OT: 3 July 1915 – Calum MacPharlain “The Bagpipe”



The Oban Times, 3 July, 1915

The Bagpipe

Elderslie, 26 June, 1915

Sir,–Your correspondent, Mr. John Grant, is only beating the wind–a very unprofitable, unedifying thing to do. It benefits nobody, and the wind goes on undeterred.

I brought the bagpipe into the “matter of Gaelic song” to prove what Mr. Grant himself contends for, namely, that Gaelic song has no connection, as some allege, with the bagpipe. I do not go the length he does, for he says it has not ANY relation to the bagpipe. Now it has some slight relations, as I showed in my paper in the Inverness Gaelic Society’s Transactions. But it does not appear that Mr. Grant took the trouble to read the paper.

The statement I make regarding harp themes and the music having to a certain extent the same names as those of piobaireachd does not lessen the “value of the Great Highland Bagpipe and its music.” It only conveys information that is not generally known, and which such as Mr. Grant disregard when it is told them, because it tends to dissipate their pet theories, which have, usually, no basis in fact.

I have not said that piobaireachd themes were taken from harp themes, as he alleges. My words are quite clear. They are: “These two facts (the names of the subjects and the names of the variations) go far to justify my opinion that the style (note the word) of Piobaireachd were derived from Harp music.” Bagpipes, most certainly, borrowed from fiddle music; and why should not they have borrowed from the harp? Their imitation of the borrowed matter is, of course, limited by the difficulty of reproducing it on a ruder an entirely different class of instrument.

Mr. Grant says:–”Let me say with clear and determined decision that the theme in piobaireachd stands alone as classical music [whatever that means]. It is the peculiar inheritance of a peculiar Celtic people, and borrowed from no other class of music, or from no other musical instrument.” That is strong language, and I suppose Mr. Grant, before using it, had well-established grounds for his statement, and had carefully reconsidered them before going to print. I for one–and, I am sure, all of your readers–would like to have at least an inkling of those grounds. We want–all folks want–to have “clear and determined decisions”; but alas! such are human shortcomings that they are hard to get at, and I very much fear that Mr. Grant is no better off in this respect than ourselves, and is unable to satisfy our cravings in this case. We shall “wait and see.”

It has nowhere been said by me or any other writer that I know of, that the variations of the harp and the piobaireachd are the same; and it is beating the wind to harp on a matter that is not before us.

Nobody has made a comparison between the bagpipe and the harp but Mr. Grant himself; and nobody has sought to degrade the bagpipe. Mr. Grant, to my mind, degrades it by his style of defense, which has nothing but unsupported statement behind it.

He says: “It (piobaireachd) is the peculiar inheritance of a peculiar Celtic people.” I have said nothing about its being Celtic or non-Celtic. What I say is: That the evidences, as far as we have got them, are in favour of the belief that the bagpipe came from England, the people of which is largely pre-Celtic and Celtic, with a considerable infusion of Saxon and Angle, into Lowland Scotland, the people of which are very largely pre-Celtic and Celtic, with a small infusion of Angle; from thence into Highland Scotland, the people of which are very largely pre-Celtic and Celtic, with a considerable infusion of Scand in some parts. But that it had, as is often asserted, a Gaelic origin and development is not borne out by any evidence that has been produced, that I have seen. On the contrary, there is strong evidence that it could not have had a Gaelic origin. For instance, the name pioba is impossible as of early Gaelic word. It is the Gaelic representative of the English word “pipe,” pronunciation and all, before it was corrupted by false analogy into its modern sound. Piobair exactly reproduces in Gaelic, English “Piper,” as pronounced in the past. Seannsair is just “chanter” Gaelicised, a word which must have developed after the Norman-French invasion of England. There is no evidence of the bagpipe being regarded as great or small in the Highlands prior to 400 years ago. If it had been in any degree fashionable previous to that time, fees to pipers would have appeared in the account books of kings and nobles alongside of those to Seanchies, Harpers, and”Auld Sang-wifes.”

Bagpipe music, with the exception of piobaireachd, made in the Highlands by Highlandmen, is similar to bagpipe music made in the Lowlands by Lowlandmen, and in England by Englishmen. As March music it is unapproachable in serving its purpose. Yet musical bias, which is as strong in others as an pipers, leaves a Welsh Celt to write as follows: “The Scotch Highland marches are wild warbles, which might–and, indeed, upon many occasions did, in a remarkable degree–inspire courage, but which could not answer the purpose of regulating the step.” (See “The People’s Welsh Songs,” published by John Leng & Co., Dundee, price one penny.) I wonder did the man who wrote those words ever see men marching to the bagpipe! If he did, he could not have helped seeing that, if it did nothing else in his eyes, it certainly regulated the step. But musical bias, alike in Mr. Grant and the Welshman, has led to statements that are not borne out by facts, and that are, indeed, ridiculous.

Gaelic men satirised the bagpipe in the same vulgar style, when it was coming into vogue in the Highlands, as Englishmen did when it was going out of vogue in their country; and they had good reason, for it was (and is) the enemy of Gaelic vocal music.

The bagpipe is not necessary to heroism. Many and great heroes never heard it. Physical courage is as common as ever it was. The great lack of our people is moral courage, particularly to enable them to face fact and to strip humbug and hypocrisy bare. The bagpipe is of no use in that connection. Indeed, the humbug that has been spoken and written about that instrument is enormous.–I am, etc.,

Calum MacPharlain

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