The Musical Passion of a Victorian Amateur Piper – Part 3

We conclude our illuminating article on Charles Keene, 1823 -1891 (above), the Victorian illustrator, piper and contributor to the satirical magazine ‘Punch’. Excerpts are from the ‘Life and Letters of Charles Samuel Keene’ by Georgew Somes Layard, London 1892…

I have to thank you again for the loan of the books which I am packing up for you and will send off today, but I would not practice from them, but rather the pipe books (Glen’s for instance) as the latter has the gracenotes marked. The other pipe books – I can give you the titles of Macdonald’s Pibrochs and McKay’s.

Write to Messrs Glen (344 North Bank Street, Edinburgh, for one of their best quality ‘practice chanters’…. and if you’ve mechanical fingers and like whittling with a penknife, it’s an additional pleasure to make your own reeds.

Messrs. Blackwood had a few copies of ‘Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum’. I got it. The first volume contains a list of all the Scotch tunes known. It’s amusing how these Scots claim all the tunes; won’t even leave us ‘Old King Cole’!

By Francis Chamberlain

I am curious how you get on with the chanter, the more I find you mention the tunes I take to myself. Try the Piper’s March. A friend of mine an Irish artist, told me this tune was given to him by an Irish piper as Brian Boru’s March; it comes well on the big pipes.

I should like to send you my miniature pipes to try how you like them. They are in good order but you’ll find the chanter weak and disposed to get sharp as you play and besides spoils your finger for the larger size.

My piper is coming to me soon and I’ll send one or two of his reeds; they are the best I’ve seen and used. I had a fit of extravagance this week and bought McKay’s Pibrochs, Kay’s Etchings and Campbell’s (or Cameron’s) treatise on Highland Music with Airs, this last on spec. I don’t know the book.

The best book of Scotsh music that I’ve got is that by Captain Simon Fraser, 1816. I don’t think it is rare. I daresay you have it. Of course you have ‘Bunting’s Irish Melodies’ or know these lovely compositions. I wish I was sure of being able to play The Blackbird on the Northumberland pipes before I die.


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I shall be delighted if I can come to the Pipe Congress and see you but please don’t put me on the dais. I have never sat in judgement of any kind in my life. I should like to send a guinea towards the pipe prizes.

There is a book of pipe music I wanted to get, published by Gunn, a Highland pipe-maker. I asked at a little music shop in Aberdeen and he told me it was out of print, that Gunn was dead, and his executors wanted money for the copyright which was not forthcoming and the book was scarce etc, etc. I happened to mention this to my friend and host Macdonald and he pulled up at the swell booksellers and insisted on calling the propritor out. He said he did not know of it but that he would inquire. Macdonald writes to me that he has got it and is sending it on!

I’m glad to hear you have the antiquarian madness as well as for music, as I have the dementia very strong myself [not in the modern sense of the word] and it reassures me in thus boring you with my rigmarole. I picked up a Lowland shepherd’s pipe, a stockhorn I think it is called, the other day.

My big pipes are going well just now from the practice I’ve had in my holiday and so secluded is this place that at any time two or three hundred yards down the beach I can strut on the hard sand and skirl away at Fingal’s Lament or The Massacre of Glencoe (my favourite pibroch) out of earshot of a soul.

I’m sweating hard at the Reel of Tulloch and shall not die content if I can’t play it for the young ‘uns to dance to. I had a good blow on the pipes at Dunwich which was a great solace.

I’ve kept ’em going too, by a daily skirl here [Chelsea] since I’ve been back and I can recommend the second and third variations in the grand pibroch MacIntosh’s Lament to be played very largo whenever you have a fit of the blues.

The other day at the pipe contest I asked a player what was the pibroch I had just heard him play. ‘MacSomebody’s Lament’, I asked, ‘and what book was it in?’

‘It’s in nae book; it’s m’own’ (with a sniff).

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1 thought on “The Musical Passion of a Victorian Amateur Piper – Part 3

  1. Enjoyed reading the three parts, managed to find a copy of the book which arrived today, should keep me occupied for a while

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