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Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland


N. Page 87. Highland Music

It has often been said that the music of Scotland was borrowed from Italy, and that David Rizzio first gave it the stamp and character which it now bears. If this opinion be well founded, it would be desirable to show what part of the Scottish music has been borrowed, what is original, and whether this particular kind of music was ever known in Italy. Bagpipes are common in Italy, particularly among the Tyrolese in the north, and the Calabrese in the south; yet, is it probable that the Highland pibrochs came either from Italy or the Tyrol? The Reel of Tulloch, Rothiemurchus Rant, and Jenny Dang the Weaver, cannot well claim any near connexion with Italian music. Mackintosh's Lament, and Caguana in the north, the Birks of Invermay in the centre, and the Flowers of the Forest in the south of Scotland, from their melody, bear some resemblance to the Italian but as there must be a similarity in all melodious sounds, it is probable, that the connexion between the softer music of Scotland and of Italy is only to be found in their beauty, and that the Pibroch, Reel Strathspey, Lament, and Songs, are peculiar to the country. The opinion which attributes the melody of the Scotch songs to Rizzio and the sublime and elevated sentiments of Ossian to Macpherson seem to be founded more on the ideas entertained of the rude and uncultivated state of Scotland, at an early period, as being perfectly incompatible with the delicacy of taste and feeling which both the poetry and music display, than on any authentic information. But where there is a deficiency of authentic information, there is more room for a diversity of opinion, especially as, on one side, all is tradition, supported by many facts; and on the other, all is assertion, without one fact, except some surmises originating in the vanity of Rizzio and Macpherson. The latter had too much honour to assert that he was the author of the poems, although, as the MSS. of which he got possession have disappeared, perhaps he would not have been sorry if the world had given him credit for talents equal to such compositions. The MSS. would have been clear evidence that he was not the author; but he has himself furnished complete evidence, by his poetical works, and other translations, which unfortunately for his literary reputation he published, as if it were to show how inferior they are to his Gaelic translations. However, a fine field of disquisition is opened, and national vanity interposes to darken the question. In the south, it cannot be endured, that a people who have always been considered as rude and savage, should compose, preserve for ages, and enjoy with enthusiasm, the beauties of a body of poetry, equal to what the most refined civilization has produced. In the north, again, the people are impatient and irritated at the attempts to accuse them of fraud and falsehood ; and of endeavours to palm on the public the patched-up works of a modern author, as the genuine productions of their ancestors. Had the question, when first agitated, been properly managed, it might have been easily decided, when there were such a cloud of witnesses, and so many people were living who had the poems before Macpherson was born, and who knew that the rehearsal and learning of them formed one of the principal winter pastimes of the people. But, even at that period, who were to be the judges? The southern unbelievers could not have understood one word of the poems in dispute, although all the bards in the north had been assembled, and each had recited Macpherson's publication verbatim in the original. The Highlanders, the only people who understood the language, and could judge properly, would not have been believed, although they had asserted, that the recitals of the bards and the translations coincided perfectly. In such a determined difference of opinion, how is the point to be settled? All, therefore, who believe that Rizzio did not, in any manner whatever, originate the national music of Scotland, and that the poems ascribed to Ossian are very ancient, and so authentic as to have been handed down from father to son for ages beyond the reach of record, will continue of this belief; while those who are of the contrary opinion must remain so, as there are no proofs such as they require, that is, books or manuscripts. The manuscripts on which so much stress was laid were not many centuries old, and did in no manner prove who was the author. Had they been preserved, they would only have established this point,—certainly of some importance in the controversy,—that the poems were not the composition of a modern author; but as I believe it has not yet been ascertained in what MSS. the works of Homer were found and transmitted to posterity, Ossian's poems, whoever may have been the author or authors of them, are in good company when in a similar predicament.

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