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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXXVIII — Bagpipe Music


“Or is thy Bagpype broke, that sounds so sweete?”—(1579).
—Spenser.—Sheph. Cal.

IS Bagpipe music really worthy of the name of A music? Spenser’s shepherd evidently thought it “sweet.” We all know that it is great in quantity! Is its quality at all in keeping with its quantity?

Of Piobrach—the only music worthy of the instrument, according to many good authorities—we 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” onwards—until its revival at Falkirk in 1781—Pipe music was tabooed. The tunes had never been written down (if we except Caintaireachd), but were carried in the piper’s 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 MacCrimmon’s 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” alone—no “Ceol Aotram ” at these meetings.

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 “MacGregor’s 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 electrified.

The “MacGregor’s Gathering,” then! “The Children’s Lament,” most beautiful and pathetic of airs! “MacCrimmon’s 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 term—“Bagpipe Music.” When we leave “Piobrach,”—“the real business of the Pipe”—as M'Culloch calls it—and 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 man’s a man for a’ that,” “Scots wha ha’e,” “Highland Laddie,” “Rantin’, Rovin’, Robin,” are all Bagpipe tunes. “I’m 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 Clark’s heroism, has evidently overlooked the above event, for he says in his book that Clark, after the war, disappeared from human ken, unrecognised and unrewarded.

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 piper’s post in olden times was in front of his comrades in the day of danger—an honourable post.”

“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 apparent.”

I think, then, that Spenser’s 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.


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