The Oban Times, 13 May, 1911
The Great Highland Bagpipe and Its Music
8 May, 1911
Sir,–I finished my letter last week by asking why the national instrument is called the Great Highland Bagpipe.
The word “Great” is not applied to the instrument because it is a large one. It is beautiful and comely in appearance, shapely, neat, and ingenious in construction. It has a music entirely its own, and when in full playing order and fingered by the genuine Celt, properly cultivated in the art of piobaireachd playing, it is unsurpassed by any instrument in the whole universe. Therefore it is because of its music that it is a great instrument. And why its music? Because the Highlanders recorded in it a record of great deeds, great locations, and great achievements–great deeds, because of his victory in the battlefield, great locations because of the festivities celebrated on the marriage of the Chief, the birth of an heir, or the succession of the young Chief to the headship of the tribe or clan; and, last but not least, great achievements because the Highland piper could create new melodies to commemorate all these occasions, as we find in the themes of the Gathering, the Challenge, the Lament, the Battle Tune, and the triumphant Salute. The music of the organ can be played on the piano; the music of the violin can be played on the harmonium, and so on; but piobaireachd, the great “Ceol Mor” of the Celt, can only be played on the Great Highland Bagpipe, and on no other instrument. The love song, the war song, and various other types of melodies can be followed and understood in any language or by people of any nationality, but the Pibroch in the Celt can only be understood by the genuine Highlander. This proves the greatness of this instrument and its music, and that the Highlander only understands the Lament from the Salute and the Gathering from the Challenge, and their exact meaning. Is there another instrument in existence to equal this? No, nor never will.
I remember once being on holiday in the little village in the very heart of the Highlands, when one fine summer afternoon I was playing my pipes in presence of some friends and others who had gathered around, and to my astonishment I saw a man crying like a child. I stopped playing and asked why he cried. I had previous to this incident played many marches, strathspeys, and reels, but when I saw the man crying I was playing “MacCrimmon’s Lament.” I was told in reply to my question that the man cried because I played the Lament. This was a true Highlander. He did not play the pipes, but he understood its music, for in reality it “tapped the fount of tears.”
Take the Great Highland bagpipe with its soul stirring and inspiring music, examine it, place it against any other form of musical instrument, and see which will in the end come but most useful or most supreme. First let us take the harp. Where would it come in on the battlefield? Clumsy and meagre in its volume of sound. Or the organ, with its whirring string of notes which would require a pair of horses or steam power to haul: what use would it have been on the heights of Dargai? Or the piano, with its thump-thump of monotony; would it have been any use on the heights of Alma? And lastly, take the violin–this timid, modest, and lady-like musical instrument; would its screech, screech have been heard in the charge against a fierce and powerful enemy? Could it ever hope to claim a victory there? In fact, with a whole bunch put together take the place of the Great Highland Bagpipe in the time of war, or peace either?
The Great War Pipe has been the means of winning as many victories and battle as the sword, shot, or shell, because it cheered on and inspired the Highlanders. All the various instruments which I have placed against the Great Highland Bagpipe are music producers by artificial means–every one of them. They all lack what the Great War Pipe possesses, viz., the real touch it human life. The Highlander blows his warm breath of life into it–that is what makes it almost humanlike himself; that is what makes it pour forth notes which touch the heart of the Highlander, and move his very soul to joy, sorrow, or even the frenzy of battle. The great music of this great instrument has combined link after link, age after age, into one great chain the heroic deeds of the past for the very earliest ages up to the present day. Let us be good followers of our beloved forefathers’ ingenious handiwork. Let us hope that the day will never come when we will be tempted or permitted to take away one single link from this grand old chain of golden hue. Let us try to make its music clear and simple, so that it may be understood by all. Let us add to it. The modern MacCrimmon still lives, and the splendour of the great old piobaireachd still lives with smiling fragrance amongst us. Let us cherish the hope that a music and musical instrument like the piobaireachd and the Great Highland Bagpipe may no longer be called barbarous. Let every Highlander who loves the pipes and plays them strive to study piobaireachd and raise it to the very highest pinnacle of success, instead of degrading it and wrangling over the incorrectness of of this time and the next tune, or the capabilities of this man and the next, and so on. Let him who has never composed a bar of original music in his life refrain from sneering at those who do. He has not proved his superiority or his worth who has not, or is not capable of composing. I would urge with all my heart those who have taken up the art of composing piobaireachd to continue it–there is as much room for their success as there was for the great masters in olden times. Remember that while we may dispute the claim to the bagpipe being ours, and ours alone, and that piobaireachd, its only perfect music, is imperfect and incomplete, time is swiftly flying, and is still adding another decade to the loss which this great music has sustained by neglect. It may be said that the practice of pipe playing is better maintained to-day than ever it was, but the composition the piobaireachd is far behind. Is it to be for ever a lost and forgotten art? Surely not! Awaken, brother Highlanders! Awaken! and study this great music. Add another link to the great chain, add another page to the great “Ceol Mor” of the Celt, and your reward shall be equal to that of your forefathers.
Before a man can become eminent in any art or sphere in life he must labour hard, study, and make himself efficient in every manner possible in the art or profession which is his choice. Therefore with study and perseverance pipers can become composers as well as performers, and while many men only possess great names as performers, the real student in his efforts to compose piobaireachd will leave behind him an everlasting memorial of his achievement. The “Ceol Mor” of the Celt will in the one case be the poorer, while in the other it will be richer and more fertile.
Finally, Ossian in his poems did not mention the bagpipe, nor did any of the famous Gaelic bards. It only stands to reason that they would not, because while there is charm and beauty in the lines of the masterpieces of the most eloquent Gaelic bards, yet they were face to face opposed by an instrument and its music so powerful, ingenious, and inspiring, which in their own hearts they knew that they could never hope to excel. The ancient Chief adopted the Great Highland Bagpipe, as it could not be equaled in peace or war. He saw that even although the Gaelic bard accompanied his clan to the battlefield and jumped about up and down the lines repeating his lyre of a thousand lines, that this form of inspiration was of little or no use in war, and could not be heard in the war of battle. The Great Highland Bagpipe was the only means of establishing order and discipline on the march, or even on the battlefield, and for this reason it and its master were far superior to the bard. This is why the bard had an inveterate a dislike to the bagpipe as the great MacCrimmon had to “ceol aotrom,” or the lighter kind of pipe music, and the reason why we are not in the least indebted to them in the very earliest times for mentioning the Great Highland Bagpipe in their poems. In conclusion, I can assure your correspondent “Ardrishaig” that the bagpipe was no more imported into Scotland that was the Scotch Thistle. –I am, etc.,