music.

He alone produced from the Pipe that which may be called the first classical music heard in the world : I mean Piobaireachd.

Now, if we are to credit the ancient historians, who are all agreed upon this point, the Celt was always more or less of an enthusiast or visionary: subject to sudden moments of exaltation as of depression.

A delight in poetry and music—these twin sisters —and in nature, ear-marked him from other nations, according to these old writers, at a very early period in the world’s history.

It is therefore nothing strange that he should have invented the Piob or Pipe for himself. It would be strange indeed if he had not done so.

But he was never much of an historian, and has accordingly left behind him little to help us in our search into the origin of this same Pipe. We can learn a good deal about the Celt himself in prehistoric times from the remains he has left behind him in round barrow and kitchen midden. By means of these we can trace his primitive wanderings through the different countries of Europe, and locate the different colonies which he left behind, as he kept ever moving onwards ; now east, now west, now south.

From the bones found in the burial mound we can tell what sort of a man he was physically, and more than guess at his mental powers. From the same source we learn what was his height, and what his strength, and what his comeliness: for it is not true to say with some that “beauty is but skin deep ” : we can even deduce the colour of his hair and eyes.

The remains of the kitchen midden, on the other hand, reveal to us the food which he ate, the animals which he followed in the chase, and those which he had domesticated; the wild fruits which were gathered and used by him, and those he cultivated, and many another thing that but for these semi-imperishable remains would have existed for us only as matters of controversy or conjecture.

In these survivals we have history as it should be written: history without a bias.

Little did the old Celt think that he was writing history for posterity, when he reverently laid his dead to sleep in the round barrows. Little did he think that his kitchen midden, which the modern inspector of nuisances would sweep away as a pestilence, would prove a mine of wealth to his descendants, hungry for information about the old life.

But when we come to trace the Bagpipe, the Celt’s favourite instrument, we have no such guide at our elbow.

We search in vain for a specimen of the early Pipe.

Made of perishable materials : of thin hollow reed and quickly rotting skin, the Piobmhala has left not a wrack behind in burial mound or refuse heap. We have no prehistoric Bagpipe to show.

We must therefore go for our information to written history, and to the tradition or myth which represents for us the earlier or unwritten history.

But, first of all, what is a Bagpipe? Of what is it composed?

The earliest description of a Bagpipe in Scottish literature tells that it was then composed of “ane reid and ane bleddir.”

Such a pipe is seen on the following page. The earliest mention of it in Roman history tells us the same thing. In the first century before Christ, the Romans came across a Celtic race who lived on the banks of the Danube, and who used an instrument composed of “ane reid and ane bleddir,’' to which the Roman historian gave the name of Tibia Utri-cularis; tibia being the Latin name for reed or chanter, and utriculum meaning a little bag or bladder.

These two, then, a reed and a bladder, are the essentials of the Bagpipe. When they became wedded into one is unknown. The Pipe without the bag is much older of course than the Bagpipe.

The Shepherd’s Pipe, as it was called, now forms the chanter of the Bagpipe, and is one of the oldest, if not the very oldest, musical instruments in the world. Its history is full of interest, and makes delightful reading, but it is only as forming an important part of the modern Bagpipe that it claims our attention here.

Round this simple little instrument—the Shepherd’s Pipe—there has gathered a 'wealth of story and poetry, and romance, greater than round any other musical instrument.

A favourite at all times with the primitive races, it was gradually introduced into the ceremonial of the tribe, and thus acquired a semi-sacred character; and in time came to be regarded as a special gift from the gods.

This tendency to attribute a Divine origin to music was, however, all but universal among the ancients. I know only of one exception, The Jews gave the credit of the invention to man, for do we not read in Genesis that “ubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and the Pipe,” or the “organ,” as it is usually translated? This text reminds me of a little incident which occurred not long ago, and with the relating of which this chapter may fitfully close.

Late one Saturday night a postcard arrived for me, and written upon it was, “Preach to-morrow from Gen. 4th and 21.” Nothing more. The minister knew that I was studying the history of the Bagpipe at the time, and I immediately concluded that he had discovered in the text something about the “Pipes” worth knowing, and so I determined to go and hear the sermon. The following morning found me in church right enough, but alas ! for the information : all that we were told was that Pipe was a better translation than organ, as the latter word was too suggestive of the modern organ with its wonderful combination of pipes and pedals. Some time afterwards I met the preacher, and said to him, “By-the-bye, I got your postcard. It suggested Bagpipes to me, but you had nothing evidently to say on the matter. What did you send it for?”

“Well, you see,” he replied, “your seat had been empty for many, many Sundays, and we thought it was time that you were putting in an appearance.” The minister was giving a course of sermons at the time to non-churchgoers.

Many years ago, the town-piper of Falkirk was waiting to be hanged. The execution was to take place on the following morning. He had been found guilty of some trifling offence—horse-stealing or something of that sort—and as it was his last night on earth, he was allowed to have one or two brother-pipers in, just for company’s sake. The night passed pleasantly and swiftly, in dancing and piping, and quaffing of the nut-brown ale. The condemned man himself was in the middle of a tune—a gaysome lilt—when the early morning light suddenly shot down through the bars of his prison window, and reminded him of his coming fate.

“I play no more,” he said, while the gloom gathered around him, and reluctantly, but reverently, he laid down his Bagpipe upon the bench beside him, for the last time : the Bagpipe with the tune upon it still unfinished—a fitting emblem of his own unfinished life! He forgot his sang froid for a moment; for a moment, but only for a moment, his gay demeanour deserted him, and he cried aloud in his agony, “Oh, but this wearifu’ hanging rings in my lug like a new tune.” A few minutes later, he was marching to the scaffold with jaunty step and head erect, the fear that held him prisoner for a moment, gone.

Let me confess it here, that I may have less to confess hereafter; the greater part of the sermon preached from Gen. 4th and 21, on that memorable Sunday morning, when I went to church to get information for my book, fell upon deaf ears, so far as I was concerned. The text had aroused thoughts within me which surged through my brain, and rung “in my lug like a new tune,” with a persistency, too, not to be denied. And the refrain was always to these same words,

“An’ music first on earth was heard
In Gaelic accents deep,
When Jubal in his oxter squeezed
The blether o’ a sheep.”


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