OT: 7 August 1915 – Donald MacRae “The Bagpipe”

The Oban Times, 7 August, 1915

The Bagpipe

Huntly, 2 August, 1915

Sir,–I am very fond of Highland music of all kinds, and consequently have followed, with much interest, the correspondence which has appeared in your valuable paper regarding the bagpipe, and, while partially agreeing with both your correspondents, there are several statements in Mr. Calum MacPharlain’s recent letters which I cannot pass over.

Mr. MacPharlain said: “There are lots of bagpipe tunes which are not Highland in any sense of the word, and these are among the older ones. A proportion of them are English.” 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. Well, if he had substituted the words “tunes played on the bagpipes” for the words “bagpipe tunes,” it would have been more correct, for none of the tunes he mentions are genuine bagpipe tunes. Mr. MacPharlain gave as examples of English tunes “Jockey Latin” and “Weel may the Keel Row.”

Now I have the good fortune to be able to play two instruments, namely the bagpipe and the piano, and therefore can examine these tunes both from the point of view of a piper and of a pianist. Taking the first of these two tunes in the form it is usually played on the piano, violin, etc., which, as the tune is English, I presume to be nearest the original, I discovered in a very short time that as the range of the bagpipe is limited, the tune cannot be played on it without first being altered as much as to make it almost unrecognisable. The other English tune, “The Keel Row,” has to be altered in the second part, so that it is quite obvious that neither of these tunes were composed on the Highland Bagpipe. The same thing applies to all the other tunes which he mentions, except “Rutherglen Brig.” All have to be altered considerably before they can be played on the Highland Bagpipe. The exception, “Rutherglen Brig,” I have never yet met, either in piano or bagpipe music, and can say nothing about it, but it is probable that it requires some alteration also, and if Mr. MacPharlain gives me a copy I shall soon tell him whether this is the case or not.

Regarding the name “Highland bagpipe,” I beg to inform Mr. MacPharlain that it refers to the particular kind of bagpipe playing in the Highlands, not to the place where it is manufactured, as he seems to think, judging by his last letter. The word “Highland” is necessary to distinguish the Highland bagpipe from the Northumbrian bagpipe, the Irish bagpipe, the Italian bagpipe, the French bagpipe, and many other kinds of bagpipes. He asks to be informed of any place in the Highlands were bagpipes are made. Well, I have been informed, although I cannot vouch for the statement, that bagpipes are made at Aberfeldy; and it may interest him to know that many of the bagpipe makers in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh are Highlanders who have, no doubt, taken up business in these cities in order to get material more easily. In almost every Highland town there are to be found makers of reeds, who would not choose that means of earning a living if there were not plenty of pipers to buy reeds.

In his letter 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. This would seem to imply that the bagpipe came to Scotland about the eighteenth century. Now it is an established fact that the bagpipe was in use in the Highlands in the thirteenth century, and a set of bagpipes of the early fifteenth century is still in existence. At that time Gaelic was almost universal in the Highlands, and thus it remained until the ‘45. It is admitted by most people that the ’45 and the subsequent abolition of the clan system were the primary cause of the disuse of the Gaelic language, and it bagpipes have any effect at all, they tend rather to preserve the language, instilling in the hearts of pipers a love of all things Highland.

I can hardly bring myself to agree with Mr. MacPharlain’s statement that the bagpipe is the enemy of all Gaelic vocal music. Is it not the case that Gaelic song has been enriched from pipe music by many of its finest pieces? Take, for example, “Cha tille MacCruimein,” which is acknowledged by great musicians to be one of the greatest laments. Anybody knows that the air of that song is the urlar of the famous piobaireachd of the same name, which was composed by MacCrimmon, piper to MacLeod of MacLeod. Many other examples can be given if desired. It is also the case that pipers have borrowed from Gaelic vocal music, e.g., “Ho ro, mo Nighean Donn Bhoidheach,” etc. Strange, is it not, that two enemies should borrow from each other? After all, why should there be any rivalry between the two kinds of music? Each had its field in the realm of music. The bagpipe, in the old clan days, was the instrument of war and ceremonial, and the music of the clarsach and vocal music were symbolic of peace, while all three, together with Gaelic, and the glorious traditions of the past, are the priceless inheritance of Highlanders.–I am, etc.,

Donald MacRae

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