OT: 17 November 1906 C.S. Thomason “The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter” (Part 1)

[5, 28-36]

The Oban Times, 17 November, 1906

The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter

By Major-General C. S. Thomason

Part I

In 1888, when in India, I received a letter from the late Mr. Dove on this subject, asking me if I knew of any scale in India corresponding to that of our chanter. Donald Mackay, then piper to his Majesty (then Prince of Wales), also seemed to be interested in the subject. At that time I was not in a position to give any assistance and replied accordingly.

Last year a piper friend (one of our best Ceol Mor players), being suddenly placed in charge of a pipe band, and in much distress because his chanter was not in accord with the band, wrote to me asking for the loan of one of my chanters, which, of course, I sent him. This incident revived my interest in the subject, which, beyond elementary study, some years ago, of Professor Tyndal’s book on the Acoustics of Music, was otherwise a new subject to me, and I determined to go to Kneller Hall. There I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Lieut. Streeter, the Director of Music. The question was not altogether in his line, but he gave me


to Mr. J. Blakeley, the superintendent of Messrs. Boosey & Co.‘s workshop in London. Here I at last found not only a sympathetic friend but a competent adviser. Armed with his copy of Helmholz (translated by J. B. Ellis, F. R. S.) And various papers by Ellis himself, especially a paper on the “Musical Scales of Nations throughout the World,” read by him before the Society of Arts, 25th March, 1885, I then began to have some idea how we might arrive at the solution of our difficulties, and our final plan of campaign was somewhat as follows:–Firstly, to collect some very old chanters; secondly, chanters by makers now deceased; thirdly, those made by present-day makers.

Our object was not to get at the best chanter, but at the best representative chanters used by our most prominent present-day pipers, and if I withhold the names of makers in the accompanying tables, I reasons for doing so will be obvious, but I may mention that no Boosey chanters are included. To ensure impartiality, Mr. Angus Campbell (Kilberry) Kiley associated himself with me in the investigations, and, neither of us claiming any theoretical knowledge of music, we also got the assistance of two ladies well-qualified to supply our deficiency, and who joined enthusiastically with us. I was anxious, if possible, to get the use of a syren (sic) (cost £10) to enable us to arrive with accuracy at the tested vibrations of each note of the several chanters. In this I was not successful, but Mr. J. Blakeley was quite equal to the occasion with apparatus of his own invention, which enabled us to arrive at the required results. In this we were also assisted by his son, Mr. A. Blakeley.

An important item in our investigations was the steady blowing of the chanter, and our needs in this respect were well met by such good pipers as the late Donald Mackay (with some of our earliest recorded results under Mr. Blakeley), piper to the Prince of Wales, Mr. Angus Campbell, and Mr. Forsyth, piper to the present Prince of Wales.


about which we now have records are:–The Drummond chanter, the Culloden chanter, and the Dunvegan chanter. The makers of these are unknown to us. All that is known about the Drummond chanter will be found recorded in “Manson’s Highland Bagpipes.” Its date is supposed to be 1490, and I think that the instrument is in the possession of Messrs. J. & R. Glen, bagpipe makers. It seems to have been sent to the Kensington Museum on loan some years ago, and observations on it were taken by Mr. Blakeley, Mr. Hopkins (a well-known tuner of Messrs. Broadwood), and Donald Mackay.

The Culloden chanter (kindly lent to us by the custodians of the Museum at Elgin) belongs to a stand the pipes picked up on the field of Culloden. I have not asserted on which part of the field it was picked up, so can form no idea of the clan to which it pertained.

Since I was a small boy I have made many a pilgrimage to the Museum to feast my eyes on this relic, and three or four years ago I went there with Colin Cameron, taking with us some good reeds to test the chanter. We found that it had been broken and very carefully repaired with whipping, but the low notes of it are still exceptionally good.

The Dunvegan chanter was kindly lent to us by the MacLeod of MacLeod, and is supposed to have belonged to the MacCruimens. It is evidently an old chanter, but, in my opinion, not so old as the Culloden one. It, also, has very fine low notes.

We had hoped to have added to these old chanters the “Feadan Dubh” of Clan Chattan now in Cluny Castle, to which we were kindly offered freest access by Cluny, but the fates have been against us. This is all the information I can gather about the ancient chanters mentioned in the tables.

Before considering the results of our investigations, it seems necessary to lay some stress upon


of the chanter–the reed which, as every piper knows, is a most capricious element, more especially as regards the high notes. This weakness of such an important factor is at present unavoidable, but we made the best we could of it. I should also mention that the exact octave to the low A, not having been always attained was due, in a great measure, to the fact that we had something of a conscience and did not like to intrude too much on Mr. Blakeley’s time.

These high notes and the tuning of them have evidently been a long-standing difficulty with pipers, the hole for the chanter reed in the Culloden chanter having been apparently considerably enlarged by being scraped. Our high G was formed with middle finger of upper hand down.

Let us revert for a moment to Mr. J. B. Ellis’s paper referred to above. After investigating scales from Arabia, India, Siam, China, etc., Mr. Ellis seems to have got hold of a chanter of Donald MacDonald’s (see accompanying tables). He was so much struck by the similarity between this and the Zalzal scale that he even went so far as to recommend a revision of the pipe chanter scale by the light of the Zalzal (see tables). We must bear in mind however, that Mr. Ellis, though a very scientific man, was not a piper Mr. Ellis referred in one of his papers to Zalzal as having lived more than a thousand years ago, and Grove in his dictionary says, that he thinks it probable that it was introduced into these islands by the Crusaders. Mr. Ellis, I may mention, obtained particulars of the scale from an American missionary in Palestine. It seems to be assumed that because Arabic is spoken in Palestine, that therefore the scale must be Arabian. This I cannot at all admit. My belief is that it was originally Israelitish, carried by the ten tribes into their captivity and thence distributed. To satisfy myself as far as possible regarding the history of the Zalzal, I went to an intimate friend of mine, Prince Wabad, a great grandson of Tippeo, Sultan of Seringaputam fame, whose mother tongue may be said to be Arabic. I asked the Prince if he had ever heard of Zalzal, and if he could tell me how long ago he lived. His reply, with a smile, was, that there never was a Mr. Zalzal, and that the word Zalzal in Arabic means an even vibration. Zalzallah is the Arabic for an earthquake, which was held to represent the character of music with its embellishments emanating from the scale. He considered 2000 or even 3000 years ago as a more approximate date than 1000 years to assign to the origin of the scale.

Is not this all very applicable to the embellishments of our Ceol Mor? And anyway, it seems to be a clear case of what is scientifically known as onomatopoeia.

Let us now consider the accompanying tables and what may be deduced therefrom–


The figures in the vertical columns are the vibrations per second due to each note.

      TABLE I          
    G A B C D E F G A
N Drummond (1409) 372 411 452 504 555 620 684 748 824
Y Culloden 398 447 490 543 596 672 767 810 900
X Dunvegan 395 445 491 548 595 664 758 779 889
  Total 1165 1303 1433 1595 1746 1956 2209 2337 2613
  Average 388 434 478 532 582 652 736 779 871


W D. MacDonald 395 441 494 537 587 662 722 790 882
V Mackenzie (1st) 397 445 494 550 600 665 753 809 890
  (2nd) 397 448 500 551 608 669 743 820 893
P W. Ross 397 450 503 552 599 673 738 802 900
O MacDougall (? ) 405 452 508 552 610 683 755 820 900
R MacDougall 398 447 507 561 611 680 755 823 896
  Total 2389 2683 3006 3303 3615 4032 4466 5064 5361
  Average 398 447 501 551 603 672 744 844 894


U (1st) 394 441 489 542 594 664 738 820 882
  (2nd) 400 444 496 546 598 661 725 811 889
T   395 443 494 550 595 661 746 800 886
S   401 449 500 557 600 672 755 809 898
Q   401 448 502 543 602 672 725 800 900
  Total 1991 2225 2481 2738 2989 3330 3689 4040 4455
  Average 398 445 496 548 598 666 738 808 4455


    TABLE IV    
    G A B C D E F G A
N Drummond
 409  452  497  554  610  682  752  823 906
Y Culloden 402 452 495 548 603 678 774 818 908
X Dunvegan 402 452 500 557 605 675 770 791 904
  Total 1213 1356 1492 1659 1818 2035 2296 2432 2715
  Average 404 452 497 553 606 678 755 811 905


W D. MacDonald 405 452 506 550 602 679 741 810 904
V Mackenzie (1st) 403 452 503 558 609 675 765 821 904
                       (2nd) 400 452 505 557 613 676 750 829 902
P W. Ross 399 452 505 555 603 676 742 806 904
O MacDougall (? ) 405 452 508 552 610 683 755 820 900
R MacDougall 402 452 513 567 618 687 763 832 906
  Total 2414 2712 3040 3339 3655 4076 4516 4918 5420
  Average 402 452 507 557 609 679 753 820 903


U (1st) 404 452 501 556 608 680 757 840 904
  (2nd) 407 452 505 556 610 673 738 825 905
T   403 452 504 561 607 675 761 817 904
S   404 452 504 561 605 677 760 815 904
Q   405 452 506 548 607 678 732 807 908
  Total 2023 2260 2520 2782 3037 3383 3748 4104 4525
  Average 405 452 504 556 607 677 750 821 905


    TABLE VII.    
Means of Averages Tables iv., v., & vi.
    404 452 503 555 607 678 756 817 904
Z (Zalzal) 402 452 509 554 602 678 740 803 904
  Kneller Hall Eq.                  
  Tempt. 403 452 507 538 603 677 718 805 904
      G A   C D   F G
  G , C , etc.   427 479   569 639   750 853
  Diatonic scale       C     F    
  of D. just. 401.8









OT: 1 December 1906 – Charles Bannatyne “The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter”

The Oban Times, 1 December, 1906

The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter

Salsburgh, by Holytown,

26 November, 1906

Sir,–Major-General Thomason’s articles on this much-debated subject are most interesting, but the investigations are weakened by the influence of a preconceived idea that the chanter scale is an ancient one, having no modern equivalent. They are further nullified by the fact that the reeds in the chanters tested were wrongly set and so were not tested by normal, but my trick fingering. Trick fingering is used by Ceol Mor players in producing two notes, namely, C and high G. The C is too flat and is sharpened by keeping on the low G finger, while the high G is too sharp, and is flattened by keeping on the F finger. It never seems to occur to investigators that this fingering gives a broad hint as to the true chanter scale. The flat sevenths and the sharpened third can only occur in the mode of the fifth of the diatonic scale, and this gives the key as C and the gamut F to G ¹, but the number of vibrations make the key in the chanter D. A scale can be started on a note of as many vibrations as fancy dictates, and fancy seems to have dictated to the chanter makers. They, in most instances, work from a section of what they consider a good chanter, and each maker probably has his own pattern.

The main question is–” What is the true chanter scale?” This can be determined by examining the music, and is writ large in Major-General Thomason’s tables. Apply to these tables the ratio table of vibrations of the modern diatonic scale and the secret will out. Below I give the Drummond chanter scale and dissolves also corrected, together with Major-General Thomason’s tables, for comparison, and I also give sol-fa syllables to enable students of that notation to follow and understand the reasoning and conclusions drawn:–

  G A B C# D E F# G A
  f s l t doh r m f ¹ g ¹
Thomason 372 411 452 504 555 620 684 718 824
402 452 502 561 602 677 754 801 904
Thomason 402 452 509 554 602 678 740 803 904

It is impossible to mistake the scales. Their actual differences are very slight. In building a scale from a keynote you can begin with as many vibrations as you like. Bearing this in mind, you will at once see that the Drummond and Zalzal scales are in the mode of the fifth, and if the key is wanted is to be found in D. In plain words, the chanter scale is in the key of D, but the fifth is forced on the ear persistently by the dominant influence of the drones.

It is time pipers were sinking their prejudices and tackling the subject with common sense. These same prejudices hid the truth from me for years. The late Colin Brown, a Gael, and Evening Lecturer in Music in the Glasgow Athenaeum School, tested innumerable chanters, and from this and his incomparable knowledge of Highland music he unhesitatingly stated that the true chanter scale was F to G ¹ in the key of C, which is exactly what I am demonstrating. Such a scale is the only one by which the difficulties of Ceòl Mòr can be overcome. The tunes composing Ceòl Mòr are modal, and have no features not common to the older Scottish music. These features lose their peculiarities when viewed from the standpoint of a modal use of the diatonic scale.

I cannot quite follow the assertions of one of Major-General Thomason’s lady helpers, namely, that heat raises the pitch of all orchestral instruments, and that the average vocalist in singing a scale tends to sharpen in ascending and descending. I always understood that heat lowered the pitch of string and some reed instruments, and from a lifelong knowledge of singers in singing, both as choirs and as individuals, I unhesitatingly assert that the average tendency and singing is to lower the pitch, not to raise it, and I am sure all singing teachers and conductors will corroborate this.

The pitch of the chanter appears to have been at the mercy of individual makers. The number of vibrations in the A of the Culloden chanter is 447, while the diapason normal of 1859 was 435 and the Philharmonic of 1897 was 439 vibrations. Pitch gradually rose in this country for many years till C ¹ in 1890 had 538 vibrations, but the Culloden chanter C had 543. The Drummond chanter C ¹ has 520, and the diapason normal of 1859 in the tonic sol-fa standards are 517.3. The Drummond chanter, then, may be taken as a standard when corrected as I give it. It would form a first-rate scale to which no exception can be taken, and would sing out our fine old pipe tunes as they were meant to sound. High pitch gives brilliancy, but true intonation is preferable to brilliancy.

I venture in concluding to state that the standardisation of the chanter scale presents no difficulty if the modal nature of the music it is meant to render be resolutely kept in the foreground.–I am, etc.,

Charles Bannatyne, M.B., C.M.

OT: 24 November 1906 – C.S. Thomason “The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter” (Part 2)

The Oban Times, 24 November, 1906

The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter

By Major-General C. S. Thomason


The first thing, I think, that will strike anybody, as it did me, is the extraordinary variety of sounds proceeding from all these chanters, and still, I suppose, each maker would be prepared to swear that his own chanter was the really correct one (all the rest being rubbish!). No doubt, also, each one could produce plenty of pipers to back him up in his opinion. I do not think we could have a better proof of the absolute necessity now of establishing some standard to which all makers can work, otherwise, in a very few years we shall be finding ourselves playing upon a novel instrument, with which it will be as perfectly impossible to render Ceol Mor as it is on a modern piano.

As an example (as one of the ladies of our committee suggested), “imagine an orchestra where organ, piano, harp, and wood and wind instruments were all tuned to different pitches.” As a further illustration of the evils resulting from this divergence of scale, let me here state what occurred to myself only the other day when walking down the streets of Elgin. In front of me, and a very short distance, six pipers crossed the street blowing their best, and still it was with the very greatest difficulty that I could recognize the tune, the real fact being that the only three notes that caught my ear were the low and high A’s and the E, which were of course attuned. The waves of sound from the remaining notes so crossed and recrossed that they virtually obliterated each other. Yet, still the pipes are considered a model martial instrument! I venture to say we shall be very much astonished at discovering how much farther the tune can be distinguished if pipe makers can only be induced to cooperate and establish a standard scale and pitch. We live in an age of standards and an age of combination.

The pitch is a matter that can easily be settled. The question has occupied the minds of musicians more than once in my own lifetime; and only within the last year it excited considerable notice in the papers how far superior was the pitch of a French band which was performing in London. Foreign pitch is lower than English. It is


and therefore much more pleasant and natural. I quote the following from a note by one of the ladies of our committee:–” a few years ago the pitch of the London Italian Opera was so high that foreign artistes absolutely refused to accept engagements in England. Not only were the instruments tuned high, but the heat of the opera house raised the tone of all the instruments, and the result by the end of the performance was a terrible strain on the poor artistes. It is easily understandable that thus, by degrees, the pitch became excessive. English pitch for pianos and orchestras has now been generally standardised, and the comfort and convenience has been much appreciated. We may hope, in time, that military and other brass bands will unite also. It is a most natural thing for a sung scale to sharpen in ascending. I mean by this, that nine out of ten musical people, when singing a chromatic scale of an octave, up and then down, will imperceptibly lessen the intervals in descending until the gap between the last two semi-tones will be sometimes nearly a tone to return to the original note. This all proves that the average–not the exceptional–here has a tendency to rise, and it is to correct this vague in an accurate pitch that it is necessary to standardise.”

We have here chosen A as determining the pitch, and if the eye should be run vertically down cols. A, tab. i., ii., & iii., it will be observed the vibrations run from 411 to 452. Evidently the pitch of the chanter was much lower in days gone by then it is now. Now the Kneller Hall pitch for A for all instruments is A–452. Government knows perfectly well that the pitch is too high, but to change it would involve considerable expense, and all military instruments are thus attuned, and it seems to me that Ceol Aotrum (like music) players


at present but to stick to this pitch, as they may be called upon to play in a band at any time.

With Ceol Mor players the case is different. They always play solo, and if they wish to do justice to the instrument and their music they should adopt a much lower pitch. I am not prepared to say that the philharmonic pitch is too low or not; it was fixed a good many years ago by much wiser heads than mine (A–439).

It only remains now for the makers to decide what shall be the standard pitch for Ceol Mor.

Now, as regards the scale. If tables iv., v., vi., and vii., be studied, it will be noticed that of all the notes which differ most on the different chanters, the most prominent is the high G which actually varies from 810 to 840. This fully bears out what has been stated in the quoted paragraph before. I think, myself, that this G is the first note which we have to settle. Would it not be better to make the low G 402, and tune the rest accordingly? This would bring it into close relation with the Zalzal 402, and the diatonic scale 401.8 (normal pitch). If we settle G, we settle D, which is a fifth higher, and we may also, perhaps, settle B and E. The remaining C, F, and G would have to be treated exceptionally, and it is just this matter which should be laid before all pipers, and thoroughly discussed and ventilated.

It is no use referring to D diatonic or any other scale, because the pipe scale is evidently different, and to maintain the characteristics of its ancient music it must remain unique.

It appears to me that the Zalzal was the original scale, and that from it, scientifically induced and defined, came the scale of Equal Temperament. From this again we have derived the Diatonic scale to suit ordinary instruments and modern music, and in the same way from the Equal Temperament must we deduce our chanter scale to suit our instrument and our music.

OT: 24 June 1911 – Charles Bannatyne “The Great Highland Bagpipe and Its Music”

The Oban Times, 24 June, 1911

The Great Highland Bagpipe and Its Music

Salsburgh, by Holytown

9 June, 1911

Sir,–It was not my intention to say more on this subject, but the persistency with which “Morag” tries to fasten on my devoted head an expression I never uttered, and which has formed the text of all his rodomontade, forces me to do so.

I did not report my lecture t0, nor condense it for, your columns, and if it makes me say that the bagpipe was unknown in the Highlands till the 16th-century, then it is so far incorrectly reported.

I know a little about bagpipes, and hoped to learn more from your correspondent, but have only received, in response to my request for information, personal attack. While the public is to be the judge of the truth or otherwise of my letters, “Morag” is the judge of his own. He pats himself on the back, roundly abuses me, and finally claims a great victory. So let it be!

It may surprise him to learn that the Highland bagpipe differs in nowise from the modern Spanish instrument, except that the latter has but one tenor drone instead of two. The sounds of the instruments are identical. Nothing can get outside of the fact that there are no records extant to prove the existence of the bagpipe in the Highlands from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. –I am, etc.,

Charles Bannatyne, M.B., C.M.

OT: 17 June 1911 – Morag “The Great Highland Bagpipe in Its Music”

The Oban Times, 17 June, 1911

The Great Highland Bagpipe in Its Music

12 June, 1911

Sir,–In your issue of 10th inst., Dr. Bannatyne says he will leave the subject with “Morag,” shrouded in the mists of antiquity. He has failed to see any proof in my letters to uphold what I have said, but those who read the correspondence cannot fail to see a double proof, viz., in my letters and in Dr. Bannatyne’s own. Seeing that he has failed to find proof on my side, I will cast my powerful searchlight upon his material, and there show him proof in his own words. It can be clearly seen that Dr. Bannatyne has admitted in the course of his correspondence that the bagpipe was known in the Highlands of Scotland in the first century, and he now suddenly rushes at a verdict which is entirely erroneous, and all his own. “Not proven,” says your correspondent, but Dr. Bannatyne is not the judge. The public are sole arbiters and judges in this case, and I leave it with them. At the same time, before I conclude, I will express my own opinion to be equal with my opponent.

Let me repeat Dr. Bannatyne’s statement, on which the controversy is based. He said that “the bagpipe was unknown in the Highlands of Scotland till the end of the sixteenth century.” Now what I said, and have to prove, is that he is at least hundreds of years short of the mark. Dr. Bannatyne now says that his statement suffered loss by being condensed. This excuse won’t take. His statement I have repeated above, and he cannot get away from it. He admits in the course of his lecture of 1903 that Quintillianus the historian who not only lived but wrote in the first century, says that the bagpipe was known in the Highlands of Scotland in his day. In the first part of his lecture Dr. Bannatyne is very shaky as to the real date on which the bagpipes was first known in the Highlands of Scotland, but after giving us a few preludes on the pipes of other countries, he puts his arms round Quintillianus’s neck, clings to his history, and believes his statements that he made, which I need not repeat. Here he puts his foot down in earnest, and marks off the first century as the date which he could count on, for we find him saying:–”It may be safely stated that its use among the Highlanders is at least contemporaneous with the first Roman invasion of Scotland about 45 A.D.” Now, Dr. Bannatyne cannot back out of this. He must have meant by this statement to his audience in 1903 that the bagpipe was in the Highlands of Scotland in the year 45 A.D. Now he would fain contradict this, but it is too late.

Another quotation from Dr. Bannatyne’s lecture I wish to point out is where he says:– “The first mention of the bagpipe in Scottish history as a military instrument is by Buchanan, who states that it was played at the battle of Balrinnes in 1582.” This suits Dr. Bannatyne’s statement almost to a T. This is not far from the end of the sixteenth century, which was 1599. Still if I had no other proof to go on, although I am not void of good proof, Dr. Bannatyne is seventeen years wrong in his calculations, and I gain this period on him over this one transaction.

Let us now look on the subject with a more serious aspect–that is, Dr. Bannatyne now seeks to make out as untrue, and ignores, all the information which Quintillianus gives us, and on which he proves his first date of the existence of the bagpipe in the Highlands of Scotland in his lecture of 1903, and now turns round and believes Buchanan only. In the judgment of intelligent readers of your valuable paper, can anyone tell me why we should believe the one historian and discard the statement of another, especially when it is clearly stated that Quintillianus, the historian, lived in the first century as well as wrote? Dr. Bannatyne’s statement that the bagpipe was known in the Highlands of Scotland in the first century must be true, and what is still worse, this is in accordance with his own findings.

Dr. Bannatyne says he has “seen two sets of pipes dated 1409. They are similar in design and workmanship, and are not older than the seventeenth or eighteenth century, judging from the workmanship and the state of preservation.” This is your correspondent’s narrow view of looking at what are facts, and his method of contradicting the real age of the pipes in question is the essence of assertion, and offers not the slightest shadow of proof whatever, so this won’t help him.

Dr. Bannatyne says “‘Morag’ has laboured.” Not so; I have worked with a light heart, and done my duty to my national instruments and its music as a true and loyal Highlander. My endeavours are crowned with success.

Regarding your correspondent’s remark that he will leave the subject “shrouded in the mists of antiquity,” this is true–that previous to the Christian era the antiquity of the Highland bagpipe and the date when it was first known and invented in the Highlands of Scotland certainly is, and forever will be “shrouded in the mists of antiquity.” Nevertheless Dr. Bannatyne has proved just what I have done–that the bagpipes were known to exist in the Highlands of Scotland in the first century; therefore I have won my point.

I take your correspondent and his own word, “and I finally leave the subject with ‘Morag.’” I take it that he has given in, and I am left where I began, with an instrument and its music second to none in existence. The great Highland bagpipe was known in the Highlands of Scotland in the first century. There is no proof whatever to show that it was ever imported into the Highlands of Scotland; therefore it is ours, and ours alone. Piobaireachd, its only real music, is ours also, for no one other than the real Highlander can understand or cultivate it.

In conclusion, I am proud to say that I have fought and won another victory for my native instrument and its music. They are richer, and I am none the poorer. I have claimed nothing for my reward other than that I am able to say that I have raised this noble instrument and its great music to a higher position than has ever yet been accorded to them, and that it should be the desire of every loyal and patriotic Highlander to let them both remain. I thank the editor of the “The Oban Times” most heartily for his invaluable help in sacrificing his valuable columns in order to allow me to fulfill my hearts desire.–I am, etc.,


OT: 10 June 1911 – Morag

The Oban Times, 10 June, 1911

5 June, 1911

Sir,–Those who are in doubt regarding the origin, antiquity, and history of the great Highland bagpipe and piobaireachd will doubtless be inclined to think that the mystery still deepens, that the mist is lowering on the subject, and thickening into complete darkness, which all efforts to penetrate may seem both hopeless and fruitless.

I can assure them that I have been enveloped in a heavier mist than this, and never gave up hope until I saw the horizon.

Although we had a new contributor last week, it was only a passing cloud on the sky, and the bright sunshine which prevails will soon leave us again where I began–that the great Highland bagpipe and piobaireachd are ours and ours only.

Your correspondent Mr. MacLennan attempts to bring us back to the cradle, and there he would fain lull us to sleep to a purely imaginative tale, but I may tell him that I am too old to sleep or be amused with such stories. Mr. MacLennan says:–

“I believe it is generally accepted that Asia minor was the cradle of mankind, and that the sixth descent from Adam was the first ‘piobair.’ It then naturally follows that all mankind knew the pipe, and whenever there was a migration a piper or two would be among them.”

Mr. MacLennan’s solitary idea that the sixth in descent from Adam was a piper may be true, although I can hardly digest it, and in any case, it is of no interest to me to dispute. At the same time his statement that “whenever there was a migration a piper or two would be among them,” is cooked entirely to suit his own appetite and purpose! “Would be among them.” This is purely imagination. If he was certain as to the statement, or if there is any truth in it, why did he not say “was amongst them,” and give us their names, as one of them might have been a MacCrimmon?

Mr. MacLennan says:–

“We have at least records of five persons who came at different times to this country, with the retinue, and colonised the place, so that the bagpipe came when and as we came ourselves.”

Our records may be quite correct regarding the five different persons who came to this country, but we have no proof to show that the great Highland bagpipe came here with any or either of the five persons. Therefore, I controvert this part of Mr. MacLennan’s statement as being entirely incorrect, until he furnishes me with proof.

“So that the bagpipe came as we came ourselves.” I beg to inform Mr. MacLennan that neither he nor I came to this country. We were born in it, at least I was, and more than likely so was Mr. MacLennan. I say the same regarding the great Highland bagpipe, it was born in this country, or in more was invented and originated in the Highlands of Scotland. Now, when Mr. MacLennan had said that “the bagpipe came as we came ourselves,” meaning that “we” migrated into the Highlands, this shows that he would even make us believe that we ourselves were imported into the Highlands of Scotland, whereas the truth is, we were born here, and neither migrated or were imported, and, as I have already illustrated, the same applies to the great Highland bagpipe.

Mr. MacLennan goes on to say–”the information we have on this point is very meagre.” This is quite true, and would require to be borne in mind. Further, he says–” Silence is no evidence as to the absence of the bagpipe.” Nor is any proof of this presence. Silence is concurrence, and I take it that the thousands of Highlanders who read this correspondence and make no reply agree with me, that the great Highland bagpipe originated, was invented, and belongs to Highlanders and the Highlanders of Scotland only, whereas there are only two who oppose me.

Though Dr. Bannatyne disputes the date when the Highland bagpipe was first known in the Highlands, he does not say that it was imported into Scotland or the Highlands, so that according to his letters on this disputed point in question, I free him from giving the credit of the creating of the Highland bagpipe to a foreigner. Mr. MacLennan says the bagpipe was mentioned in Ireland and Wales in the very earliest times, but in Scotland we have no ancient records. I hope he read Dr. K. N. MacDonald’s letter in your issue of 3rd inst., which says differently, and he says himself that a piper played at Urquhart Castle in 110 B.C. what is this an ancient record? He is contradicting himself.

Mr. MacLennan backs up Dr. Bannatyne in that the bagpipe was called “great” to distinguish it from other kinds in the Highlands. But there is the difference between the foreign instrument and our own Highland one to be recognised. Regarding piobaireachd, Mr. MacLennan says that he once thought this class of Highland music was our own too, but he has been undeceived. He says that it was made famous by John Bull, and it spread to Wales and Ireland, and is to be found in the ancient music of both countries. This is pure nonsense. No other country in the world except Scotland has piobaireachd in any form which they can claim as their own. The great Highland bagpipe is purely Highland or Scotland’s national musical instrument, and so is piobaireachd its great music. From Mr. MacLennan’s letter it can be seen that he does not know the difference between a mere song and a piobaireachd.

I quite agree with “Boreraig” the piobaireachd has nothing to do with poetry, but as “Boreraig” has the subject at hand, I will him to prove his own point he chooses. –I am, etc.,


10 June 1911 – Don Mhor

The Oban Times, 10 June, 1911

Sir,–The correspondence appearing in your columns dealing with bagpipes and bagpipers has its grim significance.

How can anyone really seriously carry on an argument with “Morag,” who laboriously sets out to prove that as a musical instrument the bagpipe is superior to all other musical instruments? Why, Sir, the bagpipe is not a musical instrument at all; it is a weapon! Not only that, but until comparatively recently it was scarcely known in the Highlands. There were, no doubt, pipers attached to the families of chiefs from time immemorial, but the people of the Highlands took very little interest in pipers or pipe music.

I was born and bred in the Highlands, and in my youth the only pipers we ever heard, except upon the very rare occasions of an election or some great gathering, were the tinkers who performed to the scandal of the neighbourhood. Pipers were held in disfavour by the more thoughtful and pious Highlanders.

Had it not been for the pipers attached to the Army, very little notice would have been taken of the music. I am aware that piping has been a feature of Highland sports for a matter of 50 or 60 years; but the pipers competing were, until recent years, few in number, however able they might be in execution. The homes of piping were in Inverness, Perth, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. Outside these towns few pipers were found–I am speaking comparatively.

I think it is a mistake to impute to the Highlanders characteristics of which they are innocent. The true Celt is a kindly being, proud of his home, tractable, and God-fearing. He is not by nature a warrior at all. True, regiments were at one time recruited from the Highlands of Scotland, but I think the men joined them mainly because the chief or laird was deeply interested, and also because the Army was a natural outlet to young able-bodied men, who found themselves crowded out of their native lands by force of circumstances. Possessed of superior physique, many of them gravitated to the Army just for precisely the same reasons that they joined the police forces, and not because they were particularly fond of fighting. Precious few join the Army now, and many of the most famous Highland regiments are recruited from the large cities.

I protest vehemently against the modern idea that the Celt is a melancholy individual brooding and imaginative, and without thrift or strength of purpose. Scott, Black, Stevenson, and Neil Munro are chiefly responsible for the notion of the “am I no’ the bonnie fighter” myth. If your correspondents took to arguing upon some means of restoring the Highlanders to their native lands, and left off writing about pining and place-names, it would be to the advantage of themselves and your readers.

Pipers! Faugh! I learned the pipes when I was a young man and I can testify that there is no music in the instrument. And if your correspondent thinks I am talking about a thing I don’t understand, I’ll willingly meet him and play him march, quickstep, reel, or piobaireachd. –I am, etc.,

Don Mhor [Dr. Blair Helmsley, York]

OT: 10 June 1911 – Charles Bannatyne “The Great Highland Bagpipe in Its Music”

The Oban Times, Saturday, 10 June, 1911

The Great Highland Bagpipe in Its Music

Salsburgh, by Holytown

5 June, 1911

Sir,–” Morag” quotes me as having said in a lecture that the bagpipes were unknown in the Highlands of Scotland till the end of the sixteenth century. I never said so. What I said was that no authentic records can be found to prove their early existence there. My lecture was reported to your columns in a condensed form, and probably has suffered in the process. I will now give “Morag” a few more quotations from my lecture of 1903:

“The bagpipe is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world, at the same time being one of the most cosmopolitan, as traces of it are found all over the European and Asiatic Continents. It had its inception in the primitive pipe, a common reed instrument known to almost every nation in the universe. It is easy to imagine the more advanced players in their respective countries adding to this a bag and blow-pipe for greater ease of manipulation and for the preservation of an unbroken flow of sound in the interests of an advancing knowledge of harmony, and lo! here we have the bagpipe in its original form. Later the three drones were added, and in this second form it appears inscribed on early Scriptures, and is described in early records. To the tones of such an instrument the early Romans marched to battle as is chronicled by Theocritus, 3 A.D., and by Procopius, 6 A.D. it was in use among the Jews B. C., and existed in Germany at a very early date. . . . . . . Cambrensis, writing in 1118 A.D., mentions it as being known to the Welsh and Irish, and there are extant records of payments to English pipers in Scotland as far back as 1326, and of English pipers playing before the king in Edinburgh in 1411. . . . . . Our greatest difficulty begins when we claim the bagpipe as the ancient instrument of the Gaelic Scot. This difficulty arises from the absence of records relating to it among the chronicles of early Scots historians. The Roman historian, Quintillianus, who lived in the first century A.D., states that the bagpipe was known to the Highlanders then. It may be safely stated that its use among the Highlanders is at least contemporaneous with the first Roman invasion of Scotland, about 45 A.D. the first mention of the bagpipe in Scottish history as a military instrument is by Buchanan, who states that it was played at the Battle of Balrinnes in 1582, though it is said by tradition to have been played at Bannockburn (1314) and Harlaw (1411). It would seem then that the bagpipe was not in general use in the Highlands till late in the sixteenth century, for only then do historians begin to mention it. It came into the Highlands, apparently via Ireland, and long after the harp. Its great music, piobaireachd, is evidently founded on that of the harp, for the piobaireachd terms, urlar, suibhal,tri-luadh, beithis-luadh, etc., are all ancient harp terms.”

“Morag” still persists in saying that “MacLeod’s controversy” was composed in 1503. It was not. It was composed in 1603 by Donald Mor MacCrimmon. The Controversy, which led to a bloody battle, took place in the year 1601, between Sir Rory MacLeod and MacDonald of Sleat, according to Gregory and Angus Mackay. Donald Mor’s father, Eain Odhar, is the first MacCrimmon piper of whom any record is known, and tradition says the first MacCrimmon who served the MacLeod was a harper. Donald Mor was succeeded by his son Patrick Mor. Patrick was in London with Roderick McLeod in 1660, having succeeded his father as piper in 1596.

Allowing that Patrick was 20 years old in 1596, in 1660 he would be over 84 years of age, and would be born in 1576. Supposing Donald Mor, the composer of the “MacLeod’s Controversy,” was 70 years old when his son Patrick was born, then he would be three years of age at 1503 when he composed, as alleged by “Morag,” the above-mentioned tune. I trust this will prove to “Morag” that his 1503 date is wrong. Seeing he places such faith in tradition, I hope he believes that the first MacCrimmon was a harper.

If the internal evidences afforded by the structure of piobaireachd are to be accepted, there is not a pibroch in existence older than the sixteenth century. Names of tunes prove nothing. I believe I know almost every ancient pibroch in existence, and of the hundreds I have in MSS. each has several names and has been apparently used on different dates to celebrate different events. Even in MacLeod’s Canntaireachd the tune we know as “the Earl of Ross’s March,” composed by Donald Mor MacCrimmon in 1600, is called “Cean Deas,” and is said to relate to a time no earlier than that. “Cean na Drochaid Beg” relates to skirmishes in 1645. “Lasan Phadruig Caog” relates to an event in the seventeenth century also, and these are several of many MacCrimmon tunes, and there is not one earlier than the sixteenth century.

I have seen two sets of pipes dated 1409. They are similar in design and workmanship, and are no older than the seventeenth or eighteenth century, judging from the workmanship and the state of preservation. “Morag” says: “If we were to put everything on the same basis as Dr. Bannatyne does we could not believe the date of any act or deed to be true.” That is tall talk. I believe history when recorded by several independent observers, but I do not accept traditional tales as gospel, as “Morag” appears to do.

Again I state that I think the bagpipe was known in the Highlands at an early date, but I shall never assert it till I can find proof in support of my thoughts, or belief, if it please “Morag” better. I have read Dr. MacDonald’s article in the “Celtic Monthly,” and also his letter in this week’s “Oban Times.” Like “Morag,” Dr. MacDonald gives all the proof he can–all the proof I also have been able to find. Perhaps it is the fault of my temperament, but unfortunately the proofs are not sufficient for me, and I would still give my verdict, “Not proven.” “Morag” says I am putting all my trust on the hope that if we find proof it would “be contrary to his,” etc., etc. I may say that nowhere in “Morag’s” letters can I find any proofs in support of his many assertions.

The one statement in “Morag’s” letter, which I believe thoroughly, and which “Morag’s” laboured enthusiasm gives me no cause to disbelieve, is that with which he prefaces his letter of 29th ult., namely:–” The subject of our discussion here is shrouded in the mists of antiquity.” Sir, that statement allows of no dissent, and I congratulate “Morag” on the unanswerable fashion in which he has advocated the statement, and I finally leave the subject with “Morag”–shrouded in the mists of antiquity. –I am, etc.,

Charles Bannatyne, M.B., C.M.

OT: 10 June 1911 – Boreraig “Cumha Dhonnachaidh Mhic Iain”

The Oban Times, 10 June, 1911

“Cumha Dhonnachaidh Mhic Iain”

3 June, 1911

Sir,–In the correspondence columns of your issue of this date I see a correspondent, Mr. MacLennan, Edinburgh disputing a statement that I have made under this heading “that piobaireachd has nothing whatever to do with poetry.”

As Mr. MacLennan does not dispute any other part of the valuable information I have given in this case regarding the tune “Cumha Dhonnachaidh Mhic Iain” and its real origin, I only think it fair to the other members of the Clan MacRae as well as my self to open a new heading under “Piobaireachd and Poetry,” and let your correspondent settle with me there a question which I understand he applies to piobaireachd in general, and not to the tune in question. To make it quite clear, this request of Mr. MacLennan’s to hear from me regarding piobaireachd and poetry does not help Miss B. Matheson in the least to prove her claim. I still maintain and say without hesitation or doubt that she refers to a poem in verse only, and not to piobaireachd or music of any kind. – I am, etc.

Boreraig [John Grant]

OT: 10 June 1911 – Boreraig “Piobaireachd and Poetry”

The Oban Times, 10 June, 1911

Piobaireachd and Poetry

5 June, 1911

Sir,–As your correspondent, Mr. John McClellan, wishes to hear more from you regarding piobaireachd and poetry, I hope you will permit us to thrash it out under a heading for ourselves, and not molest the whole of the members of the Clan MacRae with an argument which may not interest them in the least.

Piobaireachd, I said, has nothing whatever to do with poetry, and neither it has. Mr. MacLennan says: “The information is new to me.” I am very glad to hear it, and anything that I can do to help Mr. MacLennan to understand and believe this will give me great pleasure.

Mr. MacLennan as: “I have always been led to understand that the language and poetry of a nation had everything to do with its music.” I am afraid Mr. MacLennan has allowed himself to be led, and has not sufficiently studied this question to form an opinion. We have here in the language, poetry, and music of any nation three different arts. The language–an eminent novel writer can write a story in prose that might never be equaled, yet he could not compose a poem for his life or create a new melody for any instrument, or play it either. The poetry–The greatest living poets that ever existed could compose fine poems, yet none of them could set music for their poems. The finest composers of musical themes could not compose three lines of poetry to save their lives. Thus prose, poetry, and music are three entirely different arts; although poetry and prose are both literature in the language of any country, yet they remain different arts and separate gifts.

When we all play music on an instrument, instrumental music gives you no words in language, neither poetry nor prose. Therefore instrumental music is complete in itself without either language or poetry. To prove my argument as regards songs alone–Burns composed a poem, “Scots wha ha’e,” to rhyme, but he gave no music with it. It was set to music by Sir Herbert Oakley, Mus. Dr. Of course, when one goes to sing this song he applied the air which is conveyed to the ear by the voice and musical instrument to the hands, and thus combines them, music and word in one instantaneously, but when the pianist plays the tune “Scots wha ha’e” on the piano, he requires neither language or poetry, but music only.

Now the same with piobaireachd–it is instrument music, and you require no language nor poetry to play it. Can Mr. MacLennan tell me what words or poetry follows the pipe tune, “The Marchioness of Tullibardine,” being a march, or “Ceol Aotrom”? Can he tell me what words or poetry follows “Mal Dhonn,” i.e., “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart,” which, perhaps, he has heard of before or plays? When one plays piobaireachd on the Highland bagpipe he catches in his ear a melody only, and no words in poetry or language. Therefore piobaireachd has nothing to do with poetry. Should this not be sufficient proof to satisfy Mr. MacLennan, I will be glad to give him more information on the subject which will help him. – I am, etc.

Boreraig [ John Grant]

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