Reminiscences and the Bagpipe Chapter XXXIV The Great Highland Bagpipe: Its Antiquity
The Antiquarian is too
often a collector of valuables that are worth nothing-, and a
recollector of all that Time has been g-lad to forget.Tin Trumpet, by
MR MacBAIN'S three-drone,
or Great Highland Bagpipe, the only Simon Pure, dates no further back
than the eighteenth century.
It is not of it that I
would speak in this chapter, but of the Highlanders War Pipe, the Piob
Mhorthe Great Pipe, which George Buchanan, the Historian tells us led
the Highlanders on the field of battle in his dayi.e., in the early
part of the sixteenth century.
Have we any dates to help
us in our research?
The Inverness school
apparently can find none, and its disciples, along with their leader,
are reduced to feeble guessing.
The leader of this
school, who has apparently got a few followers in the South who allow
him to do their thinking for themif it can be called thinking says
that, like the potato, the kilt and the Bagpipe are recent
introductions in the Highlands.
These three things are
evidently bracketed together to trip up the unwary. But because the
potato and the gramophone are recent introductions in the Highlands,
that is no proof that the kilt and the Bagpipe are modern.
Every school child knows
how the potato got into this country.
No Highlander ever
claimed it as a Highland invention or discovery, but most Highlanders do
lay claim to the kilt and the Bagpipe as Highland out-and-out; and they
are quite within their rights in doing so. To bracket the three things
together one modern, and two ancientas Mr MacBain has doneis at once
to introduce into the discussion the suggestio falsia poor method of
argument for a scientist or scholar to employ.
The potato has, in short,
as much to do with the Bagpipe as the man in the moon.
The earliest notice of
the Bagpipe in Scotland is to be found in a work by Aristides
Quintilianus a writer who flourished about a.d. 100.
The next earliest mention
of the Bagpipe is by our friend, Gerald Barry, the Welshman, who was
born while the twelfth century was still young.
And the third and only
other date necessary to mention is the date of payment to King Davids
(II. of Scotland) Pyper, viz., 1362.
It is now acknowledged
(because it cannot be denied) that the Bagpipe was known in Scotland in
the fourteenth century.
We have, therefore, to
consider only the two first dates given here, and as no other, so far,
are available, it becomes all the more necessary for us to verify them.
History, however, is not everything, and it would be absurd to deny the
antiquity of the Bagpipe as a Highland instrument, because the written
proof is scanty. You cannot always expect chapter and verse for every
little detail in an age when there was no one to write these down: and
for many centuries after the Romans left the country, Scotland was
without a historian, but she existed all the same; and so did the
Bagpipe both unrecorded.
When the first real
historian came on the scene in the person of George Buchanan (born 1506)
one of the most learned and cleverest men of his time, he found the
Bagpipe, as we learn from the introduction to his book, a very important
instrument in the economy of the Celt. It was already the Great Pipe,
the War Instrument of the Highlanders, having supplanted on the
battlefield both horn and trumpet, andif it pleases you to believe
soharp. This means that it was, in George Buchanans time, a
loud-toned, powerful instrument, able to make itself heard amid the din
and roar of battle, with a drone or drones attached, and practically
identical with the present Pipe, the only difference being a simpler
ornamentationno combing on the drones, and, instead of ivory ferrules,
ferrules of horn or bone, with the terminals of the drones larger,
elongated, and of pear-shape, and the G of the chanter flatter. A few
rings also of brass wire on the drone, or a simple inlaying with lead,
was not uncommon.
It would appear, writes
Mr Glen, as if the Bagpipe was not employed by the Highlanders for
purposes of war until the beginning of the fifteenth century.
Previous to this date
the armies were incited to battle by the prosnacha, or wrar-song of the
bards. The last prosyiacha was recited at the Battle of Harlaw (1411) by
MacMhuirich, the bard, who was also the first satirist in this country
of the Bagpipe.
Here is a verse from
MacMhuirichs poem, as translated by Mr Stewart in the Piobaireachd
Societys collection of Piobrach :
The first bag (pipe),
and melodious it was not, came from the Flood. There was then of the
pipe, but the chanter, the mouthpiece, and the stick that fixed the key,
called the sumaire (drone?).
The poem goes on to say
But a short time after that, anda bad invention begetting a
worsethere grew the three masts, etc.
At the close of the
fifteenth century, continues Glen, the Bagpipes seems to have jumped
into general favour; or, what is more probable, information on it
becomes more abundant.
Writing in short had now
come to stay, and events were being chronicled regularly, and to this,
as Mr Glen shrewdly guesses, its seeming sudden popularity is due.
Now, the first of our
dates, 100 a.d. is discounted, as I have said, by the antiquarian,
because, he says, Quintilianus never visited this country, and therefore
could know nothing about the Highlanders, or as the Romans called
I do not know myself
whether Aristides Quintilianus ever visited this country or not, but I
do know that Agricola was pushing his way through Scotland at the very
time when Aristides was writing his book at Rome. Agricola also,
according to the custom of the Roman General of the day, sent back to
Rome typical specimens of the Caledonian Celt chosen from among the
prisoners of war, and these men dressed in their native garb, armed with
their native weapons, and carrying their native musical instrumentsin
short, surrounded with every distinctive mark of nationality to make
them as conspicuous as possible, were exhibited in the streets of Rome
during one of the many processions organised to appease the insatiable
vanity of the Roman people, and to spread the fame of the ever
victorious army and of its noble leaders.
In this way, the Roman
procession became an educative force ; and the dweller in Rome, although
he had never travelled beyond its walls, got to know a great deal about
the various peoples in the then known world, and could truthfully
describe their armour, dress, and musical instruments without having
visited the different countries.
Strabo, the Geographer,
who was born 64 B.C., and whose great work on Geography, in seventeen
volumes, was even thought worthy of translation within the last fifty
years, affords an excellent example in illustration of the above.
He was an acute observer
of men and manners, and an accurate scribe, and in one of his books he
describes the Celt of Lincolnshire as a tall, straight, shapely, and
powerfully-built man, with rufus-coloured hair, and blue eyes. He was
particularly struck with the great size of the British Celt, as compared
with the average Roman citizen. And yet, Strabo never was in
Lincolnshire! Can we believe him, then? Of course we can, for he tells
us that he saw, with his own eyes, five typical Celts from the Fens of
Lincolnshire exhibited in the streets of Rome.
Now, the home of the Celt
has ever been the home of the Bagpipe, and 1500 years later another
writer of keen intellect and great powers of observationour own
Shakespearepresents us with a curious little fact in corroboration of
Strabos truthfulness, for while he mentions Bagpipes in his writings
over and over again, he only singles out one named Pipethe
Lincolnshire. The Pipe of the Fens was evidently the Pipe of Pipes in
Shakespeares day. The words are put into the mouth of Falstaff, that
humorous rogue, who says he is as melancholy as the drone of a
Lincolnshire Bagpipe. Several old writers also mention this Pipe.
With such facts as these
before him, the man must be blind who denies the close relations which
have subsisted for ages between the Celt and the Bagpipe.
Strabo, the great Roman
writer of his day, writing about the time when Christ was born, finds
the typical Celt hidden away in the Fens of Lincolnshire. Shakespeare,
the great English writer, born 1500 years later, finds therein these
same Fens the typical Celtic instrument, the Bagpipe.
All of which also points
to the conclusion that Aristides Quintilianus knew what he was talking
about, and may well be believed, when he asserts that the Bagpipe was
known in the Highlands of Scotland in his day. What does it matter to us
whether he gained his knowledge while travelling in this country, or
while watching the daily processions from his parlour window in Rome?
But in a matter of this
kind, I sometimes think that common sense is as safe a guide as any
Horace Smiths estimate
of the antiquary of his day was not far from the mark, and except that
our modern antiquary, from being over-bold, and full of belief in things
ancient, has become over-timid, and profoundly sceptical of everything
savouring of the antique, the estimate still holds good.
When I was young, the
story of the Inverary Standing Stone was a constant source of amusement
to the boys at school.
The sight of any old man
dressed in rusty black, with a napless, concertina-hat covering his bald
heada snuffer, of course, from the brown stains upon his upper lip, and
the huge, red cotton pocket handkerchief sticking out between his long
coat tails behindalways revived the story, for we felt sure that in
this innocent old rubbish-heap grubber, there dwelt the soul of an
antiquary, a thing which we despised heartily.
The story, as it was told
to us, and as we retold it to one another, was as follows :
There once stood in a
field, somewhere outside of Inverary, a large, solitary, upright stone,
one of two which at one time had formed the pillars of a gate ; but as
far back as the memory of living man went, there had been but one stone
in the field, forming a sort of Lots Wife landmark to the traveller
passing by. The companion pillar, and dividing dyke, and wooden gate,
had long since disappeared.
One hard winter, when
masons had gone curling mad for want of better to do, one of their
number, during his enforced leisurebeing a bit of a wag, and not much
given to the roaring gamesecretly carved upon the old stone, the
following mysterious legend in Roman characters:For cows to scratch
their backs on.
Mysterious, I call it,
for the artist had broken up the words erratically, making out of them a
word puzzle something like the following: FORC OUST OSCRA, etc.,
and a fourth century date.
With the assistance of a
bit of pumice stone, a little moss and brown earth, the engraving
quickly became quite weather-beaten and ancient-looking. Such a find
could not long escape notice, and before long its discovery was noised
The mason may have had
something to do with the discovery, but at this stage he kept discreetly
in the background. When the story got abroad, the whole countryside
flocked to view the wonder, but no man was able to read the writing on
The assistance of the
Antiquarian Society was called in, arid the world, now all on tiptoe to
learn what the inscription meant, had not long to wait. It was
announced, by the learned gentleman sent out by the Society, to be a
Roman inscription, recording the passing of a Roman legion through the
district ; the name of the commander, and the date.
A brilliant piece of
work, said the admiring world and it was. The date was certainly all
Until then it had been a
secret that the Romans had ever occupied Inverary, and but for the
newly-found writing on the pillar, the secret might have remained a
secret for ever.
But when the young mason
who had perpetrated the joke thinking, perhaps, that it had gone far
enough wrote to the papers and gave the true reading of the Roman
inscription (more graphic than mine, if less polite), the laughter which
followed was not confined to the illiterate classes.
Numerous mistakes of a
similar nature to the above, turned the all-believing fossil of sixty or
seventy years ago into the sceptical fossil of today, who believes
nothing to be old without written proof, and who, through nervous
timidity, and a desire to stand well with the world, misses truth as
surely as did his predecessor from over-confidence.
For my own part, I
believe in Quintilianus when he says that we had the Bagpipe in the
first century; and I feel sure that he wrote out of the fulness of his
The value of the second
date (i i iS), turns upon the meaning of the word, chorus or choro.
If it meant Bagpipe in Gerald Barrys time, then was the Bagpipe a
Scottish instrument in (say) the eleventh century.
I have already shewn that
chorus did mean Bagpipe in England in the ninth century, and that it
still retained the same meaning in the thirteenth century. Gerald Barry,
who is familiar with the Bagpipe in Wales, where, according to him, it
is also called chorus, coming north in the beginning of the twelfth
century, finds a Bagpipe in Scotlandone of the three musical
instruments of the countryto which he naturally gives the name of
chorus/ Not that the Bagpipe was ever known to the Highlander by this
name, but Barry is writing for the Welsh people, and uses the Welsh
This instrument, to which
he applied the English name, could be no other than a Bagpipe (similar
in every respect to the English or Welsh Bagpipe) otherwise Barry, who
was an expert in musical matters, would have given it its proper name of
Piob Mala, and noted down its peculiarities.
The proof, to my mind, is
overwhelmingly strong, that the chorus was the Bagpipe, and that it
was one of the principal musical instruments of the Scots at the time of
Barrys visit, i.e.the middle of the twelfth century. So much for the
second of our dates. The third date requires little or no confirmation
Tradition, says the
antiquarian, is quite unreliable, when unconfirmed by early writers or
historians, and so he proceeds to ignore tradition altogether.
When Burns was in
Stirling, he heard there the tradition that the tune known as Hey,
tutti taiti, was King Robert the Bruces March, and was played on the
Bagpipe at Bannockburn.
This tradition was
repeated to him at many other places further south, and, believing in
it, the poet composed to this air the stirring song of Scots wha hae.
But, says Ritson, the
antiquarian, it does not, however, seem at all probable that the Scots
had any martial music in the time of this monarch. And why? Because
horns are the only music mentioned by Barbour; so that it must remain a
moot point whether Bruces army was cheered by the sound of even a
It is creditable to
Ritson that he did not deny the possibility of the Bagpipe being present
at Bannockburn, because, in his day, the antiquity of the Pipe as a
Scottish instrument was denied, and the discovery that King Roberts son
kept a pyper had not been made. The tradition, in short, was
unconfiimed when he wrote, and therefore, quite unreliable.'''' But
with the new light shed upon the antiquity of the Pipe, the tradition
gathers weight and value.
Burns has been sneered at
for believing in it, but the Poets rare insight was a better guide
after all, than the best lore of the antiquarian. Hey, tutti taiti is
a Bagpipe tune in spite of dicta to the contrary, and is still played on
the Pipe. On the horns (of two to five notes) used at Bannockburn, the
air would be unplayable.
Our third date1362is
unassailable. It is an entry of payment to King Davids Piper, recently
found in one of Scotlands old exchequer rolls. And yet! I heard Mr
White of Glasgowbetter known as Fionnsay, in a lecture to the
Highland Club of that city, that the above payment shewed that the
Bagpipe was known in England long before it was known in Scotland. This
is really sublime. And worse still ! On the strength of Mr Whites
dictum the Glasgow evening papers, not perceiving the very palpable
double blunder made by the lecturer, had paragraphs in large headlines,
The Bagpipes an English Instrument. This is how the Highland Bagpipe
is treated by its friends ; and the young Highlander is being gradually
taught to look upon it as a modern thing which came from England, and
with which his forefathers were unacquainted. In this lecture, Mr White
showed himself to be a faithful follower of Mr MacBain, and denied the
antiquity of the Pipes in Scotland. His lecture, however, was little
better than a rehash of the Inverness heresies, and showed a slavish
adherence to the numerous blunders perpetrated by Mr MacBain. But Mr
MacBain, bold as he is, would never venture to make such a use of the
1362 incident. He would never dare to talk of David II. of Scotland as
an English king before a body of educated Highlanders, and infer from
this that the Bagpipe was known in England long before it was known in
Scotland. Less ridiculous arguments must be brought forward by those
writers Highland or otherwisewho wish to prove Englands prior claim
to the Highland Bagpipe, or to disprove its antiquity.
A fine example of the ordinary Irish Bellows
It has three drones and one regulator, and is made of ebony and ivory,
with silver keys. The maker of this Pipe appeared before the Highland
Society in I think 1832, and gave selections on one of his own Irish
Pipes. It may have been this very Pipe.
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