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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter V — The Critics and the Bagpipe

THE Humourist does not always shine as a wit when poking fun at the Bagpipe, but he is as a rule good-natured.

There is nothing spiteful; nothing giving “just cause for offence,” in the allusions to the Bagpipe just quoted.

The modern critic, however, stands on a different platform in this respect from the wit. The judge is lost in the carper or faultfinder. The critic in short becomes the finic, and in his findings there is none of that “Mercy that boasteth over judgment.”

He seems to me always to approach his subject in an atrabilious frame of mind. He is at once, and strongly antagonistic. The Bagpipe acts on him like the proverbial red rag on the bull. Anger sits at his nostrils. He lays about him like a man with a sledge-hammer ; caring for nothing, not even for truth, so long as he can strike and wound and bruise.

And, as might be suspected, in his criticisms good-nature and humour are both conspicuous by their absence.

Here are a few choice specimens, culled at random, from these flowers of speech! “An instrument of torture,” writes one; “As vile an instrument as it is possible to conceive,” writes another; “A sorry instrument, capable only of making an intolerable noise,” says a third; “A barbarous instrument, harsh and untunable,” writes a fourth; “A squeeling pig in a poke,” and “A portable screech owl.” These last two make up a wandering Jew’s genial contribution to the criticism of the carpers.

This is mud-throwing quite worthy of Mr T. W. Crossland at his best, but it is not fair criticism. It is Billingsgate pure and simple.

It is the voice of unreason and querulous discontent. This is the sort of criticism that suggested once to Disraeli the famous saying : “ You know who the critics are. The men who have failed in literature and art.” And the failures are as a rule a discontented and a supercilious lot.

Let us now take and examine for curiosity’s sake one of those typical magazine articles on the Bagpipe, from the pen of the musical expert, which crop up periodically.

The critic on this occasion is one Mr John Storer (Mus. Doc.). He it is who called the Pipe in his own elegant way “An instrument of torture.” Surely, “A Daniel come to judgment!” Can we expect fair play for the Bagpipe from a judge who condemns before the case is well begun? It is a little difficult to imagine so: but let us see. Mr Storer, having given his readers a taste of his pretty wit in these words, the Bagpipe is an “instrument of torture,” proceeds gravely to his task of critic,—Heaven save the mark!

I waded through what turned out to be a dry and barren rigmarole—I do not wish to be disrespectful, but no other word is so truthfully expressive of the article—hoping, alas in vain, to pick up some crumbs of knowledge from this expert’s lore.

He is powerful in “gibes and flouts and jeers,” but in nothing else. His knowledge of the subject is surely of the flimsiest ! His facts are travesties of truth.

“Although to most cultivated ears,” he says, “The Bagpipe is not a thing of pleasure or joy, it is nevertheless a curious fact that it has a fascination for those who have little or no ear for the music of any other instrument, and no less a man that Dr Johnson, whose musical knowledge was in his own words limited to being able to distinguish the sound of a drum from that of a trumpet, and a Bagpipe from that of a guitar, seemed nevertheless to take pleasure in the tones of a Bagpipe. He loved to stand with his ear close to the big drone. The picture thus conjured up of the great lexicographer is, to say the least of it, most diverting ; certainly there is no accounting for taste.”

This is the sort of rubbish which a certain type of musical critic palms off as criticism upon an unsuspecting public.

Now, bad taste, which is the taste Mr Storer refers to here, and which he illustrates by his article, is easily accounted for. It is generally due to ignorance. Mr Storer also says it is a curious fact that the Bagpipe has a fascination for those who have no ear for music.

Where and when did Mr Storer learn this fact? Did he first prove it for himself before he gave it to the world?

Did he take a census of the many thousands who love the Bagpipe? And then, did he test their ears?

If not, what of his curious fact? He must have taken it on trust from some Highland humourist, who was perhaps “coaching” him on the subject before he wrote his article, or it is but the figment of his own brain. The latter is, in my opinion, the more likely hypothesis of the two.

Mr Storer’s reasoning, however, is no sounder than his “ fact,” when we come to examine it, and summed up in a nutshell it amounts to this :—

Dr Johnson had no ear for music.

Dr Johnson loved the Bagpipe.


All who love the Bagpipe have no ear for music.

Or, again—

The Bagpipe is an “ instrument of torture ; ” Therefore No one with an ear for music loves it ;


A great many people love it ;


A great many people have no ear for music.

Now, as a matter of fact, within most people’s knowledge the Bagpipe is not an “instrument of torture ” when well played any more than is the fife, or flute, or fiddle, or organ! And it is simply not true to say that only “ persons with little or no ear” enjoy its music.

We have a good example in the “Unspeakable Scot," of how a whole nation may be traduced by a writer who snaps his fingers at truth, and makes facts to suit himself.

In the same way to ridicule any musical instrument is an easy matter.

Take for example that prince of instruments, the fiddle. We all know what a delight it is in the hands of a Sarasate playing on a peerless Stradivarius. But Sarasates are as rare as great pipers, and a “Strad ” is not in every fiddler’s hand: so if we are to judge the violin fairly, some allowance must be made for the indifferent player, and the cheap badly-made instrument.

The caterwaulings of the budding violinist, or the unmusical scrapings on the catgut of the drunken street fiddler are no doubt disagreeable, and lend themselves to the ridiculous.

The fiddle in such hands may be even more painful to the ‘‘cultivated ear” than Mr Storer’s London Bagpipes ; but no fair-minded critic would on this account call the fiddle “an instrument of torture.”

It seems, however, impossible for a certain class of critics to review the Bagpipe in an impartial spirit.

Tuning up the Northumbrian Small Pipe of Six Reeds.


Even Mr W. Chappell in that otherwise delightful book of his, ‘‘Popular Music of the Olden Times,” cannot resist having a quiet fling at it in passing.

“Formerly,” he says, “the Bagpipe was in use among all the lower classes in England, although happily confined to the North.” From which remark we may infer that Mr Chappell, the Englishman, would willingly see it consigned not only to the North, but to the back of the North Pole as well, or, in fact, kicked over the edge of the world into everlasting perdition, if that were possible.

“Take heed of critics,” said Dekker, “they bite, like fish, at anything.” And so it is with musical critics, when they get on this subject; they both bark and bite at the Bagpipe. The above statement by Mr Chappell might well lead the incautious reader to think that the Bagpipe was confined to the lower orders in England.

This is not the case, however. It was patronised by Royalty from remotest times. The early kings of England kept Pipers, and on one occasion at least, the King—as the exchequer rolls show—paid for his Piper’s musical training, and sent him, at his own expense, to visit the famous Continental schools. It was also a general favourite at one time with the upper classes, as well as with the common people.

But it has been so long silent in the South that there is some excuse for the Englishman who, after listening to and enjoying a Highland pibroch, asked the piper to play it over again in English. There is no excuse, however, for the learned ignorance which some musicians display when writing on this subject.

Dr. Storer and Mr Chappell are both Englishmen, I presume, and are probably, on this account, unacquainted with the peculiar and old-fashioned scale of the chanter which the piper has to contend with.

They cannot surely have heard any of the great masters play.

At all events they seem to have taken their ideas of pipe music from the incoherent ramblings of the London street piper, the Whitechapel Highlander? a creature with nothing Highland in him, unless it be the whisky that is oozing out of every pore of his dirty body?—a huge sham of a Highlander who takes the ill-tuned, ill-made affair, called by courtesy a Bagpipe, out of the pawnshop, along with his kilt, every Monday morning, and with hideous noises, kills the quiet places, which are already all too few in our great cities. I readily acknowledge that this class of piper is beyond the pale, and is a fit subject for ridicule, if any critic care to stoop so low.

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