OT: 24 July 1915 – Calum MacPharlain “The Bagpipe”

The Oban Times, 24 July, 1915

The Bagpipe

Elderslie, 17 July, 1915

Sir–What a revelation of himself your correspondent Mr. John Grant is making in the correspondence under this heading! He cannot be regarded as a conscientious controversalist. For, if he was, he would hardly have set out to condemn certain quotations from a paper that was quite accessible to him, without having read the paper and learned its purpose. It is naïveté with a vengeance to call on me (the defendant) to bring forward reasons for bringing the bagpipe into the case, while he (the complainant) refers us to a certain book called “Pibroch: Its Origin and Construction” for his own reasons for making the condemnatory statements.

Mr. Grant asks me to answer the question: “If one lessens the value of the music of a certain instrument, does he not lessen the value of the instrument itself also?” They both go down together, of course. But why the question? I did not appreciate the music more the instrument. If anything. I enhanced it by saying it was probable that the style of piobaireachd was derived from that of the clarsach. For surely the clarsach is musically very much the superior instrument. Mr. Grant seems to be afraid that the bagpipes popularity would go down if, in the search after the truth of the case, it were discovered that its connection with the clarsach was a fact. If that is the case, it just means that Mr. Grant has not the moral courage to face fact.

Mr. Grant asks me what instruments were certain tunes he mentions borrowed from. Why the question? I said nothing about those tunes. But I do say that there are dance tunes played on the bagpipe which were primarily fiddle tunes.

Mr. Grant asks me–Where did the Highland Bagpipe come from? And I am asked to prove that it came from England. Again, why the question? I did not say it came from England. If I were to ask the nearest bagpiper where his Highland bagpipe came from, he, being a Lowlander, would likely say: “Frae Glesca, whaur the maist o’ them’s made.” If any are made in the Highlands I would be glad to hear that, for we have much need of industries of that class in the Highlands. Then they might truthfully be called Highland bagpipes.

He asks further: “Can he name to me a genuine Highland bagpipe march or a bagpipe march composed by an Englishman?” Why should I be asked such ridiculous questions? They have no bearing on the subject. A Highland march made by an Englishman would hardly be genuine. But it is to be presumed that those bagpipe tunes which are English tunes were made by Englishmen. There are lots of bagpipe tunes which are not Highland in any sense, and these are among the older ones. A proportion of them are English. Surely it was no Highland piper who made “Rutherglen Brig”; and nobody has contended for “The Flowers o’ the Forest” or “The Land o’ the Leal” being Highland marches, or the “Laird o’ Cockpen,” or “Johnnie Cope,” or “Protestant Boys,” or “Clean Pease Strae,” etc. ; and it is generally acknowledged by those who have looked into the matter that “Jockey Latin “Weel may the Keel Row” “cam’ frae ‘yont the Tweed.” I write from memory.

In his second letter Mr. Grant says Gaelic men satirised bagpipe in vulgar style. They certainly did. That fact Mr. Grant learned from himself. But I gave no reason for their satirising it, and it is highly absurd to say their reasons are as apparent as mine, while mine are not in evidence.

I will now give the reason, as I believe it: they feared the bagpipe as Mr. Grant fears the truth. It was dangerous, they thought, to their own pet music. They were bards and harpers. At any rate their musical bias and linguistic bias were against the bagpipe; and I commend them for their recognition of the enemy which “wiped the Gaelic bard out of the retinue of the Highland Chieftain.” I quote Mr. Grant. Is it not just wonderful how useful Mr. Grant makes himself to my argument, without meaning it quite?

Mr. Grant’s reasoning powers are exhibited at their worst when he puts the question: “what could the Gaelic poetry of old, or even modern years, due in the charge to-day on the battlefield?”

I might as well ask him what could the bagpipe do in “The Charge of the Light Brigade”? I should like immensely to see a cavalry charge with a piper or two mounted on horses. The cavalry charge itself might be a fine sight; but the splendour would sink into nothing in comparison with the laughability of Piper Mackay and his doodle-sack for it would then be a doodle-sack indeed–oh, Mr. Grant! The charge of the Light Brigade was a heroic charge; but there was no bagpipe–no stimulant. It was not needed. As a fighting stimulant religious bigotry is allowed to be about the best. But the late Lord Wolsely said a better one was the sense of honour of an English gentleman. Nobody thinks of the sense of honour of the Gaelic gentleman, because there is a conscientiousness hardly ever expressed that assumes Gaelic gentlemen to have abandoned all national honour when they abandoned their national language. That movement began with the advent of the bagpipe, and was perhaps part of the reason of it.

The Gaelic language is the only genuine badge of Gaelic patriotism.

Will I own up to jealousy of the bagpipe? Certainly not. It is impossible for me to own up to a thing which is not here. I am the man who, along with the late Dr. MacBain, did most to turn research into the development of the bagpipe in Scotland on to scientific lines–he historically, I musically. And the late Andrew Lang thought my findings were about right. See back numbers of “The Graphic,”–I am, etc.,

Calum MacPharlain