OT: 6 June 1925 – Angus C. Robertson “The Highland Bagpipe”

The Oban Times, 6 June, 1925

The Highland Bagpipe

Seacliff, Otago, New Zealand, 3 April, 1925

Sir,–In your issue of January 10, I was pleased to read Mr. John Grant’s letter on his lecture to Tir nam Beann Society (Edinburgh) on the above subject. The lecture was evidently on the “Origin and Evolution of the Highland Bagpipe,” a subject which is of universal interest.

I can lay claim to being the son of a piper, with piping ancestors going back for 10 generations. I have fingered the chanter myself for a period of fifty years, and I can still play “The Skye Crofter,” “John Roy Stuart,” and “The Kilt is my Delight.”

I am proud to relate that I was born in the Isle of Skye, the home of piping and the bardic tribe, and naturally enough I know something about Peter Mhor MacCrimmon. There is one sentence in Mr. Grant’s letter which is not correct, namely, “I maintain that the Highland Bagpipe has nothing to do with any other pipe or any other nation.” Our Gaelic and English literature is rich with matter on the subject.

It is a widely recognised fact, generally admitted and well-founded, that the present Highland bagpipe was originally, and is still, an Eastern instrument. The origin of the pipe is entirely wrapped up in the mists of antiquity and mythological lore, and is purely conjectural. But it can be safely surmised to have originated at a remote period of time when primitive man first discovered the value of vibration from a musical aspect. It is therefore a subject on which no man can dogmatise without appearing absurd. I dealt with the subject of “The Origin of Harp and Pipe” in the “Celtic Monthly” of 1916, the article appearing in four installments.

Does Mr. Grant want proof of the pipe being an Eastern instrument? Well, the proof is this–(a) human life first originated in the Orient, and preceded all musical instruments; (b) we are all descended from that main stock, consequently there was no difference originally between the Celt and Saxon, etc., and the present existing difference was evolved by environment and space; and, geologically speaking, Scotland at that period was merged in Scandinavia. Let Mr. Grant look up reliable works of reference, of which there are surely plenty in Edinburgh.

I have heard good piping by native pipers in India, China and Japan, and those smiling Celestials are light-footed and graceful dancers, and find delightful poetry in motion. On one occasion, on one of the Andaman Islands, in the Indian Ocean, after being shipwrecked, I came across a most interesting piper. Tired and weary, wet and hungry, I fell asleep on the raft as it drifted ashore. I was awakened by the pleasing notes of the pipe coming from a distant wood. I trailed the sound with some difficulty till I got up to it. Here, to my utter surprise, I beheld a man dressed in the Indian garb playing a strange-looking bagpipe. The man himself wore next to nothing, as the custom is. He made a lasting impression on my mind as I beheld him from a distance. It was evident that he was a European. But what struck me most of all was the strange make of his pipes. He had a double set of drones, one on each shoulder, with a wind-bag under each arm, and a big, long chanter with a terrible volume of sound. A contraption of leather tubes conducted the wind across his back from bag to bag. I see the proud step of that man yet as he played “Over the hills and far away,” while the natives squatted around beating drums. To make a long story short, he turned out to be a shipwrecked mariner, too–Donald MacCrimmon, of Skye. He had been on the island for some years, and trained a great number of pipers among the natives. Needless to say how glad I was to meet the man, who treated me with great kindness. His story was a most interesting one, but I must not digress from my subject.

The Hebrews played the pipe 6000 years ago, and it is mentioned several times in the Bible. A piper in full regalia appears on one side of a coin struck during Nero’s reign. The Celts of Italy play the pipe. It was played in prehistoric time in England and Wales. At a certain period in Irish history the present Highland pipe was played in Ireland. It was suppressed however, owing to it being used to incite the populace to warfare, hence the origin of the Irish pipe (see Old Irish Gaelic Records). By the way the Irish Gaelic is almost identical with that of the Hebrides.

Long may Mr. John Grant and similar readers of the “Oban Times” be spared to play the pipes and lecture on them. The foregoing will be understood as a friendly criticism. Your many readers will be interested to know that we have a Piping and Dancing Association in New Zealand, of which Mr. Kenneth Cameron, of Dunedin, is a leading light. We have more pipe bands and pipers in this country, on a population basis, than any other nation in the world.

Here under I quote a few lines of a poem I made on the occasion of the Dunedin Pipe Band winning the cup:–

The lofty Hills around Dunedin fair
Shook from their sylvan heights the misty air.
Like mighty warriors awaked from sleep,
That tower majestic o’er thy rolling deep:
They echo and re-echo on the gale
The thrilling, warlike numbers of the Gael.
Which sound triumphant, ever loud and clear,
Then fall with sobbing cadence on the ear.
In these wild notes I hear the clash of war,
As when opposing forces met afar–
The Heights of Alma, Lucknow, Waterloo,
Successive pass before my mental view;
With rousing cascades dashing down the Ben,
And pushing [sic] streamlets winding thro’ the Glen:
The sighing winds that moan along the vale,
Then join the furies of the mountain gale:
The heath-clad hills of Scotia appear,
Whose rugged grandeur is forever dear,
Where Ossian fought and sang his martial lays,
Where mighty Fingal lead in bygone days.
. . . . . .

But the pipe is a splendid instrument for peaceful purposes, and is excellent for discoursing church praise. In the States when they want to fill a church to overflowing they introduce the pipe band. On the hills of New Zealand at sunrise, I play “The Old Hundred” with a hallowed effect; and the hills have reminded me of the Hebrides,–I am, etc.,

Angus C. Robertson