OT: 27 November 1915 – Donald MacRae “The Bagpipe Chanter Scale”

The Oban Times, 27 November, 1915

The Bagpipe Chanter Scale

Aberdeen, 20 November, 1915

Sir,–I suppose I ought to feel flattered that your esteemed correspondent, Mr. Grant, should think it fit to devote a whole letter to such a humble individual as myself, but, as it is, his effusion leaves me more astonished and amused. Nevertheless, I think that it is my duty to justify myself in the eyes of all who may be interested in this controversy.

Mr. Grant demands proof of the statement that the G’s of the chanter are G natural. Well, I think, that although there may be some doubt about the high G, all who are taking part in this controversy are agreed that the low G of the chanter is a natural G. If Mr. Grant, after all his experience as a piper, has not yet grasped that fact, his ear must be defective. Let Mr. Grant take the frequencies of the notes by means of a syren, and then he will have a mathematical proof.

I am sorry to say, that as far as I am aware, Mr. Grant has not yet given us a satisfactory proof of his statement that the MacCrimmons had only one key on their chanter. His attempt at a proof is as follows:–” The MacCrimmons played on a chanter which produced the same notes as mine does.” Now, I ask any of your correspondents if they consider that a satisfactory proof. Mr. Grant, I think, plays a Henderson chanter, but so do I. Therefore, according to Mr. Grant, my chanter is the same as that of the MacCrimmons, and if I can find several keys on my chanter, so also could the MacCrimmons on theirs. In view of the above facts, I think I am quite justified in refusing to accept Mr. Grant’s proof.

Unlike Mr. Grant, I am not afraid to admit making a mistake. As I said in my last letter, I have no desire to tune my drones in the keys of C, G, and D, and therefore I have never tried to do so. Thus it is quite possible that I made a mistake in saying that it could be done. However, I do not think that anybody could say that my statement denotes ignorance of the pipes and reeds. It only shows that I never tried to tune my drones to all these notes.

Mr. Grant still maintains that the fact that the drones are tuned to the low A of the chanter proves that the chanter has only one key (A major). This, however, is not the case. The drones make good chords with the notes A, C, E and high A the chanter, while a less satisfactory chord is made with F. The drones do not make good chords with the notes G, B, D, and high G, and were it not for the fact that different kinds of reeds are used in the chanter and drones, the G and B notes would make an absolute discord with the drones. I may say that all this is established mathematical fact. It is also a fact that drones in G would make a good chord with the G, B, D and high G notes of the chanter. Thus we may take it that there is more than one key on the chanter.

Regarding the other method of tuning I mentioned in my last letter, I don’t think I need say anything more about it than I said before. I have read somewhere (“Encyclopaedia Britannica,” if I remember rightly) that Angus Mackay to his drones in the keys of A and G. If this is the case, it proves that Angus Mackay also believe that there is more than one key on the chanter. More than this I cannot say, as it was Angus Mackay’s method of tuning, not mine.

Next Mr. Grant gives us the interesting, although superfluous piece of information that the key signatures in Donald MacDonald’s book are for the guidance of pianists. I maintain that if Donald MacDonald thought it necessary to add key signatures other than that of A, he also believed that tunes on the chanter are played on more than one key.

The piece of advice given by Mr. Grant, in the concluding part of his letter, is very good, but quite unnecessary, and I suggest that he should take it to himself. If he “worked out all his ideas mathematically,” he would not tell us that the fact that the drones are in A proves that all tunes played on the bagpipe are in A, nor would he say that the G’s of the chanter are G sharp.

In conclusion, I should like to ask Mr. Grant what grounds he has for saying that his opponents in this debate are attempting to destroy the national music? Are we to infer that anybody who is unfortunate enough to disagree with Mr. Grant is an enemy of Highland music?–I am, etc.,

Donald MacRae