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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXXVII — The Pipe at Funeral Rites


“Shortly was heard, but faint yet, and distant, the melancholy wailing- of the ‘Lament.'”—M‘CULLOCH.

THERE is no doubt that the Great Highland Bagpipe has gained lustre, and an undying fame on the battlefield. But if it had never sounded in the ear of a single soldier, inciting him to bravery, it would still claim a warm place in every true Highlander’s heart.

The Pibroch, which is a piece of classical music, is the real business of the “Pipes,” and it was by means of the Pibroch that the old piper gave vent to his deepest and most sacred feelings. Luckily a large number of these old pieces of Pipe music have been preserved for us. “Ceol Morthe last book published, contains 275 in number, and of these the majority is devoted to two subjects, “War” and “Death.”

Now of these two, Laments for the dead are more numerous than War pieces, and it is in the Lament that the great pipers of old are seen at their best.

The Highlander has always shewn great respect for his dead, and in the old days the Bagpipe was never awanting at the funeral obsequies, which were sometimes carried out with a lavishness and prodigality that almost takes one’s breath away to-day. Here is the description of the funeral of Hugh, tenth Lord Lovat, who died April 27th, 1672:—

“At eight o’clock of the morning of the 9th May, being the day appointed for the interment, the coffin, covered with a velvet mortcloth, was exposed in the courtyard, the pall above it being supported by four poles, the eight branches of the escutcheon fixed to as many poles driven into the ground—four at each end of the coffin. A large plume surmounted the whole. Two hundred men in arms formed an avenue from the gate to the high road. Four trumpeters, standing above the grand staircase, sounded an alarm on the approach of every new arrival. A sumptuous entertainment was given about mid-day. Between twelve and one the trumpets played the “Dead March.” Then the mourners raised the coffin, and the pall above it. Two trumpeters preceded, and followed the body. A horseman in bright armour, holding a mourning spear, led the van, two mourners in hoods and gowns guiding his horse. At the ferry, two war-horses, covered with black trappings, and held by grooms attired in sables, had been placed in ambush, who, starting up, here joined the procession. From the west end of the moor to the kirk-stile, a mile in length, armed bands of men were drawn up, through whose lines the procession went slowly. The Earl of Ross alone sent 400 of his vassals, with their drums covered with black. There were 1000 Frasers, with their Colonel, Thomas Fraser, of Beaufort, at their head. There were a great number of armed M‘Kenzies, Munros, Rosses, M‘Intoshes, Grants, MacDonells, and Camerons.

“The Bishops of Murray, Ross and Caithness, with eighty of their clergy, were present, and a body of 800 horsemen. At the church-stile, the Earls of Murray and Seaforth, the Lairds of Balnagown, Foulis, Beaufort, and Stricken, carried the coffin into the church, which was hung in black.

“After singing and prayer, the funeral sermon was preached from 2nd Sam. iii. 38:—‘ Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel? ’

“At four o’clock the whole ceremonies were over, and the trumpets sounded the ‘Retreat.’ The different clans filed off, with banners displayed and ‘Pipes’ playing, the Frasers forming a line, and saluting each as they passed.”

The humble funeral of the poor clansman was, however, more in accord with the Bagpipe than all this pomp and display.

The following description of such a funeral is from the pen of Dr. M'Culloch, and shews how beautifully and sympathetically he could write of the Bagpipe, and of the Highlander, after he had learned to know both :—

“I shall not soon forget the last beautiful evening that I spent in Lochaber, and such scenes, I doubt not, have come across your path also. The slanting rays of the yellow sun were gleaming on the huge mass of Ben Nevis; the wide and wild landscape around had become grey, and every sound seemed to be sunk in the repose of night. Shortly was heard, but faint yet, and distant, the melancholy wailing of the ‘Lament’ that accompanied a funeral as its slow procession was seen marching down the hill—the bright tartans just visible on its brown declivity. As it advanced, the sounds seemed to swell on the breeze, till it reached the retired and lonely spot where a few grey stones, dispersed among the brown heath, marked the last habitation of those who had gone before. The pause was solemn that spoke the farewell to the departed, and as the mourners returned, filing along the narrow passes of Glen Nevis, the retiring tones died away, wild, indefinite, yet melodious as the AEolian harp, as they alternately rose and sank on the evening breeze, till night closed around, and all was hushed.”

There is no doubt that the Bagpipe lent a beautiful picturesqueness to the old Highland funeral, completing and rounding off the last kindly services to the dead. Never were time and place and circumstance more favourable to the Pipe. Never an audience better attuned to its plaintive music—a music that fills the glen and is re-echoed from the mountain side.

One can scarcely credit in these days of hurry and cremation, the yearning of the clansman for the dear old music when trouble overtook him and death seemed near. “However little a Southerner may be able to enter into this passionate enthusiasm for what in his ears seems shrill discord, he must bear in mind, that just as in him the scent of a flower, or the few chords of an old melody will sometimes waken up a long train of forgotten memories; so to one whose earliest love has been for the wild mists and mountains, those strains bring back thoughts of home, and the memory of the dead and absent comes floating back as on a breath from the moorlands, mingling with a thousand cherished early associations such as flood the innermost heart with hidden tears.”

“I truly may bear witness,” writes Miss Gordon Cumming, “how twice within one year, while watching the last weary sufferings of two of the truest Highlanders that ever trod heather, I noted the same craving for the ‘dear old Pipes.'

 Roualeyn Gordon Cumming died at Fort Augustus, March 24th, 1866, in the grey old fort at the head of Loch Ness, which has now been demolished and replaced by a Roman Catholic College. Dear to us is the memory of that strange sickroom, the rude walls still bearing the names of the Duke of Cumberland’s soldiers carved in their idle leisure, but adorned with trophies of the chase, each one of which recalled to the dying hunter the memory of triumphs in the days of joyous health. Now his mighty strength was slowly ebbing. As night after night passed by in pain and weariness, yet to that lion-like beauty each morning seemed to add a new refining touch of radiant spirit-light—a light that foreshadowed the celestial dawn.

“Night and day, through long weeks of suffering, his faithful piper, Tom Moffat, never left his side, tending him with an unwearied devotion, the love ‘that passeth the love of woman,’ fanning his fevered brow with the wing of a golden eagle,—and ever ready, at his bidding, to tune up the old Pipes and play the wild melodies he most loved.

“His elder brother, Sir Alexander Penrose Gordon Cumming, only survived him five months—five weary months of pain—during which he, too, lay—

‘Dying in pride of manhood, ere to grey
One lock had turned,
Or from his eagle face and stag-like form,
Time’s touch of slow decay
Had reft the strength and beauty of his race.’

“Far from his beautiful home, and from the woods and river he loved so dearly, he lay, held prisoner by dire illness in the dull town.

“One night, shortly before his death, when after long fevered hours of pain he lay exhausted, yet unable to sleep, and the home voices usually so dear to him seemed to have lost their spell, he exclaimed ‘Oh! that I could hear a pibroch once more before I die.’

“It seemed like a heaven-sent answer to that cry, that at this moment, faint but clear there floated on the night wind, a strain of distant Pipe music. Nearer and nearer sounded the swelling notes, played by the piper of a Scotch regiment, who, when he learned how precious to the ear of the dying chief was this breath from the breezy hills, gladly halted and made the dull street re-echo the notes of pibroch and wild laments, ‘That is music,’ he murmured; and when at length the piper went his way, the long-strung nerves were soothed, and the blessing of sleep so long denied—a deep refreshing sleep—told how well the dear, dear music of the mountains had worked its spell.

‘Music that gentler on the spirit lies,
Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes,’ ”

To the Highlander, indeed, Bagpipe music is wholly impregnated with reminiscences of a life that is now a thing of the past—the soft boom of the drones ever reminding him of the old ways and old days which, as seen through the mists of time, were not altogether bad, but altogether lovely, and recalling to the exile on a foreign shore sweet dreams of the dear old home among the mountains.

With memories such as these clustering round this old—it may be, rude instrument—is it to be wondered at that we Highlanders—brushing aside as unworthy of notice the cheap sneers of ignorant critics—should love it, and love it dearly, in spite of its simplicity, in spite of its rudeness, in spite of its many imperfections. Given place, and time, and “The Master,” what other instrument is there to compare with it? As Dr. M‘Culloch said, when writing to Sir Walter Scott, “It is to hear it echoing among the blue hills of our early days; to sit on a bank of yellow broom, and watch its tones as they swell, mellowed by distance on the evening breeze; to listen to it as it is wafted wide over the silent lake, or breaking through the roaring of the mountain stream. This it is to hear the Bagpipe as it ought to be heard, to love it as it ought to be loved. It is wide and wild nature that is its home; the deep glen and the mountain that is its concert-room; it is the torrent and the sound of the breeze that is its only accompaniment.”


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