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

A VERY USEFUL INTRODUCTION

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.

THE ANCIENT CHANTERS

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

THE SOUND PRODUCER

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–

SCALES OF BAGPIPE CHANTERS
AS ACTUALLY OBSERVED

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

 

    TABLE II. (DECEASED MAKERS)    
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

 

    TABLE III. (PRESENT DAY MAKERS)    
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

SCALES OF BAGPIPE CHANTERS
REDUCED TO PITCH A = 452

    TABLE IV    
    G A B C D E F G A
N Drummond
(1409)
 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

 

    TABLE V. ( CEASED MAKERS)    
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

 

    TABLE VI. (PRESENT DAY MAKERS)    
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

452

502.2

565

602.7

678

753.4

803.6

904

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