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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXXI — Piping and Dancing dying out in the Highlands


IT is a great pity that piping and dancing have been so much discouraged in the Highlands in recent times. The sources of amusement in the long winter evenings left to these people, living often in lonely townships—frequently cut off from all communication with the outside world for a great part of the year — were never too numerous, and it would have been a wise and a generous policy on the part of their spiritual guides to have left them undisturbed, and added to them wherever possible.

But to-day, the choice of entertainment for the Highlander lies between these two things—theological discussion, and whisky—both good, no doubt, in moderation, but both dangerous, and apt to lead to quarreling when abused. For over fifty years, the Free Church, carrying out, as I have said before— perhaps, also, unconsciously?—the earlier policy of the Catholic clergy, has been the sworn foe of piping and dancing.

For over fifty years the Free Church priest has done his best to stamp out other innocent amusements, such as the telling of old tales, and the singing of old-world songs at the Ceilidh, until to-day, all sounds of mirth have fled the land and left it desolate.

I have piped to the children standing in the market-place, and they have not danced; I have mourned to them—over the loss of strathspey and reel — but they have not wept. It is difficult to believe that changes so sweeping could have taken place in so short a space of time, but it is true. Some years ago I passed through the Caledonian Canal on board the S.Y. “Ileen,” owned by Mr Salvesen of Lathallan, and I was very much struck with the number of people we met who had seldom or never heard the Bagpipe.

The Strathspey and reel, and “Highland Fling” seemed also to have fallen into complete neglect, and to be all but forgotten.

Whenever I got a few children together, I questioned them on these matters, and was more than astonished at their ignorance of Highland music and dance. Some of the children could dance a polka or a waltz, or even a schottische, to the accompaniment of a concertina, but could not dance a single reel step, even to the music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. I tried always to wean them from the Lowland abomination ; I tried always to interest them in the dance of their forefathers ; and at several places in the neighbourhood of Invergarrv, I taught the little ones a reel step or two wherever I could get a few together—whether on the public road, or in the fields, or by the river side. It was quite refreshing to note the quickness with which they picked up the old steps, and to mark the evident delight with which they listened to the old music.

One beautiful afternoon we started off to visit the Falls of Gary, and while walking by the side of the river, I saw a little school, which stood on an eminence some distance back from the stream, but on the opposite side, dispersing for the day. One blast of the Pipe was enough to draw the whole school trooping down through the meadows to the river side, and from the opposite bank, cries of: “Please sir, a tune!” “Please, sir, a tune!” came quickly in pleading accents from a score of little throats.

“Give me a song, first,” I said, “and I will give you a tune.”

“What song would you like, sir?”

“A song about Prince Charlie.”

“Who was Prince Charlie?” queried the spokesman of the party, a tall, red-lipped, red-cheeked, shapely laughing girl, with stray sunbeams in her hair.

“You know well enough who Prince Charlie was, and I want a song about him,” I replied. After a hurried consultation, and much whispering in groups, and shaking together of little heads, the leader stood forward and shouted bravely across the swift-flowing stream—“We can’t sing any song about Prince Charlie.”

I at once took “we can’t” to mean “we daren't,” and said—“What! you call yourselves Highlanders, and live in the beautiful Highlands, and don’t know who Prince Charlie was, and you can't sing a song about him? You should be ashamed of yourselves! Why, I live in the Lowlands, but yet I can tell you a lot about Prince Charlie, and I can sing you a song about him too; and I love his memory after all these years. My forefathers bled and died for Prince Charlie, if yours did not.”

“Have you four fathers, sir?'’ piped in a little girl; “I have only one.” “And quite enough too,” put in a second mite; at which they all laughed heartily. No dullards, evidently. And—this I said to myself— they know of, and can sing about, Prince Charlie, in spite of their assumed ignorance. So, as a last shot, I asked once more for a song, and promised— in as solemn and mysterious a manner as I could assume—that I would not tell the “Meenisther.”

Again there was a clustering together of little heads in consultation, but this time I was to be rewarded for my perseverance. Falling back to right and left, the group disclosed my Nighecin Ruadh standing erect like a queen in their midst. Stepping slightly in advance of her companions, she sang in a clear voice, and with many blushes which became her well, that beautiful old song, “Come o’er the stream, Charlie, brave Charlie, dear Charlie,” leaving the chorus to be taken up by the others.

It was a glorious day altogether—an Indian summer day—and the warm sun shone brightly overhead, lighting up the beautiful glen rarely. Seated by the banks of the murmuring river, lazily enjoying the warm air which came floating down the glen laden with the smell of larch and spruce, my thoughts insensibly went back to the days of the ’45, and I thought of Prince Charlie as he was before continuous misfortune tried the temper of his spirit, and found it awanting. I remembered him only as the brave young soldier, hardy and temperate, kindly and true, gallantly fighting for a crown that was his own, as surely as anything can be called one’s own in this world. And the refrain of the old song, “Come o’er the stream, Charlie” (in which perforce we joined), sung by these little children as they sat round their leader on the grassy banks of the Gary, with the rushing sound of its black, quick-hurrying waters for an accompaniment, went to my heart, and—I am not ashamed to say it—brought the tear to my eye. I responded with a Jacobite air on the “Pipes,” and the ice being now fairly broken, and the fear of the “Church” put behind us—after some dancing, which, I am sorry to say, did not include the reel, as none of them could dance it—we sang and piped to each other alternately until the lengthening shadows warned us to start for the Falls if we were to get back before dark. For some miles through the glen, these children—always separated from friends and myself by the swollen stream, which was that day in spate— followed the piper, altho’ he was not what you might call a brilliant performer; and it was always the same soft, childish, pleading cry that floated across the dark waters—“Just one other tune, sir; just one other tune.”

And yet this day of innocent pleasure for old and young alike, and the children’s evident delight in the dear old music, would be denied them if the “Meenishter” had his way. But, in spite of the Free Church, I am glad to think that the so-called reformers in the Highlands, who reformed on Knox’s principle—“Pu’ doun the nests, and the rooks will flee awa’”—have not quite eradicated — have not eradicated at all—the love of the Celt for Bagpipe, and dance, and song. It is still there, ready to assert itself on the smallest encouragement, in spite of the repeated attempts of clerical bigotry to stamp it out.

I had a capital example of this one day while waiting on the Ileen, as she made her slow way through one of the many locks on the canal. On the hillside, due north of the lock, and not very far away, a little thatched cottage peeped down timidly at the passer-by. It looked old enough and Highland enough for anything ; so being anxious to throw away no chance of finding an original Highland Bagpipe, I ascended the hill and knocked at the door. No welcome “Hie i slot” fell upon my ears in answer to my summons, but, after some delay, a man with a very pale face and black bushy whiskers, appeared in the doorway, and eyed us suspiciously. I greeted him in Gaelic, but he only stared at me : he knew no Gaelic. Campbell was his name. He was a shoe-maker to trade. He knew nothing about the Bagpipe, and he had never seen an old set of “ Pipes,” nor had he heard the sound of the Bagpipe itself for years. Strathspey and reel had ever been strangers to him. His children, the eldest of whom was a nice-looking, intelligent boy of six, had never seen a Bagpipe, nor even heard of the Highland fling. Not a healthy state of affairs, surely, in a Highland cottage—no Gaelic, no kilt, no Bagpipe, no Highland fling. I began at once to teach the little ones something of these matters, and finished off the lesson with a practical demonstration—Air Ure, one of my friends, dancing to them, while I piped. Then by dint of a little coaxing, and the expenditure of a few pence, I got the children themselves formed up in line, and in an incredibly short space of time my friend and I had them going through the figure of eight—at first without, and then to music—“as if to the manner born.”

When the smaller ones were tired, I took Johnnie, the eldest, and taught him one or two strathspey steps, which he was soon able to dance to the music of the Pipe, along with other steps of his own, extemporised on the spot.

The old love of the Pipe and the reel was here, evidently, in the blood. Before our arrival, Johnnie knew nothing of the Bagpipe or of the Highland fling, and yet after one short lesson of ten minutes or so, he learned to wriggle and throw his feet about in most precise fashion, and even to extemporise steps for himself, keeping all the while most excellent time to music, the like of which he had never heard until that moment ; and he heeled and toed, and curved his arms gracefully over his head, as he spun now to right, now to left, and gave an occasional little “Hooch!” at the psychological moment, as if he had danced and “hooched” all his life before.

When we reached Fort Augustus, the Royal Mail steamer Gondolier, crowded with passengers for Oban and the South, could be seen coming down Loch Ness, and the Ileen was detained above the lock until she first passed through. This, it seems, is the custom. Flere we met with a poor Highland crofter and his family, who had just been dispossessed of their croft, and who were now travelling west in search of a new home. Why they had thus been suddenly thrown out upon the cold world I did not learn. They carried their household goods with them, strapped on their backs. The father, who told me his simple story, without any grumbling against the hard fate which dogged his footsteps, groaned under the weight of a heavy kitchen table and two wooden chairs; the mother, who stood patiently in the background while her goodman recited his woes, was bent double beneath a huge bundle of linen wrapped up in a couple of red and black bedcovers ; while the children were laden down to and beyond Plimsoll’s mark with pots and pans, and the minor household utensils.

They were footsore and travel-stained; and little wonder, as they had been on the road since daybreak. The little ones looked tired and hungry, and when I learned that they were of my own clan—bad luck to it!—I got my friends interested in them, and we feasted them upon milk and scones from a little wooden stall which stood close by for the convenience of travellers by the different boats passing through the canal. The milk and scones disappeared in princely fashion, but before famished appetites were appeased the Gondolier had entered the lock. And while she was still in the deeps, and the gates were being closed, a brilliant idea came to me, who am generally rather slow in seizing the occasion, and I acted instantly upon it.

Why not get up an impromptu dance, with the assistance of my companions, and make a collection for the poor wanderers? There was only one objection to the carrying out of the idea. Two of my four friends knew little or nothing about the strathspey, and the other two owned only one step between them. But when I divulged my scheme, they, like the good fellows that they were, immediately consented to give an exhibition; and they kept their word.

Hurried orders were given by everybody to everybody, and in a moment all was excitement and bustle. The directions reduced to paper were delightful in their simplicity. Jump high enough, and “hooch” smartly, and do an occasional figure of eight.

There was time for a little practice before the boat rose to view, and I took advantage of it, as I must confess I felt nervous about dancing before an audience. It happened exactly as I feared it would. The reel went fairly well until the rising boat brought us within ken of the people on board; but then, with all eyes turned upon them, my scratch team broke down—the gyrations of arms and legs grew more and more erratic; the “hoochs,” losing all regard for time or fitness, degenerated into wild shouts ; the figure of eight got into knots, which none could disentangle. Gray accused Becker; Salvesen made a brave attempt to put both right, although he was a bit off the rails himself; while Ure, true to his kindly nature, tried to throw oil on the troubled waters, and keep the dance going, by leaping higher and higher, and shouting bravely like a quarter-minute fog-horn at sea. The look of wonder and amazement which spread over the faces of the crowd on board the steamer as their eyes fell upon the wild war-dance of the Highlands— danced by five men, including the piper, with never a kilt between them—was most entertaining to watch. Under the gaze of so many eyes, all vestige of a dance soon disappeared, and the exhibition degenerated into something not unlike a football scrimmage.

With tears of laughter running down my cheeks, it was impossible for me to play any longer. And so, dropping the Pipe, I stepped forward and apologised for our poor show, and shortly explained its object.

I then took off my cap, and first calling for a contribution from each of the four dancers—I called it a "fine” for their execrable performance—I passed the cap on board the boat; and, thanks to warm hearts beating behind loud checks, and kindly natures lurking behind fierce eye-glasses, I had it returned to me with over twenty-seven shillings in it, which comfortable little sum I handed over to my poor clansman, and sent him on his way rejoicing.

In that very clever and very charming book, “South Sea Bubbles,” by “The Earl and the Doctor,” the authors had an experience among the children in Raritonga and Samoa very similar to mine in the Highlands. They tell the story to show how difficult it is thoroughly to uproot old customs among primitive peoples.

The Earl and the Doctor went to church in Raritonga one Sunday afternoon in the exalted company of the king. The congregation was particularly attentive, “but it was really painful to see both men and women dressed according to the lowest style of European go-to-meeting.’ Where on earth did the earlier missionaries pick up that curious idea of the necessary identity of piety and ugliness?

“In front of us sat a grave and reverend elder, with the most broad-church cut of black coat and white tie, and a mighty pair of spectacles, looking exactly like a very bilious Scotch precentor. He kept his eyes steadily fixed on his hymn-book during the singing, and bore his ‘burden’ by keeping up that prolonged humming drone so popular as an accompaniment in these seas.

“This hum is by no means unlike the drone of a Bagpipe. I have an indistinct recollection of attending a cottage dance somewhere in the Highlands long, long ago, when, for want of better music, one man played the Jew’s (or Jaw’s?) harp, and two or three others kept up a prolonged monotonous nasal drone very like that of my (black) friend in the front benches.

“The warm-hearted, sensible Highland lady and gentleman who represent the mission at Raritonga are very different people from the typical missionaries of the South Pacific.

“By no means believing that they can wash the black-a-moor (or rather brown-a-moor) white by a sudden application of Calvinistic white-wash, they try to make him as good a brown-a-moor as they can, and their labour has certainly not been in vain. How easily this white-wash cracks and peels off may be seen or heard by any one who keeps his eyes or ears open.” Dancing, I may explain, had been put down fora longtime by the missionaries, more thoroughly even at Raritonga than in the Highlands ; and this fact is necessary to remember in order to comprehend how the missionaries’ white-wash at times cracks and peels off.

“One fact which we heard from a ' high personage’ rather tickled us. A short time ago a native drum was brought to Raritonga from one of the neighbouring islands, and the very moment the first finger taps were heard, all the girls, down to the wee chiels ten or eleven years old, began to wriggle and squirm like so many galvanised frogs, shewing plainly that the old dancing blood still ran in their veins.”

The old paganisms are not to be stamped out so easily.

“The Gawazee of Egypt and the Gitana of Spain have kept to their old dances, in spite of priest or mollah, for many an age, and so it will be here. If any real improvement is to take place, I should propose that each ball should be attended by the missionary and his wife.”

This good advice I pass on to the F.C. ministers in the Highlands and Islands, with the earnest hope that it may be accepted, and acted upon.

“What right has an English or French missionary”—or Highland missionary?—“to say to a whole race, ‘You shall not dance, you shall not sing, you shall not smoke, under the possible penalty of eternal damnation in the next world?’” What right, indeed?


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