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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XIV — The Bagpipe, the National Instrument

“That the Englishmen had their supporters was shown by the cheer that went up when the men, all in white, emerged from the pavilion to the strains of ‘The British Grenadiers,’ but it was nothing- to the mighty shout which greeted the Scots, -who, led by pipers, looked in the pink of condition in their Royal blue jerseys.”— Glasgow Evening Times.

“In Scotland the Bagpipe must be considered as the national instrument.”—Dr. MacCulloch.

NOW, if we apply the tests in the preceding chapter, or any other tests which you may devise, to each of the three musical instruments which have been put forward at one time or another as Scotland’s national instrument, we will find that the Piob-Mhor, or great War Pipe of the Highlands, is the only one of the three which at all satisfies the conditions laid down.

It seems to me hardly worth while to go beyond the first and most important test of all, that “the national instrument of a country must be distinctive of the nation using it.” Neither the harp nor the fiddle is in any way distinctive of Scotland. The harp is distinctive of the Welsh people and of the Irish flag, but not of the Scottish nation. The fiddle, an Anglo-Saxon invention originally, is now the property of the whole civilised world, and is characteristic of no one people. The Bagpipe, however, stands on a very different footing. It is in the first place pre-eminently distinctive of the Highlander, and this is half the argument and more. The Lowlander is apt to forget that the Highlander is as much a Scotsman as himself.

What would dear old Scotland be without her Highlanders? If the glorious records of our Highland regiments were erased to-morrow from the book of history, would not the tale of the years that have fled be shorn of much of its glory so far as we Scotsmen are concerned? But to most Lowland Scotsmen also, the Bagpipe is the national instrument. This is “ the generally accepted” notion, according to Mr Murray, and, if due to ignorance, as he asserts, then, indeed, is the ignorance very widespread throughout the British Empire, and shared in by every European nation. When I put the question to people in the South, “What is our national instrument?” the almost invariable answer is, “Why, of course, the Bagpipe!” Occasionally, the fiddle is put forward in hesitating fashion : the harp never.

Take the heading at the beginning of this chapter. It is an ordinary cutting taken from one of the evening papers, and begins a plain matter-of-fact account of the 1904 International Rugby Football match, played at Inverleith, when the champions of the Rose and the Thistle met in friendly rivalry.

To the old football player the words, though simple, conjure up the scene as real as when it spread itself out before his delighted eyes on that most glorious of days. The scene is an animated one. The grey metropolis of the Forth is looking its brightest. Twenty to thirty thousand people, gathered from all parts of Scotland, are there to watch the game. The peer rubs shoulders with the peasant: the lady of high degree with the shop girl. Every class in the community has its representatives in evidence at this great gathering. Doctors of Divinity, Doctors of Law, Doctors of Medicine, are here mixing freely with the humble city clerk, and the tidy apprentice and the rough labourer; while the blacksmith fresh from his forge, and the pitman, still grimy from his underground labours, help to swell the throng. Here, too, you see the medical student, not always “sicklied o’er with the pale hue of thought,” giving the tip to his Professor: that dreaded examiner! who to-morrow, perhaps, will send the poor devil down for another term, to do a little and much-needed further study on the bones. Presiding over all, is the Goddess of Youth and Beauty in the shape of crowds of gaily-dressed, sweet-faced, bright, healthy-looking, chattering girls, whose presence lends a fresh charm and a delightful picturesqueness to an already charming scene. Scotland’s pride of nationality runs high on such an occasion, and she rightly puts all distinctive traits in the foreground.

As the time of the contest draws near, a feeling of suppressed excitement spreads through the crowd, interfering with the smooth flow of speech. Questions are put and answered in monosyllabic jerks. Every head is turned instinctively towards the pavilion, and watches are anxiously scanned. And when on the stroke of the hour the Englishmen appear in spotless white, headed by a brass band, playing “The British Grenadiers,” a great cheer rises from the mighty throng. But this cheer, although hearty, is as nothing to the roar of welcome which greets the lads in blue—the lads who are destined, ere the day is over, to carry the Scottish colours once more to victory !—as they march on to the field, headed by Pipers. The team is entirely composed of Scotsmen, I presume—Highland and Lowland—and contains the pink of Scotland’s players. The occasion is international and historic. The assembly of onlookers is representative of Scotland at its best. Why, then, if the Bagpipe is not the national instrument, should it be chosen to lead the Scottish team on to the field on this great day? Why should it’s stirring notes rouse the enthusiasm of the multitude? Try and imagine the effect a fiddler or a harper at the head of the dark blues would have upon the crowd? It would then set them jeering, not cheering. The manly, the heroic, the picturesque, associated as these are with the kilt and the Bagpipe, would disappear with the disappearance of the Piper. The harper, of course, could not even march with the team ; he would have to hurry off in advance, to the middle of the field, and, sitting down upon his three-legged stool, draw the players to him, as if by hypnotism, or magnetism, or other necromantic ism; a spectacle fit only to excite gods and men to laughter!

It is the “generally accepted” opinion—Mr Murray concedes this much—that the Bagpipe is Scotland’s national instrument.

To shew how true this is, allow me to quote shortly from the public speeches of two Scotsmen— Lowlanders, not bigoted, prejudiced Highlanders— and delivered before two very different audiences on two very different occasions.

Colonel R. Easton Aitken, a well-known Scotsman, who puts in no claim to be called a Highlander, and is so far at least unprejudiced in his opinions on the Bagpipe, was presiding this year at the distribution of prizes in connection with the Glasgow School of Music. In opening the proceedings he said, “Most of you probably know more about music than I do, but as a Scotsman I claim to be a member of a musical nation which has given to the world songs which have become more than national. We also possess a very distinctive form of music, regarding which a certain difference of opinion is held. I refer to the Bagpipe, but granted that those who differ as to its being the national instrument are right ! still it has proved itself a very stimulating military influence, and I have no doubt that the Scottish nation at large is proud of the Bagpipe and all the memories it conjures up.”

Now it is easy to read between the lines, and to know which side of the controversy—if it can be called a controversy—the gallant Colonel takes. His heart is with the Bagpipe. He has listened to it in camp and on the battlefield, and to him, as to so many other Scotsmen, it is the one very distinctive form of Scottish music.

The “certain difference of opinion” here mentioned probably refers to Mr Murray’s letters, which appeared in the Glasgow Herald shortly before the Colonel made his speech.

Now the Colonel, being evidently a modest man, and not wishing to express himself too strongly upon a musical point before a gathering of musicians, gave too much weight to the certain difference of opinion, which was then being aired in the Press. “That those who differ as to its being the national instrument are right,” I would not grant for one moment. But then I am a Highlander, and probably biased, and also on this particular subject I have found the best informed musicians to be as ignorant as the man in the street, for the very simple reason that the Bagpipe is never mentioned in lectures. It has been systematically ignored by the learned as a rude and barbarous instrument, unworthy of their notice, and its history has yet to be written. The opinion of the expert, therefore, on the Bagpipe is of no special value, because it is without knowledge. The Pipe itself is, however, in evidence wherever a band of Scotsmen foregather; and this is to me one of the best proofs of its national character, and of the estimation in which it is held, notwithstanding any amount of learned—or unlearned—dissertation to the contrary. In illustration of what I mean, take the St. Andrew’s Day Celebrations in London this year as reported in the Scotsman newspaper. Lord Rosebery was in the chair, and made one of those delightfully racy speeches which become the social function so well, but which I refer to later on. “The assemblage”— I quote from the report,—“which numbered between three hundred and four hundred, might be described as a sort of miniature 'Scotland in London.’ A considerable proportion of those present were in Highland costume. Around the walls were hung numerous clan banners, and the skirl of the Bagpipes was heard at frequent intervals in the course of the evening.” Now, what gave this great and representative gathering, in the eyes of the newspaper correspondent, its distinctively Scottish character? Why, we have it in his description of the meeting. It was the Highland leaven that leavened the whole lump. Without the Bagpipe, and the kilt, and the clan banners on the wall, and the haggis—we must not leave out the haggis, “Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race ”—the meeting would be as any other meeting of Britishers.

And as at home, so abroad, only more so. To a Scotsman landing on a foreign shore the sound of the Bagpipe is at once cheering and inspiriting. As its first strains fall upon his ears, the cry of “Scotland for ever!” rises to his lips. He feels that he is among friends, and not so far from home after all; this is irrespective of the tune altogether.

The fiddle, unless playing some well-known melody, can convey no such sensation. Nor can the harp.

Speaking at Rockhampton on June 3, 1896, where he was the guest of the Scotsmen of that town,—no distinction here between Highland Scot and Lowland Scot, although there was a Mac in the chair ! —men grow wider in their views by travel,—Lord Lamington, the newly - appointed Governor of Queensland, and a man who cannot be accused of being either a Highlander or prejudiced, said, “ I rejoiced on landing here to see well-known Scottish dresses, and also to hear the sound of the Pipes. (Applause.) Yesterday morning, I think it was, or the day before, I had occasion to thank those who gave that pleasantest of music to my ears from the balcony of this hotel. Some rather irreverent person in the street made a jeering remark. I do not know what it is to most people, but I know this—I would rather hear the Pipes than any other instrument. Many a time, when in London, have I dashed down one street and up another to cut off perhaps some regiment marching to the sound of the Pipes. . . . Whilst others may prefer such airs as those to be heard at the opera, I can only say, in my opinion, that in everything the beautiful is strictly allied with the useful. And I maintain that the Pipes have done more strictly useful work in this world than any other instrument. (Applause.)

Where the Highland bonnets have gone forward— whether at Alma, whether in India,—if there has been a pause in the rush, it has been the piobrach which has rallied these Highland regiments, and enabled them to distinguish themselves in the fierce onslaught on the enemy. (Applause.) Why, there is hardly a war, however small, in which you will not see the name of some well-known Highland or Scottish regiment. The Bagpipe is always to the front. Therefore I maintain—as we all of us do, I believe—that we should cherish our national instrument, which has played a great part in the history of our country.” (Applause.)

Those who differ from us on this point have their work cut out for them, and should lose no time in taking their coats off if they are in earnest, and mean to try and explode “the generally accepted notion that the Bagpipe is the National Instrument of Scotland.”

It is assuredly the only distinctive musical instrument which we possess, and at the present time, it deposed from its proud position, there is none other to take its place.

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