OT: 20 May 1911 – John McGregor [“The Great Highland Bagpipe and Its Music”]

The Oban Times, 20 May, 1911

Edinburgh, 14 May, 1911

Sir,–The letter of “Morag” in your last issue reminded me that I had recently read a notice setting forth that–

There has just been unearthed by Muirhead Moffat of Glasgow, what is doubtless the finest example extant of the Piob Mhor, or old Highland war bagpipe. This rare instrument is beautifully ornamented with Celtic patterns carved in circular bands. On the stock letters “R. M. D.”, below them a galley under which, in Roman numerals is the date 1409. The lettering etc. is of the Gothic form commonly used in the 15th Century. The drones and chanter are ornamented with bands of interlaced work, the drones having brass ornamented ferrules. And old Highland dirk, with interlaced grip and unique screwtop, evidently for carrying despatches, and a large brass Celtic brooch, are included in the find.

This surely is substantial enough. I am making further inquiries about it, and will probably let you know. If true, it proves that both “Morag” and Dr. Bannatyne are quite out of their reckonings as to the age of the great Highland bagpipe with big drone. The fundamentals of the bagpipes, as with the kilt, or of the remotest antiquity among most nations. The bagpipe chanter is certainly the instrument with which Adam charmed the snakes and everything else, as Eastern jugglers do to this day. It is certainly the earliest instrument. Why? Because it is the simplest, and from it has come the flute, fife, pipe, and piccolo, as well as all other wind instruments. Musically speaking, people do not all at once jump from oaten reeds to high organs no more them from coracles to Dreadnoughts.

The “basili” of the East is nothing more than a chanter of sorts. With it the jugglers charm the snakes, and how they could charm them if they only had bagpipes instead! I wonder no paid-off piper in India has ever taken on snake-charming with the bagpipes as a profitable industry!

It did not take Adam long to know that the chanter, beautifully though it sounded, was always putting him out of breath, so he had recourse to primitive bellows to regulate the sound. There is the fundamental bagpipe as it remains to this day among many nations wide apart. It was only the Highlanders who could bring it to perfection.

Most nations, and especially mountaineers, are very fond of the Great Highland Bagpipes, and that reminds me of rather a sad story about it. I gave you a story about the Gaelic in my last letter, and now I shall give your readers one on the bagpipes.

Three or four years after the Beluchistan episode I was at Bhamo, in the extreme north Upper Burmah, thousands of miles away from that other scene. Only one white man (his companion having been murdered) had ever penetrated into that remote region before, so that practically we were the first that ever burst into that silent land. Silent and deadly indeed it was with a vengeance. The ground was very uneven, and full of decaying matter, swamps, mosquitoes, fevers and death.

The Kachins, hillmen that occupied the mountains that separate extreme north Burmah from China and Thibet, a much pluckier race then the Burmese, were already beginning to give a lot of trouble and afterwards actually broke through and rushed the stockade. Their nearest hills were only twelve miles away, and it was amusing for me to learn that they imposed blackmail on the Burmese, exactly the same as occurred with our own old Highlanders. The surroundings of the place were full of rank vegetation–where pine apples grew wild–and shrubs and trees, behind which they used to approach and fire into the stockade at nighttime.

There was terrible sickness among the troops, and the last thing I generally did at night was to go and see how the sick and wounded were getting on. The rickety hospital constructions were some considerable distance away from my quarters. On one occasion, on a beautiful moonlit night, with the atmosphere as still as death, I was on my way to pay one of my night visits, when–Hark! what’s that? It was the loud roar of the bagpipes. I was quite startled. Where could it come from? There were no Scots troops, not to speak of Highland, with this Frontier Brigade at all. Needless to say that my heart stirred to the old music in that deadly climate. For though unable to play myself on account of an awkward kink and shortcoming of the little fingers, I love the music nonetheless on that account. I followed the direction of the sound as if it were from the Pied Piper of Hamelin, over the swamps and knolls, until I reached the musician, whom I found to be a Pathan, or Afghan mountaineer.

With one of the native regiments was a full Company of these, who are passionately fond of the bagpipes. On account of the disturbances by the Kachins just mentioned, some of this Company were engaged in removing trees, pagodas, or whatever else gave shelter to these marauders in approaching the settlement. So this fellow-countrymen of theirs was playing the pipes to cheer them on in their midnight toil. But he did not belong to the Regiment himself, as he was engaged with the Sappers and Miners, being rather a superior kind man.

Though his own mother-tongue was Pushtu, he, of course, spoke Hindustani like all the Pathans there. I asked him how he had come to learn to play the bagpipes, when he told me that in the previous Afghan War he had been camped with the Ross-Shire Buffs, my own County Regiment, and had learned the bagpipes from the men. To a not too critical ear like mine, he played just as well as the majority of amateur Highland pipers.

Shortly after this the same Kachins were giving so much trouble that a punitive expedition was sent out against them. The rains began to come down heavily, and the flying colours had to return without doing much. Retreating along the narrow mountain path with trees and underwood on all sides, this man was shot immediately in front of me by natives that were ambushed in the forest, and almost immediately afterwards my own horse (a Burmese pony) was so badly shot that he had to be abandoned.

We brought the men to headquarters with the rest of the wounded. But he died eventually from his wounds, and though death was appallingly prevalent at this time, I felt quite sorry when he died, and for no other reason than that he played the Great Highland Bagpipes!

I have given your readers a story about the Gaelic in one remote quarter of the globe, another about the bagpipes in a still more remote region, and may perhaps be able to give them a story of the kilt in a region still further away. For– as I always try to point out, the Kilt, the Bagpipes, and the Gaelic are the Faith, Hope, and Charity of Highlanders–and the greatest of these is the Gaelic! –I am, etc.,

John McGregor

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