OT: 30 October 1915 – John Grant “Highland Bagpipe Music”

The Oban Times, 30 October, 1915

Highland Bagpipe Music

27 Comely Bank Street, Edinburgh, 25 October, 1915

Sir,–In your issue of last week I appear at the first glance as a Dreadnought in a storm and surrounded by an apparent fleet of some strength; but there is room for manoeuvre, and care and skill may befriend me.

Your correspondent Mr. MacPharlain accuses me of using a bludgeon. Sir, that is the weapon of a coward, and foreign both to myself and my attitude. Mr. MacPharlain further says that he refuses absolutely to discuss the scale of the pipes in Staff Notation. Sir, no one has asked him to discuss it in any notation; it is his own free will that has made him do it–and to no purpose. Bagpipe music is written in staff notation. It is instrumental music, not vocal, and it must be discussed in its proper form. Mr. MacPharlain is not a piper. If you got a set of pipes and a thousand reeds he could not tune them to any key or scale, while I can. For these reasons your correspondent should be ruled out of order, and classed as one who cannot put what he preaches into practice. “Musaeus” says I should give vibrations in order to prove my statements. Sir, I have proved my identity, and that is more than he has done. Otherwise his proof is nil. Mr. Sinclair and I agree on the chanter scale.

Now to save time let me draw up the opposing fleet in line so that I can turn my big guns upon them and one or two rounds will sink the lot, and also save your valuable space. I now ask Mr. MacPharlain, Mr. J. P. MacLeod, Mr. Musaeus, the unknown, Mr. MacRae, and Mr. Cameron how they are to tune the tenor drones to the keys of C natural, G major, D major, and A major? By what process are they to transpose the notes on the chanter into the above keys or scales? The bagpipe chanter is on the scale of A major, and the tenor drones are tuned to the keynote A. Now, if it is possible to get scales of C m., G m., D m., and A m. on the chanter, it would also have to be possible (which is not) to tune the drones to all these various keys or key notes. One must deal with the instrument that is to play the music, examine it, and not deal with music applicable to other instruments that have no connection with it. In Gunn’s collection of pipe music he distinctly says the scale of the chanter is A major and shows how to produce the notes to that scale. Henderson’s tutor has the same illustration. C and high G are the only notes which can be sharpened and they are not intended to be according to the fingering given for the scale of A major. It is utterly impossible to tune the tenor drones in unison with C m., G m., D m., or any other scale or keynote except A major. Therefore this is proof that no such scales are found on the chanter. This disposes of Mr. Cameron’s erroneous statements and ideas. What can he say to that? True Mr. David Glen gives in a book of pipe music called “Irish Tunes” the key signatures for all the above scales. As Mr. Glen is a bagpipe maker, perhaps he will tell us what scale or scales his chanters are tuned to, or how we are to dispose of the difficulties above-mentioned.

Mr. Cameron wants the pipe makers to tell him what their vibrations are and to what scale they tune their chanters. Sir, therein lies the secrets of a perfect chanter. Those secrets belong to the trade, and it is not to be expected and unfair to ask such questions. If the bagpipe makers are willing to divulge their secrets we nevertheless shall be very pleased to accept them. Now what is to happen if Peter Henderson, Glasgow, said that he tuned his chanters to the scale of A major? Where would all these clamourers be? They would look at each other with blue eyes and their “scales” would drop to the heavy side, viz.:–A major. I play Peter Henderson’s pipes, and, to be straightforward, I will speak as I play. Mr. Henderson has a perfect chanter; so had John Ban Mackenzie. The Elgin chanter is obsolete, and it was not tuned to perfection. The matter written by the five correspondents named consecutively in this letter is already forgotten. It has melted like snow at noontide under the scorching rays of the summer sun.

The great MacCrimmons had not three or four foreign scales on their chanter. John Ban Mackenzie did not speak of such tomfoolery. The veteran Calum Macpherson, piper to Cluny, had only one scale for his pipes. They were pipes of the first rank in the olden days. Their efforts were genuine and the fruits of them still survive. I can claim to have done a little to put wrongs right in your valuable columns; while I live in can wield my pen I will defend my native music and musical instrument from degradation and confusion. The great Highland bagpipe and its music are part of our national fortifications, which in peace or war can never be equaled. They stimulate our Highland, Lowland, and English armies on the weary march, and the notes of this peculiar music lull them to sleep on the battlefield–some to be borne heavenward in the gentle arms of the Angel of Death, who carries them back to their Creator to receive a just reward of their patriot service.–I am, etc.

John Grant