The Oban Times, 4 July, 1925
The Highland Bagpipe
26 June, 1925
Sir,–Your oversea correspondent, “Manu Forti,” writing on the above subject, gives the date of Neil McMhurrich’s birth as 1620. The Bard was born in 1420, exactly 200 years earlier.
His “Seannachas Sliomidh na Pioba” is the earliest known reference to the bagpipe. His father, Lauchlan Mòr McMhurrich, was present at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411, and recited a wonderful panegyric which he composed in praise of the Clan Dhonuil. This great oration roused the MacDonalds to a frenzy of fighting enthusiasm. The poem is in alphabetical order beginning with A, and shows the fine command of language the Bard had. His son Neil was merely giving expression to the general feelings of the bards, who at that time were exceedingly jealous at the growing popularity of the piper, at the expense of the bards and harpers, whose fortunes were then on the wane. His “Seannachas Slionidh” is not of much merit, but it is of very great value historically, as it gives a full and detailed account of the Highland bagpipe in his day, and proves conclusively that it was precisely the same three-drone instrument over 300 years ago, that we have to-day.
The instrument and its music reached the flood tide of fame in the 17th century, and interest in it gradually dwindled until it touched its lowest ebb-tide in the early 19th century, when piobaireachd came so perilously near extinction that it was regarded as a lost art. The newly-formed Highland Society of London, becoming alarmed at this state of affairs, commissioned MacDonald to go round the country and gather up the fragments of the music that were not already irretrievably lost. The result was that a haphazard collection was taken from all and sundry, and from all available sources, reliable and otherwise. Hence the regrettable and obvious blunders that mar so many of the tunes from this source. In illustration of this I would refer to the “Prince’s Salute” and to the ridiculous setting of the beautiful lament, “Donald Gruamach.”
To return to the instrument itself. Pictures by well-known artists depict the old Highland piper as playing on an instrument which was only used by the mountebanks at the fairs held annually in some towns of the Lowlands. These resembled a couple of old potato mashers stuck in a two-pronged fork of wood. This was the instrument that some writers like Manson would have us believe all the great masters composed for and performed on. Shades of the McCrimmons, the Mackays of Gairloch and Raasay, and that piobaireachd genius of the ’45, John MacIntyre, Rannoch!
The Highland bagpipe owes nothing whatever to the 19th century except a bad top G note and an inferior F, which at their best are far from perfect, and at their worst are hideous. The old pipes had none of these faults. Their notes, including the two referred to, were perfect, hence so many fine masterpieces composed on the top hand. The old pipes were powerful, organ-toned instruments, with a deep, mellow, natural, volume of sound–a great contrast to much of the thin, sharp, strained tones of many pipes to-day.
From an artistic point of view also, the old pipes were works of art. The Highland craftsmen of the 16th and 17th centuries were famous for their beautiful work, whether on pipes, dirks or sporrans. On some of the old bagpipes the workmanship, carving and inlaying with silver and gold was superb. Only those who are ignorant of the instrument and its music would contend that the pipes or the piobaireachd have anything to do with the 19th century.–I am, etc.
“Druim Na Coub”