OT: 11 September 1915 – Donald MacRae “The Bagpipe and Its Music”

The Oban Times, 11 September, 1915

The Bagpipe and Its Music

Grantown-on-Spey, 1 September, 1915

Sir,–In his letter dated August 14, Mr. MacPharlain is good enough to express an opinion on several statements I made in my first letter, and desires me to answer a few questions, which I will do to the best of my ability.

I am sorry I can say nothing about Habbie Simpson’s bagpipe, but I think it is quite probable that the war-pipe of Ireland in the Highland bagpipe are much the same instrument, as the Highlands and Ireland have so many other things in common. The compositions of the early MacCrimmons are still played on the Highland bagpipe, and therefore their bagpipe and the Highland bagpipe must be practically the same instrument. The differences, if any, must be very slight. That the MacCrimmons are of Irish origin is a matter of doubt. Some say that they are Norse, while others maintain that they are native Highlanders. However, as Mr. MacPharlain wishes to trace the origin of the Highland bagpipe, these answers do not help much.

It is almost certain that all forms of the Bagpipe default from one primitive form, so that the similarity between the Highland and Irish war-pipes does not prove that the Highland bagpipe came from Ireland. Sir Walter Scott, in his notes to “The Pirate,” says that the bagpipe is of Scandinavian origin. If this is the case, the bagpipe probably came to Scotland sometime after 800 A.D. to say, as Mr. MacPharlain did in one of his letters, that there is no proof of the bagpipe being in Scotland more than four hundred years ago, is scarcely correct. The bagpipe as mentioned in the account of the Clan Fight at Perth (1392), given by Sir Walter Scott in “Tales of a Grandfather,” a work of historical interest as well as of literary merit. As proof of this, we have the famous “Black Chanter of Clan Chattan,” which was played by their piper at the fight. Looking over the titles of tunes, which are helpful to a certain extent, we find a piobaireachd entitled “Black Donald Balloch of the Isles’ March to the Battle of Inverlochy.” Now we all know that Black Donald flourished in the thirteenth century, so that the piobaireachd must have been composed about that time. The MacRaes’ March was composed in 1491. This evidence, I think, proves conclusively that the instrument was played in Scotland for centuries prior to 1500, and is quite independent of the set of bagpipes of MDCCCCIX.

Whether or not Mr. MacPharlain thinks “it is useful to the argument to draw fine distinctions between tunes played on the bagpipe and bagpipe tunes,” he must admit that it helps to discriminate between tunes which can be used in tracing the history of the instrument and tunes which cannot be used for that purpose. If a tune is borrowed from another instrument, it stands to reason that the date of its composition, etc., have no bearing on the history of the Highland bagpipe.

In the course of his letter Mr. MacPharlain has occasion to mention the bagpipe scale, and says that pipers usually misrepresent it. I agree with him, but am of opinion that it cannot be defined properly in the Introduction to a Collection. A whole volume could be written on the bagpipe chanter before everything is taken into account. To attempt to define it in these columns would be to start endless controversy.

Mr. MacPharlain asks: “Does Mr. MacRae suggest that it is only when pipers adapt tunes that they squeeze them, so to speak, into the bagpipe scale?” I do not. Nay, I agree with Mr. MacPharlain “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.” I could mention many tunes where the substitution of a sharp or flat for some other note would be a vast improvement, but these are mostly modern compositions, and were, in all probability, composed by Lowlanders. I agree with him also that there is a large number of “improper bagpipe tunes.” Nobody is more aware of that sad fact than I am. Collections of bagpipe tunes are full of them, while the good old clan marches are being forgotten.

Mr. MacPharlain states that mutual borrowings between the Highland bagpipe and Gaelic song are conspicuous by the smallness of their number. Nevertheless I could mention any number. What about “Gabhaid sinn an rathad mor?” Is not this tune popular as a pipe march and as a Gaelic song, and is there not a piobaireachd form? Other examples are: “‘S Tu Mo Luaidh na’m Faidhinn Thu,” “Oran Mulaid,” “Rinn M’eudail mo Mhealladh.” As for the tune “Mo nigean donn bhoidheach,” I agree that, in the form appearing in most collections, it is not much of a pipe tune, but there is a setting which is very like the original vocal set, and which is a very good slow march. In most collections it appears as a quickstep.

I fear Mr. MacPharlain has read my letter rather hurriedly, or he would have seen that the Lament I mentioned was “Cha Till MacCrumein,” not “Cha till mi tuilleadh.” However, I thank him for the information he has given.

I admit that Mr. MacPharlain is a great authority on Gaelic language and song, and admired him for the great work he is doing in that line, but I think that he ought to refrain from making such a statement as the following: “I am perfectly convinced by this correspondence that I know it (bagpipe music) better than any of my antagonists.” If the correspondence makes such a thing evident, all who read these letters will see it for themselves without the aid of Mr. MacPharlain. Such a statement does not make his arguments any more convincing.–I am, etc.,

Donald MacRae

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