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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXV — The Nativity and the Bagpipe


IT is a curious and interesting fact, that tradition associates piping with two of the greatest events which ever happened in the world’s history: the Nativity and the Crucifixion. And it is more than passing strange, that Christ Himself should supply those, who like myself believe in the tradition of the shepherds piping on Christmas morn, with a very important link in the chain of evidence.

As I pointed out in last chapter, it has been asserted that the Bagpipe was unknown to the Jews, or at least that there was no evidence that it was known, and that it could not therefore be the instrument which these poor shepherds played upon.

Christ’s reference to it in the parable of the Prodigal settles the question for all time : it shews clearly, that in His day the Bagpipe was well known to the pastoral peoples in Palestine, and further, that it was an instrument of some repute, otherwise it would not be found in the home of the rich and great.

Now, with regard to the traditions which have gathered round the birth and the death of our Lord, sacred and profane writers are at one in asserting that strange and hitherto unheard of phenomena marked these events.


The Zampogna of Italy: the Old Sumphonia of the Greeks.
Bought in Rome and presented to the Author by Mrs Aitkkn of Gartcows, Falkirk.

The world, which was satiated with and heartily sick of its own licentiousness, was expecting and eagerly watching for the advent of a deliverer, and the expected at length came to pass, but not in the expected way. No earthly, no human pomp and glory, found room for display in a cold rude manger. The simple birth was a distinct disappointment to the Jews, with their love of phylacteries and fondness of outward display. It was different, however, with nature.

We read in the Gospel of St. James of strange happenings which took place at the birth of Christ: of how the world stood motionless in awe and wonder ! Of how the song of bird, and the lowing of calf, and the bleat of lamb, was hushed; and the chatter of women was turned into silence. And there were workmen lying on the earth with their hands in a vessel and—to give the very words of St. James, they are so extraordinary!—“those who handled did not handle it, and those who took did not lift, and those who presented it to their mouth did not present it, but the faces of all were looking up; and I saw the sheep scattered, and the shepherd lifted up his hand to strike, and his hand remained up ; and I looked at the stream of the river, and the mouths of the kids were down and were not drinking ; and everything which was being propelled forward was intercepted in its course.”

To the shepherds on the plains of Bethlehem a glimpse of the real glory of the event was shewn; wonderful sights were seen, and angel voices spoke glad tidings. To these lonely midnight watchers, guarding their flocks from the attack of wild beast, or roaming thief, the hush and the darkness were suddenly broken into. A great light shone round about them, and out of the midst of it came a voice like a trumpet call—the voice of the Herald Angel proclaiming “ Peace on earth, to men of goodwill.” Quickly these two phenomena came, and as quickly they fled, and once more all was still on the plains, but for the tumultuous beating of over-joyous hearts, and once more all was darkness but for the glorious light which shone within, never more to be quenched.

As the great, the all-absorbing, truth dawned upon these simple folk in all its radiancy, they felt their joy too great to be “pondered in their hearts”; it must have some outward expression, and what better way than Christ’s way in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

So, tuning up their Bagpipes, while the wondering sheep gathered around, they gave vent to their surcharged feelings in sweet strains of praise that startled for the second time on that eventful night the starry silence of the skies.

This beautiful tradition is still kept alive in the Roman Catholic Church.

In Rome, or in any of the great cities in Italy, it is the habit of the people to erect at Christmas time a grotto representing the manger in which Christ was born. In it they place a live ox and a live ass, while Mary is represented by a young woman with a baby in her arms.

Some distance beyond is a green patch with shepherds piping ; these pipers are always present ; they represent the shepherds on the plains of Bethlehem.

At Christmas time, too, the shepherds come down in numbers from the hills to the towns, and there they stand all day long playing before the little shrines of the Virgin and her Child, which are to be seen at the corners of the streets.

An Englishman once—with more money possibly than sensibility—a well-groomed, pompous Englishman!—said with a sneer to one of these humble players, “Who are you playing to?” The shepherd pointed to the shrine of the Virgin Mary. “What! ” said the Englishman, “do you think a grown-up woman could enjoy such wretched music as yours?” “Ah!” said the poor man, "it is to the child I am playing; children are easily pleased.”

In my experience, nothing pleases the little ones more than the Bagpipe.

I remember once coming home late for dinner. I found the house quiet and deserted. The mother had gone out with the children to some entertainment. Nobody seemed to expect me, so, tired and worried, I threw myself down before the fire to rest. At that moment my eye fell on one of the many Bagpipes which I keep lying about. “Ah!” I thought, “now for a tune! it’s the very thing I want. Fiat justitia, ruat ccelum. Should the heavens rain, I will have a tune.” So, taking up the Pipe, I soon played myself back into a comfortable state of mind. I had scarcely laid the instrument down when a knock at the door announced the nurse. “ Please, sir, do you want anything to eat?” “My sensations decidedly tend that way,” I said; “but where have you been? Where is everybody?” “Out, sir; I am left alone with baby, and when she discovered that her mother had gone out, and the rest of the children with her, she got into a state of panic, and it has been the cry with her ever since, ‘Hold baby’s hand, nuss! Hold baby’s hand!’ But this is what I wanted to tell you, sir. You had not been playing many seconds, when she said to me, ‘Let doe baby’s hand, nuss! ’Oo can doe now! Baby’s doin’ to seep! ’ and she did go to sleep while you were still tuning up.”

I could not resist the temptation of having a peep into the nursery, and stole upstairs on tip-toe, and there lay the little one—the lately, wide-eyed, terror-stricken one — with a smile upon her lips, sound asleep; dreaming, perhaps, of the piper-shepherds on the plains of Bethlehem : a little pink spot upon her sweet cheek alone hinting at the late storm, through which she had passed.

Children as a rule do love the Bagpipe, as I have had innumerable opportunities of proving; but it may be, as the poor Italian piper said, only “because they are easily pleased.”


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