Reminiscences and the Bagpipe Chapter XXXV — Mr MacBain and the Bagpipe
“Or, Baggepype-like, not
speake before thou'rt fill!.”—1618.
WHAT reasons for doubting
the antiquity of the Highland Bagpipe can the antiquarian give? With
what arguments does he assail the mass of proof in favour of its
antiquity brought together in the preceding chapters?
What record for
consistency on this subject can he shew?
At first, the antiquarian
said, that the Bagpipe was introduced’ into Scotland by the Romans. This
gave the instrument a fine air of antiquity, and was flattering to the
Highlanders. But after a few blunders on the lines of the Inverary
fiasco, he began to search history for written proof. “There must be no
more guessing,” he said; and having found what he believed to be the
earliest mention of the Bagpipe in George Buchanan’s history, and having
learned, in some way or another, that Queen Mary had probably brought
over a Piper in her train—a musette player—he then asserted that the
Bagpipe was introduced to
the Scottish people for the first time by Queen Mary in the second half
of the sixteenth century. His attention, however, was, after a time,
called to a book which had been published some years before Queen Mary
came to this country, in which two different kinds of Scots Bagpipes
were mentioned. This was rather disconcerting to the Queen Mary
hypothesis, and again our antiquary had to shift his ground, if only by
a few years.
The book referred to was
written in 1548, and not by one day more would he allow that the Bagpipe
was known in Scotland. When I came to Falkirk, twenty-four years ago,
the introduction of the “Pipes” had been put still farther back.
The end of the fifteenth
century was pronounced to be the correct date. Burgh records shewing
payments to the Town-Piper of this period had in the meantime turned up.
But only a few more years had passed when the first of the old Exchequer
Rolls was published, and as the Bagpipe is there mentioned as a Court
instrument, the date had again to be shifted, this time back to the
middle of the fourteenth century, to the year 1362 ; and at this date,
so far as our antiquarian friends are concerned, it still stands ; not a
very consistent record for the antiquary this. I hope, however, that I
have given sufficient proof to make it necessary for him to shift back
the date once more, some 250 years or so—tracing it down certainly to
the middle of the twelfth century. And I feel sure there are many who,
after they have read this book, will go farther and believe with
Aristides Quintilianus that the Bagpipe was known to the Celt of
Scotland in the first century. We are not therefore indebted to any
other nation for it, as I have always maintained, but we brought it with
us from our old home in the East, and other nations are indebted for it
Now there is a paper
called The Home Journal, published, I believe, in Inverness. In the
number dated Saturday, February 4th, 1899, there is a long article on
the Bagpipe by a well-known scholar and antiquary, who signs himself
Alex. MacBain, M.A.
He is said to be one of
the best Gaelic scholars of the day, and has written a most excellent
Gaelic Dictionary. He has also written numerous articles upon Highland
matters, in which latter he has always shewn a great interest; and if
any man can produce proof to demolish the belief held by so many
Highlanders that the Bagpipe is an old Highland instrument, Mr MacBain
is the man of all others to do so. As it happens, he has made the
attempt in this very article of February 4th, 1899, and we will now note
carefully, and also test, what he has got to say on the matter. The very
title of the paper, “The History of the Highland Bagpipe: a lesson in
anachronism ” is aggressive, and partly prepares us for what follows :
viz., that it is a modern instrument in the Highlands and not Celtic at
“The potato,” he says,
“has become such an integral part of our food material in the Highlands,
that it is now difficult to realise that it is only a century and a half
since it was introduced into the country". This we have already answered
by shewing that the task he puts to us is not in the least difficult.
“The heroes of Culloden were not reared on potatoes; it is the same with
Rather foggy this! but
let it pass.
“It is now our national
instrument of music. It is so engrained in the musical system of the
Highlands, and in the hearts of the people, that there is no wonder that
unwary writers have postulated for it a hoary antiquity.”
Ah! cautious antiquary.
No more mistakes about ancient writings on scratching stones. You leave
that to the “unwary.”
“The Great Highland
Bagpipe and the philabeg, or modern Highland dress, came into existence
about the same time—the beginning of last century.” This is definite
enough in all conscience. Mark the cautious “but,” which follows. “But
they both represent older forms. The Bagpipe then” (at the beginning of
the eighteenth century), “got its third or big drone added. Hitherto it
was the same as the Lowland and Northumbrian Bagpipe, having only two
As a matter of fact,
while a third drone was known to many nations, and may have been
occasionally used by the Highlander long before the dawn of the
eighteenth century, it was not an acknowledged part of the Great
Highland Pipe until near the end of the century, and only became really
fashionable in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is within my
own recollection that most of the pipers, who were largely of the Gipsy
class, and went round the country piping in the summer time, used only
one-drone or two-drone Bagpipes.
The Old Form of the Northumberland Bellows Pipe:
Differing from the lowland Pipe in having all three drones of different
lengths. The chanter, which has got one key. is open below. The stock,
drones, and chanter are made of ivory and ornamented with silver.
The Highland Bagpipe of
two drones was certainly in use in Northumberland until about 60 years
ago, but the “Northumbrian Pipe” (which is quite a different
instrument), has always had three or more drones. There is some excuse
for Mr MacBain getting mixed a little between these two Northumbrian
Pipes, but there is none whatever for the same writer when he asserts
that the Lowland Pipe had only two drones, and never got beyond two.
Mr MacBain continues
thus:—“An unpublished poem of the Rev. Alex. Hume, minister of Logie,
1598, contains this couplet:—
“‘Caus michtelie the
weirlie nottes breike,
On Hieland Pipes, Scottes and Hyberniche.’”
“This seems to show that
the Highland pipers had begim to improve on the Lowland variety, as we
know they did, before ever they put the third drone on.”
What nonsense this is!
These lines shew that in
1598 there were three kinds of Bagpipes known to the author, which he
writes down, probably in order of merit. The order may be for the sake
of the rhyme ; and if the Highland pipers began to improve on the
Lowland variety (which I
deny altogether), there is not one word in these lines to shezy this.
The Pipe came into the
Highlands according to the MacBain gospel, a full-fledged two drone Pipe
; and the only difference between the Great Pipe of 1598 and the Great
Pipe of 1905 is the third drone. The other improvements spoken of never
existed outside the imagination of the writer.
A more incorrect account
than the above, a more excellent “lesson in anachronism,” was never
penned by any person claiming to be an authority on the subject. The
ignorance displayed, coming especially from such a source, is truly
With the exception of one
line, where the author says “it is now our national instrument of music”
—and that statement is even disputed by some,— there is not a single
statement in this article on the Bagpipe which is in accordance with the
Mr MacBain gives the
title of “Great Highland Bagpipe ” to the three-drone Pipe alone—the
present form taken by the Highland War Pipe—and here he at once
misleads, for we read of the Great Pipe of the Highlands centuries
before the large drone was added, or rather, I should say, before the
third drone was added, as there is plenty of proof that the large drone
was used first on a two-drone Bagpipe.
Again, he imagines that
the addition of the third drone, which he wrongly claims as an original
Highland invention, converted the Lowland-English Bagpipe into a
distinct species — The Highland Bagpipe. But the two-drone Bagpipe was
recognised to be the Great Highland War Pipe, and was used in all
competitions as such until 1822—more than 100 years after the MacBain
three-drone Bagpipe came into existence! — when, to secure uniformity,
it was decided by the Highland Society of London, to limit the
competition in future to the three-drone Pipe.
If Mr MacBain applies his
undoubted abilities to the study of this matter, I think he will very
soon discover that his boasted Highland improvement was quite as much a
Lowland improvement, if not more so!
At the Competition in
1785 (a copy of the Bill announcing the Competion is one of the
illustrations in this book), the two-drone Bagpipe was recognised as the
“Great Highland Pipe,” or it would not have been allowed to compete. In
short, the addition of a third drone was not distinctively Highland, as
other nations had used a third drone centuries before the Highlander put
it upon his Bagpipe.
The Greeks had four or
more drones on their Bagpipes 2000 years ago.
The French Musette of
1631 had no fewer than five drones. The Calabrian Pipe, which is the
successor to the Greek, has always had four drones— while the Irish,
Lowland-Scotch, and Northumbrian have each not less than three.
“Its introduction into
Scotland is as difficult to trace as its introduction into England. Of
course, it came from England into Scotland.”
So writes Mr MacBain.
But, as a matter of fact,
its early appearance in England is only coincident with its early
appearance in Scotland, and is due to the fact that the early Briton was
a Celt, and that the Celt took the Bagpipe with him where’er he went.
“We should maintain,
judging from the spread of Puritanism, that the northward advance of the
Bagpipe must have been slow.”
He gives 100 years for
its spread from the Lowlands to the Highlands, and if we give the same
time for the slow advance from England into Scotland, this shews us the
Bagpipe as a one-drone instrument in the thirteenth century in England
becoming a two-drone instrument in the hands of the Lowland Scots in the
fifteenth century—“In general, it had a chanter, and two drones.” And
so, after another slow and tiresome journey along the Puritan track, it
at length appears in the Highlands, where it takes the “musical genius”
of the hill tribes two hundred years to invent a third drone.
This is Mr MacBain’s
History of the Bagpipe in a nutshell.
“The real Lowland
Bagpipe,” he continues, “never got further than the two drones, and so
too with the Northumbrian Pipe ; it was in the Highlands that the
Bagpipe grew to its acme of perfection.”
Everything in the
argument is so nicely arranged— so easily grasped, that any child can
This old Pipe is made of ebony and ivory, and has no combing on the
drones. It has three drones, two small and one large, like all Lowland
You see the Pipe
progressing slowly on its northward journey, by even stages, like the
stones in a flight of stairs, each step in advance of and a little
higher than the other! The Pipe more perfect at the end of each journey;
the last host putting the “acme of perfection” touch to the welcome
Lucky for us that this
corrector of anachronisms has made himself so clear, but unfortunate for
him that the facts won’t square with his theories; for of real facts
there are few or none in his argument.
In the “Encyclopaedia
Britannica” for 1793 there is an excellent article on the Bagpipe; one
of the most correct and full accounts of the Pipe given anywhere.
It was written nearly 100
years after Mr Mac-Bain’s three-drone and only Great Highland Bagpipe
came into existence.
The writer, whose exact
words I give, says :— “ While the Lowland Bagpipe has three drones, and
the Irish Bagpipe has three drones, the Highland Bagpipe has only two
Pennant, also, wrote from
the Highlands in 1772:—“The Bagpipe has two long pipes or drones
What are we to think of
Mr MacBain’s statements after this ? He has surely talked at random,
without ever giving a moment’s thought to what he was saying—trusting
too much perhaps to his reputation. But the best reputation in the world
could not gloss over a flimsy article such as his is.
He cannot ever have seen
a Lowland set of “Pipes,” or an old set of the Great Highland Bagpipe;
and he is evidently a stranger to the Irish and Northumberland Pipes ;
and yet, he writes as if these were quite familiar to him.
I have conversed with
Lowland pipers on this subject, and not one of these players on the
Bellows-Pipe ever heard of a two-drone set. I have seen and examined
many sets myself, some of them very old, but they all had three drones.
Pipe-makers one and all,
from the Messrs Glen, of Edinburgh, downwards, say that they have never
seen a set of Lowland Pipes, except with three drones. All of which
disproves, once and for all, the rash statement made by Mr MacBain that
the Lowland and the Northumbrian Bagpipes never got beyond two drones.
The following inscription is on a Bellows-Pipe with four drones, which I
once saw in Newcastle, and proves that the Northumbrian Pipe had four
drones in the seventeenth century:—“The gift of Simon Robertson to
Salathiel Humphries, 1695.”
The present Irish Pipe
also has any number of drones—from three to seven.
I have devoted a fairly
long chapter to this discredited article on the Bagpipe, not because of
any intrinsic merit which it possesses, but because of the man who wrote
He is looked upon by the
Highlanders as a great authority upon Celtic matters, and his paper on
the Bagpipe must have struck—nay ! did strike dismay
into the hearts of his
Highland admirers. “I spoke in haste,” said the Psalmist, and the only
excuse which suggests itself to me for the inaccuracies and
“anachronisms” which disfigure every page of Mr MacBain’s paper, “A
Study in Anachronism,” is that he, too, spoke in haste, and failed to do
himself or his subject justice, like the piper who began to play before
his bag was full.
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