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.

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