OT: 3 June 1911 – John MacLennan “The Great Highland Bagpipe in Its Music”

The Oban Times, 3 June, 1911

The Great Highland Bagpipe in Its Music

Edinburgh, 29 May 1911

Sir,–On reading “Morag’s” letters, along with that of “Loch Sloy,” in your widely- circulated paper, considering the patriotic object they had in view, viz., “to raise their 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,” I felt it my duty to assist them as much as an delay; but I considering my subject a little closer I find I cannot give them the amount of assistance I would like to.

I believe it is generally accepted that Asia Minor was the cradle of mankind, and that the sixth in descent from Adam was the first “piobair.” It then naturally follows that all mankind knew the pipe, and whenever there was a migration a piper or two would be among them. We have records of at least five persons who came, at different times, to this country with a retinue and colonised the place, so that the bagpipe came when and as we came ourselves–each piper improving the instrument as he thought best.

The information we have on this point is very meagre, but silence is no evidence as to the absence of the bagpipe. Aristides Quintilian, a Greek musician of the first century, who wrote a treatise on music, mentions the bagpipe as a British instrument of music, and it is no criterion to say that he did not visit this country. The bagpipe is mentioned in the Brehon Laws of Ireland of the fifth century, and in King Howell’s Laws of Wales of the sixth century, but in Scotland we have no ancient anything. The genealogies of the Urquharts of Cromarty, however, say that they built Cromarty Castle 752 B.C., And that there piper play before the daughter of Alcbiades when she visited the Black Isle in about 410 B.C.

The instrument is mentioned in Henry the Minstrel’s History of Wallace. The Robertsons are credited with having their pipes at the battle of Bannockburn, playing “Teachd Clann Donnachaidh,” now Struan Robertson’s Salute. The ground, or theme, of this piece of music can be played in time and soon as slow as “Limerick’s Lamentations” or as fast as the reel “Duntroon.”

Payment of 40s is made to the pipers of King David II, in 1362, and King James I, is said to have been playing the bagpipe the night he was murdered.

The “piob mhar” (sic) is certainly so-called, as Dr. Bannatyne says, only to distinguish it from the other three kinds of the Highlands.


“Morag” says this species of music, the “ceol mor,” is all our own. I once thought so too, but have been undeceived. I now find it came in vogue about the time of Queen Elizabeth, and was made famous by John Bull. It rapidly spread to Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, and is to be found in the ancient music of Wales, as well as that of Ireland. “MacCallustrum’s March” is just a pibroch, and so is the well-known solo bassoon piece “Lucy Long.” “Boreraig” informs us that poetry has nothing to do with pibroch, the one having no connection with the other. The information is new to me, as I have always been led to understand that the language and poetry of a nation had everything to do with its music. However, I shall be glad to hear further from “Boreraig” on the subject.

The Big Drone

“Sassenach” asserts that the big drone was added by MacDonald, pipe-maker, Edinburgh. I believe he has been misinformed on this subject, as Hugh Robertson, pipe-maker, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, MacDonald’s predecessor, made a pipe with three drones, exactly as we have it now, for Pipe-Major Buchanan, of the 42nd Highlanders, and it can be seen in Dr. Fraser’s house in Falkirk. My own grandfather played, in 1779, on a three-drone pipe, marching along with some fifty men of the 42nd Highlanders from Stirling to Leith, where they mutinied, and a number of them were killed.

The Clan MacRae

We learn from that intelligent Glasgow shenachie, “Fionn,” that this Society is to put up a memorial cross to the MacRaes who fell fighting at Sheriffmuir. If we are to believe the historian of that battle, any of them who did fall must have been wounded in the back, for he says that the Earl of Seaforth was there with three battalions of his men, which would consist, of course, of Mackenzies, MacRaes, Mac Lennans, Mathesons, etc., and he adds that they “all fled.” On reading this paragraph, I naturally felt much annoying, and I sincerely trust that someone will be able to contradict the historian, for I always understood that the flag under which my forefathers thought was–

“The first to March, the last to turn–

Flights ne’er stained its folk.”

–I am, etc.,

Jno. McLennan