OT: 3 June 1911 – K.N. MacDonald “The Small Historians and the Highland Bagpipe”



The Oban Times, 3 June, 1911

The Small Historians and the Highland Bagpipe

Edinburgh, 27 May, 1911

Sir,–The pipe in some form is one of the oldest instruments of music, and it may be safely assumed is as old as the people of the Highlands and the Celts generally. But the “Great Highland Bagpipe,” in its present state of perfection, is the work of the Highlanders of Scotland alone, and, as far as can be seen, is destined to live longer than any other form of it in this or any other country.

The earliest notice of the bagpipes in Scotland is by Aristides Quintillianes in 100 A.D. In A.D. 1113 Giraldus Cambriensis, the historian, mentions the pipes as Welsh and Irish, but not as Scottish, unless he means by it the chorus, an instrument by the Welsh also. The chorus mentioned by Giraldus and the piob-mala of the Middle Ages were the same instrument. So early as 1024 a piper in Ireland had the right of entry into the King’s house night or day, but Walker and others acknowledged that the bagpipe was introduced from Scotland (Walker’s “History of the Irish Bards.”)

Major represents the Scots at Bannockburn as using tubae, litui, and cornua. Mike not the tubae be the “Dos mòr”? Sir Walter Scott represents the men of the Isles as charging to the sound of the bagpipes. The Clan Menzies are also alleged to have had their pipes with them at Bannockburn, and they are supposed to have been played by one of the MacIntyres, their hereditary pipers.

These pipes are still in existence, or at least three portions of them. Bruce’s son, says another tradition, had pipes at Bannockburn. There are said to be MacDonald pipes in existence which consist of a chanter and blow-pipe only, and which it is alleged, were played before the MacDonalds at Bannockburn. This may have been the Menzies pipes, as the MacIntyres, who are credited with having been owners of each, were at different times pipers to the Menzies and to the Clanranald branch of the MacDonalds.

In A.D. 1316 two there is an entry in the Exchequer Rolls of 40s, “paid to the King’s pyper.” David II, of Scotland. According to the Rev. James Mackenzie’s “History of Scotland,” a very pious and able Free Churchmen, who was born to publish a falsehood, a detailed statement is given of the desperate fight between the Clan Kay (or Quhale) and the Clan Chattan, at the Inch of Perth in 1390 or 1396, in “Snow-beards” time, Robert III, of Scotland. says:–

Two Highland Clans, the Clan Chattan the Clan Kay, had long been at deadly feud, and their strife filled the whole district with slaughter and confusion. It was agreed to refer the dispute to the judgment of battle: a space was railed in for the combat, which was fought in the presence of the King, and a great assemblage of the Nobles. Sixty Highlanders –thirty from each clan–stalked into the barriers to the sound of their great war pipes.

The chanter of the pipes played by the Clan Chattan on that occasion is still preserved, I believe, at Cluny Castle. Similarly, at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411, fought between Donald, Lord of the Isles, who claimed the Earldom of Ross, and the Earls of Buchan and Mar:–

Albany decided in favour of the Earl of Buchan, Donald raised an army of 10,000 men, and the first tidings which the governor heard of him was that the fires of the Highland Army were blazing in the heart of Ross. The Lord of the Isles was that at Dingwall by a force of the Earl of Buchan’s Men, but they were soon cut to pieces. Donald swept onwards spreading havoc before him. He overran the fertile province of Moray, threatening to make Scotland a desert to the shores of the Tay. Enraged at the havoc made on his territory, Mar got together a force. The Burgesses of Aberdeen took down their swords, put on their steel caps, unfurled the banner of the City, and with the Provost at their head, marched with the Earl of Mar. The two armies encountered at the village of Harlaw, near the place the water of Ury falls into the Don. With pibrochs deafening to hear, (showing that there was a good many) the Highland host came down.

Pennant also mentions that the pipes were played at the Battle of Harlaw.

In 1870 a stone was dug from the ground near Be’ness on which was sculptured a party of Roman soldiers on the march. They were dressed in short kilts, and one was playing a bagpipe. The instrument was very similar to those of the present day, except that the drones were shorter. It was naturalised in the Kings Palace in 1392 (Scottish Court).

The bagpipe was unknown to the citizens of Rome up to the year A.D. 87. Nero played on it then as a new instrument to appease the people. In 35 B.C. one of the Roman historians tells us that he heard this instrument played on by the Celts inhibiting the mountains of Pannomia. It came from the north through the Celts, and from the South to the Greeks. The Greeks have known the pipes for 2100 years, the Latins for 1900 years. There is at Rome a fine Greek sculpture, in basso-relievo, representing a piper playing on an instrument bearing a close resemblance to the Highland bagpipe. The Greeks acknowledged that to the barbarians, i.e., the Celts, they owed much of their music and many of its instruments. The Romans, who no doubt borrowed the bagpipe from the Greeks, used it as a martial instrument among their infantry. Prudentius, A.D. 348, the greatest of the Roman Christian poets, first mentioned the bagpipe as an instrument of war.

As to the great antiquity of the pipes there can be no doubt whatever. “In the earliest sculptures, which are those in the tomb of an individual behind the Great Pyramid, between three and four thousand years old, is a concert of vocal and instrumental music, consisting of two harps, a pipe, a flute, and several voices, and during the reigns of the Pharaohs of the eighteenth dynasty other combinations frequently occur,” and it is much older than that. Of the contributors to this subject I agree mostly with Morag, who seems quite fit to fight her own battles.

A Mhòrag chlatach a’ chull dualaich,
Gur h-e do luaidh a th’ air m’aire.
‘S geod nach iarr mi thu ri d’phòsadh,
Gu’m b’o mo rí(?) a bhi már-riut.

–I am, etc.

K. N. MacDonald

Refer to the Rev. James Mackenzie’s History of Scotland, 1898. Logans Scottish Gael, 1831.

The manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians by Sir G. Wilkinson, 1847. Manson on the Highland bagpipe, 1901, and Dr. Duncan Fraser’s History of the Bagpipes, etc., 1910.

© Copyright Pipe Major John Grant - Designed for Dr. Alan Armstrong