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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XV — The Scottish Bagpipe

I have tried to prove in the preceding chapter —not unsuccessfully, we hope—that the Bagpipe is the only distinctive musical instrument which Scotland possesses.

Do other nations recognise the Piob Mhor as distinctively Scottish, and not as merely Highland?

This is the second test, and is also a very important one.

At a time when England and Scotland were still separate nationalities, although under one crown, Otway, the English poet, who wrote his first play in 1674, said on one occasion, “A Scotch song! I hate it worse than a Scotch Bagpipe.”

The Author looks upon this Pipe as the most valuable in his collection. It was bought for him by Mr W. S. Macdonald, of Glasgow, and has a very sweet lone.

“A Relic of Waterloo "

Inscribed upon the silver plate is the following :—

“ Prize given by the Highland Society of London to John Buchanan, Pipe-Major to the 42nd or R.. Highland Regt.—Adjudged to him by the Highland Society of Scotland at Edinburgh, 20th July, 1802.

The Bagpipe was at the zenith of its fame in the Highlands, and—with the exception of the bellows pipe—had largely died out in the Lowlands, when Otway made this spiteful remark. It was the golden age of the Piper in Skye. Many of our best Piobaireachd first saw the light there, while everywhere in the Highlands at this time similar music was being written. We can compose no such fine music for the Bagpipe to-day as the old pipers composed in those days, without any seeming effort. The name of MacCrimmon was familiar as a household word wherever the soft Gaelic tongue was spoken, when of Lowland Pipers of fame there were none, and yet Otway writes of the Bagpipe in his day as Scotch.

At the battle of Quatre Bras, when the Seventy-Ninth Highlanders had formed up to receive a charge of French cavalry, Piper McKay stepped proudly out of the newly-formed square, and, planting himself on a hillock, where he could be seen and heard of all, played that well-known pibroch— grandest of war pieces—“Cogcidh Na Shie” as unconcernedly as if on parade, with shot and shell flying all around him. A similar example of piper’s bravery was given at Waterloo, under the eye of Napoleon himself, who might in all truth have said, “Ah! brave Highlanders!” instead of “Ah! brave Scots!” when he heard the war-pipe sound, and saw the tartan wave, and witnessed with amazement his best troops dash themselves in vain against those thin walls of Highland steel ; but there was none ot that hair-splitting, pettifogging spirit about this greatest of great soldiers, which some modern critics display ; those critics who would divide us^ into Highland Scot and Lowland Scot, and who unblushingly assert—or at least insinuate—that the Lowlander is unwilling to accept any gift which comes to him with the Highland taint upon it.

To the French Emperor the Bagpipe and the kilt —characteristically Highland both—represented Scotland and Scotland alone.

Once again, when Mendelssohn, the great composer, came over to Scotland that he might study on the spot the native music, he spent three whole days passing out and in of the old Theatre Royal in Edinburgh, during a competition that happened to be going on there, listening to the Bagpipe, because to him it was the instrument par excellence of Scotland; it was here first, and afterwards in a visit to the Highlands where he again studied the Bagpipe amidst its proper surroundings, that he caught the inspiration for his “Hebrides” overture and for his “Scotch Symphony.”

Now as with the English, and the French, and the German, so with other nations. I have myself visited many foreign countries, and met with many different peoples, and the invariable exclamation of the intelligent foreigner, on seeing or hearing the Highland Pipe, was “Ah! Scotch!”

To the educated foreigner, indeed, who often takes a broader view of our country than we ourselves do, Highland and Lowland are unknown. There is but one nation. Scotland; and but one people, the Scottish; and but one national instrument, the Bagpipe.

We will now glance shortly at the other conditions laid down before proceeding to the subject proper. The Bagpipe is the only one of the three instruments mentioned which was not borrowed from Roman, Teuton, Angle or Dane, but which has sprung from the people, and grown with the growth of the nation.

The fiddle, as we have said before,—a statement which we cannot reiterate too often,—was the invention of an Englishman, a Churchman, who, after a time, made his home in France, where he ultimately died, and it is an Anglo-Saxon instrument. It is only of comparatively recent introduction in the Highlands, and it never attained any great popularity there.

The harp, also an Anglo-Saxon weapon, was the one favourite instrument of the minstrel class: a class far removed from the common crowd. At one time, indeed, a most exclusive class, proud, haughty, and reserved: holding itself always in touch with royalty and aloof from the commonality. It never was in universal use in Scotland, although for a short time it may have been fairly common among the upper classes, especially in the West Highlands.

On the other hand, the Bagpipe is Celtic, like the people who in Caesar’s day inhabited the island from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. The little pastoral pipe of the Celt, made of “ane reid and ane bleddir,” was in universal use in the Lowlands as well as in the Highlands at the beginning of the fifteenth century, as history informs us. The fiddle was only coming into use at this time in the Lowlands, and was not much thought of, and in the Highlands it was practically unknown.

Now, this fact that the Bagpipe was in early use in the Lowlands, and a favourite with the common people, is fatal to Mr Murray’s argument. “In the Lowlands,” he says, “it never had a footing”—he has evidently not read “The Complaynt of Scotland,” or studied the old exchequer rolls. He agrees with Mr McBain of Inverness, who blindly follows Sir A. C. McKenzie, in the opinion that it came from England into the Highlands, but evidently thinks —in opposition to McBain—that it skipped the Lowlands on its way thither. Mr McBain tells us, indeed, that it came into the Highlands directly from the Lowlands, where it had been in use for a hundred years and more, before the Highlanders knew anything about it. Who are we to believe? The simplest way to get over the difficulty is to believe neither party, as both are hopelessly at sea on this question. The Pipe did not come from England into Scotland ; it was the common property of the Celt in England, and in Ireland, and in Scotland, in the early centuries, and did not require to be borrowed by the one from the other.

In “The Complaynt of Scotland,” a book written in the southern Lowland dialect in 1548 or early in 1549, the names of the musical instruments and of the dances then in vogue are given, and the two first instruments on the list are two Bagpipes of different species. This alone, without any further proof, marks its popularity in the Lowlands. The fiddle, which Sir A. C. McKenzie would force upon us as a national instrument, is mentioned only seventh on the list, and the poor harp, which Mr Murray gives precedence to over the Bagpipe, is not recognised at all.

We have historical proof that the Bagpipe was well known in Scotland while the twelfth century was still young, and if we cannot give written proof of a still earlier use, it is because there is no earlier history of Scotland written. Where history fails common-sense steps in, and tells us that it must have taken centuries to evolve out of the simple Pipe of “ane reid and ane bleddir” the rich full-toned Pipe that played at the Court of King David, and delighted the ear of many an old warrior, grim and stern, who had won his spurs on the field of Bannockburn, and that it was also first known in its simpler form to the humble shepherd—the only solace, indeed, of his lonely vigils—centuries before the first Scottish historian was born.

This little pastoral Pipe, however; this little Pipe of one reed, had become as early as the reign of King David—and probably much earlier—the Great Pipe, worthy of the historian’s notice: the now famous War-Pipe of the Highlander, and was then —and then only—able to voice the feelings of a warlike race. It is in truth the greatest war instrument which the world has ever seen. To-day it stands pre-eminent on the battlefield, where it first became famous, and there such feeble-voiced instruments as the fiddle and the harp—its two great rivals—cannot be compared with it for one moment.

But, lastly, the Bagpipe has assisted largely in forming the distinctive music of the country— Scotland’s national music. Without the Bagpipe what would Highland music be? As other music. And without Highland music what would there be to distinguish Scottish music from English, or French, or German? The “characteristic Lowland Scotch music” would still be Lowland Scotch no doubt, but without the characteristic.

Mr Murray says, “My principal object in writing was to protest against the generally accepted view that the Bagpipe is the national instrument. Whilst the Highlander adopted it and made much of it, in the Lowlands it never had a footing. We have already shown that the Highlander did not adopt it, and that it had more than a footing in the Lowlands— where it was, indeed, the principal or favourite musical instrument with the peasantry for hundreds of years—even as early as the fourteenth century.

“Our wealth of Scottish folk-music,” he continues, “has no affinity with the Bagpipes (sic), and very many of these old airs were sung in our Scottish homes, long before the Bagpipe found its way from England to the Highland hills and glens.”

Again the same false assumption, for which there is not one jot or tittle of proof, that the Bagpipe came from England. The Bagpipe did not come from England ; and Scotch folk-music has many affinities with Pipe music. Will Mr Murray give to the world the name of a single tune from his “Wealth of Scottish Folk-Song” that can be traced as far back as, say 1365, when the Pipe was already fashionable at the Scottish Court, and the Piper ranked high among the members of the king’s household? “Hey Tutti Tuiti,” said by tradition to have been Bruce’s march at the Battle of Bannockburn, is undoubtedly an ancient tune, and I believe it to be as old as tradition says, but then it is a Bagpipe tune. The oldest part-song in the world also is formed on the same model, and has a drone bass in imitation of the Bagpipe. It is an English song, and is called “Sumer is icumen in,” and dates from about 1250. What Scottish folk-song can be traced as far back as 1250?

That the oldest songs in both countries should be so largely influenced by the Bagpipe is not to be wondered at, when we remember that the Pipe was a general favourite in England as well as in Scotland at a time when song-making was in its infancy. It is well to remember here that musical instruments have always led the human voice, not vice versa, but while leading they have also from inherent imperfections and peculiarities of scale, etc., imposed limits, thus giving a distinctive character to the songs of the people. This is most marked in countries like Scotland, where in the early days but one instrument predominated. Its influence can be traced most clearly in Highland song, where the singer, like the piper, skips or slurs certain notes in the scale, irrespective of the character of the theme. It is the same,

“in solemn dirge, or dance tune gay,
In sad lament, or joyous roundelay,”

and it is difficult to understand on what grounds Mr Murray denies its influence in Scottish music. “In point of fact.” he says with an air of authority, “but very few of the airs of even the Gaelic songs can be played on the Pipes. . . . The timbre of the Pipe makes the instrument impossible as an accompaniment to the voice, and its use all through has been unconnected with vocal music/’ Now, while the Great Highland Bagpipe is the proper accompaniment on the battlefield to the noise and din of warfare, it was never intended to be an accompaniment of song, and no sane writer has ever said so ; but it is only one of many Pipes, and of these others several go well to the human voice. At a lecture given by me this winter I had a choir boy—with a rare gift of voice—who sang that beautiful Christmas hymn, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” to the accompaniment of the Northumbrian Bagpipe, and the timbre of the Pipe and the timbre of the little singer’s voice were in perfect unison. The French Mussette is another Bagpipe which goes well with the human voice ; so that it is not correct to say that “its use all through has been unconnected with vocal music.” Hundreds, nay! thousands of French Bagpipe songs were in existence once, and may be yet for all I know. And as to the bold statement that “but very few of the airs of even the Gaelic songs can be played on the Pipes,” the exact opposite is the truth. Very many of the old Gaelic songs go excellently well upon the Pipes in the disguise of march, reel, and strathspey, while practically all Piobaireachd—the real music of the Pipe—is vocal.

But as this subject—the influence of the Bagpipe on Highland music—is a large and an interesting one, it will require a chapter to itself.

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