Reminiscences and the Bagpipe Chapter XXXIII The Great Highland Bagpipe
Dont be afraid, I am not
about to antiquarianize.Sala.
"NORTH-WEST of a line
from Greenock, by Perth, to Inverness, is the land of the Gael of the
semi-barbarous instrument, the Bagpipe; of wild piobrach tunes or rude
melodies, very little known, and still less admired.
These words of wisdom
were penned over two hundred years ago by an English traveller who had
visited Scotland. And exactly one hundred years later, a
fellow-countryman of his laments over Scotlands barbarous music. The
Bagpipe, he says, is a sorry instrument, capable of little more than
making an intolerable noise.
incapable Pipe here mentioned, is the Highland instrument of which I am
about to write.
Old Bill. of 1785:
Original given to the Author by Mr Glen. Bank Street, Edinburgh, tl is
interesting as shewing what were the favourite tunes with the old
The Piob-mhor, or Great
Highland Bagpipe has indeed, always had its detractors, as well as its
admirers, and a kind of desultory warfare over its value as a musical
instrument has been waged between those two for more than a hundred
years. To this perennial source of strife, there has been added in
recent years other knotty points which have formed the subject of keen
debatesuch as the origin of the Pipe, the date of its introduction into
the Highlands, its influenceif anyupon the music and folk-song of the
country. Within the last dozen years or so, its Celtic character has
been traduced, and doubts of its genuineness as a Highland instrument
have been sown broadcast over the land by Highlanders themselves.
This is not as it should
be. Genuine Highland relics of the olden days are getting rare, and
should be carefully hoarded upnot thoughtlessly discarded, as it has
been too much the fashion of late to do.
It was not until the
middle of the eighteenth century that such doubts arose. Until then, the
Bagpipe, although mentioned by several writers, was always spoken of as
if it were indigenous to the country. There are authentic references to
itif not in the first centuryin the twelfth, fourteenth, fifteenth,
sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, and we get no hint anywhere from
these that the Pipe was not Highlandthat it was a modern introduction
from England or the Continent. Giraldus Cambrensis (b. 1118) simply
mentions it as in his day a well-known Scottish instrument. M'Vurich the
Bard, in his satire (written in the fifteenth century) upon the Highland
Pipe, would have scored more heavily than he has done if he had had the
slightest suspicion that it was an English instrument which he was
It has been reserved for
the modern critic drawing largely upon his own imagination I suspect
to discover the foreign extraction of the Highland Bagpipe. And if we
are to believe the teaching of what, for convenience sake, I call here
the Inverness School, it is worse than foolishness any longer to hold
the hitherto cherished belief, that the Bagpipe is an ancient Highland
instrument, or that it was ever dear to the old Highlanders heart. We
are told, in short, by the learned authority of the North, that the
Bagpipe was not known in the Highlands until the sixteenth century, and
that, with the exception of the large drone, it is an English instrument
pure and simple.
The kilt, as an ancient
Highland dress, has long been discounted by the same authority, but I
feel sure that many people, not Highland, would miss both kilt and
Bagpipe, if they were allowed to die out. And yet, if, as Mr MBain of
Inverness says, they be not relics of a past age, then are they
valueless, and the founding of Highland Societies at home and abroad for
the study and preservation of these hitherto supposed old Highland
characteristics is a piece of worthless sentimentality, and the
exclusive use of the Pipes as a military weapon by Highland regiments
is little better than a pious fraud. Nor does the third, and in some
respects, the most important characteristic of the Highlander in days
gone by, fare much better in the North.
Do away with its
originality, and you do away with the high antiquity of the Gaelic
This is exactly what is
being attempted to-day, with perverse ingenuity, by a few Gaelic
scholars. In a recent Gaelic dictionary, for example, published in
Inverness, the author goes out of his way to trace the Celtic root-word
Piob, to the Latin Piva, while the latest scholarship in the South tells
us, on the contrary, that this is certainly not the case, and that Piva
is most probably derived from the Celtic word, Piob.
On every possible
occasion, Gaelic words are thus being traced to other languages, but
never other languages to the Gaelic, if it can be avoided.
For my own part, I should
prefer, with Dr. Johnson, to look upon the language of my ancestors as
a rude and barbarous tongue, but old; rather than think it a modern
thing of shreds and patches, culled from other languagesa poor
conglomeration of Latin, Greek, and French.
Of outside modern
criticism on these matters, we have abundance and to spare, but such is
generally vitiated by a total want of acquaintance with the subject; and
it seems to me, that if we had the real opinions of the old Highlander
on these things, which we are now told are but recent introductions,
this would be of much greater value in helping us to arrive at a correct
By their fruits ye shall
know them, was written of old, and it is not by the spoken word, but by
the accomplished deed, that we can get a glimpse into the heart of the
old Highlander, and learn there something of his true thoughts and
feelings upon the subject of his music, his language, and his dress.
It is a happy chance for
those who, like myself, believe in the antiquity of the Highland Bagpipe
and dress, that the deeds of old have been occasionally recorded, as
in these we find reasons for the faith that is in us.
When the old Highlander
stood on the field of battle, sword in hand, the shyness that clogged
his tongue at other times disappeared, and his manhood boldly asserted
itself. Proud of his chief, proud of his clan, proud of his country,
proud of the old speech and dress, but, above all, proud of the War Pipe
whose martial strains had so often roused his ancestors to battle, he no
longer hid his passion for these things behind a cloud of words, but
blazoned it forth in the face of the world. This is no exaggeration, as
the following talewhich is a true one, and no lye proves :
The good old town of
Falkirk was early astir one fine morning in the second week of April,
1779. The people in the streets were all agog with excitement. A rumour
had arrived the night before that a large body of Highlanders had broken
out into open rebellion at Stirling Castle ; that they had been
overpowered and disarmed after a terrific struggle and much bloodshed,
and that they were to be sent under armed escort to Edinburgh for trial,
on the following morning. But when the Highlanders appeared, the Falkirk
bairns were grievously disappointed.
These men were not
prisoners ; they had not mutinied. As they marched along, their proud
bearing told its own tale.
They were armed to the
Pipers played at their head.
They had no escort.
Dressed in kilts of
brown, crotal-dyed; averaging 5 ft. 7A ins. in height, hard, bronzed,
and wiry-look-ing, with muscles taut as steel, the two companies made a
sight worth looking at, as they swung gaily up the Tanners Brae, and
past the West Port, with heads erect, and with that quick springy step
born only of many years spent among the mountains.
Falkirk had seen no such
sight since Prince Charlie and his men had overrun her High Street
thirty years before.
But although rumour on
this occasion had proved a lying jade, there was some excuse for it.
Jacobite emissaries had got at the ears of the simple Highlanders in
Stirling, and had whispered that the Government was playing false with
them ; that in spite of their having enlisted only for foreign service
with Highland regiments, they were to be kept at home, and drafted into
Lowland regiments, where they would be forced to march to strange music,
and speak English, and wear trousers; to all of which the Highlanders
answered grimly, We shall see, but refused to take any action in the
matter, trusting to the assurances given by Captain Innes, the officer
On their arrival at Leith
however, the men were told very abruptly that they were to be turned
over to the 80th and 82ndthe Edinburgh and Hamilton regiments, and at
once the heather was on fire.
The Highlanders refused
to submit to this injustice, and flying to arms, entrenched themselves
on the shore at Leith, and refused to yield. Soldiers were sent down
from the Castle at Edinburgh, to quell the insurrection, and a fierce
conflict ensued, which was stopped only by the intervention of a
well-known Highland officer who appeared on the scene, and spoke in
Gaelic to the mutineers, but not before Captain Mansfield, of the South
Fencibles, and nine men, were killed, and thirty-one soldiers wounded.
At the trial of the three
ringleadersand this is the point to which I wish to draw your
attention one of them, hailing from Caithness, pleaded through his
agent that he had only enlisted into the 71st, or Fraser Highlanders ;
that Gaelic was his native and only tongue; that the kilt was his only
dress ; and that he wouldnt know how to put on trousers. After being
sentenced to be shot, they all received a free pardon from the King, who
thus gracefully acknowledged the original injustice done to the poor
Nineteen years before,
almost to a day, the Fraser Highlanders were retreating sullenly before
the enemy at Quebec. The General, in a blazing temper, rode up to the
Field-Officer, and complained of the disgraceful behaviour of his corps.
The angry soldier was told very plainly that he himself was to blame for
the disaster, in forbidding the Pipers to play that morning :
Nothing encourages the
Highlanders so much in the day of battle, and even now they the
Bagpipes would be of some use, said the Field-Officer.
Then, in Gods name, let
them blow up, said the General. And at the first sound of their beloved
Pipes, the Highlanderswho but a moment before were retreatingrallied,
and shoulder to shoulder as in the old days, rushed straight at the foe,
and drove him before them, as chaff is driven before the wind.
Here, then, we have, at
last, the opinion of the old Highlander, expressed in no uncertain
fashion. In defence of his dress and of his language, he is willing to
lay down his life on the shores of Leith. But at Quebec, in defence of
his favourite war instrument, the Great Highland Bagpipe, he is ready to
risk that which he values a thousand times more than his lifehis honour.
It is impossible for me to believe that my forefathers would have staked
life and honour in such gallant fashion for a mere whim, or in defence
of newly-borrowed plumes. To the Highlander who believes otherwise, I
would only say, Go, tell it to the Marines.
Murray, in that
monumental work which he is bringing out just now, called, A New
English Dictionary, defines the Bagpipe as a musical instrument of
great antiquity and wide distribution, consisting of an airtight
wind-bag, and one or more reed-pipes, into which the air is pressed by
the performer; and with this definition, every authority-on the subject
is in accord.
I have tried to shew its
antiquity from history. The Greeks have known it for 2100 years, and the
Latins for 1900 years, and these two peoples only borrowed it from the
Celt, or other stranger.
The illustrations in this
book give a good idea of its wide distribution. If I had in my
collection the Volynskaof Russiaa Pipe very similar to the
Egyptianand the Afghan Pipeboth of which I hope still to getit would
prove, without any written or oral demonstration, that in its
distribution it is wide, extending from our own Hebrides on the West, to
India in the East, and from St. Petersburg in the North to Cape Town in
It is also the same
to-day as yesterday in essentials, and is composed of the same simple
materials an air-tight wind-bag, and one or more reed pipes
The Piob Mhor, or Great
Highland Bagpipe, is a good example of the survival of the fittest.
Like the different
Bagpipes of the world, it started from the tiny Shepherds Pipe, and its
development was slow and gradual in the Highlands.
To prepare the way for a
better understanding of the Piob Mhor, I shall recapitulate shortly.
Thu gift of Mr Rankine, Rosebank the chanter on this Pipe is decorated
with lead, and ends in a peculiar knee made of lead.
A Second Spanish Bagpipe:
Shewing a small additional drone. It is more modern and much better
finished than the preceding one.
The Greeks had a
one-drone Bagpipe very early, called Pythaulos, or Apollos Pipe. They
also had a many-drone, chanterless Pipe, named Sumphonia. This latter,
is, I believe, the very first Bagpipe mentioned in history, and dates
from 176 B.C. In the Sumphonia, two of the drones were pierced with
holes, and were played upon like a chanter, and made the melody. The
first Roman Pipe specially mentioned in history (a.d. 54) was a two-reeded
droneless Pipe, and we have the same form perpetuated for us in the
Egyptian Pipe of to-day, a specimen of which graces the opposite page.
The Italian Shepherds
Bagpipe (or Piva) is still a one-drone Pipe, as is also the Gheeyitci,
or Shepherds Pipe of Spain, and the Bagpipe of Bulgaria. The chanter of
the Spanish Pipe is furnished with only seven holes, the thumb-hole
being awant-ing ; but in a very modern set, of which I shew a drawing
here, there is the thumb-hole, and also an attempt at a second drone. It
seems improbable, however, that the two drones, judging from their
comparative lengths, are in harmony, unless, indeed, two or more octaves
The workmanship of these
two last-mentioned Pipes is very defective ; the ornamentation is of the
meagrest and cheapest ; the sliders of the drones fit very imperfectly;
and the reeds are of the rudest construction. In fact, they shew little
or no improvement upon the original Bagpipe, which those three peoples
had given them, long centuries ago.
The German Bagpipe the
Schalmei, Dudel-sac, Sac-pfeijfe, Shepherds Pipefor it is known by
these and other namesgrew into a variety of curious forms the
arrangement of the drones especially shewing great ingenuity. It was the
favourite instrument of the German shepherd from the very earliest of
times. It became, ultimately, more or less of a monstrosity the huge
bell-shaped ends attached to both chanter and drones making it a burden
to the player and a most unwieldy instrument. The bell of chanter and
drones was probably derived from the ancient Pipe with animals horns
for terminals. The addition of the bellows in the German Bagpipewhich
took place about the same time as in Francewas alone wanting to
complete this chameleon-like monster, and having attained to perfection
(in the eyes of its admirers), it speedily declined, and is now
practically defunct. Nor do I think that the innumerable German bands
which have sprung up in its place are an unmixed blessing.
In France, the
Chalumeaua one-drone Pipe attained its highest popularity when its
would-be improver turned it into a Bellows-Pipethe Musette, with four,
five, and six droneswhich, after a short existence as the plaything of
the Louis, also fell into disfavour, from which it has never recovered.
In England, where the improver was also at work, the Bagpipe has died
out, except in the north-east corner, where the Northumbrian Small
Pipes still exist.
Everything possible in
the way of improvement has been done for this Bagpipe. The scale has
been modernised; keys providing sharps and flats have been added; the
scale has been lengthened out almost to two octaves, and, by a very
ingenious arrangement, the drones can be changed from G to D, to suit
the two keys of the chanter. But what is the result? Alas for the
theorists! its constitution has been so weakened by all this tinkering
that it can hardly eke out sufficient breath with which to sing its own
I first heard this little
instrument played at Choppington by one of the foremost players of the
day. He was anxious to impress me with its merits, and he opened up in
his best style with his favourite piece, which was (Heaven help us!) the
Viennese Waltz. When the Bagpipe is reduced to playing rubbish such as
this, the sooner it sings Nunc Dimittis and retires gracefully from
the stage, the better.
In Ireland, where the
improved Bellows-Pipe has come to the greatest perfection of all, it has
fared no better.
I venture to say that
there is not one person in Ireland, now that Professor Goodman, of
Trinity College Dublin, is dead, who can tune the double bass Regulator
Pipe, to say nothing of being able to play upon it. This is the Pipe
which is shewn on the opposite page, and described in another place.
A judge of Pipe music,
who was present in Dublin some years ago at the Irish Mod, told me that
not one out of the five or six pipersall they could get together, from
the whole of Ireland !who entered for the competition, had his Bagpipe
And as the playing, too,
was of a very inferior order, the effect upon his ear, he said, was
anything but pleasant.
Now, the lesson I draw
from all this is, that any attempt at improving the Great Highland
Bagpipe must prove futile. It is all very well in theory, but in
practice we have before us the fate which has invariably overtaken the
improved Pipe in this and in other countries.
It is an undisguised
blessing that the Highlander resisted all such improvements in the past,
preferring to use the bellows which God gave him to the poor substitute
provided by man, and also refused to have the old-world scale of the
chanter altered to the modern scale.
The Highland Pipe of
to-day, if wre except the addition of a few holes to the chanter, is the
unexpurgated edition, so to speak, of the original Shepherds Pipe, when
once the burden, or drone, had been added to it. And here, in passing,
I may mention that the addition of the drone led to a new style of
music. Singing in unison, which was the almost invariable custom in the
Highlands in olden times, and is common to this day, was, practically
speaking, the only method at one time in vopue in this and other
But the drone
accompaniment added so great an additional charm to Bagpipe music that
it was copied by the early vocalists, and part singing grew out of it.
Quite a number of the oldest English part-songs have a drone bass in
imitation of the Bagpipe ; and you can provide no better bass yet to the
good old song of The Phairson Swore a Feud, than the nasal drone bass.
Any other accompaniment to really old Highland airs is all but an
But it was of the Great
Highland Bagpipe, the Piob Mhala, or Piob Mhor, that I intended writing
; of its age, construction, peculiarities of scale, etc.
The Great Highland
Bagpipe is par excellence, the King of Bagpipes, because it has hitherto
refused to be modernised. It is the type from which the Pythaula of the
Greeks, and the Piva of the Latins was derived.
It is almost as primitive
in construction as when the shepherds piped on the plains of Bethlehem
on that first Christmas morn.
The workmanship is better
certainly, and the scale more extensive, and the tone richer and fuller
owing to the use of stronger and better constructed reeds and the larger
bore, but otherwise it is very little altered. It is now invariably
furnished with three drones ; the two small ones being in unison, and
pitched one octave higher than the large drone; but in everything else,
it is just the old primitive Piob, Piva, Chalumeau, or Shepherds Pipe.
The scale of the chanter
is still the old Eastern scale of neuter thirds.
It has survived until
now, because it has persistently turned a deaf ear to the critics who
said, With a few keys added and a truer scale, you would be a much
To these tempters, it has
hitherto said My defects are my own, and have given me my
individuality. Without them I would be just a common modern instrument
of eight notes, with no flexibility, stiff and formal : and with nothing
distinctive or characteristic about me, unless it were the monotonous
In competition with
modern instruments, I would be nowhere. The Eastern scale is my charm,
and gives a variety to the music otherwise impossible, even if at times,
it does offend the modern ear ; and without it, I would soon be accorded
a fitting repose in the antiquarians rubbish heap.
The vitality of this
semi-barbarous instrument is surpassing, only because it has been true
to itself in the past, and will last, only so long as it is true to
itself in the future. With so many theoretical advisers about, it must
not forget the lessona lesson as much required to-day as everlearned
from a contemplation of the untimely end to which the improved Bagpipe
in the past has come.
The scale of the Bagpipe
differs from that of all other instruments of the present day.
It is an old-world scale,
and is still in use by one or two of the Eastern nations. When we call
it a scale of neuter thirds, we mean that there are no proper sharps or
flats in it.
The drones are in the key
of A major, and are tuned to A of the chanter, which practically makes A
the dominant or key note, but the tunes for the Bagpipe are written
indifferently in G (one sharp), D (two sharps), and A (three sharps).
The scale extends from
low G to high A, an octave and one note, and as there are no keys, or
other method of taking in or leaving out a sharp in the transition from
the key of A to G, or from the key of G to D, there is none of the three
keys correct according to modern notation. Nor are they correct when
measured by the modern scale. But by using this ingenious old-world
scale without sharp or flats proper, the seeming difficultynay! at
first sight the impossibilityof playing a tune in G at one moment, and
in A the next moment, without adding to, or taking away from the sharps,
is cleverly got over : because as there are no sharps or flats in the
chanter scale, you cannot take away from what is not ; and yet you get
an effect almost identical with the effect of transposing from one key
to another, as is done in the modern method by taking in or leaving out
extra sharps or flats provided for the purpose.
But there isthere must
be, a decided difference in the two methods ; and it is this very
difference in the Bagpipe scale which makes the music so delightfully
original and refreshing to the trained ear.
If I have not made myself
clear to you, first play upon the piano from the Pipe score such tunes
as Highland Rorie, Roderick of the Glen, Highland Laddie, or the
modern tune of Elspeth Campbell, and then play the same tunes over on
the chanter. On the piano, the discord is all but unbearable, while on
the chanter, it is hardly perceptible.
Highland Rorie, for
example, opens upon A for the first two bars, then suddenly repeats the
same upon G, and so on. It is this sudden transition from one key to
another without any alteration of the scale, which gives Bagpipe music
its quaint piquant flavour.
Marching tunes are
written principally in A and D, while G lends itself more to
Piobaireachd, and especially to laments, such as The Lament for the
Children, by Patrick Mor MacCruimein, and MacLeod of MacLeods
The tune in D, I must
confess, I do not like, the burden the while booming along in A ; it
grates upon my ear.
Many good pipers,
however, do not share this objection with me, but I am quite sure of
this, that it is the tune ending in D which ordinary people cannot
tolerate, and which gives them a distaste for the Pipe. The composers of
D tunes, however, seem aware of the fault of a too prolonged or
too-often repeated discord, and they try to avoid this by touching
lightly and as seldom as possible on the D, although it is the key note
for the time being.
There is no doubt that
the practising chanter is mainly responsible for so many tunes being
written in this key, as there is no drone to warn the composer that he
is writing for it as well as for the chanter. In the Northumbrian Pipe
this difficulty is got over by changing from the drones in A, or rather
in G, to D.
In spite of the prejudice
I have to D tunes however, I acknowledge that there are many good ones,
more especially dance tunes.
But to return to the
instrument itself, there is no doubt, as I have said more than once,
that this neuter third scale, and the monotonous drone accompaniment,
while giving it a distinctive character among musical instruments, also
detracts largely from its reputation in the eyes of the musical critic.
And when to these peculiarities you have a performer who, although
fairly capable otherwise, does not know how to keep his instrument in
tune, then indeed does listening become perforce a pain and a burden.
But a well-tuned Highland
Bagpipe in capable hands is difficult to beat. It can still charm and
delight the ordinary listener as well as the highly-cultivated musician.
To any one who wishes to
have a scientific explanation of the Bagpipe scalea flight too high for
me to attemptI would recommend the article on it in the appendix to Mr
Mansons book. I have only given you my own impressions, in homely
language, and the conclusions which I have formed after a long and
intimate acquaintance with the subject, and have studiously avoided
anything which might savour of the expert, seeing that I am not learned
in the theory of music.
If I have lingered too
long over the old-world character of the Great Highland Bagpipe chanter,
trying to prove that it should on no account be altered to suit modern
requirements, it is because there is a real danger of some such attempt
being made in earnest one day, when, if it should succeed, then good-bye
to the ancient Pipe of the Highlands. The expert knowledge and
common-sense of our Bagpipe-makers have kept things right so far. A
speaker at a Highland gathering held this year at Johannesburg (and a
Highlander himself to boot!) devoted a large part of his speech to the
argument that a more correct scale, and the addition of a few keys to
the chanter, would make the Highland Bagpipe a much better instrument,
and his remarks were received by his Highland audience with applause.
Now, not one writer in one land, but many writers and speakers in many
lands, are asking thoughtlessly for these so-called improvements. I hope
I do not boast when I say that I have some little knowledge of improved
Bagpipes ; I play a little upon the Northumbrian, the Lowland, and the
Irish Pipes, and I possess practically all the music which has been
written for the English and Irish Bagpipes ; but I always, after
dallying with the improved instrument, return to the Great Highland
Bagpipe with an increased zest and a keener sense of its superiority
over all others ; and I would not give one good pibroch for all the
Bellow-Pipe music in the world.
Leave the Great Highland
Bagpipe as it is then I say.
Improve the piping by all
Teach the piper to tune
his instrument properly ; to use only good reeds ; to stick more to the
old music, especially pibroch; to avoid modern rubbish, such as waltzes
and polkas, and the music of other instruments cut down and altered to
suit the Pipes If this were done we should hear less of Bagpipe reform
in the future. The Bagpipe, in fact, needs no reformingwill stand no
reforming. The piper may. And the reformer? Let him study the instrument
more closely, and listen oftener to its music, so that his ear may get
used to its old-world scale, and all will be well with the Great War
Pipe of the Highlands in the years to come.
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