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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXVIII — The Spread of the Bagpipe


HOW did the Bagpipe first find its way into Britain?

It followed in the footsteps of the Celt. There were two main Celtic invasions of Great Britain in the early days, with a considerable interval between the two, and many minor incursions during the centuries that followed.

There was also, for a long time, a constant going and coming carried on between the Celts in their new-found island home, and their friends and relatives who were left behind; and in this way the old traditions and customs peculiar to the race were kept alive: they had all things in common, so to speak, because the Celt of one tribe shared his knowledge with the Celt of another tribe ; and this is not difficult to believe, when we remember that in those days there were no people so wedded to their own ways, so conservative in their habits, or so clannish towards each other as the Celtic peoples, and none so gifted with imagination or so musical. So lasting, indeed, are those racial characteristics,

that, even to-day, it is possible for a man of great authority on the fine arts—like Sir Hubert Parry —to say in all sincerity, that in spite of the advances which the world has made since the old days of which we write, the Celtic leaven still leavens the lump. “Celtic music,” he says, “is the most human, the most varied, the most poetical, and the most imaginative in the world.”

While written history then is silent as to the precise date of the introduction of the Bagpipe into Britain, we need not despair of fixing an approximate date for ourselves. There is little doubt that it arrived on our shores long before the Roman invasion, and this deduction we can safely make, if we can prove—which we have already done in the preceding chapter—that the Celt knew of the Bagpipe long before the Roman—we are not speaking here of its invention—and if we can prove that the different Celtic tribes kept in touch with each other long after they had broken away from the main body. In this latter case, if the Pannonians, or the Umbrians, or other Celtic body played on the Bagpipe—as history asserts that they did—their pipers would spread the custom among the other Celtic tribes, if these had not got a knowledge of it for themselves at the fountainhead.

Now, if you examine any good map of the ancient world, you will at once see how well Celt kept in touch with Celt. You will there find a range of Celtic colonies, extending in an almost unbroken succession—like so many links in a chain—from the shores of the Black Sea to the English Channel, so that the different offshoots remained each within easy hail of the other, and communication between the most distant tribes would be easy and comparatively uninterrupted.

Along this Celtic chain, the Bagpipe travelled, and it is from these same old Celtic resting-places that my collection of Bagpipes has been gathered, and in these countries to-day, almost without exception, the Bagpipe still flourishes. And, indeed, I have found this combination of Celt and Bagpipe so persistent, that I have come to say, “Tell me where the old Celt settled, and I will tell you where to look for the Bagpipe.”

The Pipe, after spreading over the greater part of Europe, had at first a very chequered career, more especially in the large centres of population, for it was ever a favourite with the scattered pastoral peoples. It was, in fact, a useful weapon to the shepherd, and all but indispensable, because “As sheepe love pyping, therefore shepherdes use the Pypes when they walk with their sheepe.” But in the town, fickle fashion ruled, and as the Pipe’s main use was now to while away time for the “Weary Willies” of society, it had its continual ups and downs, now basking in the sunshine of royalty, now treated as a pariah and an outcast.

It is not our intention to deal here with the many ups and downs which fell to the lot of the Bagpipe during its long career, but we would only remark, that the higher the wave of popularity on which it was borne, the deeper was the succeeding trough of neglect into which it fell. Take the following—one example out of many—in illustration of this. When at the height of its fame in the seventh and eighth centuries, the Bagpipe might be heard at all important games and high festivals throughout Europe—wherever, in short, men were gathered together, even when the gathering was one of war; but from the ninth to the eleventh centuries the same instrument—without rhyme or reason perceptible—fell into complete disuse, and was almost unheard of in town or court. The usual revival followed this long period of repose, beginning in the eleventh century, and continuing well on into the thirteenth century, in the early years of which an event took place which had ultimately an important influence upon the Bagpipe in France.

In a secluded valley far away among the mountains, a little boy was born of humble parents. Colin Muset was his name. As he grew up he developed a genius for piping, and soon far outstripped his only teachers—the poor shepherds around. Stories of the boy’s marvellous playing leaked out, and at length reached the court of France, and the ears of the king himself, who sent for Colin, and finding that his skill was even greater than report had made it out to be, offered him a post of honour in the royal household, which Colin accepted.

And here, surrounded by the royal favour, he lived and taught, and made popular the Pipe, and was loaded with honours and riches. There is no doubt that Muset was a piper of note. He was the MacCrimmon of the thirteenth century. He also made great improvements in the construction of the Bagpipe, altering the scale and improving the reeds, and he is said to have been the first inventor of the Bellows-Pipe.

Another great revival took place about the time of the Louis’—Louis XIV. and XV. During these two monarchs’ reigns, a regular craze for piping and the pastoral life spread like an epidemic throughout Europe—kings and queens neglecting the affairs of State, and shutting up their palaces, retired with their courts to some sweet, sylvan glade, far removed from the busy haunts of men, and putting themselves on an equality with their subjects, competed with them as shepherds and shepherdesses; each fair lady, in quaint, rustic fashion, striving to be more beautifully dressed than the other, while their royal lovers competed with each other upon the Shepherd’s Pipe. The Pipe was the little Bellows-Pipe or Musette.

Here they led the simplest of lives—a healthy, bracing life—during the summer months. With no shelter from the storm but the spreading bough of the greenwood tree, and no bed but the soft, warm moss, and no covering but the forest leaves, and no roof but the blue vault of heaven: with no food but the simple fruits which the earth produced, and the warm, frothing goat’s milk, fresh from the pail, and the clear water from the purling brook — the only wine with which they quenched their thirst—an ideal life was lived, while, for a time, the burdens of State and the cares of society were left to look after themselves. Pastoral plays, written for the occasion, were enacted nightly, and pastoral music for the Bagpipe was composed in spates.

Their duties over for the day, these amateur shepherds filled in their spare time with piping and dancing. An artificial life, it might be in many ways, but a charming one.

This revival reached its height in the reigns of Louis XIV. and Louis XV., only to be followed once again by a gradual decline, which has lasted in France and the Continent to the present day, leaving traces, however, which are still apparent in the different countries, of the influence the Pipe once wielded over men’s lives.

In Germany, for example, although the Bagpipe is now all but confined to the museums, it has been perpetuated on canvas in the sixteenth century by the great painter, Albert Durer, among others, and immortalised in stone at Nuremberg, etc. Albert Durer’s picture is too well known to require further notice here. His piper, short kirtled to the knee, might well pass for a kilted Highlander.

At Nuremberg there is a fountain which is over three hundred years old, surmounted by a life-size piper, dressed in his old minstrel’s cloak, with a one-drone Bagpipe on which he is playing, thrown over his shoulder, and through its chanter the sweet clear waters have flowed all these years.

The Hungarian Bagpipe: A one-droned Pipe bought in Buda-Pesth.

I shew here a Bagpipe from Buda-Pesth; a poor, feeble, one-drone Pipe, reeded with straws, serving only to show that the Hungarians were once acquainted with it, and that it can have made little or no advance in their hands for hundreds of years. In Bulgaria—part of old Pannonia — the Pipe might still almost be called the national instrument, and is very common. It, too, is a very rude and homely instrument,, although much superior to the Hungarian. The set of Bulgarian “Pipes” shewn is distinguished by the peculiar leaden crook at the end of the chanter, and by the lead ornamentation, which is only to be found in this country on very old Bagpipes. In France piping still goes on in one or two places, but the days of its glory have long since fled—days recalled to our memory as we wander through the picture galleries of Paris, by the frequent brush of the artist, who loved to depict pastoral life in the old days, with the piper always presiding over the dance.

Chalumeau was the French name for the Shepherd’s Bagpipe, but the Bellows-Pipe they named Musette. I have three different forms of French Bagpipe, which are photographed here. The first two — one from Auvergne, the other from Bretagne—are blown by the mouth—the third is the famous Musette, or Bellows-Pipe of France, and is made entirely of ivory, with silver keys attached to the chanter, which has two octaves ; the Pipe has six drones.

The first Pipe—the French Shepherd’s Pipe or Chalumeau — came to me in rather a nice way.

You will notice that it has a drone placed alongside of the chanter, like its next neighbour, the Brittany Pipe ; but it has also a second drone, inserted "separately into the bag — evidently an after-thought on the part of its possessor. It is made of ebony and ivory, and a kind of spotted cane. The termination of the chanter is quite peculiar, and is an exact miniature, in bone, of the end of the large Calabrian pipe. The decoration is of lead, and a small mirror inserted into the stock is very “Frenchy” in appearance.

This curious little Pipe is evidently in a transitional stage. The original drone is the one which lies alongside the chanter, where the drone in early days was always placed. The advantage, however, of having the drone removed where it would not interfere with the fingering was evidently apparent to its owner, but his conservatism prevented him from altering the old arrangement, and so he simply added on a second drone.

I said above that this French Bagpipe came to me in rather a nice way. It also came with quite an interesting story attached.

Mademoiselle D-was a Frenchwoman, endowed with all that vivacity and nameless charm which is so characteristic of her race.

She had lived long enough in Edinburgh to learn something of the Highlander, from frequently seeing detachments of Highland soldiers marching in and out of the Castle. She told me that she loved the kilt, and adored the Bagpipe. I had the honour and pleasure of finishing her Highland education, byteaching her some Highland quicksteps.


A very old specimen of A Two-Drone French Chalumeau From Avignon, in France. The gift of Mademoiselle D'Artout.

One day when shewing her my collection of Pipes, I pointed out to her the French Musette, with its beautiful ivory chanter, and its ivory case of drones, and she was astonished as well as gratified to think that the French had such beautiful “Pipes” in the old days. But she was more astonished to be told that the Bagpipe was still played in France.

“But no!” she said. “But yes!” I answered. “In Picardy among other places, and in Brittany, and,” I suggested, “probably also in Auvergne, where we are told that the purest Celtic race of to-day exists. “Ah!” she said, “I may be going back to France some day, to the district of Auvergne, and I will listen for the Pipe. I promised long long ago, to go back if ever my old nurse’s daughter should happen to get married, and she is now quite grown up.”

In the following year, the expected wedding took place in Avignon, south of Auvergne. Mademoiselle D-, true to her promise, was there; and when she returned, she brought back with her the little Bagpipe, with the two drones, which you see in the picture.

Her story of the marriage reads like a description of an old Highland wedding. The bride’s and bridegroom’s parties came down from the hills in two separate processions, meeting for the first time that day at the church door. The one was headed by a fiddler, and the other by a piper. As Mademoiselle D- walked up to the church where the wedding was to be held, the first thing she heard was the sound of the “Pipes”; her delight was unbounded.

So, when the ceremony was finished in church, she spoke to the piper, and arranged with him to buy the Bagpipe, and take possession of it after the festivities were over. She also saw, at the dance, two little tin plates being handed round. The collections were for the musicians. The whole scene, in short, as related to me by Mademoiselle D-, reminded me of the weddings of my boyhood’s days.

The invention of the bellows, as an adjunct to the Bagpipe, spread to other countries from France : unless, indeed, it was invented independently by each of these, which is very improbable.

The Bellows-Pipe found its way into Germany, Austria, Hungary, Roumania, and other countries by the banks of the Danube.

It also penetrated into England, Lowland Scotland, and Ireland; but the barrier of the Grampians stayed its further course in Scotland. It proved a costly innovation—as all so-called improvements have done, and are likely to do—by, for one thing, lessening its usefulness; and there followed, in the track of this improvement, the inevitable decline, and gradual disappearance of this emasculated instrument, until to-day it is little more than a thing of the past.

A ship’s captain from Falkirk, who sailed regularly to the Black Sea, and who promised to look out for foreign “Pipes” for my collection, met a Roumanian piper one day, playing upon a Bellows Pipe in Bucharest, but being very Scottish, he did not recognise it as a Bagpipe at all, because it was not blown by the mouth.

The reason for the decay of the Bellows Pipe is not far to seek: what it gains in sweetness, it loses in power; and it is no longer, as I said before, a useful instrument. With its correct sharps and flats, and its numerous keys, giving the scale a greater range of notes, it lends itself to other than Pipe music, and is thus at once brought into competition with more precise, more powerful, and more modern instruments ; and it fails naturally, in the inevitable contest, to hold its own.

It has died out in France and Germany, and on the Continent, with the exception, perhaps, of Roumania. It certainly still lingers on in these Islands; in Northumberland, in Aberdeenshire, and in one or two parts of Ireland ; but it has long lost the power to excite the admiration and enthusiasm of men, as the good old-fashioned, old-world Highland mouth-blown Pipe does.

We shall now quit the Continent—sketchy and altogether incomplete as our remarks on its Bagpipes have been—and devote the remaining portion of this book to the Pipe in Great Britain, and, above all, to the King of Bagpipes—the great War Pipe of the Highlands.

It would require several chapters to do justice to the History of the Bagpipe in England; but a few lines must suffice here.

The earliest reference to the English Pipe is one in an illuminated manuscript entitled “St. Graal,” written in the thirteenth century. The Piper is drawn with the bag held in front of him, as it always was held at first—the chorus has the bag not only carried in front, but held clear of the body of the player, according to one writer—there are two chanters, and one large bell-mouthed drone attached to the bag.

The Celt in England refusing, like his brother Celt in Scotland, to bow the knee to the invader, was driven back slowly into the marshlands of Wessex and the fens of Lincolnshire, and across the borders into Wales and Scotland, where for many a long day he was able to keep the foe at bay. Here he lived the old life, keeping up the old customs which he had refused to give up at the bidding of the world, and the old music: and it is from these places of refuge that the Celts’ special instrument, the Bagpipe, emerges later on.

Having once made its appearance, however, it soon became one of the most popular of instruments in England; for we find the piper installed at the English court as an honourable member of the king’s household as early as the fourteenth century.

The Bagpipe was also much sought after by the officers of the English navy in days gone by ; and this partiality of the English sailor for the “Pipes” was continued as late as the seventeenth century, when notices were to be seen all over the country, calling upon pipers to join the navy. To-day, the old custom still survives, and there are pipers on board several of H.M. battleships. Lord Charles.


A Beautiful Specimen of the French Chalumfau. Made in the 17th Century. From the Basque Country. Presented to the Author by Mr Sutherland of Solsgirth.


A Beautiful Specimen of The Musette, or French Bagpipe of the 17TH Century.

This Pipe is made entirely of ivory, and has_ got a chanter of two octaves. The drones, five in number, are enclosed in an ivory case, like the old shuttle-pipe of Northumberland.

Beresford had the well-known piper, M‘Crae, with him in the Mediterannean when in command of the fleet there, a few years ago. The sailor finds no instrument more to his taste when dancing “Jack-a-Tar,” and no music trips more sweetly off the chanter than “The Sailor’s Hornpipe.”

The Bagpipe was never, so far as we can determine, used by the English as a war instrument on land. They used it, however, as a peace instrument in religious services very generally at one time.

A piper frequently made one of the church choir; and Chaucer, who makes the first literary reference to the Pipe in England, tells us that a bagpiper — what more fitting companion could the saints have?—marched, or rode, in front of the bands of pilgrims on their way to some favourite shrine—a frequent sight in those days—cheering on the weary-footed with his gay music.

Chaucer’s picture of the lusty miller puffing and blowing on the Bagpipe, and rousing lone echoes on the dusty road as he heads the long line of pilgrims, marching from Southwark to Canterbury, and Beckett’s shrine, will live as long as the English language itself.

Not only was the Bagpipe used in religious services in early England, but the priest was himself occasionally a piper. Brand, in his “Popular Antiquities,” says: “I know a priest—this is a true tale that I tell you, and no lye—which, when any of his friends should be married, would take his Backe-Pype and so fetch them to church, playing sweetly afore them: and then he would lay his instrument handsomely on the aultare till he had married them and said masse: which thing being done, he would gently bring them home again with Backe-Pype.”

Let me finish this quaint picture of the olden times, and at the same time shew how similar were the customs in Scotland, by giving you a Scotch story of a priest, who was also a piper, and not afraid to use the Bagpipe on solemn occasions.

The Rev. Mr M‘Donald, of Ferintosh, was a famous piper in his day. He, however, began his ministrations as piper where his English brother left off. He did not play the company to church, but after he had married the couple, and got the company safely back to the hall of feastings, he would take up his Bagpipe and play to the dancers until a certain hour, which he first fixed upon, when he would send the people home to bed, locking the door behind him, so that they could not renew the festivities when his back was turned, even if so inclined.

Not many years ago the pipers of a Highland regiment took part in the performance of a sacred cantata in York Cathedral, and their playing had a beautiful effect, according to the reports in the daily papers, and was much admired by the English audience.

Shakespeare, Spencer, Milton, and several other great writers, also mention the Bagpipe in England. From drawings of the time, we learn that the Pipe was composed at first of a simple chanter, or of a chanter and one drone, similar to the Scotch and Irish Pipe of the same period.


The Northumbrian Small Pipes: The gift of Mr Marshall, Newcastle-on-Tyne.

There are engravings of the Bagpipe in many parts of England, as, for example, on a screen at Oxford, of date, 1403; in Henry VII.’s chapel; at Cirencester, Hull, Beverly, and many other places. In Exeter Cathedral there is a carving in stone of the choir, with a piper in their midst. The date is the fourteenth century.

The Drone Pipe, as it was called, was in use in Lincolnshire until quite recently. It was also in use in Northumberland until the middle of last century, when it was superseded by the Northumbrian or “Small Pipe.”

The form of Northumbrian Pipe which I shew on the opposite page, has a closed chanter, and is quite peculiar to Northumberland. It is, in fact, the only example of the closed chanter in the world. This form of Pipe is a great improvement upon the older Pipe, with open chanter, a specimen of which I also shew here.

The open chanter is an older form of instrument than the closed chanter, and is at best but a poor peepy-weepy sort of Pipe.

As a writer in 1796 says—“It slurs the notes, which is unavoidable from the remarkable smallness of the chanter—not exceeding eight inches in length—for which reason the holes are so near each other that it is with difficulty they can be closed, so that in the hands of a bad player they (sic) become the most shocking and unintelligible instrument imaginable.”

The modern Northumbrian Pipe, with chanter closed at the bottom, is free from these defects, as it plays all its tunes in the way called by the Italians staccato, and cannot slur at all.

Both these Pipes—the last survivals of the Bagpipe in England—are, I need hardly say, Bellows Pipes.

The drones in Northumbrian Pipes are sometimes enclosed in a case, like that of the French Musette, and the Pipe is then known as the Shuttle Pipe.

The Bagpipe at one time occupied an important place in the Irish economy also.

It was the war instrument of the Kernes and was a two-drone instrument in the sixteenth century ; it was blown by the mouth, and was identical in every way with the old Northumbrian and Scotch Bagpipe.

The Irish piper, also, was a man held in high esteem, and ranking as a gentleman.

The story of M‘Donel, the Irish piper, is said to be quite authentic.

When he went abroad he had his horse to carry himself to the place of entertainment, and a servant to carry his Pipe.

One day a gentleman who was having a large company to dinner engaged M‘Donel’s services to entertain his guests.

With more than questionable taste, considering the standing of the piper, he had a table and a bottle of wine on it, and a chair set for him on the landing, outside the dining-room door.

The piper’s pride was roused when he saw the reception prepared for him; so quickly filling his glass, he stepped into the room and drank off the wine, saying—“Mr Grant, your health and company.” “There, my lad, he said to the servant appointed to wait upon him, “is two shillings for my bottle of wine, and a sixpence for yourself.”

With double bass regulator and 27 keys. This Pipe is made of ebony and ivory with brass mountings, and was said to have been a gift from the late Queen Victoria to one Ferguson, a blind piper in Dublin.

He then mounted his horse and rode off in state. But, with the adoption of the bellows by the Irish piper a rapid decline in public estimation came about; and to-day there is not one piper of any note in all the Green Isle. I shew here several different forms of Irish Pipe, which explain themselves better than I could do.

The large set, with no fewer than twenty-seven keys on it, is said to have been a presentation by late Queen Victoria to one Ferguson, a blind piper, who played in and out of the large hotels in Dublin in the early part of last century. Such a Pipe would cost anything from ^30 to ^50 and upwards, and it came to be known as the Irish Organ. When played on as an organ, the chanter was put out of use by having the neck of the bag twisted tightly, and the piper devoted both hands to the keys of the regulators.


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