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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXIX — The Piper


“Who being- a Gentleman, I should have mentioned .sooner.”— Burt’s Letters, 1730.

“I KNOW no man,” writes. M. Barrie, “who is so capable on occasion of looking like twenty as a Highland piper.”

Dr M‘Culloch, who wrote nearly one hundred years earlier, says the same thing, but in somewhat different fashion.

“The very sight of the important personage,—the piper — the eye of pride, and the cheek of energy, the strut of defiance, and the streaming of the pennons over the shoulder, form in themselves an inspiriting sight.”

No book on the Bagpipe would be complete which did not devote a chapter to the piper.

The piper, as Captain Burt said, was a Gentleman in the old days, and a very important member of the clan. None was more useful than he in piping times of peace; none more in evidence when the glen resounded to the tocsin of war. The clan piper was frequently a cousin or near relative of the chiefs,

and held his lands in fee simple, and never needed to soil his hands with manual labour.

He was often an educated man, and a much-travelled one, as it was his duty to follow his chief to the wars.

He was welcome in the best company, and was treated as an equal by the gentlemen of the clan, and had every reason for holding his head high, and “looking like twenty.”

His house was generally superior to his neighbour’s : his croft, too, was much larger than the ordinary croft. The lands on Boreraig, in Skye, held for several generations by the MacCrimmons, pipers to M‘Leod of M‘Leod, is now divided, if I am not mistaken, into seven crofts, supporting seven families.

A general who had been through the late war in South Africa, speaking in public recently, said that, next to being a general, he would be a bugler boy. Well, if I had my choice, I would, next to being the king’s physician, be a piper in a Highland regiment, or—if it were only possible—the clan piper in the olden days.

The stately carriage of the piper in times gone by was proverbial. The blow-pipe, which was at first very short, and is so still in all other Bagpipes, was lengthened by the Highlander to allow of the piper marching with head erect.

And why shouldn’t he carry himself with a proud air? He could look back upon a long line of ancestors, who gained by their own skill the reward due to it, and whose courage on the battlefield has never been questioned.

Leaving out of account the three pipers of royal birth—Antiochus of Syria, Nero of Rome, and King “Jamie,” the poet king of Scotland—there is still much to be proud of from the piper’s point of view, and the remaining records have quite a respectable air of antiquity.

The very first piper mentioned in Scottish history is already, i.e., in 1362, a member of the king’s household. He is also of high rank in the household—some seventh or so, if we are to judge by his position at the Welsh and English courts.

When trying to estimate the antiquity of the Bagpipe in Scotland, it is important to remember this fact, that the piper, early in the fourteenth century, was already a man of mark, the associate of men of birth and education, he himself being probably the most learned of the lot.

For it is not a matter of conjecture that the piper was thus early assuming the duties of the minstrel, just as the minstrel had previously usurped the duties of the bard.

Now, when we remember how men devoted half a lifetime, and more, to the acquiring of the special knowledge without which they could not become bards, and that to this we must add the weary years devoted to the piper’s special calling, it will be seen that his education was no sham but very real, and there is little doubt that King David’s piper owed his influence in the royal household as much to his general knowledge as to his skill in piping. At court he was the “Poet Laureate”—the composer and singer of songs, the reciter of old-world tales, the storehouse of ancient traditions, the repositor of genealogies—a royal almanac, in short, consulted by high and low. With an unbridled tongue, licensed to speak the thoughts which came uppermost, No man was safe from its lash, not even royalty itself; and it is on record that old King Hal once put out the eyes of a minstrel who ventured for the second time, after full warning, to lampoon his sacred person.


The Piper in Camp: “A quiet afternoon.”

Combining the duties of bard and of minstrel in his own person, the piper-bard stood forth on the battlefield as a separate entity, wielding more influence over the fortunes of the fight with his impassioned War Song than twenty good claymores. To offend so powerful a personage was to waken up some fine morning and find oneself famous in scathing epigram or humorous verse—the laughing-stock of the world— a kind of celebrity which the real Highlander even to-day dreads and avoids like the plague.

The Clan piper never carried the Bagpipe himself; to do so would be considered menial : this custom he brought down with him from the golden age of minstrelsy. He never handled the “Pipes,” except when playing on it, and had a boy (gille-piobaire) to carry it for him. When finished playing, he handed it back to the gille, or, as one writer affirms, “threw down the Pipe disdainfully on the ground,” to make it clear to his audience that any merit in the performance was due to the player, and not to the instrument.

Is it likely, then, that the Piper, if he came from the outside—from England, as Mr M‘Bain says— would be found, immediately on his arrival, in this exalted position of king’s Piper? What could a stranger know of the minstrel’s or bard’s duties at the Scottish Court?

If it is a far cry from the little soft-voiced shepherd’s Pipe, made of “ane reid and ane bleddir,” to the great, loud-sounding king of war instruments, it is also, I should say, a far cry from the shepherd’s cot, the birthplace of the Pipe in the Highlands, as elsewhere, to the king’s palace, where we find it naturalised in 1362.

We have a good example of the slow growth of the Bagpipe in the Bulgarian or Spanish Pipe, which is as crude and primitive to-day as it was in the days of the Romans ; and common sense surely asserts that the Piper’s skill could only keep pace with the improvement of the instrument, and was of no mushroom growth, nor the work of one generation, but of many.

Let those therefore, who argue that the Bagpipe is a late introduction in the Highlands explain the post of king’s Piper, already instituted in the fourteenth century, and explain how Poibaireachd, that most complicated and classical species of music, was so speedily evolved, by the early Piper in the Highlands, out of his new-fangled Pipe—almost as soon, indeed, as he had fingered the chanter.

Captain Burt’s story, mentioned previously, is so apropos to the Piper and his claim to the title of musician, that we quote it here in full.

The incident mentioned happened about 1720, nearly 200 years ago.

“The captain of one of the Highland companies,” writes the gallant Englishman, “entertained me some time ago at Stirling with an account of a dispute that happened in his corps about precedency. This officer, among the rest, had received orders to add a drum to his Bagpipe as a military instrument ; for the Pipe was to be retained, because the Highland-men could hardly be brought to march without it. Now the contest between the drummer and the piper arose about the post of honour, and at length the contention grew exceedingly hot, which the captain having notice of, he called them both before him, and in the end decided the matter in favour of the drum, whereupon the piper remonstrated very warmly —“Ads wuds, sir,” says he, “and shall a little rascal that beats upon a sheepskin take the right haund of me, that am a musician!”

The two jolly captains, one or both English, made merry over the piper’s claim to be called a musician, because they were ignorant of the history of the piper, and of the long and severe training he had to submit to before he became a finished piper. Otherwise they must have known that the piper had authority and custom on his side. The piper, at all events, was not afraid to remonstrate warmly with his superior officer on the injustice of the decision come to: he respected himself if no one else did, and carried his head high accordingly.

Six or seven hundred years ago, we learn from old records, the piper belonged to the Guild of Minstrelsy. And why was he admitted to this close corporation? Because he was a musician ! On two occasions, at least, history informs us that the king’s permission was granted to his piper to go over the seas to study music.

This guild was a very powerful body, with branches all over Europe.

It had courts, appointed by royal charter, at the different centres ; these being managed by regular officers.

The head officer was called Le Roi, or king, and he was assisted by four officers.

These courts had jurisdiction over the members, dealing out fines and imprisonments, and the members could elect to be tried by these courts for any misdemeanours short of murder or serious crime. They were elected every year with great ceremony, and existed down to the end of the seventeenth century.

Many privileges were granted by successive sovereigns to the members of this guild, until it became overweaning in its pride. The heads of the order always rode on horseback, and had each a servant to carry his instrument, whether harp, Bagpipe, viol, crowd, or fiddle, as the case might be.

Large sums of money were given to them when they had to appear at court in connection with some great function, such as a royal marriage ; and many enjoyed annuities from the king.

They had the right of entry into the king’s palace, and—by implication—into the knight’s castle, and claimed as a right both meat and drink and a bed from gentle or simple wherever they went.

There are many entries in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland which shew that English pipers frequently appeared before the king at Linlithgow Palace and elsewhere.

Some people have argued from this that the Bagpipe was not much known in Scotland, or there would be no need for English pipers at the Scottish court. But these frequent appearances simply shew that, although Englishmen, yet, as members of the Guild of Minstrelsy, these pipers claimed, and were not denied. “the right of entering into the king’s palace.” And the Scottish minstrels as frequently returned the compliment by visiting the English court.

The leading members of the guild—for there were graduations of rank, all of which were known by their dress—were distinguished by a specially beautiful short mantle and hood made of the finest materials, and embellished in the most extravagant manner with rich embroideries.

One writer, a poet, who was evidently left out in the cold by the guild, and jealous in consequence, advises knights to dress more plainly, as in their fine feathers they are apt to be mistaken for minstrels.

“Now thei beth disgysed
So diverselych i-dig-ht,
That no man may know
A mynstrel from a knight Well my :
So is meekness fait a down
And pride aryse on hye.”

The pride here complained of by the poor poet was soon to have a fall, when, unfortunately for him, the ranks of the starving poets would be still further augmented; but not just yet.

It took many repressive enactments by successive sovereigns before the once powerful guild was stripped of power and pride of place.

On one occasion, at least, a minstrel rode into the royal presence unmolested. Here is the statement of the fact.

“When Edward II. this year (1316) solemnised the Feast of Pentecost, and sat at table in the great hall of Westminster, attended by the peers of the realm, a certain woman dressed in the habit of a minstrel, riding on a great horse, trapped in the minstrel fashiony entered the hall, and going round the several tables, acting the part of a minstrel, at length mounted the steps to the royal table, on which she deposited a letter. Having done this, she turned her horse, and saluting all the company, she departed.” On the doorkeepers being remonstrated with for admitting a lady, they replied “that it never was the custom of the king’s palace to deny admission to minstrels, especially on such high solemnities and feast days.”

The minstrel’s cloak and the minstrel’s trappings on the horse evidently rendered the bold rider inviolate, etiquette assenting.

We also read in an early Irish record, of date 1024, that “the piper in Ireland had the right of entry into the king’s house by night or day, and the privilege of drinking of the king’s beer.”

In the Scottish Exchequer Rolls there are numerous payments to pipers and other minstrels, not always princely in amount; and an idea has got abroad that these pipers were badly paid.

I have said before that they were better paid than were the priests, and the following account shews how handsomely the minstrel was paid at times, and how high he stood in the esteem of the great and wealthy.

In the year 1290, two of England’s royal daughters got married—one in May, the other in July.

To both ceremonies came minstrels from many countries, playing upon many instruments.

On the first occasion 426 minstrels attended, including three “Roys,” or kings—viz., King Grey of England, King de Champaigne from France, and King Cawpenny from Scotland.

The bridegroom presented a sum equal to £1500 of our money to be distributed among the minstrels, each of the kings receiving £50 as his share.

On the second occasion there were six kings. These included our three friends above mentioned, now designated as “Le Roy Robert,” “Le Roy de Champaigne,” and “Le Roy Cawpenny”—the latter a characteristic name surely for a Scotchman. Each of the six kings received the same sum again of £50.

In all, on this occasion some £3000 of our money was distributed amongst the minstrels.

Now, many people always associate the harp, and the harp alone, with the minstrel; but the term is a generic one, and means a musician—a musician of any sort.

The word “harper,” in the same way, grew in time to mean any musician ; and so the harper’s seat in Mull, and the harper’s croft: and the harper’s window at Duntulin, in Skye, probably applied equally well to the piper or the fiddler, and does not necessarily mean that harpers, as distinguished from pipers or fiddlers, filled these seats.

In England, of course, the harp, which was an Anglo-Saxon instrument, and the favourite one, was the constant companion of the minstrel there, and thus got so closely associated with his calling in people’s minds that minstrel and harper became synonymous terms. And the following three incidents, which I mention to shew the great immunity accorded to the minstrel in the olden times by friend and foe alike, and which happened to the Saxon, centre naturally round the Saxon weapon, the harp.

Every one is familiar with the story of King Alfred and the harp? of how he once played the harper or minstrel, and passed through the Danish camp in his disguise, unmolested ; and of how afterwards he turned to good account the secrets which he picked up from the Danes.

But there is a much earlier instance of the same kind, which occurred somewhat as follows, about 450 a. d.

Colgrin, the leader of the Saxons, was besieged by the British in the town of York.

He had agreed to surrender on a certain day if no help came to him, as the water supply had been cut off, and the food supplies were running terribly short, and he had all but lost hope of some expected reinforcements.

At this juncture his brother, who was the bearer of news from the outside, came boldly up to the British lines, having first, however, “shaved his head and face, and assumed the minstrel’s cloak.” In this disguise he passed up and down through the British lines singing and playing to the unsuspecting soldiers. When night arrived he got into the moat and played an air, which was immediately understood by the soldiers inside the fortifications. By means of ropes he was lifted over the wall, and gave his brother the joyful news that reinforcements were on the way, and would be at the gates in three days.

All idea of surrender was then over, and the British had ultimately to raise the siege. This story would lead one to infer that the minstrel in the fifth century shaved in a peculiar fashion to distinguish him from the common crowd, as well as wore the minstrel’s cloak.

The third incident is perhaps better known, because of the flavour of romance with which the two central figures are surrounded. The story of Blondel’s successful adventure in quest of King Richard has always been a favourite tale with the English people. During one of the many wars waged by England on the Continent, Richard was taken prisoner, and his captors managed to smuggle him away so secretly that none of his friends, although they hunted ‘‘high and low,” could learn of his whereabouts. His faithful minstrel continued the search after all the rest had given up hope of ever finding the king. With his harp for sole companion, he visited every keep and stronghold on the road, and under the frowning walls of each he sang always the first verse of a song which had been a favourite of the imprisoned monarch, and waited often and wearily for the reply, which seemed as if it would never come. But one day—the day of days it was ever after to the brave and patient Blondel —out through barred window floated the second verse of the song in the well-known and beloved voice of his lord and master ; and the faithful harper’s search was at an end.

This story shews that the minstrel’s cloak was a protection to its wearer in foreign countries, as well as at home; and as far back as history goes we find the same sense of security nestling under its segis, and the same honour and respect accorded the wearer of it.

These three stories—and I could give many more such—point to the delight with which music inspired the early inhabitants of these islands; but nothing can shew how great was the respect accorded to the musician in those days better than the story of Blondel, which also demonstrates that the enemy’s country, and even the enemy’s camp, in times of war, were open to the visits of the man with the shaved head and the minstrel’s cloak.

But, again, the minstrel took a much higher standing in the estimation of the people than the priest; and we have seen that he was better paid. It was in these early days that the seed of strife was sewn between piper and priest, as the priest naturally grew jealous of the attentions paid the piper. When the glory passed away from the guild, and its membership no longer protected the piper, and he was classed with the “vagabond,” then did the priest, who was rapidly acquiring fresh power, and a big hold over the people, do everything in his power to stamp out the poor musician who had so long robbed him of fat fees.

And what the Roman Catholic priest began so well in the South in the fifteenth century, the Free Church priest in the Highlands finished handsomely in the nineteenth century; so that it is no uncommon experience to meet with Highlanders to-day in Argyleshire and Inverness-shire—I speak of the two counties which I know best—who shut their ears in horror (or pretended horror !)—at the sound of the Bagpipe, and call the piper “a bad man.” So much for the teaching of the Free Church. This may seem an exaggerated statement to make, but it is, alas ! sober truth, to which many can testify, and is in accord with my own experience, gained during many holiday wanderings through the Highlands and Islands.

Only last June I was staying in one of the smaller Western Islands, and there I became acquainted with one, Mrs M‘Phee, a decent, God-fearing woman, albeit a little gloomy and severe, and with Highland manners which could not be improved upon, who looked after our golf clubs. On the last day of my stay in the island, feeling that the modest fee charged by her for cleaning the clubs was rather less than her due, I took my Bagpipe, and accompanied by a friend, started off to walk to her house, which was almost two miles from the hotel.

She lived in a very lonely spot, with no neighbours near, and I felt sure that a tune on the “Pipes” would be welcome, and would cheer her up a bit. When I told her of my mission, she— to my utter amazement—told me that she did not want to hear the “Pipes.” “No! no! whateffer.” At first I believed that she was only bashful, and began to play, but she soon undeceived me by her behaviour, and shewed that she was in deadly earnest. Her face grew black as night, and the children, who crowded behind her, as she stood in the doorway and struggled to get a peep at the “piper,” she drove back into the house with strong Gaelic epithets. While I struggled along, piping under these adverse circumstances, Mrs M‘Phee entered into a long and earnest talk with my friend, paying no attention whatever to poor me.

My performance otherwise was received with chilly silence, and when I had finished there was not one word of thanks forthcoming. It was not in the cheeriest of moods that I walked to the links for my last game, and on the road, Mr - repeated the conversation that he had had with Mrs M‘Phee, or rather which Mrs M‘Phee had had with him, for she did all the talking, the while I inwardly blessed the cause of it all.

She told him that she did not approve of the Bagpipes, or of any secular music “whateffer,” and looked upon all such as part of the devil’s wiles to draw away people’s thoughts from heaven, and all that sort of thing. And she finished off with a very pointed rebuke to myself, saying, as she watched me fearfully out of the corner of her eye, “My father was a great piper, oh yes; and he won many prizes, and he played on the ‘Pipes’ until six years before his death, when he became a good man, and destroyed his ‘ Pipes,’ and I don’t want any of my children to learn them. The eldest one —ah! Bheist!"—this to the boy as she caught him looking over her shoulder and listening, “he is too fond of the chanter already.” It was heart-breaking to me to find such prejudice and fanaticism in the Highlands, the old home of the Bagpipe: its innocent music condemned as ungodly; its cheery companionship refused; the piper shunned as a leper.

I often wonder how Mrs M'Phee’s children amuse themselves in that lonely spot during the dark and idle winter months, and think how much brighter the house would be for an occasional tune on the despised Pipe.

Fond of music as these children are, what substitute does the Free Church mean to provide for them when they leave home and become dwellers in the great city with its “sins and sorrows?” Once free to follow the bent of their own fancy, music they will have, and in that day will music of the Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay type be as healthy, or as good for them, as that which their own Church denied them at home?

I said before, that the Priest gave the Piper a bad name once, and in some places it has evidently stuck to him ever since. He called them “Profligates, low-bred buffoons, who blew up their cheeks and contorted their persons, and played on harps, trumpets, and pipes for the pleasure of their lords, and who, moreover, flattered them by songs and ballads, for which their masters are not ashamed” —this is evidently the sore point!—“to repay these ministers of the Prince of Darkness with large sums of gold and silver, and rich embroidered robes.”

At times the piper did his best to earn this sorry character; but the old proverb, “As drunk as a piper,” is, I think, misread. "It came into existence in an age when the piper was a gentleman—as the Highland Clan piper always was—and it only meant that a piper could get as drunk as a gentleman, or get drunk, and still be a gentleman. In other words, that he could always play, stopping short in his drinking before the maudlin stage was reached.

“As fou as a fiddler,” on the other hand, meant the beastial form of drunkenness, of which no gentleman ever could be guilty. The old Crowder, in short, never was a gentleman, and did not know how to drink genteelly. He was a sot, and kept on swilling as long as a drop of liquor was left, or until the fiddle dropped through his listless fingers. I speak, of course, of the old days, long since gone, when the Guild was breaking up. From my own small experience of pipers and piping, I can bear testimony to the fact that drinking and piping go very badly together; and the piper who drinks immoderately has no reputation to lose, for he cannot win at competitions. There is a story told by Mr Manson which seems to contradict this:—

William M‘Donald, a well-known piper in his day, could play, drunk or sober, “so well,” to quote this writer, “even when rivals had given him too much drink, that he always got a prize at competitions.” I could not understand this at all, because in my own case, a single glass of beer or wine puts my fingers out in piping, and I was therefore more than pleased to learn from Mr John M‘Donald, of Inverness— himself one of the finest Pibroch players of the day— that the story is not true.

William M‘Donald, who was his uncle, was not born in Badenoch as Mr Manson says, and he was a life-long teetotaller; so that the story of his brother pipers making him drunk is a libel on both parties. The story of Win. M‘Donald’s son, who was piper to the Prince of Wales, giving up his situation and burning his Bagpipe from religious scruples—as the good Mr M‘Phee did—is, I believe, quite true. Of course, there were always pipers and pipers. When the Guild of Minstrelsy was at length suppressed, the pipers in the South, in common with the Harpers, were denounced as vagabonds, and were liable to be whipped, and to be put in the stocks for following what had hitherto been a respectable and strictly legal calling, and in this way they were forced to herd with the lower classes, who were themselves outside the pale of society — often, even, outside of the law, but who sheltered and favoured the poor musicians, and it is no wonder that the character of the latter rapidly degenerated. But the Clan Piper, not exposed to such degrading surroundings, maintained his dignity and his character of gentleman to the last ; and never, above all, forgot that he was a musician. He never gave himself up to riotous living, or to beggary, like the crowd of disrobed minstrels, and his descendants to-day, I am proud to say, maintain well, on the whole, the old character of “musician and gentleman,” so worthily held by their forefathers.


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