OT: 18 July 1925 – John Grant [reply to Druim na Coub]

The Oban Times, 18 July, 1925

Edinburgh, 6 July, 1925

Sir,–Your correspondent, “Druim na Coub,” refers to the Highland bagpipe as being a three-drone pipe as far back as 500 years ago. The authority which he quotes is only a poem of very little value, so far as proof is concerned. This poet was not a piper. He did not know the difference between one part of the pipes and another. Some people even to this day think that the blow pipe is the same as a drone. The same with the chanter. It is generally understood by all who know the Highland bagpipe that the big drone was added to the pipes in the 17th century. There was certainly no big drone on the pipes of the 16th century.

Then as regards the old and the new pipe; the former is, according to your correspondent, “organ-tone,” the latter being described as “hideous.” May I suggest that “organ-toned” is an expression which is not applicable to the pipes. What I would say is that the present pipe is superb, and the old pipe is obsolete, and many of them void of good tone. Speaking of the so-called bad high “G” and “F,” your correspondent, like many more, dwells too much on what may be called imaginative faults regarding these notes. High” G” is often a bad note, but that is not always the fault of the instrument; in most cases it is due to bad reeds.

Who that has seen a set of pipes made by “a bagpipe maker of eminence,” at the present day, can say that they are void of artistic beauty? The present pipe is all that can be desired. If the bagpipe maker is not stinted with regard to price he will supply “Druim na Coub” with a 20th century pipe which will lack nothing that craftsmanship can supply.

Your correspondent complains of the haphazard manner in which piobaireachd was collected by MacDonald and others, by the aid of the Highland Society of London. May I be permitted to say that, were it not for the labours of both Donald MacDonald and Angus Mackay, with the encouragement which they received from the Highland Society of London, we would, in all probability, never have seen piobaireachd. “Druim na Coub” refers to “The Prince’s Salute” and “Donald Gruamach” as being “beautiful tunes”! I may say that although I like these tunes, there is really very little of what a musician would call “melodious beauty” about them.

Several correspondents have written to your valuable paper making complaints, and suggesting what ought to be, and stating how these tunes should be written; but they forget that there are thousands of piobaireachd lovers whom they do not take into consideration at all, when they make such statements. One man may create a new setting of, say, “The Prince’s Salute,” but he must not forget the fact that there are thousands who may not accept this setting. If every piobaireachd lover was to reset all the irregular piobaireachd, what would be the result? These are some of the questions that fall to be considered before we begin to tamper with the old tunes.

Again, there is no proof to show that what may appear to be an irregular tune, such as the “Massacre of Glencoe,” is irregular at all. There is just the possibility that it was composed as it is. I have no hesitation in saying that those tunes which would appear to be irregular to us are the “Grim Sentinels” which guard the ancient art of piobaireachd, and there is a peculiar charm about such tunes with all their seeming irregularity that warms our blood when we play them. For myself I find a particular beauty in many of them.

In closing I should like your correspondent to give me the name of the maker of an ancient set of pipes, that will outstrip the present pipe in craftsmanship or tone. I know something about Donald MacDonald and Angus Mackay, and what they have done in the way of rescuing piobaireachd from oblivion.–I am, etc.

John Grant