OT: 5 June 1920 – John Grant “The Highland Bagpipe” [Article]



The Oban Times, 5 June, 1920

The Highland Bagpipe

What use would the organ be in time of war? How could the piano be utilised on the march to victory? Would the timid notes of the heart turn the tide of battle in the hour of Danger, or lead our Highland armies onto brave deeds? No! Those instruments cannot compare with the great Highland Bagpipe as a national instrument in peace or war.

–Piobaireachd: Its Origin and Construction.

By John Grant

Search the world over, but you will find no truer patriot than the Highlander. His loyalty is only equalled by his pride in his country, his race and its characteristics–a pride wherein most of his patriotism lies rooted. It would, however, be useless to deny that as regards the characteristics of language, dress, dancing and music–especially pipe music–a large section of the Highland public is ignorant. At present, even among musical Highlanders, how many are there who could give the most elementary information on the Highland pipe, its construction and the peculiar features of its music? The result of this ignorance cannot fail to tell upon piping in general. It is only necessary to examine the conditions under which the best pipe music is demanded. Imagine the leading violinists and pianists, if they had to perform at 9:30 a.m. on a September morning in the Highlands, their shelter nothing but a small roof, which in no way prevents rain, snow or a piercing wind reaching them, paralysing their fingers and playing the very mischief with those reeds that for weeks past they have been coaxing into condition. Added to the vagaries of the weather from which they suffer, they are lucky if their music is uninterrupted by the screech of a passing train or the explosion of a pistol within a few yards distance. The patience of the modern piper might well be as proverbial as that of Job. But what of the audience? Perhaps no hall could be found large enough to contain those Highlanders who talk glibly and with so little knowledge of their national instrument. They are not present. The grand stand is empty. Away in the open you will find a small crowd, among them a few who will hang on every note–an old piper or two listening with the appreciation of the true artist as the clear notes of a great pibroch swell upon the air, denoting the touch of a master hand. To gain applause for piping, it is better to collect a dozen indifferent pipers, as many drums as possible, and let them go around playing some trivial march with no great respect for tune or accuracy. Then with satisfaction the audience will proceed to congratulate themselves on their Highland music, while the genuine musician is only longing for a grateful pause of silence.

What is to be done to rectify this condition of things? The awakening of interest in Celtic song gives rise to the hope that the old pipe music also may come to its own again: but the outlook is dark. We have nothing to compare with the old colleges for piping, where young pipers helped by the patronage of their chiefs, went for several years, during which time their sole study was pibroch. Two-day, patronage is scarce and exercised with little discretion. Authenticated music is hard to come by. There are few great pipers. The marvel is that there are any. Education is thus confined to two or three first-rate teachers and some less qualified, all of whom, when not in the Army, must sacrifice their time and in some cases their genius to follow another profession by which to secure an income.

As regards the Army, which has always had its pipers, though frequently players of a low standard, great work has already been begun by the Army School of Piping, where players go through a course to qualify them to be pipe-majors. It will take time; but there is no doubt that these men will do much to teach the new crowd of army pipers that has arisen during the War, that though band playing is useful and has its attractions, they can claim no real knowledge of pipe music while their powers are limited to the playing of a few marches. The pianist who can play a popular waltz is not necessarily an authority on Beethoven. It is not upon pipers themselves that the chief blame for ignorance lies. The great need is for an educated public opinion. A much higher standard of knowledge is required, especially among officers of piping regiments and the class from whom judges for the Highland Games are selected. Instead of taking the lead in these matters, since the revival of interest in 1720, these people have been content to neglect the language, to learn nothing of their dress but what their tailors could teach them, to dance and to judge piping by the light of nature. Not only are practical performers wanted, but the antiquarian also will find the studies fascinating subjects. It is undoubted that material exists dealing with these Highland matters. Some is now available in the hands of the Piobaireachd Society, more, no doubt, is lying neglected as it has lain since the’45, when the language, dress and music were forbidden. Only now a few of the keener spirits are awakening to the large round that lies still unexplored. Here lies work for many. To encourage and restore these possessions peculiar to the Highlander, possessions whose loss would necessarily involve the destruction of part at least of that spirit of which Norman MacLeod says–” The characteristic poetry of the Highlands is Ossian, its music the Pibroch, and these two voices embody the spirit and sing the praises of ‘Tir nam beann, ‘s nan gleann, ‘s nan gaisgeach.” [Land of bens, and glens, and heroes.]

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