Reminiscences and the Bagpipe Chapter XXXVIII Bagpipe Music
Or is thy Bagpype broke,
that sounds so sweete?(1579).
IS Bagpipe music really worthy of the
name of A music? Spensers shepherd evidently thought it sweet. We all
know that it is great in quantity! Is its quality at all in keeping with
Of Piobrachthe only music worthy of the
instrument, according to many good authoritieswe have some 275 still in
existence. How many more are lost to us for ever, no one can say; but
the number must be exceedingly great.
From the Forty-Five onwardsuntil its
revival at Falkirk in 1781Pipe music was tabooed. The tunes had never
been written down (if we except Caintaireachd), but were carried in the
pipers memory ; and to any one who knows the length and variety, and
complicated fingering of Piobrach such as Donald Dougall M'Kay's
Lament, or Patrick Og MacCrimmons Lament, the wonder is that any but
the simpler ones should have survived.
It was from Piobrach that Mendelssohn got
the inspiration for his Scotch Symphony.
For three whole days the great musician
wandered in and out of the old Theatre Royal, in Edinburgh, listening to
the finest pipers of the day playing Piobrach during the great annual
competition for the championship, which was always decided by
Piobaireachd and by Piobaireachd aloneno Ceol Aotram at these
Many of these old Piobrach are well-known
and beautiful airs. Great singers of Scotch song have made them familiar
as household words with the public. I once heard Sims Reeves, when at
his best, sing the MacGregors Gathering, and can still remember the
thrill which went through my whole being during the performance. When he
rolled out, in a voice of thunder, Gregalach! the audience was
The MacGregors Gathering, then! The
Childrens Lament, most beautiful and pathetic of airs! MacCrimmons
Lament, with its mournful refrain, MacCrimmon no more will return!
Piobrach of Donald Dhu, most thrilling of war songs; and many others,
too numerous to mention, fully justify the termBagpipe Music. When we
leave Piobrach,the real business of the Pipeas M'Culloch calls
itand come to the simple Highland Bagpipe airs, a better claim to our
consideration, or, at least one more easy of comprehension, can be made
out for Pipe music. Burns composed many of his best songs to Pipe airs.
A mans a man for a that, Scots wha hae, Highland Laddie, Rantin,
Rovin, Robin, are all Bagpipe tunes. Im wearin awa, Jean, by Lady
Nairne, Blythe, blythe, and Merry are we, by Gray; Hey, Johnnie Cope,
are ye wauken yet? and innumerable other songs by various writers, have
been composed to Bagpipe music.
Again, as a war instrument, the Bagpipe
has produced many excellent marching tunes.
Is there any other war instrument that
can shew a better record in respect to marches?
In 1815, when John Clark, the piper-hero
of Vimiera, who was presented with a gold medal by Sir John Sinclair at
the annual competition in Ancient Martial Music for bravery on the
field (his legs were mangled with chain-shot, but he continued piping as
he lay and bled), came stumping in on his wooden leg, he received a
great ovation, the audience, which filled the theatre from floor to
ceiling, rising to its feet and cheering lustily for several minutes.
Mr Manson, who tells the story of Clarks
heroism, has evidently overlooked the above event, for he says in his
book that Clark, after the war, disappeared from human ken, unrecognised
Sir John wound up the occasion in an
eloquent speech with these words, already quoted:There is no sound
which the immortal Wellington hears with more delight, or the marshals
of France with more dismay, than the notes of a Highland Piobaireachd.
Three years later (in 1818) Sir John
MacGregor Murray, speaking on a similar occasion, said: The pipers
post in olden times was in front of his comrades in the day of dangeran
This honourable post has still continued
to him; and it was his duty to march forward, with the cool
determination of a true Highlander, stimulating his companions to heroic
deeds by the sound of the Piobaireachd of his country.
To name half the good marching tunes
written would occupy several pages; nor is there any need to do so, as
their pre-eminent fitness is unchallenged.
I take leave, however, to quote from an
unsigned article in Chambers's Journal, which appeared several years
ago, and which bears independent testimony, in graceful language, to the
effect produced by the sound of the Pipes :
It is not assuming too much, the writer
says, to claim for Highland music that it has produced tunes more
eminently fitted for marching than the music of any other nation. Most
of us, at some time or another, have come across a Highland regiment on
the march. Who does not know the roll of the distant drums? and,
mingling with it, that prolonged drone which gradually resolves itself
into some old familiar tune. To the Scotsman, there is never any
mistaking that sound; and though we may be nineteenth century
individuals, with tall hats and black coats, we cannot help going just a
little way, and keeping step also. The pulse beats just a little
quicker, and, despite all cheap sneers, the memory of a thousand years
is a little more real than might have been expected. If an impartial
observer should take such an occasion as this, he will notice that there
is a swing and a go about a Highland regiment quite peculiar to itself,
and due, in great measure, to the music of the Pipes. It is a something
born of the music, hard to account for, but nevertheless, very
I think, then, that Spensers shepherd in
the sixteenth century, had good reason to mourn over his
sweete-sounding Pype; and every true critic must admit that there is a
something in Bagpipe music, which the enlightened twentieth century
would be all the poorer without.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.