The Oban Times, 8 March 1930
by A Piper
After crossing the Esplanade and entering the inner precincts of Edinburgh Castle we followed the roughly cobbled path which ascends steeply to the soldiers’ quarters. An alert N C.O. in Highland uniform cheerfully complied with a request to direct us to the Military School of Piping, and even one with pacifist tendencies could not but admire his fine physique and bearing as he, with buoyant step, accompanied us. Up a flight of stone stairs and suddenly we found ourselves in the School, where the Master–a man of worldwide fame in his particular art–received us with a cordial greeting. Looking round the Classroom–which commands probably the loftiest vista of any in Scotland–we observed the practical character of its equipment, including the inevitable Blackboard on which was chalked a bar or two of staff notation, evidently the immediate subject of analysis in elucidation. On a desk before us were volumes of music which on closer inspection were found to be Piobaireachdean carefully noted and approaching copper-plated clarity and neatness. These volumes represented part of the work of the session, for each pupil had to write and memorise one. Certain passages have to be particularly considered and assiduously practised until difficulties are overcome and proficiency attained.
How different from the days of the MacCrimmon school at Borreraig, where the young pipers when memorizing had to rely entirely on the ear, no written music being available. But if the system of instruction then in vogue was different, so also were the times, for while the Borreraig pupil went through a leisurely course of seven years, the modern army pupil must finish his training in as many months. We say “finish” advisedly, because there are only drafted every year to the Military School of Piping the most promising of the younger pipers in His Majesty’s army. These youths already possess a working knowledge of Ceol Beag (literally “small music”), e.g., Marches, Strathspeys and Reels; but now there are unfolded to them the richer pages of Ceol Mor, the classical music of the pipes. Here they obtain a thorough grounding both in theory and practice of many of those classics which have been handed down from generation to generation of our greatest pipers.
Few pipers, however, can hope to equal the MacCrimmons, who excelled not only as players but also as composers, the finest Piobaireachdean being their composition. So great indeed became the fame of their school that it attracted pupils from all parts of the Highlands and even from Ireland, for no piper could claim to have had a complete training unless he had passed out of their College. Many would have it that the genius of the MacCrimmons was not merely a natural one. Hence the various and varying legends attributing their pre-eminence to occult agencies.
The most popular of these legends traced their skill to the occasion when a MacCrimmon boy, seated at the foot of a knoll near his home, was quietly practiscing on his chanter. Despairing of any improvement in his playing, he had now decided to abandon the idea of becoming a piper, when suddenly a beautiful fairy maiden emerged from the green knoll beside him and graciously offered to help him. The knoll became their trysting place for many evenings thereafter, and under her instruction he made wonderful progress. In bidding him a final farewell she presented him with a fairy chanter and assured him he would soon become the greatest of mortal pipers. It was at a later stage in the history of the MacCrimmons that this same fairy (for fairies never grow old) warned Donald Bàn MacCrimmon against setting out with the MacLeods to take a reluctant part against Prince Charlie. Notwithstanding her friendly counsel he loyally decided to proceed with his comrades, but the fairy’s words had sunk deep in his mind, inspiring that beautiful and plaintiff composition, “Tha till mi tuille” (MacCrimmon will never return). Donald Bàn MacCrimmon was one of the first of the MacLeod contingent to fall in the skirmish known as the Rout of Moy, a few days before Culloden.
A friend and an ardent admirer of Ceol Mor had now joined us, and together we had the pleasure and privilege of hearing several of the military pipers, each of whom performed with skill and fervour, their technique and quality of tone providing unmistakable evidence of a thorough knowledge and commanded the instrument. Most of the compositions selected were commemorative of some episode in our national or clan history. Of those played, the most interesting was the “Battle of Vaternish,” immediately recalling to mind the thrilling descriptions heard in our boyhood of that second fierce encounter there between the MacDonalds and the MacLeods. Even now as the tune proceeded with dignified measure we could visualise the conflict–the sudden appearance of the proud MacDonalds bent on avenging their heavy losses at Milleadh Garaidh (fought in the same Peninsula two or three years earlier), the hurried gathering of the MacLeods to meet the onslaught, the desperate struggle which ensued, and the final repulse of the invaders. But many MacLeods fell that day, among them two of their value leaders, John of Trumpan and Roderick of Unish, whose resting places are now pointed out with reverent pride by MacLeods and MacDonalds alike.
Often at the Ceilidh of a winter evening has it been debated whether on that occasion–now some three and a half centuries distance–the Fairy Flag (the mystic War Banner of the MacLeods, which was never to be shown except in face of the gravest peril) had been unfurled as at Milleadh Garaidh. While we were thinking over this and recalling to mind the Vaternish Peninsula, so peaceful in aspect but fated to witness some terrible conflicts, the final Crunluadh of the Piobaireachd had sounded, and its echoes were reverberating in the distance.
A most interesting afternoon had concluded; and, as in the fading daylight we made our way down from the dark, historic building, we felt assured that the facilities provided by the Military School would go far to ensure that high standard of piping so essential in an organisation which in the past has been the nursery of so many instructors of the art.