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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXXV — Mr MacBain and the Bagpipe


“Or, Baggepype-like, not speake before thou'rt fill!.”—1618.

WHAT reasons for doubting the antiquity of the Highland Bagpipe can the antiquarian give? With what arguments does he assail the mass of proof in favour of its antiquity brought together in the preceding chapters?

What record for consistency on this subject can he shew?

At first, the antiquarian said, that the Bagpipe was introduced’ into Scotland by the Romans. This gave the instrument a fine air of antiquity, and was flattering to the Highlanders. But after a few blunders on the lines of the Inverary fiasco, he began to search history for written proof. “There must be no more guessing,” he said; and having found what he believed to be the earliest mention of the Bagpipe in George Buchanan’s history, and having learned, in some way or another, that Queen Mary had probably brought over a Piper in her train—a musette player—he then asserted that the

Bagpipe was introduced to the Scottish people for the first time by Queen Mary in the second half of the sixteenth century. His attention, however, was, after a time, called to a book which had been published some years before Queen Mary came to this country, in which two different kinds of Scots Bagpipes were mentioned. This was rather disconcerting to the Queen Mary hypothesis, and again our antiquary had to shift his ground, if only by a few years.

The book referred to was written in 1548, and not by one day more would he allow that the Bagpipe was known in Scotland. When I came to Falkirk, twenty-four years ago, the introduction of the “Pipes” had been put still farther back.

The end of the fifteenth century was pronounced to be the correct date. Burgh records shewing payments to the Town-Piper of this period had in the meantime turned up. But only a few more years had passed when the first of the old Exchequer Rolls was published, and as the Bagpipe is there mentioned as a Court instrument, the date had again to be shifted, this time back to the middle of the fourteenth century, to the year 1362 ; and at this date, so far as our antiquarian friends are concerned, it still stands ; not a very consistent record for the antiquary this. I hope, however, that I have given sufficient proof to make it necessary for him to shift back the date once more, some 250 years or so—tracing it down certainly to the middle of the twelfth century. And I feel sure there are many who, after they have read this book, will go farther and believe with Aristides Quintilianus that the Bagpipe was known to the Celt of Scotland in the first century. We are not therefore indebted to any other nation for it, as I have always maintained, but we brought it with us from our old home in the East, and other nations are indebted for it to us.

Now there is a paper called The Home Journal, published, I believe, in Inverness. In the number dated Saturday, February 4th, 1899, there is a long article on the Bagpipe by a well-known scholar and antiquary, who signs himself Alex. MacBain, M.A.

He is said to be one of the best Gaelic scholars of the day, and has written a most excellent Gaelic Dictionary. He has also written numerous articles upon Highland matters, in which latter he has always shewn a great interest; and if any man can produce proof to demolish the belief held by so many Highlanders that the Bagpipe is an old Highland instrument, Mr MacBain is the man of all others to do so. As it happens, he has made the attempt in this very article of February 4th, 1899, and we will now note carefully, and also test, what he has got to say on the matter. The very title of the paper, “The History of the Highland Bagpipe: a lesson in anachronism ” is aggressive, and partly prepares us for what follows : viz., that it is a modern instrument in the Highlands and not Celtic at all.

“The potato,” he says, “has become such an integral part of our food material in the Highlands, that it is now difficult to realise that it is only a century and a half since it was introduced into the country". This we have already answered by shewing that the task he puts to us is not in the least difficult. “The heroes of Culloden were not reared on potatoes; it is the same with the Bagpipe.”

Rather foggy this! but let it pass.

“It is now our national instrument of music. It is so engrained in the musical system of the Highlands, and in the hearts of the people, that there is no wonder that unwary writers have postulated for it a hoary antiquity.”

Ah! cautious antiquary. No more mistakes about ancient writings on scratching stones. You leave that to the “unwary.”

“The Great Highland Bagpipe and the philabeg, or modern Highland dress, came into existence about the same time—the beginning of last century.” This is definite enough in all conscience. Mark the cautious “but,” which follows. “But they both represent older forms. The Bagpipe then” (at the beginning of the eighteenth century), “got its third or big drone added. Hitherto it was the same as the Lowland and Northumbrian Bagpipe, having only two drones.”

As a matter of fact, while a third drone was known to many nations, and may have been occasionally used by the Highlander long before the dawn of the eighteenth century, it was not an acknowledged  part of the Great Highland Pipe until near the end of the century, and only became really fashionable in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is within my own recollection that most of the pipers, who were largely of the Gipsy class, and went round the country piping in the summer time, used only one-drone or two-drone Bagpipes.

The Old Form of the Northumberland Bellows Pipe:
Differing from the lowland Pipe in having all three drones of different lengths. The chanter, which has got one key. is open below. The stock, drones, and chanter are made of ivory and ornamented with silver.

The Highland Bagpipe of two drones was certainly in use in Northumberland until about 60 years ago, but the “Northumbrian Pipe” (which is quite a different instrument), has always had three or more drones. There is some excuse for Mr MacBain getting mixed a little between these two Northumbrian Pipes, but there is none whatever for the same writer when he asserts that the Lowland Pipe had only two drones, and never got beyond two.

Mr MacBain continues thus:—“An unpublished poem of the Rev. Alex. Hume, minister of Logie, 1598, contains this couplet:—

“‘Caus michtelie the weirlie nottes breike,
On Hieland Pipes, Scottes and Hyberniche.’”

“This seems to show that the Highland pipers had begim to improve on the Lowland variety, as we know they did, before ever they put the third drone on.”

What nonsense this is!

These lines shew that in 1598 there were three kinds of Bagpipes known to the author, which he writes down, probably in order of merit. The order may be for the sake of the rhyme ; and if the Highland pipers began to improve on the

Lowland variety (which I deny altogether), there is not one word in these lines to shezy this.

The Pipe came into the Highlands according to the MacBain gospel, a full-fledged two drone Pipe ; and the only difference between the Great Pipe of 1598 and the Great Pipe of 1905 is the third drone. The other improvements spoken of never existed outside the imagination of the writer.

A more incorrect account than the above, a more excellent “lesson in anachronism,” was never penned by any person claiming to be an authority on the subject. The ignorance displayed, coming especially from such a source, is truly amazing.

With the exception of one line, where the author says “it is now our national instrument of music” —and that statement is even disputed by some,— there is not a single statement in this article on the Bagpipe which is in accordance with the facts.

Mr MacBain gives the title of “Great Highland Bagpipe ” to the three-drone Pipe alone—the present form taken by the Highland War Pipe—and here he at once misleads, for we read of the Great Pipe of the Highlands centuries before the large drone was added, or rather, I should say, before the third drone was added, as there is plenty of proof that the large drone was used first on a two-drone Bagpipe.

Again, he imagines that the addition of the third drone, which he wrongly claims as an original Highland invention, converted the Lowland-English Bagpipe into a distinct species — The Highland Bagpipe. But the two-drone Bagpipe was recognised to be the Great Highland War Pipe, and was used in all competitions as such until 1822—more than 100 years after the MacBain three-drone Bagpipe came into existence! — when, to secure uniformity, it was decided by the Highland Society of London, to limit the competition in future to the three-drone Pipe.

If Mr MacBain applies his undoubted abilities to the study of this matter, I think he will very soon discover that his boasted Highland improvement was quite as much a Lowland improvement, if not more so!

At the Competition in 1785 (a copy of the Bill announcing the Competion is one of the illustrations in this book), the two-drone Bagpipe was recognised as the “Great Highland Pipe,” or it would not have been allowed to compete. In short, the addition of a third drone was not distinctively Highland, as other nations had used a third drone centuries before the Highlander put it upon his Bagpipe.

The Greeks had four or more drones on their Bagpipes 2000 years ago.

The French Musette of 1631 had no fewer than five drones. The Calabrian Pipe, which is the successor to the Greek, has always had four drones— while the Irish, Lowland-Scotch, and Northumbrian have each not less than three.

“Its introduction into Scotland is as difficult to trace as its introduction into England. Of course, it came from England into Scotland.”

So writes Mr MacBain.

But, as a matter of fact, its early appearance in England is only coincident with its early appearance in Scotland, and is due to the fact that the early Briton was a Celt, and that the Celt took the Bagpipe with him where’er he went.

“We should maintain, judging from the spread of Puritanism, that the northward advance of the Bagpipe must have been slow.”

He gives 100 years for its spread from the Lowlands to the Highlands, and if we give the same time for the slow advance from England into Scotland, this shews us the Bagpipe as a one-drone instrument in the thirteenth century in England becoming a two-drone instrument in the hands of the Lowland Scots in the fifteenth century—“In general, it had a chanter, and two drones.” And so, after another slow and tiresome journey along the Puritan track, it at length appears in the Highlands, where it takes the “musical genius” of the hill tribes two hundred years to invent a third drone.

This is Mr MacBain’s History of the Bagpipe in a nutshell.

“The real Lowland Bagpipe,” he continues, “never got further than the two drones, and so too with the Northumbrian Pipe ; it was in the Highlands that the Bagpipe grew to its acme of perfection.”

Everything in the argument is so nicely arranged— so easily grasped, that any child can follow it.

This old Pipe is made of ebony and ivory, and has no combing on the drones. It has three drones, two small and one large, like all Lowland bellows Pipes.

You see the Pipe progressing slowly on its northward journey, by even stages, like the stones in a flight of stairs, each step in advance of and a little higher than the other! The Pipe more perfect at the end of each journey; the last host putting the “acme of perfection” touch to the welcome stranger.

Lucky for us that this corrector of anachronisms has made himself so clear, but unfortunate for him that the facts won’t square with his theories; for of real facts there are few or none in his argument.

In the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” for 1793 there is an excellent article on the Bagpipe; one of the most correct and full accounts of the Pipe given anywhere.

It was written nearly 100 years after Mr Mac-Bain’s three-drone and only Great Highland Bagpipe came into existence.

The writer, whose exact words I give, says :— “ While the Lowland Bagpipe has three drones, and the Irish Bagpipe has three drones, the Highland Bagpipe has only two drones.”

Pennant, also, wrote from the Highlands in 1772:—“The Bagpipe has two long pipes or drones

What are we to think of Mr MacBain’s statements after this ? He has surely talked at random, without ever giving a moment’s thought to what he was saying—trusting too much perhaps to his reputation. But the best reputation in the world could not gloss over a flimsy article such as his is.

He cannot ever have seen a Lowland set of “Pipes,” or an old set of the Great Highland Bagpipe; and he is evidently a stranger to the Irish and Northumberland Pipes ; and yet, he writes as if these were quite familiar to him.

I have conversed with Lowland pipers on this subject, and not one of these players on the Bellows-Pipe ever heard of a two-drone set. I have seen and examined many sets myself, some of them very old, but they all had three drones.

Pipe-makers one and all, from the Messrs Glen, of Edinburgh, downwards, say that they have never seen a set of Lowland Pipes, except with three drones. All of which disproves, once and for all, the rash statement made by Mr MacBain that the Lowland and the Northumbrian Bagpipes never got beyond two drones. The following inscription is on a Bellows-Pipe with four drones, which I once saw in Newcastle, and proves that the Northumbrian Pipe had four drones in the seventeenth century:—“The gift of Simon Robertson to Salathiel Humphries, 1695.”

The present Irish Pipe also has any number of drones—from three to seven.

I have devoted a fairly long chapter to this discredited article on the Bagpipe, not because of any intrinsic merit which it possesses, but because of the man who wrote it.

He is looked upon by the Highlanders as a great authority upon Celtic matters, and his paper on the Bagpipe must have struck—nay ! did strike dismay

into the hearts of his Highland admirers. “I spoke in haste,” said the Psalmist, and the only excuse which suggests itself to me for the inaccuracies and “anachronisms” which disfigure every page of Mr MacBain’s paper, “A Study in Anachronism,” is that he, too, spoke in haste, and failed to do himself or his subject justice, like the piper who began to play before his bag was full.

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