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