OT: 25 September 1915 – Calum MacPharlain



The Oban Times, 25 September, 1915.

Elderslie, 18 September, 1915.

Sir,–Mr. Grant, in his letter of the 11th, reiterates his question: “What has the Highland bagpipe got to do with Gaelic song, that he (I) compares them?” This question was answered before it was put, in the article which he attacked without having read. I answered it again when I told him to read the article. I answered it again early in this correspondence when I told him that, in common with himself, I believe it had not much connection. Your other correspondent, Mr. MacRae, is answering him according to his lights, when he contends that there is a substantial connection. Mr. Grant himself has added nothing to our information.

Mr. Grant makes the statement that there are only eight notes in the Highland bagpipe scale; and he charges me with having used arguments to suit myself when I said nine; and counsels me to stick to facts. If I have erred, I have erred in company with all the bagpipe fraternity whose work was worth reading; and their statements accorded in every particular with the chanter on which I learned the bagpipe scale many years ago. This looks rather funny at first sight. But I think I know what Mr. Grant would be at, although his way of putting it is just a little absurd. The facts are that the bagpipe scale runs from low Fah to high Sol:–that is, a compass of nine notes. A tune can be quite bagpipe-correct which uses all of those nine notes; but, according to Mr. Grant, “genuine Highland bagpipe music” can only use, at most, eight of those notes. That is not far out of the way, if that is his meaning. There is a lot of skipping of notes in bagpipe music. You must skip those which would be seriously out of tune if played. But that only proves to me that what Mr. Grant calls “genuine Highland bagpipe music” is not strictly adapted for playing on the bagpipe scale. Now, a genuine bagpipe tune–say, a hornpipe which I have on my mind–may contain every note of the nine and be flawless. Ergo, “genuine Highland bagpipe music” is hardly genuine bagpipe music. That is the logical conclusion. Isn’t it wonderful how Mr. Grant has again assisted my contentions without meaning it! Mr. Grant would have been spared this discomfiture if he had read the article to which I referred him, in which the scale is considered mathematically. But I fear he is not open to conviction.

Unlike Mr. Grant, Mr. MacRae is advancing. But he must bear in mind that when I referred to “Gaelic song,” I exclude Port-a-beul. I do not know the bagpipe sets of the tunes he mentions. But I have doubts about the song-tune of “Is tu mo rùn na’m faighinn thu” being Gaelic originally. If I remember right, it had a wide vogue. But let us consider the better-known “Gabhaidh sinn an rathad mòr”; and it is a good example for exhibiting what has to be watched in studying the origin of tunes. This tune is that of a well known girls play-lilt which goes thus:

“London Bridge is falling down, etc.,

My fair Lady.”

I have heard it from the lips of a Lincolnshire man to words like these, which are those of a lullaby to a child:

“Hey, Mrs. Doubledick,

Come to bed and cuddle Dick.”

There is also the well-known “Ka-foozle-um.” There are Port-a-beul words in Argyleshire associated with the MacIntyres of Cladich. The so-called song, “Gabhaidh sinn an rathad mòr,” contains a Port-a-beul chorus, and one Port-a-beul verse which is also associated with the McIntyres. The other verses were in all likelihood added by “Nether Lochaber,” who first brought out the version which passes current as a song. The tune goes well on the bagpipe. There is no skipping of notes in playing it, the error of the scale being outside of the tunes compass. The form of the tune points to an origin outside of the Gaelic sphere, and there is no proof that the words–port-a-beul or song–were influenced by the bagpipe in preference to the folk-air carried down by the children’s play-song. It is not the only children’s tune which is found in both the English and Gaelic areas.

There is another so-called “song,” which was popularised quite recently, which well illustrates what may have at any time happened in connection with the bagpipe and Gaelic song. I referred to “Tog orm mo phiob.” Strictly speaking, the words are Port-a-beul, or mere doggerel; and it has once or twice amused me greatly to see a singer trying, by facial and vocal expression, to put pathos into words which cannot carry it. The tune as sung is not the bagpipe tune–at any rate as revealed in Angus Mackay’s book. It is a concoction–and a good one-by the late Henry Whyte. It has an affinity to the bagpipe tune undoubtedly. He and I agreed that the tune, as he adapted it, was what the original composer wanted to say, but couldn’t for want of a better-class instrument. Mr. Whyte told me that his friend, Dr. Charles Bannatyne, wanted a second part added to the tune. I undertook that, and produced a whole, which goes excellently to that really weird empathetic song by Neil MacLeod, called “Bidh Seumas leam an nochd.” But as “not one in one hundred vocalists use their own brains in selecting their songs,” that song has never been sung in public. The Port-a-beul has been sung, under high and sapient auspices!–I am, etc.,

Calum MacPharlain

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