Note.—The author takes this
opportunity of acknowledging his indebtedness for much of the early
history of the instrument to Macson's The Highland Bagpipe and Dr.
Grattan Flood's The Story of the Bagpipe, both monuments of research.
AT what stages of his development primitive man
discovered he could obtain musical sounds by blowing on a hollow reed we
cannot now ascertain; if we could do so we could at once determine when
the pipe came into existence. It is unprofitable to speculate on this
What we do know,
however, is that men playing the pipe are portrayed in sculptures the
date of which is fixed by the best authorities as about 4000 B.C., and
we conclude that in Chaldaea, Egypt, Assyria and Persia at least, the
pipe—but not necessarily the bagpipe—had become a recognised musical
specimens of the Egyptian pipe dating back to at least 1500 B.C. are in
existence, and we know that they had a reed giving a scale almost
identical with the chromatic scale; they also had a drone. Such a pipe
had, clearly, advanced some way on the upward development to "piob mhor."
Every stage in its evolution still persists in
some country in the world, and by comparing these it is possible to
trace the actual process. Thus, besides the single pipe, which is
world-wide in its distribution, we have the Egyptian "arghool," which
consists of a pipe "chanter" and drone lying side by side; and the later
development, the "zummarah," has a bag. In India the twentieth century
snake charmer has an instrument in which chanter and single drone lie
side by side fixed into a small gourd with a lump of wax. The chanter
has a small reed very similar to our own chanter reeds, and, although
the scale differs, the sound produced is remarkably similar. This
instrument is essentially a single drone bagpipe, and is to be found all
over India, in Yunnan and other parts of China.
It would have been more than surprising if the
pipe, in some form or other, had not been used in ancient Greece and
Rome. There are, in fact, very many references to it in classical
literature, and by 100 Al). we know that the " askaulos " had evolved
into the bagpipe proper, and Chrysostomos speaks of a man who could "
play the pipe with his mouth on the bag placed under his armpit."
Martial, Suetonius, Seneca, and other Latin
writers refer to the "tibia utricularis," and there is practically no
doubt that it was used as a marching instrument in the armies of Julius
Caesar. A bronze showing a Roman soldier in marching order playing the
utriculus has been discovered in England, and the writer Procopius
refers to Roman pipe bands in this country.
But when we come to the question of the
introduction of the bagpipe into the British Isles, and especially into
Scotland, we are at once on highly controversial ground.
It is obvious enough that the instrument is not
peculiar to the Celtic races ; that it has maintained its hold on them
long after its disappearance in other European nations is equally so.
But who introduced it into these favoured isles, whether the Cruithne or
Prydani or Picts or the later "C" Gaidheal branch of the Celtic stem—who
authorities—students of the subject would be a safer term—are prepared
to assert that the bagpipe was introduced first into England, thence to
Lowland Scotland, and only long afterwards into the Highlands; and one
recent writer in the Celtic Magazine says the evidence of its
association with the Scottish Gaels does not go back beyond the middle
of the sixteenth century.
The matter is one of academic interest, no doubt, but there is no
likelihood of its ever being settled.
Records did not exist in the ancient Highlands,
and we have to turn to early Irish literature for reference to the
bagpipe. In the Brehon Laws of the fifth century it is spoken of as the
"cuisle"; and, although Tara's halls are usually associated with the
harp, it is recorded that at the assemblies which took place there in
pre-Christian days it was the custom for the pipes to play at the
It is possible
the bagpipe was brought over from the north of Ireland, "Scotia " as it
then was, on the invasion of the Highlands by Cairbre Riada, who founded
the kingdom of Dairiada in Argyle in A.D. 12o; or in the later great
colonisation, about A.D. 506, under Lorne and Angus, the sons of Erc.
It certainly does not appear likely that the
bagpipe came over from "Scotia" in the first place, unless we are to
accept the view that the Scottish Celt came over by the same route;
unfortunately we have very little accurate knowledge of the early
history of the Highlands, and there are no local written records extant
to prove—as they do in the case of Ireland —that the instrument existed
in those early days. We do know that the harper and the bard were
national institutions of immense antiquity in the Highlands, and that,
as the bagpipe became an increasingly important feature of everyday
life, they were bitterly opposed to it.
Even Latin authors, who were familiar with the
bagpipe as a marching instrument in their own army, omit to refer to the
existence of piob mhor in the highlands. The Greek writer Procopius, in
530 AD., dismisses the Highlands with the statement that "in the west
the air is infectious and mortal, the ground covered with serpents, and
this dreary solitude is the region of departed spirits." And so we are
thrown back on tradition.
In the absence of records of the employment of the bagpipe in war in the
Highlands it is to Ireland, the so-called Lowlands of Scotland and to
England that we have to turn for information ; at the same time we must
bear in mind that evolution of the instrument itself had begun to
operate, and the English and Lowland pipes were different from the
variety now known as the "Highland," which has supplanted all others.
As regards Ireland it is known that the Irish
troops who fought in Gascony in 1286 had pipers with them, and a drawing
of their instrument appears in a manuscript of 1300 A.D. in the British
Museum. There were also Irish pipers at the battle of Falkirk in 1298,
and they are again referred to in contemporary accounts of the battle of
The military piper
therefore goes far back into history. But it was as a social instrument
that one finds most frequent reference to bagpipes of some pattern or
other in the Middle Ages. There was a pipe band at the English Court in
1327, and an old inventory of 1419 shows that at the Palace of St.
James' were "foure baggpypes with pypes of ivorie . . . the bagge
covered with purple vellat."
But, whereas the English pipes went the same way
as the Continental varieties, it was otherwise in Scotland. Two
institutions existed there which fostered the tradition and saved piob
inizor from the fate of disappearance—the Burgh piper and the Clan
piper; and by 1450 A.D. these had certainly become part of the national
In Edinburgh in 107
A.D. there were three town pipers, who were paid three pence daily; one
of their duties was "to accompany the toun's drummer throw toun morning
and evening." In 1505 A.D. the town records of Dumbarton, Biggar, Wigton,
Dumfries and Linlithgow refer to burgh pipers.
In Aberdeen in 1630 A.D. exception appears to have
been taken to the custom of playing through the streets, as it is placed
on record that this was to be stopped, "it being an uncivill forine to
be usit uithin sic a famous burghe, and being oftene found fault uith
als weill be sundrie riiehbouris as by strangeris." That the citizens of
this "famous burghe" are peculiarly susceptible to the criticisms of"
strangeris "might never have been suspected by superficial observers,
and it is well that there is official testimony to the fact.
The effect of their daily music on the inhabitants
of Perth was different,— or perhaps Perth was less amenable to the
criticisms of "strangeris." In any case it is recorded of a burgh piper,
who used to rouse the citizens at 5 am., that his music was
"inexpressibly soothing and delightful."
At Dundee the piper played through the town "every
day in the morning at four hours and every nicht at aucht horns," and
was paid twelve pennies yearly by each householder.
The pipes, at least in the
pre-Reformation days—were sometimes played in church ; in course of
time, however, piping on Sunday scandalised the authorities, religious
and civil, and, in the burgh records, we find repeated instances of
pipers being punished for this misdemeanour.
The burgh piper was a man of peace ; the clan
piper was a man of war. For many centuries he had to compete with the "clarsair,"
or harper, and the bard, and aroused feelings of acute hostility from
the latter. In 1411 A.D. one bard, MacMhurich of Clan Ranald, wrote a
poem of a most uncomplimentary nature about the bagpipes.
The recitation of the hard before battle was
probably last heard at Harlaw in 1411, and the clan bards disappeared
finally in 1726; the last clan harper died in 1739, and the "croistara"—the
fiery cross—was sent round the clans for the last time in the '45. The
last Scottish piper will pass when the Scottish race itself passes—which
will certainly be the last of all.
The clan pipers were highly esteemed as
musicians—from the musical point of view they, no doubt, left us far
behind. The courses of training, lasting over years, at the old piping
schools such as existed at Boreraig, turned a man into a piper. As Neil
Munro has it: "To the make of a piper go seven years of his own learning
and seven generations before ; at the end of his seven years one born to
it will stand at the start of knowledge, and, leaning a fond ear to the
drone, he may have parley with old folks of old affairs."
One of the results of the Heritable Jurisdiction
Act of 1747, which so completely altered the conditions of life in the
Highlands, was the disappearance of the office of hereditary clan piper.
The tunes these men played were the old tunes we
know so well; and so it has happened that in this war we find companies
marching into and through machine-gun and artillery barrage and into
broken French villages and through German trenches while the company
piper plays the same melodies that inspired their forebears to fight
their neighbours lang syne melodies which have been heard, too, in the
same part of the world in the days when Scottish troops fought for the
Lilies of France against all corners.
The association of the bagpipe
with military operations is probably very ancient in Scotland. Perhaps
the tradition that the Menzies pipers played at Bannockburn rests on an
insecure foundation, but if the Bruce had no pipers, his son David most
certainly had, as witness the Exchequer Rolls. In 1549 a French writer
states that "the wild Scots encouraged themselves to arms by the sound
of their bagpipes"; and in 1598 Alexander Hume of Logic wrote:
"Caus michtilie the warlic nottes brake
On Heiland pipes, Scottes and Hyberniche."
Incidentally, this reference to three different
kinds of pipes is interesting.
The first authentic reference to pipers in the
Forces of the Crown appears to have been in 1627, when Alex. Macnaughton
of Loch Fyneside was commissioned by King Charles I. to "levie and
transport twa hundredthe bowmen" for service in the French war. Writing
in January 1628 to the Earl of Morton, Macnaughton says:
"As for newis from our selfis, our baggpyperis and
marlit plaidis serwitt us in guid wise in the pursuit of ane man of war
that hetlie followed us."
The records show that this company had a harper, "Harrie M'Gra frae Larg,"
and a piper, "Allester Caddell," who, in accordance with the custom of
the time, had his gillie to carry his pipes for him.
Regimental pipers undoubtedly existed in the
numerous bodies of Scottish troops which served at various times on the
Continent. Thus, in 1586, in the "State of War" of Captain Balfour's
company in the Scots Brigade in Holland, there were two drummers and a
piper; and in "the worthy Scots regiment called Mackeyes" raised by Sir
Donald Mackay in 1626 there was an establishment of thirty-six pipers.
Pipers are also found on the rolls of the
"regiment d'Hebron"—now the Royal Scots—and to that very distinguished
regiment we may safely accord the further distinction of being the first
"Regular" regiment of the British Army to have pipes. The "North British
Fusiliers," now one of the battalions of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, also
had pipes as far back as 1678, and probably as early as 1642.
Writing in 1641, Lord Lothian
"I cannot out of our
armie furnish you with a sober fiddler.... We are sadder and graver than
ordinarie soldiers, only we are well provided with pypers. I have one
for every company in my regiment, and I think they are as good as
Montrose had pipers in his armies, and tradition has it that, in the
action of Philiphaugh in 1645, a piper stood on a small eminence and
played the old Cavalier tune, "Whurry, Whigs, awa' man," until he was
shot by one of Leslie's men, and fell into the "Piper's Pule" in Ettrick
An exactly similar
incident occurred in the case of one of the pipers of Bonnie Dundee at
Bothwell Brig in 1679.
the Haughs o' Cromdale in 1690 a wounded piper climbed on to a big rock
and went on playing till he died, thus setting an example which has been
followed by his successors in many actions in this war. The stone on
which this unknown hero stood is known to this day locally as "Clach a
There are many
such in France and elsewhere to-day.
In Wodrow's letters in 1716 there is a reference
to the company pipers of the "Argyle's Highlanders": "They entered in
three companies, and every company had their distinct pipers, playing
three distinct springs. The first played "The Campbells are coming" ...
and when they entered Dundee the people thought they had been some of
Mar's men, till some of the prisoners in the Tolbooth, understanding the
first spring, swung the words of it out of the windows, which mortified
1715, when Argyle's troops marched to Leith, it was stated by Cockburn
(Historical MSS. Commission): "While our generals were asleep the rebels
marched to Seton House, leaving the piper in the citadel to amuse."
The piper, by this time, had clearly become a
recognised military institution.
In the '45 the unfortunate Sir John Cope was
undoubtedly aroused by the music of Piob mhor at Prestonpans, though it
is doubtful whether "Hey Johnnie Cope" was composed for the occasion.
Prince Charlie had thirty-two
pipers of his own, besides those belonging to the clans with him. One of
these men, James Reid, was taken prisoner in the operations of 1746. He
pleaded that he had not carried arms, but the Court decided that "no
Highland regiment ever marched without a piper therefore his bag pipe,
in the eye of the law, was an instrument of war"—and they dealt with him
This view was
confirmed by the Disarming Act of 1747, which nearly succeeded in
attaining its object of abolishing the bagpipe, the kilt, the tartan and
national sentiment generally—only Regular regiments being exempted from
legislation against the bagpipe was no new thing. Cromwell had tried it
in Ireland, and, under William II., 600 Irish pipers and harpers were
persecuted with relentless rigour. And in Ireland it succeeded.
Saxon governments have always done the piper the
honour of regarding him as an exponent and supporter of national
Scotland the years between 1747 and 1782, when the iniquitous Disarming
Act was repealed, were very nearly fatal to the continued existence of
the bagpipe as a national institution and it was the Regular Army which
saved it—though no one could ever accuse the military authorities of
unduly favouring the instrument. Even General Officers have publicly
sneered at them—as when Wolfe at Quebec contemptuously refused to allow
the pipes of the Fraser Highlanders to play, or when Sir Eyre Coote in
1778 described them as a "useless relic of the barbarous ages."
Both generals had to withdraw what they had said.
The opinion of the Court Martial which tried poor
James Reid, that his bagpipe "was, in the eye of the law, an instrument
of war," was after all as shrewd an expression of the truth as their
sentence was harsh.
later times the pipes in the army have received little official
recognition. In 1858, when the King's Own Scottish Borderers applied for
their pipers to be placed on the establishment, the Commander in Chief
grudgingly consented "as the permission for these men is lost in time,"
but on condition that they were not to cost the public anything as
regards their clothing.
Nor has the modern War Office
shown more sympathy to an institution whose value, even on theoretical
grounds, should have been recognised. The ancient and honourable title
of Pipe Major has been abolished and that of "sergeant piper" has been
substituted. Pipers themselves, on mobilisation, are returned to the
ranks with the exception of six men. In Lowland regiments, indeed, the
piper, though tolerated, is not officially recognised at all.
A bandsman may in due course become a first-class
warrant officer— in one or two units, indeed, he has attained
commissioned rank but the "sergeant piper" remains a sergeant, and can
hope for nothing more. This, surely, is an injustice which is remediable
at small cost to the nation.
The apathy of the War Office in regard to the
training of pipers as pipers is another matter which is in urgent need
of reform. Commanding officers and pipe presidents are sometimes pipers
themselves—though not always; it is absurd to leave to them the
responsibility of training men in the art. The time has come for a
thorough reform of the whole system and method of training of military