OT: 13 November 1915 – Donald MacRae “The Highland Bagpipe Chanter Scale”

The Oban Times, 13 November, 1915

The Highland Bagpipe Chanter Scale

Aberdeen, 30 October, 1915

Sir,–Your correspondent Mr. Grant, in spite of all that has been said to the contrary, still persists in his contention that the chanter scale is A major, and, while I admire the spirit which prompts him to take up such an attitude, I think that, for once, he ought to give way to the majority. He compares himself to a Dreadnought surrounded by a hostile fleet, but, unfortunately for him, his opponents are not to be sunk by “one or two rounds.” Nothing Mr. Grant can say or do will dispose of the fact that the G’s of the chanter are G natural, which note, of course, finds no place in the scale of A major.

Until Mr. Grant can give a satisfactory explanation of the presence of G natural in the scale of A major, I shall be regretfully compelled to contradict him. Mr. Grant asks:–

“By what process are they to transpose the notes on the chanter into the above keys (C natural, G major, D major, and A major) or scales?”

Well it may surprise him to know that there is no transposing to be done. If he had attended carefully to J. P. M.’s first letter, he would have seen why that is the case. However, as it is both needless and impossible for me to improve upon J. P. M.’s lucid explanation, I respectfully beg Mr. Grant to study carefully J. P. M.’s first letter, and perhaps, after doing so, he will begin to see his error.

To prove his one key theory, Mr. Grant tells us that the great MacCrimmons had only one key on their chanter. Upon what evidence does he base this statement? If all the evidence we have in our possession (the compositions of the MacCrimmons) be examined, it will be found that the MacCrimmons composed in several keys, and surely it would be presumption to continue to contradict “the fathers of piobaireachd.” Examples of MacCrimmon compositions in different keys are:–”Cha till MacCrumein,” “Mal Dhonn,” and “A’ Bhiodag bhoidheach.”

Mr. Grant asks me how I am going to tune my drones to the keys of C natural, G major, D major, and A major? Well, I have no desire to tune my drones to all of these keys, but I have no doubt that, by adjusting the bridles of the reeds, it could be done. Following the custom of most pipers, I tune my drones to A, but that is not the only method of tuning. I have read somewhere or other that Angus Mackay tuned his pipes in the keys of A and G. The fact that drones are tuned to A does not prove that the scale of the chanter is A. As everybody knows, all tunes do not go equally well with the drones. In Donald MacDonald’s collection of Piobaireachd, the tunes are given under various key signatures such as C, D, A, and G.

In conclusion, let me express my appreciation to J. P. M.’s letters and my belief that his theory is correct.–I am, etc.,

Donald MacRae