OT: 9 October 1915 – Calum MacPharlain

The Oban Times, 9 October, 1915

Elderslie, 2 October, 1915

Sir,–We can now measure Mr. Grant knowledge of the subject which he has undertaken to champion at its proper value. He says that, because I cannot play the bagpipe, I know nothing whatever of the real merits of its music. This is indeed a new kind of gospel. How then is it that so many bagpipers wear on their breast medals awarded by men who make no pretense of being able to fill the bag, let alone finger a chanter? But perhaps those intelligent men know the real merits of bagpipe music; and it is only thick-headed Callum who is incapable of grasping it. Well, well; let it remain at that in the meantime, while we pass on to consider Mr. Grant’s capacity to form a correct judgment on that or any other point connected with this correspondence.

Mr. Grant is proud at being the only person who has written that there are only eight notes of the bagpipe scale. If it will add to his pride, let me say that he is likely to remain the only person who has said so. In a former letter I gave him credit for having uttered the statement with a special meaning; but I see now that I was rather complementary. For he makes it clear in his last letter that he has yet to learn what a scale is, and that he is at sea regarding the bagpipe one.

He says: “Have I not now settled the question” (of the connection between the Highland bagpipe and Gaelic song?). There was no such question put forward by me. It was Mr. Grant who raised the question which he has now settled, as he thinks. It will take a prophet’s vision to find out one statement of his that makes for settling the question. What has he said about the question? Nothing. And why he brought it on board at all is only known to himself. The article he attacked contained a reputation of the assumption that there was considerable mutual influence between the bagpipe’s music and that of Gaelic song. It became apparent pretty far back in this correspondence that Mr. Grant had found a mare’s nest.

He says I have made a grave error in saying there are nine notes in the Highland chanter scale. What does he mean at all? He himself has given us the names of nine, “which can be produced on the bagpipe chanter,” namely G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A. Two of these notes are duplicates, namely G and A. But if we take these away we have only seven left. So that, giving “scale” any of its legitimate meanings, Mr. Grant is wrong again. In fact, he has discovered another mare’s nest.

But even as he understands the scale, he is wrong. For there is no note called C played on the bagpipe. If the second lowest note be called A, that every person with an ear for music must know that C sharp is the fourth, and also that F sharp is the seventh. But these are staff notation terms, and unscientific, and it is [a] waste of time and effort to discuss scales by their means. The scale of the bagpipe is fully represented in the appendix of Mr. Manson’s book, and the mathematical relations of the notes to one another, under the four keys which bagpipers try to play, are plainly set forth, so that no one need flounder.

Mr. Grant says “it is not necessary to have every note of the chanter or its scale in one tune. This again proves ignorance in Highland bagpipe music.” Again, what does he mean? I made it as clear as day that it was possible to use every note of the chanter in one tune, and that, in cases, it was necessary to avoid certain notes; but never that it was necessary to use all the notes in any tune.

He says there are neither Fhs, Sohs, nor Tahs in Highland bagpipe music. If there are no Fahs or Sohs in it, why does he tell us that the scale contains F and G? Does he not know that the relation of F2 G is that of Fah to Soh?

The following is the bagpipe scale undoubtedly, in the terminology of both notations. I put a. Between the full tones, and they, between the semitones. All musicians are agreed that the second lowest note of the chanter is an absolute pitch A. If we make that note Soh we get the relations between the notes of the whole gamut reasonably correct:

G. A. B. C#, D. E. F#, G. A
Fah. Soh. Lah. Te, doh. Ray. Me, fah. Soh

But, of course, the sole font notation meets the case better than the other, being founded on the relations of the notes, not on absolute pitch, which leads to confusion of thought. –I am, etc.,

Calum MacPharlain