OT: 28 August 1915 – Calum MacPharlain ” The Bagpipe and Gaelic Song”

The Oban Times, 28 August, 1915

The Bagpipe and Gaelic Song

Elderslie, 14 August, 1915

Sir,–Mr. Grant set out to attack opinions of mine contained in quotations made by your reviewer from an article by me, and he has not brought forward a single argument based on fact in support of his condemnation; and, indeed, he has gone back to matters which have already been disposed of.

I was under no obligation to produce a defense of any kind. It was sufficient to show the weak points of the attack. Nevertheless, I gave a very viable suggestion to those who would inquire into the origin and development of “pibroch,” of whom Mr. Grant is professedly one.

If Mr. Grant has a desire to get at the truth about the origin and development of “pibroch,” he will at once set about the reconsideration of the subject in the light of the article which forms the theme of this correspondence, and another article to be found in Vol. V. of “Guth na Bliadhna.” He will also read W. Grattan Flood’s book, “The Story of the Bagpipe.” He need not accept all the conclusions of the author; for he has a strong partisan, like Mr. Grant himself, with this difference; that Mr. Flood knows a vast amount of musical history–sufficient to prove to Mr. Grant even, that the side of the subject upon which he has been gazing with unthinking admiration is but a corner after all.

I do not for a moment admit that I am jealous of the Bagpipe, even in the slightest measure. I admit that I cannot play the instrument, and that I have no desire to learn; I have done something much better without possessing a single musical instrument, except an old rusty pitchfork, which is never used. I do not admit that I do not understand the music of the Bagpipe. But I am perfectly convinced by this correspondence that I know it better than my antagonists. And I hold that I faced all the facts–and questions–and that Mr. Grant has shirked the facts, and put very irrelevant questions.

In the last paragraph of his letter Mr. Grant reveals that he is glad of the decay of a finer and more ancient native culture, and rejoices in the substitution of a coarser and alien kind. If that is patriotism, I have been all my life a contemptible traitor!

Let me turn now to what Mr. Donald MacRae says. Well, he says:

“Judging from Mr. MacPharlain’s letters, this statement seems to have been made with the idea of proving that the Highland bagpipe is an instrument which belongs to the Lowlands and England as much as to the Highlands.”

Mr. MacRae’s judgment is astray. For the Bagpipe which belongs to the Lowlands must be a Lowland bagpipe; that which belongs to England must be English; and that which belongs to the Highlands is necessarily Highland, and cannot be Lowland and cannot be English. The word “Highland” is of no use whatever to this controversy. In a way it is the title of the instrument in general use in Scotland to be called “Highland” (a word generally mixed up with “Gaelic”) which is in dispute. To say that it is “the particular kind of bagpipe played in the Highlands” does not help us much in regard to its origin and development, or its relations to the Northumbrian or Irish or any other kind of bagpipe.

Can Mr. MacRae tell us: Is the bagpipe which he calls “Highland” different from that played by Habbie Simpson of Kilbarchan, who is mentioned in the song, “Maggie Lauder”? Does it differ from the bagpipe played in Ireland today under the name “The War-pipe”? Does it differ from the bagpipe played by the early MacCrimmons, who were very likely–judging by their name–of Irish extraction? Do the differences, if any, extend to the scale? We may leave out the drones. We know that the third drone is a modern innovation.

I do not think it is useful to the argument to draw fine distinctions between “tunes played on the bagpipe” and “bagpipe tunes.” Mr. MacRae says to of the tunes mentioned by me are not bagpipe tunes proper, but adaptations. Assuming this is to be the case–to which I offer neither assent nor dissent–is it not the case that many tunes have been composed on the bagpipe for which the bagpipe scale is as badly fitted as for any adaptations from other music? Bagpipers play on one scale of nine notes, which is, to begin with, defective, and usually misrepresented by pipers in the introductions of their collections of tunes. Among the tunes which are in those collections are many which would require another scale to properly bring out their qualities. Does Mr. MacRae suggest that it is only when pipers adapt tunes that they squeeze them, so to speak, into the bagpipe scale? If he does, then a vast proportion of tunes must be consigned to the category, “improper bagpipe tunes.”

Mr. MacRae further says:

“Mr. MacPharlain made the bold statement that perhaps the advent of the bagpipe was part of the reason of the abandonment of Gaelic by Highlanders.”

In view of the words which I have put in small capitals, should he not have said: “a very timid statement indeed”?

Trustworthy historical students do not know of the bagpipe being in the Highlands in the 13th century; and they put little or no say in the bagpipe said to have MDCCCCIX on it. That pipe set, as it appears in the illustrations, could easily be claimed as a Irish one. I have not seen the actual thing, and can say nothing about it on my own behalf. It’s history seems to be obscure.

Mr. MacRae ought to know better than that the abolition of the Clan system and the ‘45 were the primary causes of the disuse of the Gaelic language. The primary cause of the disuse of the Gaelic language was the adoption of English as the administrative language of the whole of Scotland; and that took place centuries before the ‘45.

Mutual borrowings between the bagpipes and Gaelic song are can spacious by the smallness of their number. There were two prominent song tunes borrowed by pipers in this generation: “Horo, mo nighean donn bhoidheach” and “Mo Dhachaidh”; and to my mind they do not make very happy pipe tunes. But the amount of such borrowings has been small. I am of the opinion that there was considerable borrowing by pipers from Port-a-beul, which is not song. Take the Lament mentioned by Mr. MacRae: “Cha till mi tuilleadh.” There is a pipe set. Founding on the assumption that the pipe set was the original, Mr. W. S. Roddie made a vocal set, which can be seen in “Lays of the Heather.” Let anyone compare these two sets with the music which is sung to words–song-words–by soloists in choirs to-day. The song-words are modern, and, if I remember rightly, supplanted port-a-beul. The latter set of the music is a jewel. The pipe set and the vocal set founded thereon are defective renderings.

Mr. MacRae quite properly asks: “Why should there be any rivalry between the two kinds of music?” There should be none. But if Mr. MacRae was an observant man he would see that all societies having double-barreled constitutions, of which the promotion of Gaelic literature and music is one of the barrels, have gone or are going after the strange gods. The most notable example of this is “The Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland.” Where now is its Gaelic programme? It is the same with a large proportion of our Clan, Local, and Literary Societies. I do not know if Mr. MacRae is a member of his own Clan Society. If he is, he can tell us what the Society has done or is doing for Gaelic literature and song. Is it not the fact that one of the best feathers in the Clan cap has been ignored by the Society, and taken up and dressed and made presentable by your humble correspondent–I mean what is regarded by scholars as the second most important Gaelic MS. in Scotland? The most important is being deciphered by an outsider.–I am, etc.,

Calum MacPharlain

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