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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXXIII — The Great Highland Bagpipe


“Don’t 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 Scotland’s “barbarous music.” “The Bagpipe,” he says, “is a sorry instrument, capable of little more than making an intolerable noise.”

The “semi-barbarous,” 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 pipers.

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 debate—such as the origin of the Pipe, the date of its introduction into the Highlands, its influence—if any—upon 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 up—not 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 it—if not in the first century—in the twelfth, fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, and we get no hint anywhere from these that the Pipe was not Highland—that 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 girding at.

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 Highlander’s 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 M‘Bain 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 tongue.

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 languages—a 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 decision.

“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 tale—which “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 teeth.
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 Tanner’s 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 in charge.

On their arrival at Leith however, the men were told very abruptly that they were to be turned over to the 80th and 82nd—the 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 ringleaders—and 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 wouldn’t 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 Highlanders.

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 God’s name, let them blow up,” said the General. And at the first sound of their beloved Pipes, the Highlanders—who but a moment before were retreating—rallied, 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 life—his 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 Russia—a Pipe very similar to the Egyptian—and the Afghan Pipe—both of which I hope still to get—it 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 the South.

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 Shepherd’s 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.


Bulgarian Pipe
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 Apollo’s 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 Shepherd’s Bagpipe (or Piva) is still a one-drone Pipe, as is also the Gheeyitci, or Shepherd’s 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 separate them.

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, Shepherd’s Pipe—for it is known by these and other names—grew 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 Bagpipe—which took place about the same time as in France—was 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 Chalumeau—a one-drone Pipe— attained its highest popularity when its would-be improver turned it into a Bellows-Pipe—the Musette, with four, five, and six drones—which, 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 death-song.

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 pipers—all they could get together, from the whole of Ireland !—who entered for the competition, had his Bagpipe tuned.

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 Shepherd’s 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 countries.

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 impossibility.

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 Shepherd’s 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 superior instrument.”

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 drone.

“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 lesson—a lesson as much required to-day as ever—learned 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 difficulty—nay! at first sight the impossibility—of 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 is—there 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 MacLeod’s Lament.”

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 scale—a flight too high for me to attempt—I would recommend the article on it in the appendix to Mr Manson’s 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 means.

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 reforming—will 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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