OT: 29 August 1903 – A.M. “The Passing of the Piobaireachd – Part I”

The Oban Times, 29 August, 1903

The Passing of the Piobaireachd
By “A. M.”
Part I.

 Optimism is not perhaps a word to be used in connection with the Highlands or anything Highland to-day. One after another the old families are giving place to the English merchant. The old customs are fading, the old language is dying, while year-by-year the colonies and the Lowland towns reap their Highland harvest and leave the empty land emptier still.

But if the spirit of optimism reveals itself in all, it is with regard to the pipes, once regarded as the peculiar possession of the Highlands, and now claimed by all Scotland as her national instrument. Never, men say, was piping at such a high level as it is to-day. Never were so many fine players alive at one time. Never were the pipes so popular, or so thoroughly appreciated.

At first sight this would seem to be the case. Very probably there never was a time when so many individuals blew into a bag or fingered a chanter. Very probably the audience, which stamps and whistles in the gallery at a Glasgow evening concert, is the most demonstrative that has ever assembled to listen to the pipes. Certainly there are more stands of bagpipes in existence to-day than there ever were. Besides twelve battalions of Highland regiments, eight of Scottish regiments, and three of Scots Guards, all averaging at least seven or eight pipers each, there are about twenty militia battalions, and some forty or fifty volunteer battalions, in addition to several industrial schools, training institutes, and boys’ brigades, all of whom possess

Bands of Pipers.

In India, too, and Egypt, many native regiments have pipers, while the number of local pipe bands in the towns and villages is rapidly multiplying, both in the Highlands and Lowlands, as well as in South Africa, Canada, Australia, and the other colonies.

But what of the players, and what do they play? Is the piping of this heterogeneous aggregate of performers such as would have found favour with the men who fought at Inverlochy, or even Culloden? Would they have shouted applause at the local pipe and drum band strutting through the streets of the Lowland town, and rendering some composition by the gifted pipe-major to celebrate the band’s welcome to, or return from, some place? No! Give them the old piper at home on the brae above the sea, playing “Scarce of Fishing.”

The classical music of the pipes is the piobaireachd. This will be admitted by all, perhaps even by those who organise competitions for the championship of Glasgow, and leave out the piobaireachd, in order to give time for semi-amateur strathspeys or reels, and exhibitions of children’s dancing. It follows then that no one can be called a piper in the true sense of the word, unless he possesses a master’s knowledge of piobaireachd music–that is to say, of the classical music of the instrument he professes to play. This being granted, the question may now be asked–has piping advanced during the last three hundred years or not? The answer is–no! To-day there are thousands of players on the pipes, but of true pipers, how many? The present writer knows of six, who are perhaps worthy of the name. There are probably not more than ten in the whole world. Three hundred years ago ten as good, if not better, could have been mustered

In Skye Alone.

Not that there may not be just now in Scotland twenty or even thirty players, each of whom can render eight or ten piobaireachds in good enough form to win the gold medal at Oban or Inverness with any one of them. This does not make him a master of his craft. More than this is wanted.

The decadence of the piobaireachd is strikingly apparent to anybody who attends three or four Highland games in the summer, and that listens carefully to half a dozen of the leading pipers of the day competing for the piobaireachd prize. That he will hear fine playing is unquestionable. For sheer brilliancy and accuracy of execution, and (in one or two cases) scholarly interpretation of the music, the exhibition will be all that could possibly be desired. What is depressing, however, is to hear the same old round of six or seven tunes played time after time, day after day. “The Glen Is Mine,” “The Massacre of Glencoe,” “I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand,” “Pibroch of Donald Dubh,” “Donald Dugald MacKay,” “Moladh Mhairi,” and “Glengarry’s Lament,” are most frequently heard. There are a few more, which are not played quite so often–” The Blue Ribbon,” “Mackay’s Banner,” “Seaforth’s Salute,” “Too Long in This Condition,” “Clan Chattan’s Gathering,” “Lament for the Only Son,” “The Battle of Waternish,” “McCruimen’s Sweetheart,” and “Chisholm’s Salute.” These are all very beautiful tunes known., but do they represent all the piobaireachd music which has been composed for the pipes? As far as the general public is concerned, and pipers who are not members were pupils of the old piping families, it is a melancholy fact that they do. There can be only one reason for this, namely, the utter lack of interest in and proper

Appreciation of Piobaireachd

prevailing among the Highlanders of the present day. This is why the judging of piobaireachd playing at many of the games is so scandalously bad as to discourage pipers from making any effort to improve themselves as masters of piobaireachd music. This is why no attempt is being made to preserve and record the many fine old tunes which still exist, but which will be lost ere long.

Three or four years ago a small book appeared called “Ceol Mor.” It was published by Major-General Thomason, R.E., and it contained some two hundred and seventy-five piobaireachds, the result of many years’ collection by the publisher. It might have been expected that this book would have been hailed with delight by pipers, clan associations, Highland antiquarians, and Celtic societies all over the world. On the contrary, it was accorded a remarkably chilly reception. All seemed to take their cue from the so-called leading pipers of the day, most of whom condemned the book without seeing it, or just glanced at it, and turned away, saying that it was pure nonsense. Some even said that the tunes Were mostly general Thomason’s own composition, and that he had simply brought out the book in order to demonstrate his own cleverness in inventing a form of notation which no one could read. It possibly never occurred to these gentlemen that these who hold the rank of general in the scientific corps of the Army possess as a rule mental qualities somewhat above those of the average professional piper. They might be excused ignorance of the distinguished services which General Thomason and his family have rendered to their country in fields where intellect is a sine qua non. But this, at least, they should know, that any educated man, whoever he is, who has made a life study of any subject, no matter what it may be, is entitled to be listened to with spec and attention on that subject. The present writer holds no brief for General Thomason, or for his methods, but maintains that he is at least entitled to

A Fair Hearing,

and that he has not hitherto received it. Had this book been taken up when it appeared, had its contents been carefully examined and intelligently criticised, the piobaireachd question would not have reached its present deplorable condition.

The welcome accorded to General Thomason’s book might well deter anybody from attempting a similar venture, and it has done so. The late Peter Henderson, of Glasgow, assured the writer once that the last thing he would ever think of doing would be to publish a book of piobaireachd music, as he would only lose money by so doing. No one appears willing to sacrifice money or anything else in order to prevent the music, which alone can make the pipes sound like the pipes, from being buried in the depths of oblivion. One bright instance, however, should be mentioned, that of the Clan MacLean Society, who not long ago took the trouble to collect and publish their clan music, including several hitherto little known piobaireachd. This was a most praiseworthy undertaking, the more so as it was a strong hint to other societies to go and do likewise, which hints, sad to say, has not been acted upon.

(To Be Continued.)