OT: 17 June 1911 – K.N. MacDonald “The Small Historians and the Highland Bagpipe”

The Oban Times, 17 June, 1911 

The Small Historians and the Highland Bagpipe 

9 June, 1911 

Sir,–In my last letter to “The Oban Times” of the 3rd inst. on the above subject, Giraldus Cambrensis is stated as having written in A.D. 1118. This is an error; so it is in Mr. Manson’s work on the bagpipe. Giraldus, who wrote in the reign of Henry the II. of England and William the Lion of Scotland, towards the end of the twelfth century, 1187, mentions in his “Topographia Hiberniae” that “the Irish use only two musical instruments, the harp and the tabour; the Scots three, the harp, the tabour in the bagpipe.” The Welsh also use three–the harp, the pipe (might be a flute or tube), and the bagpipe. This is a very important statement, though overall this was never in Scotland, and fixes the use of the bagpipe in Scotland as early as the twelfth century at least; and the bas-relief at Melrose Abbey, founded by David I. in 1136 A.D., representing various instruments, among which are a flute, a bagpipe, a violin, and another instrument supposed to have been a crwth, clinches it. 

It must also be borne in mind that the Danes and Scandinavians have also their own musical instruments, and would have brought them along with them into this country–especially into the West Highlands. 

William Dauney, in his “Ancient Scottish Melodies from a Manuscript of the Reign of James VI.,” published in 1838, from which work the above facts were taken, points out that the most ancient Scottish representation of the harp is that which is delineated in the carved work of the monument near the church of Nigg, in Ross-Shire. This monument is supposed to be as old as the eleventh century. If this had not been discovered we should never have known that the harp was played at that time in the Highlands of Scotland. Similarly regarding the bagpipe, I quite agree with Lieutenant MacLennan that “silence is no evidence as to the absence of the bagpipe.” The case of the Battle of Harlaw is proof of that, as Dauney says:– 

We should have thought that the bagpipes must have been in requisition at the battle of Harlaw in 1411, but in the ballad, in which details are very minutely commemorated, it is not mentioned, although “trumpets” and “drums” are particularized. 

Had the Rev. James Mackenzie’s “History of Scotland” never been written, we should have for all time been ignorant that the pipes were played furiously, both at the Inch of Perth battle in 1390 or 1396, and at Harlaw in 1411. The historians did not know, or it was purposely concealed. The same reasons may have been in operation at Bannockburn. The MacDonalds, on account of their valour on that occasion, had conferred upon them the right to occupy the right wing in battle, the neglect of which proved so disastrous and fatal at Culloden! 

The reason why we have not got anything ancient in Scotland is because the archives of the country were deposited at Iona about the seventh century, and the place was burned or sacked by pirates, etc., no less than seven times, and everything there was ruined. Edward III. also claimed the Scottish throne, and destroyed all he could get hold of. Besides, Cromwell carried hogsheads of documents out of the country. The bagpipe is said to have been a martial instrument of the Irish Kerns, or infantry, as far back as the reign of Edward III., and to have been continued as such down to the sixteenth century; and in the sixth century we find it mentioned by Procopius (lib ii., e, 22) as the instrument of war of the Roman infantry, while the trumpet was that of the cavalry. Pinkerton infers from this (Enquiry, vol. i., p. 391) that its warlike use in Britain and other countries subject to the Romans commenced about that time. The stone found near Bo’ness in 1870 indicates that the Romans used the bagpipe on the march prior to the sixth century. 

Dr. Solander, the famous naturalist and botanist (a Swede) told Mr. Pennant (“Pennant’s Tour in the Hebrides,” p. 302) that in the oldest Northern songs in Hebrides the bagpipe was mentioned under the name of the soeck-pipe–German “soeck pipe,” French “pipeau,” Gaelic “piob,” Welsh “pib,” Swedish “pipa,” Dutch “pijp.” In the Hebrew bardahi some clue is afforded to the ancient home of the Celtic bard and the cradle of our music. There has been a tradition in the Highlands that it was derived from the Danes and Norwegians; others, again, think it might have been communicated to the Scots by the Britons or Welsh, who probably acquired it from the Romans. It is just as likely that it was brought over by the first settlers some centuries before the Christian era. 

Regarding Aristides Quintillianus, who has been mentioned by several writers as having recorded that the bagpipe was played in Scotland about 100 A.D., I think the passage might be traced with some little trouble. He is known to have been the author of an ancient treatise on music, which was afterwards printed in the Collection of Meibomius. He is said to have lived “probably” in the third century A.D. according to Meibomius (“Antiq. Musical Auc.,” Sept. 1652, Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. i., eleventh edition, 1910-1911), it is reported to contain everything on music that is to be found in antiquity. If his data are satisfactory, they will go a long way to establish the bagpipe in the earliest centuries of our era in the Highlands of Scotland. A visit to the British Museum might be necessary to prove whether Aristides Quintillianus lived or wrote in the third century. “Logan’s Scottish Gael” is responsible for the remark that “Giraldus Cambrensis does not appear to have found it (the bagpipe) among the Scots, except he means by it the ‘chorus,’ an instrument of the Welsh also.” The passage was written in Latin, and is as follows:– 

Hibernia quidem duobus tantum utitur et delectatur instrumentis–cythara, scilicet et tympano; Scotia tribus, cythara tympano et choro: Gwallia vero cythara, tibiis* et choro.
[Ireland, indeed, is fond of, and uses only two instruments–the lute and the drum; the Scottish tribes, lute, drum and chorus: but Wales, flutes and chorus.] 

The term “chorales” being derived from the Greek “choros,” a chorus, and “aulos,” a pipe, was a name strictly designative of his office of “piper to the course,” after which the word “chorus” may have come to signify bagpipe by an easy natural transition. 

Walafridus Strabo, a Benedictine monk who wrote in the ninth century’s Latin commentary on the Scriptures and other works, which were published at Paris in 1624, describes the “chorus” as a single skin with two pipes.–See his Comm. in cap. 15 Exod. 

Nicholas de Lyranus, a Franciscan monk, who died in 1340, in his commentaries on the Bible, published in Rome in 1472 (in seven volumes folio), referring to Psalm 150, v. 4, observes:– 

Dicunt aliqui, quod chorus instrumentum de corio factum: et habet duas fistulae de ligno unam per quam inflatur et allam per quam emitit sonum et vocaltur Gallice cheurette.
[Some say the chorus was an instrument made of leather, and has two pipes of wood which is inflated and by which a sound is produced like the French cherette.] 

“Cherette” in French means the doe of the roe-deer. This seems pretty conclusive that the skin of the bag in the pipes were there. 

We are told by Lucretius– one of the greatest Roman poets, born B.C. 95–in the fifth book of his poem, “De Rerum Natura” (of the nature of things) that the birds taught man to sing, and that the invention of musical instruments of the inflatile kind was suggested to him by the sounds produced from reeds when the Western wins blue over them– 

The birds instructed man,
And taught him songs before his art began,
And while soft evening gales blew o’er the plain,
And shook the sounding reeds, they taught the swains,
And thus the pipe was framed, and the tuneful reed. 

The same notion concerning wind instruments is found in Ovid’s beautiful account of the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into reeds. 

“Morag” raises a great question when he says that our forebears must always have existed in the Highlands and that the great Highland bagpipe was born there. Britain is an island, and must have been peopled from somewhere. The Celts in ancient times occupied nearly the whole of the Western Europe, and what is more likely than that they were the first settlers in this country, pipe or no pipe? 

“Dos Mor” says that there is no music in the pipes. The music is there sure enough, but perhaps he cannot take it out of it! A famous piper once told me the that people who could not love the music of the pipes had no souls! Did “Dos Mor” never hear of the Highlander who would shut up in a room with seven pipers, all playing at the same time, and he thought he was in heaven! 

Jubal was the seventh in ascent from Adam, mentioned in Scripture as “the father of such as handle the harp and organ.” These terms are generic, and signify all instruments of the string and tube kind, and only goes to show the antiquity of musical instruments. 

“Boreraig” has also started a very wide question in his remarks about poetry and music. Sentiment in connection with music is only at its best in connection with the words, or poetry. When one is leaving his native country for ever, he plays “Cha till mi tuille,” but it is the words that bring forth a flood of tears, fed by the soul roused by the music. These subjects would require separate essays and great verbosity of language before they could be settled.–I am, etc., 

K. N. MacDonald 

P.S.– a French military officer, describing the warfare carried on near Edinburgh in the year 1547, specifies that “fourteen or fifteen thousand Scots, including the savages accompanying the Earl of Argyle, arrived. . . . And while the French prepared for the combat the wild Scots encouraged themselves to arms by the sound of their bagpipes.”† We can safely deduct 250 years from 1549 since the Campbells of Argyll first began to use the pipes in battle, and we bring it down to 1299. We may even take 500 off, and we bring the earliest. At which the Campbells most likely used the pipes and war down to A.D. 1049. The MacDonalds were strong in the Western Isles when the Norsemen first invaded the country, and it is more than probable that they were led by pipers to meet the enemy. Written history cannot bind this enquiry within a narrow compass. The piper who led the Irish insurgents in A.D. 1581 has an instrument with two long grounds, and a chanter that reaches some inches below the knee. The bag seems twice the size of the same of the present day, and is placed in front of the performer, and pressed with the right forearm and wrist. 

The learned Moresin testifies his having witnessed among the “Scottish Mountaineers” their coincidence with the custom of ancient nations and lamentations of women for the departed and the funeral pipes preceding the bier. In the same century, 1591, Moresin‡ wrote of the Scottish poet’s verse:– 

I will na pricatis for me sing,
Dies illa, dies ire,
Nor yit na bellis for me ring,
Sicut sempre solet flere,
But a bagpipe to play a spring.


* Tibia. The shinbone – a pipe, a flute, originally made of bone.
† Bengue. L’Histoire de la Guerre d’Ecoisse. “Les Ecossais Sauvages se provocquoyent aux armes par les sons de leurs cornemeuses.” Paris, 1555. 

‡Moresinus, Edinburgh, 1591