OT: 6 May 1911 – Morag [John Grant] “The Great Highland Bagpipe and its Music”

The Oban Times, 6 May, 1911

The Great Highland Bagpipe and its Music

Sir,–With your kind permission I wish to say a few words regarding the above, in the hope of raising this noble and famous instrument to a much higher position than it has ever before been placed, either by its most ardent admirers or eminent writers.

In the correspondence columns of your issue of 22nd April, a correspondent signing himself “Ardrishaig,” is asking for information regarding the antiquity of the bagpipe, or the date on which it was first imported into Scotland. In another column of the same issue, under the heading “The Scottish Pipers’ and Dancers’ Union,” it is stated that “Dr. Charles Bannatyne, delivered an able and interesting lecture on the history of piping and dancing.” The lecturer in the course of his remarks goes on to say that–” The bagpipes were practically unknown in the Highlands of Scotland till the end of the sixteenth century.”

That the bagpipes were practically unknown in the Highlands of Scotland till the end of the sixteenth century is at least hundreds of years short of the mark. Let me quote some references to support this statement. What about the following tunes, all of which are very fine specimens of ancient piobaireachd, viz., “The Desperate Battle, Perth,” composed in the year 1390 or 1395; “Black Donald Balloch of the Isles’ March to the first Battle of Harlaw,” or “Piobaireachd Dhomhaill Duibh,” composed 1412; “The Battle of Park,” composed 1477; “The MacRae’s March,” composed 1491; “The MacLeod’s Controversy,” composed 1503, and scores more, which must be even older than any here mentioned, if only we could trace their origin and composers’ names.

The Clan Menzies had their pipers at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and they came from the Highlands of Scotland if ever anyone did.

About the year 100 A.D. Aristides Quintillianus, who lived in that time, says in his writings that the bagpipe was known in the Highlands of Scotland in his day.

From the foregoing quotations it can be clearly seen that the bagpipe, or rather, the great Highland bagpipe, was known and played in the Highlands of Scotland even before the Christian era, without the slightest doubt. Further, I give solid and reliable reasons for such a statement, to show that it is not mere assumption on my part. Take the oldest tune which I have mentioned above without other valuable quotations, viz., “The Desperate Battle, Perth,” which was composed in the year 1390. It stands to reason that before you can have music you must first have the musical instrument. This must be taken as an accepted fact by all. The same with music itself–you must first play or create a tune before you can write it down. In the case of the relation between the music and the instrument on which it is played, there is no vestige of doubt but that the instrument is the older of the two. Thus I base my statement on the fact that the great Highland bagpipe must at least have been in existence in the Highlands of Scotland hundreds of years prior to 1390. It did not drop down from the heavens like the falling star, in perfect form, along with a book of its music, to be picked up by the passer-by, nor did it grow like the wildflowers on the mountain-side. It was by the gifted invention of the Highlander, and the Highlander of Scotland alone, that the great Highland bagpipe came into existence. The Highlander first made perfect his musical instrument, which must have taken him a century, or even centuries, and he then perfected and recorded its music, which must have taken him at least hundreds of years longer. This musical instrument could not possibly have been made perfect in a day; neither could its music be so. This is surely sufficient proof for what I have already said to show that the date on which the great Highland bagpipe was first known in the Highlands of Scotland was at the very earliest age.

With regard to the question asked by your correspondent “Ardrishaig” as to whether the Danes, Romans, Crusaders, or Irish imparted the great Highland bagpipe in the Scotland, I would say that if, for instance, a man was in perfect health he would not call in his physician, and consult or ask him what disease he was likely to take; no more is there the slightest reason to imagine that the great Highland bagpipe was imported into Scotland at all. The pipe, or bagpipe, was most certainly familiar to every nation in Europe, or almost, and in many cases the pipes of different nations differed in both construction and sound. The various races which invaded Scotland in the beginning of the Christian era have perhaps without doubt brought with them their own pipe or bagpipe, and even the Irish people had a pipe, which still survives, and exists in Ireland to this day. It is a much inferior instrument, both in appearance and sound, to our present-day great Highland bagpipe. The one has no connection whatever with the other. The great Highland bagpipe that we now play was invented and made in the Highlands of Scotland, and belongs to the Highlands of Scotland alone. It is time enough to say or imagine otherwise when we have records to the contrary. We have no historic record or vestige of proof to indicate that the great Highland bagpipe was ever imported into Scotland, or even that its music was thoroughly understood by any race other than the Highlanders of Scotland, as I will illustrate later on. The Highlander who gives up his right to claim the great Highland bagpipe as his and his alone, and that he inherited it from his forefathers, many of whom sacrificed their lives in the act of performing upon it on the battle-field, or warning their master of his danger, is not worthy of the name of a Highlander.

Now let me direct attention to the music of our beloved instrument. Why is it called the Great Highland Bagpipe. Why “Great”? Is it because it is a monstrous instrument, of uncommon size? How many pipers of Scotland to-day can answer this question, or even attempt to study its origin, history, or meaning? A third drone was added to it in or about the end of the sixteenth or beginning of the seventeenth century, but otherwise it is the same now as it was in the earliest times, the two drones being separated when a third was added.

But as this letter is already lengthy, I shall return to the subject next week.– I am, etc.,

Morag [“John Grant, Edinburgh” written on the article in blue editor’s pencil]