OT: 4 May 1907 – “Meeting of the Experts” Report

The Oban Times, 4 May, 1907




A meeting was held in the Royal Gymnasium Hall, Fettes Row, Edinburgh, on Wednesday, the 17th April, of pipers, pipe makers, and all interested in piping matters to consider and discuss the chanter scale, with the object of attaining a standard for general future use.

There were present–Major-General C.S. Thomason, R. E.; Miss Ysobel Campell of Inverneill; Messrs D. B. MacDougall, Edinburgh; Angus Campbell, Killberry; James Aytoun, Colonel Hugh Scott, Dr. Charles Bannatyne, Captain Colin Macrae, Otter Ferry, Argyll; Mr. W. Mackay Tait, London; Mr. F. C. Crawford, Edinburgh; Mr. J. MacKillop, jun., Hon. Pipe-Major Scottish Pipers’ Society; Mr. John Bartholomew, hon. secretary Scottish Pipers’ Society; Mr. Somerled MacDonald, Mr. Donald Shaw, Lieutenant McLennan, Pipe-Major J. MacDougall Gillies (of Peter Henderson, Glasgow), Pipe-Major John MacDonald, Inverness; Pipe-Major Farquhar Macrae, Glasgow; Pipe-Major John Mackenzie, Glasgow; Mister Robert G. Lawrie, do.; Mr. John Wilson, Callender; Mr. Jas. Sutherland, Airdie; Mr. Henry Barrie; Mr. John Dickson, Edinburgh; Mr. W. Rutherford; Mr. J. Strathdee, Mr. J. Smith, Mr. James Gordon, Edinburgh; Mr. Charles Wood, do.; Mr. R. Rutherford, Edinburgh.

Mr. General Thomason said–Perhaps some had come under the impression that he was going to lay down what the scale of the pipes should be. That was the subject which required a great deal of study. He had studied it a good deal, but he did not think it was in any man’s power to say he laid down a scale for the pipes and say–” That is what it should be.” As far as he could make out from reading up the subject, they were now in much the same position as MacDonald was when he brought out his chanter, he supposed, in the beginning of last century. MacDonald’s knowledge must have been rather limited. People did not know much about music of that kind; but what MacDonald did was to go on much the same track as he proposed to go on now. He could only lay before them


he had, and it was for the pipers to say what the scale should be, not for amateurs. They had probably seen what he had written in “The Oban Times”; that was to create an interest in the subject. As pipers, they got into extraordinary habits. He was all his life in India, but it never took the love of the pipes out of him. The tendency was for a man to take up his chanter and work at it year after year and say–” There is none other like it.” It was wonderful that the ear got accustomed to, bad music and all, if not checked. In his last letter to “The Oban Times,” he had pointed out his conception of the question they were considering. The bagpipe was originally a domestic instrument; it then became a martial instrument, and its character had changed very much in consequence. It had got to this, that the high G was not the octave of the low G. There must be some reason for this. He had turned his attention to the subject, and thought there was a good deal in what he found in Manson’s book on Highland pipers, which contained an excellent article by Macneil. He had learned a good deal from that. One thing he learned was that the scale was too diatonic. Therefore, he thought that MacDonald, who had taken a good deal of trouble in the matter, might be looked upon as a starting point. Since his time, there was John Ban’s chanters, but these did not give the original scale. He had put down in his letter to “The Oban Times” what data he had been able to collect. He had put it down by vibration. He had been accused speaking a language that pipers


but vibration was a very simple thing. If they talked to a scientific man of the subject, he would speak about a note having so many vibrations, and not A B C. After showing how vibrations of sound were scientifically counted, General Thomason asked how they were to bring that information to bear on the problem before them. They had first the difficulty of their sound producer, their reed. They knew how kittle a thing a pipe reed was. They could not get two to agree, and when they got them to agree they put them down for five minutes and then they disagreed. That was one difficulty. The other was the one of data, as to what used to please their forefathers. Manson opened their eyes as to how they got at it; he tried to show what a scale was by vibration. He (General Thomason) tried to extend the observations then available by getting as many chanters as he could, and see what each said. Having done that, he wanted the president meeting to choose some men who could be relied upon as good judges on the point. They would not agree with MacDonald, probably, but at any rate they would get something to agree upon, and until then they would find the scale going from bad to worse till it was not recognisable. Why did chanters not agree? It was not the fault of the makers. It was


all said and done. His theory might not be quite correct, but if they concentrated their energies to one thing, upon the scale that was fixed for them by proper men, then they would have something to go on. At present no two of them agreed. Many years ago there was the same difficulty about the ordinary musical scale. They could not agree about the pitch; he did not know if they could agree yet; but since the question was raised, there had been great improvement. If they made a beginning now in regard to the bagpipes they would arrive at an improvement in the end also. Pipers had first to make good what seemed to him a great want, and that was some means of recording what their chanters told them. They had nothing to do that with in the pitch pipe; that did not give them what they wanted at all. They wanted to be able to put the pitch down according to rule, and they wanted it exactly laid down that a particular note had so many vibrations, and another note so many more. The machine (called a voicer) he exhibited, was not his own idea, but a modification of what had been in use. There was nothing new about it; it was just adapted to their present wants. He was glad to say that since his letters appeared in “The Oban Times,” other people had come forward and brought their chanters. He had great hopes they would get something to go on. There were two


One was the Dunvegan chanter. They had all to thank MacLeod of MacLeod for its use. It was founded by Mr. MacKillop and himself in Skye–and supposed to be MacCrimmon’s chanter. He thought it was MacCrimmon’s–whether Patrick Og’s or not, he could not say. He thought it might be Ian Dhu’s. The chanter was much broken, and was given to Henderson to repair. It was not repaired to make it a playing instrument, but just sufficient to carry on its existence. It was not intended to be played upon. In the meantime he got from a music instrument maker information as to how that question might be tackled, and how even that chanter might be made to play. He saw at once that it must be shorter than it originally was. The people who were repairing it were wanting to make a good strong job of it, and it was shortened; that had interfered very much with the high G notes. But even after that, the high G was not very much higher than what they were playing it now. Making that allowance, he could not help thinking that the chanter, if originally the same length as it was would not have such a high G. Very probably a high G would be an octave of the lower. The next chanter was the Culloden chanter, which was picked up on the field of Culloden. It was shown in the museum at Elgin. He had seen it frequently. No doubt it was the military chanter, seeing that it was picked up at Culloden. When MacDonald came and tackled the question, he was in a difficulty. In the first place he said that if he made the G an octave of the G below, he might be right, but he would not


to use it, they were so accustomed to the high G. MacDonald, as he has shown in his letter, to “The Oban Times,” had made a kind of compromise. He raised the low G, which enabled him to make the G not so high as apparently it was, and brought it within the rules of ordinary music. Then take John Ban Mackenzie’s chanter. It had a lovely tone; but nothing would persuade him that that was the chanter used in days gone by. In the same way that MacDonald took the opinion of every piper he came across, he (General Thomason wanted to take the opinion of the pipers of the present day. Let them say what it should be. They might be right or wrong; but anything was better than going without a standard pitch. They went to a competition, as someone said, “That fellow’s pipes are out of tune.” What was tune? No one can say. In one of his letters to “The Oban Times,” he pointed out the result of all this. The pipes ought to be an instrument penetrating a good distance, but if they were heard a short way off, they could not make head nor tail of what the pipers were playing, because they were playing a different scale. If there were half a dozen different chanters playing in a pipe band, and not in accord, they could not be heard properly. That was one of the things he wanted to see corrected if they could. If they fixed on the scale, whatever it was, they would be so far advanced as to make the pipes distinguishable, and the tune heard very much further than now, and it would be much more of a martial instrument that it was at present. In connection with the scale, there were two things to keep in mind. First of all, the pitch. They might have a high pitch or a low pitch. As far as he could make out, the result of these investigations would be that they would have two pitches. They would have a low pitch, which was reverting to what had been proved to be prevalent in days gone by. They would have another pitch, the high pitch, which ruled now. The high pitch had been bothering musicians all over England. They had driven Continental musicians almost mad. The English pitch was so high that no one could sing to it. He found that the pitch for the pipe, A, gave 452 vibrations. That was very high. The old chanters used to have 439, which was a great difference, being very much lower. He confessed that he liked the low pitch more for ceol mor. He did not see how they could get over two chanters. There was nothing to prevent a man if he liked a high pitch sticking to it; but it would be more satisfactory, and he thought pipers would come to the conclusion that it was better, to have two pitches, one for ceol mor and the other for ceol autrum. He would like to have a committee or judges who would command the confidence of all pipers. He did not want anything except a representative of his School, the Cameron School. The committee might consist of from three to seven members; but from three to five would be about enough. When they had


he would be able to book exactly what they fixed on. Coming together difficulty, that of the reed, he said he had taken up that subject, and was not yet through with it. He had an assistant whose idea was that the reed absorbed the moisture, and therefore varied in tone. In that case they ought to make the reed of some substance such as zilonite, which would not absorb moisture. Vulcanite had also been tried. Having first settled what the scale should be, he thought many of their difficulties would vanish. In order to get at the laws which govern the making of a reed, they must study the question scientifically, and not go haphazard about it. Then they had a record as to what the reeds did; they must examine them and see how they varied. In fitting the reed they might use sandpaper higher up or down, and ascertain what the rule was. That was working scientifically, and in this way they would not work in the dark, as at present. It was just a toss-up at present whether they had a good reed or a bad reed when it left the maker’s hands. He had tried to get two men in Inverness to take up that business, but had not succeeded. They must not leave it to one or two men; all of them should try and work at the same thing. Take the splay of the reed at the top. Inside that there was a copper tube. Should that copper tube come up to any particular place? They had nothing to guide them. A man required a great deal of experience to make reeds. Another matter was that if they removed that tube a little higher, it shortened


of the reed; they sharpened the reed. They cut off the note and made the reed sharper. If they carried out experiments systematically they could learn which way to sharpen the reed. He could not find any man who could tell him that at present. They made a good reed and put it in a glass bottle, showing it was a thing they should take him seriously. He wanted to create more enthusiasm among them to work with him. He would have nothing to do with the question it pipers were not to be consulted. This was a matter of scale, and ought to be left absolutely to the decision of pipers. Let them have a scale as near as possible to suit everybody. That would be something to work on. He would be glad of suggestions as to how such a committee could be arrived at as would command the confidence of all pipers. He proposed to take every suggestion they got; hitherto these had not been booked; every man had gone his own way. Let everyone put his pen to paper, and send it to “The Oban Times.” In London he had come across the very best musicians and musical instrument makers, and they all said they could not judge this by ordinary rules. Blakeley, to whom he made every acknowledgment for the assistance he had given him, was a maker of chanters, and said, “I can only give you the best that occurs to me.” He obtained three chanters from Blakeley, who said, “These may help you; I don’t say any of them is correct, but they may help you to arrive at it.” He also made up one according to MacDonald’s formula. He did not lay down that they should all take MacDonald’s chanter, but it was


After all, it must be a question of give-and-take, and he would be glad, before this meeting separated, if they got suggestions as to how they might go to work giving the least offence. In his voicer, the principal is the same as Blakeley’s, but for every note he had a pipe, each working independently. When they made up their mind that any particular note was right, then they could register it with the voicer. All they had to do was to book the sound through the voicer when they had made up their mind.

Dr. Bannatyne thought that General Thomason placed too much stress on the number of vibrations in the different notes. At a height of 900 vibrations, 10 extra from the lower octave made little difference in the bagpipe scale. If they were aiming at harmony with other instruments in the orchestra, it would make all the difference, 10 of a difference in 900 was so much of a difference as to be almost negligible. So far as the chanter scale was concerned, General Thomason had tested the scale by keeping on his F finger and playing high G. Why did he not test the C by keeping on the low G, which nearly all ceol mor players do. The late Colin Brown, yr., Lecturer in Anderson’s college, a thoroughly trained musician and Highlander, brought up in the Highlands, invented a sort of harmonium, which is absolutely correct in its method of getting the number of vibrations; it is impossible for his instrument to make a mistake. Brown had tested over so many chanters, and had come to the conclusion that a scale was just to C in the scale of G from his knowledge of the chanters, and inimitable knowledge of Highland music. He was not a piper; but he had Donald MacPhie at hand, and drew his conclusions from MacPhie’s playing. When a musician like Colin Brown adopts F to G in the scale of C, that is G to A in the scale of D, they did not need to go further in judging as to what


The majority of pipers seemed to think it was G to A in the key of D. As far as he understood the bagpipe scale, he said it was the work of a genius. It had been made to play to three keys with a minimum of error. The result was that C was neither major or minor, but a compromise. The little difference between Te and Ta actually turned the bagpipe scale into a work of genius; that is to say, it was a tampered scale, but it was tampered with by people who knew nothing about music, and therefore had been a work of genius. He was afraid the difficulties they would have to contend with to get pipers to take it up would be greater then they could overcome. A good plan to distinguish some of the chanters to-day was to get some of the classical pipers to tune them before they were put into the bag to test; but what guarantee had they that the blowing in the voicer was even all over.

General Thomason said they could get five seconds in the middle which they could depend on.

Dr. Bannatyne asked what would happen in the case of a chanter being tested with the voicer and the G being lower than his G.

General Thomason said the voicer was made to comprise every chanter.

Mr. Mackay Tait said that as pipers of note were present, he asked them to express themselves with regard to the remarks made by General Thomason and Dr. Bannatyne, because while theory was all very well, they ought to have more of the picturesque; along with technicality, they wanted a musician with a soul. He knew two or three were present who had a soul for music, and he would like to hear what they have to say.

Pipe-Major John MacDonald remarked that under present circumstances their chanter was not adapted for some of the tunes they had to play; they had sometimes great difficulty in getting the tunes out to their own ear, particularly the high G. If Dr. Bannatyne and General Thomason would do anything to help them out of the difficulty, they would be pleased to give them any assistance.

Mr. MacKillop–Principally on the high G?

Pipe-Major John MacDonald–yes; I am talking personally of my own knowledge.

Mr. Donald Shaw suggested that the difficulty about high G arose just through trying tunes that were really intended for the violin, and not for the bagpipes.

Mr. MacKillop asked if in dealing with the high G they did not in certain reeds get better high G’s that in others.

Pipe-Major John MacDonald–Certainly.

Mr. Mackillop–That goes to prove that the reed has a good deal to do with it.

Pipe-Major John McDonald–Yes.

Dr. Bannatyne–Has Pipe-Major MacDonald not found that a good deal of the difficulty with high G disappears when the reed gets heated.

Pipe-Major John MacDonald–No; in certain cases it might be, but it is not so on the whole.

Dr. Bannatyne said he had heard the defect very marked when playing Patrick MacCrimmon’s Lament.

Mr. Mackillop said the improvement on the upper notes was due to certain reeds.

Pipe-Major MacDougall-Gillies thought that the reed was as much to blame as the chanter. The same chanter and the different reed would be perfect where the reed was imperfect before, which showed that the reed had a good deal to do with it, in his opinion. It was a difficult matter to tackle; till they got a perfect reed it would be difficult getting a perfect chanter.

Mr. MacKillop–There is a most excellent reed maker present, Mr. Dickson, who may have some opinion to express.

Mr. Dickson thought the moisture in the chanter and reed had a good deal to do with the alteration of the tone. He had made chanter reeds of several things, but had found nothing suitable. He had even tried one of whalebone, and had found difficulty in getting the sides of the reed to come close.

Dr. Bannatyne said that if there were two or three different ways of playing, that would


in the note.

Mr. Somerled MacDonald asked what was the right way of playing, and whether there was any difference in the pibroch from marches.

Mr. Mackay Tait said his opinion was that the correct way of playing was the F finger down, and a corresponding one on the bottom open, C.

Dr. Bannatyne–Without mentioning the techniques of the note at all, what is Mr. Mackay Tait’s opinion–should the note be flat or sharp?

Mr. Mackay Tait–Neither sharp or flat. The note should be, according to a good musician’s ear, correct.

Dr. Bannatyne–What is correct?

Mr. Mackillop–That is a point on which it would be difficult to agree, as nearly every individual piper has his own way of fingering.

Mr. Mackay Tait–I would like to know what Pipe-Major Gillies thinks.

Pipe-Major Gillies–When the note is in tune, that is the correct way.

Lieut. MacClellan said he would really like to know what was the proper fingering at the chanter. He was judge along with a famous player once, and saw him put away a very good pibroch player for lifting the G finger. He was judge with another famous piper on another occasion, and he put away a man for doing the other thing. He came across a very fine piper, the finest reel and strathspey player ever he heard. Two or three of them thought he did not play


Another gentleman in town played D and E up. He said that he had been taught to play that way by Roderick Mackay, Angus Mackay’s brother, piper to the Queen. This piper said the Mackays held that if they had the note and the finger below it open, that was all right. He could not say that piper was wrong; he did not know. That was two scales he got. He did not know which of them to follow. He wished somebody would put them right as to what finger should be put down and what finger was to be closed.

The Chairman said that seemed to be an individual opinion among the pipers, and they could not put down such a conclusion here

Mr. Angus Campbell, Killberry, said the whole point on the controversy had been about the high G. There was one thing he had found about high G that he had not found about any other note. He found people all round the ground who could not agree among themselves whether a man’s pipes were in tune or not. A man did not like to lay down the law, because there was so much difficulty as to the law on the matter. As to ten vibrations making no difference, he would say that on high G four vibrations made a difference. He had asked Sandy Cameron, who said, “Judge by the sound; if the reed is getting flatter, lift more fingers, and sharpen up in that way.” You don’t find a high F running down if you have a good reed, but high G is the untrustworthy note. If they could agree on high G that sounded correct to the ears of the majority of people, the question of the chanter’s scale


Pipe-Major MacDougall-Gillies said that when G was correct it was as pleasant as any other note, but it was very often incorrect.

Lieutenant MacLennan then proposed that a committee be appointed, with powers to add to their number, to consider and report on the whole question to a meeting to be called. The following were elected:–Lieut. MacLennan, Mr. Somerled MacDonald, Dr. Bannatyne, Pipe-Major MacDougall-Gillies, Pipe-Major John MacDonald, Mr. Bartholomew, Mr. J. Dickson, Mr. J. MacKillop, Mr. Lawrie, Mr. Center, and Pipe-Major Farquhar Macrae, Glasgow.

Mr. Mackay Tait seconded.

Pipe-Major Gillies moved as an amendment that nobody be appointed a member of committee unless he was a piper, amateur or professional, but this was not seconded, and Lieut. McClellan’s motion was agreed to.

Dr. Bannatyne moved a vote of thanks to General Thomason. He said that pipe music all over the world a great deal more to General Thomason then ever it could repay, and the convening of this meeting would not be one of the least things he had done.

The proceedings then terminated.