OT: 5 September 1903 – A.M. “The Passing of the Piobaireachd – Part II”

The Oban Times, 5 September, 1903

The Passing of the Piobaireachd
by “A. M.”
Part II.

Mention was made in the last article of the hopeless indifference with which piobaireachd playing is regarded at the present moment in Scotland, and the apathetic manner in which all classes alike are watching one of the oldest, and certainly the most unique form of music in Europe, die away and be lost. Yes, all classes! for the blame must be shared by all. The Highland proprietor is not the big man he once was, and he has little money to spend on anything, but still he might do a great deal more than he does. How many of the Highland chiefs and lairds have a piobaireachd player among their servants! Good piping, it is true, can still be heard at Balmoral, Moy, Taymouth, and Blair, but what of Dunvegan, Dunrobin, Inverary, Duart, and a host of other places namely for their pipers in days gone by! The various Celtic societies have already been alluded to. They are many of them comparatively young, but they are

Corporate and Organized

bodies, with a certain amount of funds at their backs, and the power to take collective action. There is said to exist an association, styled the Scottish Pipers’ Society founded some twenty years ago, with its headquarters in Edinburgh, and professing as its object the encouragement of piping. The writer has been informed that it has a large membership, composed entirely of officers of the Army, and gentlemen of high social position from all over Scotland, and that its financial condition is most satisfactory. That a society like this should sit on the fence, and do nothing is perhaps the most lamentable feature of the whole miserable business. This, then, being the attitude of man of birth and breeding, it is not strange that the general public, never very conspicuous for its patronage of the fine arts, should show an equal lack of interest in the destruction of what ought to be the chief interest of every Highlander to preserve and cherish. The pipers themselves should not be blamed in the same measure; in fact, they may almost be granted complete absolution. They have their living to earn, and must perforce pander to the popular taste for fantastically named compositions, such as “Charles Edward Hope Vere,” or “Mr. Arthur Bignold’s March,” good enough productions of their kind, to which one can listen with a

Certain Amount of Pleasure,

without bothering asked to who Charles Edward Hope Vere or Mr. Arthur Bignold may be, but as different from “Cille Chriosda,” or “The Lament for the Children,” as earth is from heaven. The piper has lost his old patron, who, in former days, gave him board and lodging, a gillie to carry his pipes, and nothing to do but play all day. Modern pipers must combine their playing with some other occupation, or else depend for their daily bread on prize money, earned by going the round of the games in the summer time. Not that the professional competitor is one to be sneered at or held up to reproach in any way. On the contrary he is a man who should be, and is, appreciated in the abstract, and admired and respected in the concrete. He is hustled by pompous stewards, he is put on a platform to play amid the din of a brass band and the hooting of steam merry-go-rounds. He is frequently the victim of cruel injustice at the hands of ignorant judges. Yet he takes

A Host of Annoyances,

which might tempt Job himself to commit a breach of the peace with philosophic cheerfulness, blended with that polished courtesy, which is his invariable characteristic. No! the professional piper must be let alone. But for him the sound of the pipes really well played would never reach many a town and village in Scotland. For, although the majority of spectators go to modern Highland games to see bicycle races, or to watch two English men from Cumberland wrestle, or to gape open-mouthed at a lady parachutist descending from the clouds, still there are a chosen few who have eyes and ears for nothing but the pipers and the piping. And it is many a long day before they forget the marvelous accuracy of John MacColl’s execution, the perfect taste in feeling infused by MacDougall Gillies into his music, and the way in which Angus MacRae’s hammer like fingers can make the chanter talk with an almost human voice. We live in a bustling, train-catching age, where the

Struggle for Existence

is keener than of yore, and we take our pleasures, like our meals, in a hurry. This may be why the piobaireachd has fallen so low; it takes up too much of the listener’s time. It may be objected that the writer has postulated this depreciation of the piobaireachd, and has not adduced any special evidence to support his view. Yet every Highlander, with any knowledge of the previous history of his country, can find a proof for himself, and, if more be needed, let him reflect that there are probably not less than three hundred piobaireachd in existence somewhere–General Thomason has published two hundred and seventy–then let him ask himself how many of those he has ever heard actually played. His recollection will probably not extend beyond twenty at the most.

Another reason why piobaireachd are so little listened to is that many men of pure Highland blood and breeding, from want of knowledge and study of them, are almost as incapable of proper appreciation of their beauties as a Hottentot is of Wagner. And in this he

Gets No Assistance

from the numerous writers on Highland subjects of the present day, articles do appear, have appeared quite lately, in Highland newspapers and periodicals, but nearly everyone is a farrago cooked according to the same recipe, and that recipe a simple one. Take Angus MacKay’s book, boil down the preface and the notes, and serve hot, with a few quotations from Neil Munro’s “Lost Pibroch.” Excellent in its way, no doubt, as Angus MacKay’s book is not accessible to everybody; yet one cannot help wishing for some indication that the author has carefully and thoughtfully studied the subject on which his writing, and has some opinion of his own on it. It is not far off the truth to say, that nothing in the shape of descriptive writing has ever been published in Gaelic or English by anyone possessing a technical knowledge of piobaireachd music. And surely it would be better for our modern city Highlanders to turn their attention to this, and to refrain for the time being from speeches advocating a competition for pipe bands (oh, shades of all the MacCruimens’), or triumphantly demonstrating from a lecture platform

The Old Fallacy

that the pipes were introduced into Scotland from England. We want to see fewer letters appear in the papers complaining that one piper plays a tune one way, and one another; letters talking about a committee, forsooth, to decide upon an official setting for every tune, and to provide for the damnation of every player of a non-official style, and the distraction of the individuality of piping, its most characteristic and pleasing feature. But once more it is better to let each Highlander find a remedy for himself. This can best be done, if he will only listen to a piobaireachd as something with a meaning and a story, not, perhaps, perceptible at once, yet still comprehensible to the sympathetic listener. Aye, sympathetic, that is the point, and where is the Highlander who cannot feel with the piob mhor? (To Be Continued.)