OT: 11 December 1915 – Allan MacDonald “The Origin of Bagpipe Music”

The Oban Times, 11 December, 1915

                                                      The Origin of Bagpipe Music

Waternish, Isle of Skye, 26 November, 1915

Sir,–As to the origin of bagpipe music, some are of the opinion that it is to be derived from the Danes, but Mr. Pennant thinks differently, and gives the following reasons for deriving it from Italy:–

Neither of these instruments (the Highland and Lowland bag-pipes already described) were the invention of the Danes, or, as is commonly supposed, of any of the Northern nations; for their ancient writers prove them to have been animated by the Clangor Tubarum. Notwithstanding they have had their soock-pipe long amongst them, as their old songs prove, yet we cannot allow them the honour of inventing the melodious instrument; but must assert that they borrowed it from the invaded Caledonians. We must still go farther, and deprive even that ancient race of the credit; and derive its origins from the mild climate of Italy, perhaps from Greece.

There is now in Rome a most beautiful bas relievo, a Grecian sculpture of the highest antiquity, of a bag-piper playing on his instrument, exactly like a modern Highlander. The Greeks had their instrument composed of a pipe and blown up skin; the Romans in all probability borrowed it from them, and introduced it among their swains, who still use it under the name of Piva and Carnn-Muza.

That master of music, Nero, used one; and had not the Empire been so suddenly deprived of that great artists, he would (as he graciously declared his intention) have treated the people with a concert, and, among other curious instruments, would have introduced the Utricutarius or bag-pipe. Nero perished; but the figure of the instrument is preserved on one of his coins, but highly improved by that great master; it has the bag and two of the vulgar pipes; but was blown with a bellows, like an organ; and had on one side a row of nine unequal pipes, resembling the syrinx of the God Pan. The bag-pipe, in the unimproved state, is also represented in an ancient sculpture; and appears to have had two long pipes were drones, and a single short pipe for the fingers. Tradition says that the kind played on by the mouth was introduced by the Danes; as theirs was wind-music, we will admit that they might have made improvements; but more we cannot allow; they were skilled in the use of the trumpet; the Highlander in the piohb, or bag-pipe.

“Non tuba in uan Illia, conjecta ut tibia in uirem
Dat belli signum, et martem vocat horrida in orma.”

Formerly there were in the Isle of Skie a kind of college were the Highland bagpipe was taught; the teachers making use of pins stuck in the ground instead of marks for musical notes. One of these colleges, George Mackie, the reformer of the Lowland bag-pipe, is said to have attended seven years. He had before been the best performer on that instrument in that part of the country where he lived; but, while attending college at Skie, he adopted the graces of the Highland music to the Lowland pipe. Upon his return, he was heard with astonishment and admiration; but unluckily, not being able to commit his improvements to writing, and indeed the nature of the instrument scarce admitting of it, the knowledge of this kind of music hath continued to decay ever since, and will probably soon wear out altogether. What contributes much to this is, that the bag-pipers, not content with the natural nine notes which there instrument template easily, force it to play tunes requiring higher notes, which disorders the whole instrument in such a manner as to produce the most horrid discords; and this practice brings, though undeservedly, the instrument itself into contempt.

Thus we learn that the great Highland bagpipe had only two drones in 1778, which is confirmed by one of John Kay’s prints–“ A Medley of Musicians”–in which Bailie Jamie Duff of Edinburgh, of that period, is caricatured playing the great Highland bagpipe of two drones.

Prince Charlie’s piper, Alexander Monro, in 1745-46, is represented playing the bagpipe of two drones. The print is in Foulis Castle.

The fact of teachers of bagpipe music in Skye in bygone days “making use of pins stuck in the ground, instead of marks for musical notes,” is pretty strong evidence against the alleged MacCrimmon notation having been committed to writing by these famous pipers.

I heard my uncle–the late Captain Allan MacDonald of Waternish–repeat Gesto’s notation, which, I think, he said was invented by Gesto himself.

The last of the MacCrimmon pipers in the service of the MacLeod family seems to have been Donald MacCrimmon, whose name appears in the Estate Rental Book in 1769, now in my possession.

This fact, I think, upsets the MacCrimmon genealogy as recorded in A. Mackay’s publication of Highland pipe music.–I am, etc.,

 Allan MacDonald