History: ‘The Piper and His Music’ and the Early Days of BBC Radio Broadcasting

This article, by BBC radio producer Hugh MacPhee, first appeared in the Radio Times, the BBC’s listings magazine, on November 9, 1956. Mr MacPhee was involved in all aspects of Scottish culture in the early days of the BBC in Scotland, variously head of Gaelic broadcasting, a keen supporter of the National Mod and of shinty. His piece ends with a note that ‘You can hear the music of the pipes on Tuesday (Third) and Friday (Home). The Third programme is what we now call BBC Radio Three, serving classical music, and the Home service is now Radio Four, though the Home Service referred to was probably the Scottish Home Service of the time. The picture above shows Seumas MacNeill and Captain John MacLellan preparing for a BBC radio broadcast in the early 1960s…

THERE are three distinct attributes that distinguish the Scot – his speech, his kilt, and the music of his bagpipes. The piper possesses all three. He is, in the words of the old song, ‘A man with a lang pedigree’.

Seven years of his own learning, ’tis said, and seven generations before, went to the making of a piper, and he had a special seat at the chief’s table with an attendant to wait upon him and carry his pipes when they were not being used.

No wonder, then, he should hold himself as a man byordinar [extraordinary]. The story is told of a lady who came to visit her chief. She was very annoyed to see his piper walking about apparently doing nothing.

Approaching him she asked, ‘Why is it, my man, that you never do any work?’ The piper stopped, looked at her disdainfully and then replied, ‘Madam, don’t you think it would be a very poor estate that couldn’t keep the laird and the piper without working?’

The piper has always had a place above his fellows and enjoyed privileges and liberties peculiar to his office. In many towns and villages he was a local dignitary. He was as much part of the civil life of the community as the magistrate and bailies.

In the minutes of the Town Council of Glasgow, dated April 3, 1675, we find not only the emoluments of the office but also its duties. John McClaine was then appointed as ‘common piper’ and, be it noted, also as ‘minstrel’.

He was ordained to go through the town every day and his salary was computed at one hundred merks Scots money, to be paid in two terms. From the same source we are informed of the dress of an earlier incumbent. He was provided with ‘fyve eln of red Kairsay claithe as will mak a coit, brekis and hoiss’.

The pipes are, of course, common to most European countries, and while we in Scotland make no claim about originating the instrument, we do claim to have developed a form of music that is peculiarly our own.

Bagpipes were not unknown in England. Shakespeare was familiar with them and has made several references to them, including ‘the drone of the Lincolnshire bagpipe’, and he seems to have been familiar with their value for marching purpose when he ends ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ with the command ‘Strike up, Pipers’.

Lincolnshire bagpipe as mentioned by Shakespeare

Broadly speaking, the music can be divided into two distinct forms – the lighter type embracing marches, strathspeys, reels, and jigs, and the big music which is confined to piobaireachd. Much of the credit for creating and popularising the former must undoubtedly go to the Army.

It is true, in any case, that no roads existed in the Highlands to march on before 1727 when General Wade began his ‘great road from Inverness to Dunkeld’. With the raising of the Highland regiments, which were never complete without their pipers, the necessity then arose for a sufficiency of suitable music of a strong rhythmic character to lighten the weary drag of marching mile after mile with full kit.

This was accomplished, in large measure, by the simple expedient of adapting the folk songs of the countryside – such music as was described by Sir Hubert Parry, ‘that lived in the heart of the people because it pleased them to make it, and that is the way good music was ever made’.

A champion of all things Scottish, Hugh MacPhee

Marches, strathspeys, and reels have now come so highly developed as to test the skill of the best solo performers, but they are not the peak of the piper’s performance. It is the pibroch that crowns the heights, and pibroch players are the aristocrats of the piper’s art.

These pieces have been fashioned into a pattern as intricate and as attractive as the motif of the visual interlacings of what we term Celtic Art. Pibroch was taught in colleges, specially established for that purpose as early as 1480.

This is the big music, big in theme and big in treatment. Not even the Disarming Act of 1747, which for thirty-five years sought to abolish the kilt, the tartan, and the bagpipes, could suppress it. That it is now fully restored stands to the credit of the Pibroch Society [sic] whose encouragement throughout the years, by means of competitions and tutors, has ensured a wider appreciation than ever before of this impressive facet of our national heritage.

Both forms of music are now well tended. The Army School of Piping at Edinburgh Castle, where Pipe Major William Ross MBE, one of the truly great performers of our day, imparts his knowledge, ensures that no candidate for the rank of Pipe Major is admitted to that appointment without graduating through this school.

Seumas MacNeill, a university lecturer, and his colleagues in the College of Piping in Glasgow, are following the traditions of the old masters, and young pipers are now taught with a thorough knowledge of what constitutes good piping, while the interests of pipe bands are well guarded by the Scottish Pipe Band Association.

We may like the pipes; we may be indifferent to them; but whatever our attitude the fact remains we just cannot ignore their effect. Philip Gibbs, one of the most distinguished of the First World War correspondents, said from his experience in France during that time:

‘ … As long as history lasts the spirit of France will salute the memory of these kilted boys who have gone into the furnace of war to the music of the pipes and have fallen in heaps upon her fields. A thousand years hence, when the wind blows softly across the ground where they fought, the old Scottish tunes will sound faintly in the ears of men who remember the past and all this country will be haunted with the ghosts of Scotland’s gallant sons.’

2 thoughts on “History: ‘The Piper and His Music’ and the Early Days of BBC Radio Broadcasting

  1. Great piece of research Bob. Hugh MacPhee was president of An Comunn from 1959-62. Here’s to a better New Year.

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