OT: 23 October 1915 – James Cameron

The Oban Times, 23 October, 1915

Edinburgh, 16 October 1915

Sir,–Seeing the heading “The Chanter Scale” in “The Oban Times,” I hoped for something informing, but found elementary quibbling.

What many chanter scales have is practically key of A, with flat seventh (more or less according to fingering employed and the boring of the intervals, which the makers keep a discreet silence on). The lower G is quite flat, but the upper G is the one that varies with the make and with fingering. Mr. Sinclair’s chanter may have G “sharp,” if fingered in a certain way. Another man’s may be dead flat. Mr. Sinclair would have to define in terms of vibrations his sharp G. Mr. Grant’s arguments about his “practice chanter” and piano show nothing.

A practice chanter is merely a bit of wood bored cylindrically and with finger holes at uncertain intervals. His piano may, or may not, be in or out of tune, while the “equal temperament” to which pianos are tuned more or less successfully–it is done by rule of thumb–prevents the piano, unless tuned scientifically for a special purpose, being taken as a criterion. As a matter of fact, the ordinary chanter with its uncertain upper seven and low flat seven of the scale of A enables the performer to “wander into various keys,” thus, A major with flat seventh, A major with mutilated seventh, D major nearly true (F and C sharp), C major if F and C are avoided, G major if C is avoided; quite a selection, and even more than this in minor modes, as in “Atholl Highlanders” (composed for violin by Niel Gow) “Reel of Tullch,” “Barren Rocks of Aden,” “MacLeod of MacLeod’s Lament,” and “Cha till MacCrimmon,” respectively.

Not only have we ordinary marches, reels, etc., in three different keys playable on the chanter, but the older pibrochs are on all three various keys. It is wonderful to note in these old examples how the F and C are avoided and absent in many of these. The piper had to cut according to his cloth, whereas the modern piper forces on his pipes unsuitable airs that need scope for transposition with resulting musical murder.

These facts dispose of Mr. Grant’s last sentence of argument with a vengeance.

McCombie Smith, p. 99 of his “Athletes and Athletic Sports,” falls into a similar error, viz., that because the chanter has a certain scale which he calls A with flat seventh, the music played thereon is all in that key!

Mr. David Glenn have thoroughly gone into the matter of keys in his “Piobaireachd and Tunes for the Pipes,” consequently his works are reliable as bagpipe “music.” The old writers, from the “Canntaireachd” writers downwards, had a crude knowledge of these matters, hence the confusion.

In conclusion, I would advise your correspondents to read the excellent article by Mr. McNeill in Mr. Manson is Highland bagpipe publication (Gardner, Paisley). Mr. McNeill goes into the comparison of the bagpipe note vibrations and “equal temperament,” and gives us some scientific groundwork where we had a lot of mystery. He does not explicitly state if he used the “syren” in hitting his bagpipes scale or what other method he employed. As Mr. MacNeill says, chanters are not always–and never were–bored the same, and wear alters the notes.

What we now need is for our chanter-makers in Edinburgh and Glasgow to state the standards of their scale in terms of vibrations. As is well known, the Edinburgh and Glasgow made chanters do not agree in high G, and some makers have sharpened this note of late. The peculiarity of many Scottish and Irish tunes is the low flat seventh, and the chanter hits this off nicely, and is at the same time useful for two sharps–one sharp and even key of C avoiding the sharp notes.

The normal vocal scale of the human race would seem to be that with semi-tones between the third and fourth and seventh and eighth; notwithstanding the limited scale of certain barbarous instruments on which certain races seek to evoke this, and which put investigators on, it may be, the wrong track as regards the indigenous focal intervals. This is even true in the case of the chanter, on which few “Highland” airs can be rendered from its limited scale. Modern pipers are “adapting” such with ill success. The old pipers kept the pipes for “pipe music,” and succeeded wonderfully. To end this much-ado-about-nothing case, one may take it that the chanter is mainly key of A with flat sevenths, enabling airs in two sharps, one sharp on the natural key of C, to be played under certain restrictions. We want the chanter makers to declare their method.–I am, etc.,

James Cameron