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Some 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 Horace Smith.

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 day—i.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 them—if 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 ancient—as Mr MacBain has done—is at once to introduce into the discussion the “suggestio falsi”—a 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 David’s (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, and—if it pleases you to believe so—harp. This means that it was, in George Buchanan’s 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 ornamentation—no 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 MacMhuirich’s poem, as translated by Mr Stewart in the Piobaireachd Society’s 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, and—a bad invention begetting a worse—there 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 them—Caledonians.

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 instruments—in 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 observation—our own Shakespeare—presents us with a curious little fact in corroboration of Strabo’s truthfulness, for while he mentions Bagpipes in his writings over and over again, he only singles out one named Pipe—the Lincolnshire. The Pipe of the Fens was evidently the Pipe of Pipes in Shakespeare’s 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 there—in 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 antiquarian conjecture.

Horace Smith’s 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 head—a 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 behind—always 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 “Lot’s 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 leisure—being a bit of a wag, and not much given to the roaring game—secretly 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 abroad.

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 stone.

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 right.

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 own knowledge.

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 Barry’s 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 Scotland—one of the three musical instruments of the country—to 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 name.

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 Barry’s 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 from me.

“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 Bruce’s 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 Bruce’s army was cheered by the sound of even a solitary Bagpipe.”

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 Robert’s 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 Poet’s 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 date—1362—is unassailable. It is an entry of payment to King David’s Piper, recently found in one of Scotland’s old exchequer rolls. And yet! I heard Mr White of Glasgow—better known as “Fionn”—say, 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 White’s 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 otherwise—who wish to prove England’s prior claim to the Highland Bagpipe, or to disprove its antiquity.


A fine example of the ordinary Irish Bellows Pipe.
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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