1891 and Why the Bagpipe Grew in Popularity in the Victorian Era

We continue with our second excerpt from ‘The Athletes and Athletic Sports of Scotland’ by William McCombie-Smith, the prolific Victorian-era athlete, critic and writer. Here he examines the causes of the popularity of the bagpipe, has trenchant views on manufacturers judging, and looks at how the instrument gained fame in the military. 


Of the main factors that have served to maintain the popularity of the great Highland bagpipe the first is its being used in connection with the Highland regiment, each of which has six pipers, the leader of whom is sergeant piper (formerly pipe-major). It is well known that on more than one occasion English officers have tried to get the bagpipes superseded by instruments more in accordance with their own tastes.

When the regiment raised by Lord McLeod in 1778, called the 73rd or McLeod’s Highlanders, was in India, where they were from 1780 to 1781 General Coote thought at first that the bagpipe was ‘a useless relic of the barbarous ages, and not in any manner calculated for disciplined troops. But the distinctness with which the shrill sounds pierced and made themselves heard through the noise of the battle, and the influence they seemed to excite, effected a total change in opinion.

At Porto in 1781, Sir Eyre Coote, with 8000 men, of which the 73rd was the only British regiment, attacked and defeated Hyder Ali’s army of ’25 battalions of infantry, 400 Europeans, from 40,000 to 50,000 horse, and above 100,000 matchlock men, with 47 cannon’. The 73rd was on the right of the first line, leading all the attacks to the full approbation of General Coote, whose notice was particularly attracted by one of the pipers, who always blew up his most warlike sounds whenever the fire became hotter than ordinary. This so pleased the General that he cried aloud, ‘Well done, my brave fellow, you shall have a pair [sic] of silver pipes for this’. The pipes when presented bore a suitable inscription testifying the General’s high opinion of the soldiers they had so inspirited.

At the battle of Assaye (above, top) the musicians were ordered to attend to the wounded. One of the pipers laid aside his pipes to engage in this duty, for which he was afterwards reproached by his comrades. Flutes and hautboys, they thought, could be well spared, but for the piper, who should always be in the heat of the battle, to go to the rear with the whistlers was a thing altogether unheard of. The unfortunate piper was quite humbled. However, he soon had an opportunity of playing off this stigma, for in the advance at Argaum he played with such animation, and influenced the men to such a degree, that they could hardly be restrained from rushing on to the charge too soon and breaking the line.

The second, and perhaps the main, factor in maintaining the popularity of the bagpipe in Scotland, is the prizes awarded at all Highland gatherings to the best performers on it. These competitions not only take place in Scotland, but wherever Scotsmen promote such gatherings. The band of the Highland regiments are heard only where the regiments are stationed; the gatherings are held all over the country. The competitions in bagpipe playing at the Highland gatherings are subject to the same defect as the dancing competitions! The judges are often incompetent, and sometimes partial. In matters of this kind the judges ought to be thoroughly up to their duties and above suspicion.

Some who are skilled judges of bagpipe music are also makers of bagpipes. Now it is too much to expect that a judge, hearing a first class performer playing on bagpipes of the judge’s own make, and another first class performer playing on bagpipes by a rival maker, will be strictly impartial. A judge of over-sensitive nature who is a bagpipe maker will rather favour the performer on a rival maker’s pipes, from fear that he should be thought partial to his own instrument. An unscrupulous judge will give the first prize to a performer on bagpipes of his (the judge’s) own make, although knowing the performer on them docs not deserve it. A maker of bagpipes ought, therefore, never to be asked to judge. When asked he ought to refuse.

Another fruitful source of unfair decisions is the fact that there are in some classes different versions or sets of the same tunes. Each set has its supporters, and instances are known where a judge has given his decision in favour of a player who played a tune as the judge thought it should be played, although a better performer played the same tune in a superior style, but followed a different version or set of it. Such a judge is totally unfit to act as a judge. It is a well-known fact that the most consummate artistes, vocal and instrumental, take liberties with the music they sing or play.

Many of our finest strathspeys are found in different collections, not only in different keys, but with notes differing in number in every measure of a part, and the various parts or sections of a tune ending in different notes. Yet no competent judge would ever think of deciding the merits of rival fiddlers on account of these variations. The same strathspeys are differently given in McGlashan’s collection and in Gow’s collection; but Niel Gow would never have dreamed of giving a prize to one fiddler who played a strathspey as he had published it, if another fiddler played the same strathspey better as McGlashan had published it.

It is quite possible that neither Forbes Morrison nor Peter Milne play ‘The Miller o’ Hirn’ exactly note for note as Scott Skinner composed it, and both will likely take different liberties with it; yet, if prizes were given for playing it, and Scott Skinner appointed judge, he would unhesitatingly pass over inferior fiddlers who played the tune note for note as he composed it, and award the prizes on the merits of their playing to those who gave the best interpretation of the tune. It is the artistic manner in which a piper or fiddler plays on his instrument that determines his merits as a piper or fiddler, not the mere mechanical production of certain notes in a hard and fast order of succession.

• Next time: the importance of the support of the monarchy.

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