OT: 30 October 1915 – J.P.M. “The Bagpipe Scale and Its Modern Interpretation”

The Oban Times, 30 October, 1915

The Bagpipe Scale and Its Modern Interpretation

Tain, 25 October, 1915

Sir,–Mr. Colin Sinclair has seen or heard it stated that the upper G on the pipe chanter is neither G nor G sharp, but a “compromise”! I have seen or heard this statement too somewhere and sometime, and of all the nonsense that has been written and spoken about the pipe scale, this seems to me the absolute limit. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Sinclair has a good ear like most pipers, but possesses, like a great many of them, a bad chanter or a badly-fitted reed. He should ask (being a rudimentary piper) a good piper to fit a new reed for him, and also get him to play “Patrick Og MacCrimmon’s Lament,” and if, while the first variation and the doubling of this grand lament is being deftly executed, Mr. Sinclair still would prefer G sharp–and by deductive reasoning proceeds to argue that John Dall Mackay, the composer, meant these successive G’s to be played out of tune, then we can with certainty conclude that there is something wrong “with the listener’s ear.”

Every musician knows that there can be no “compromise” where octaves are concerned. It is a case of “on” or “off,” and there is no existing evidence to prove that our ancestors were defective musically to the extent of producing their octaves “half a note too sharp”! I see that Mr. Sinclair knows sol-fa well enough to turn “Patrick Og’s Lament” into that notation. Let him try it–using G sharp for his upper notes. The result will, I fancy, beggar description.

In this Bagpipe scale discussion, nothing surprises me more than the great anxiety shown by otherwise sensible musical folk to believe that there is something uncouth, barbarous, and “radically wrong” about the pipes and its scale. To put it plainly, the modern super-musician things that the piper is a super-idiot! That is, in effect, the only inference to be drawn from the superior even tenor of the criticism bestowed on the pipers in your columns by the opponents of the bagpipe. This strange attitude of Highlanders towards a branch of their national music must be due to the attempts made to name the intervals of the pipe scale in the terms of modern music. What happens? The chanter flatly refuses to reveal its true character to these “scientific” long-haired ones. But if, on the other hand, the “five note” origin of the chanter is accepted, it will be seen that several beautiful musical laws are found operating simply and effectively within the limit of its homely scale.

“On Scotia’s plains in days of yore,
When lads and lassies Tartan wore,
When sweet music rang from shore to shore,
In hamely weed,
But harmony is now no more,
And music’s deid.”
(Quod Robert Ferguson.)

Like all poets, the author of “An Elegy on the Death of Scots Music,” had the truest insight. According to him, Scotland’s genius for music was personified in the “reed.”

It would certainly be a triumph for the Highland pipe if it were proved that the musical genius of our country still lies sheltered and secure, bidding the time of revival, within the hollow tube of the pipe chanter.

I am as much surprised at your other correspondent, Mr. John Grant, as he is at me. Doesn’t he see what I am driving at? But I must not anticipate.–I am, etc.,