OT: 20 November 1915 – James Cameron “The Bagpipe Chanter Scale”



The Oban Times, 20 November, 1915

[The Bagpipe Chanter Scale]

Edinburgh, 15 November, 1915

Sir,–The correspondence on Bagpipe scale or scales and the keys of tunes ordinarily played on the chanter has developed into “trench-warfare,” although the matter discussed has been well known for at least a hundred years.

Nearly 25 years ago I played on the pipes “The Lass of Richmond Hill” to a friend in the celebrated Halle’s Band.
“I see you are playing on two sharps,” he said, as that was the key of the tune.
No, I said.
Yet we have Mr. Grant asserting “the chanter is confined entirely to the scale of A major, and even if it were possible, which is not, to play a tune on D major,” etc., etc.

As I have stated before we have a scale of A with a flat seventh (upper G is flatter than Mr. Colin Sinclair asserts, but is not standardized) which practically embraces parts of scales of C and of one, and two sharps, allowing pipe music–marches, pibrochs, etc., etc.–to be played in at least four keys under restrictions.

This in spite of Mr. Grant reiterating “No tune can be said to be in key of D when the instrument on which it is played does not produce a full octave.” This is a fallacy.

On the penny tin whistle, say a “D” whistle–makers actually stay up there “where’s” with keynote–I can play a lot of bagpipe music in A with flat seventh, as well as tunes in D even though the “penny tin” has one note less than the chanter. Old soldiers “playin’ the pipes on the whistle” are quite common in Mr. Grants neighbourhood. As Mr. MacRae says, Donald MacDonald, the great pibroch writer, but the key signatures A, D, G, C, to his Piobaireachd.

Mr. Damon Glen of Edinburgh in his monumental “Ancient Piobaireachd” and other works, as Mr. Grant very well knows, gives in most cases, the correct signatures (A A flat seventh, D, G, and C) to his tunes.

Angus MacDonald, the other than MacDonald, the great writer, does not seem to have known much about the theory of music and his tunes are not signature–nor are Mr. Grant’s. It is this omission that has been responsible for much of the ignorance brought to light by this useful correspondence on the bagpipe. If Mr. Grant perseveres like “Mac Phairson Conglockety Angus Mac Clann” in Gilbert’s poem, he may doubtless in

“A year an’ some mair
Tune his drones upon G
An’ eleecit an air”
By lengthening the reed tone of the big drone.

C and D will be more difficult, but G will do for harmony and say “Patrick Og” in meantime. I would recommend him to ask an organist to show him the mystery of his “reed” pipes (same as bagpipe drones), flute mouthpiece pipes (like tin whistle) and also a “wood-wind” bandsman to show him the oboe, clarinet, and soon, and after the liberal enlightenment he has had in this correspondence he will, no doubt, admit his mistaken ideas about “no bagpipe tunes other than in A.”–I am, etc.,

James Cameron

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