John Murdoch Henderson (1902-1972)
The John Murdoch Henderson Music Collection
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The Bagpipes in Peace
Greg Dawson Allen

Page One

The clann (children).
A patriarchal system has existed in the highlands and borders for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Under the social organisation of the clann chief each member or tenant had his or her own position, role and status. Those attending to the chief and his family included a harper (or clarsach player as in the Gaelic) and a bard or poet, then latterly, with the introduction of the bag-pipes to Scotland around the 15th century, a clann piper.

Stories abound of notable bards who composed intricate verse in honour of victory in battle, at times of bereavement and in general praise of significant events, or, of reverence and gratitude to the chief. The bardic verse rallying men and women to battle is much older than that of the role of the piper. Tyrtaeus, the Lacedomian (680 BC) was the composer of five books of war verse. Tacitus, the Roman scribe, describes, albeit with some flattery to his father-in-law, Agricola’s achievements including Calgacus’s speech to his Pictish warriors before the decisive battle of Mons Graupious (allegedly fought at the foothills of Bennachie in 55 AD) as well as one notable poem celebrating the work of Arminius, an heroic figure famous for his struggles for freedom. (LOGAN P222)

The piper and his bagpipes followed on from the harper and bard. The hills and glens were appropriate for an instrument meant to be played in the great outdoors. Playing the bagpipes indoors was, more or less, a lowland and English custom. The fierce sound of the Piob Mhor takes on a natural sound as it joins in with the sounds of the wind and the river. Even when, during social occasions, the piper played the dance or entertainment was held out of doors. (MANSON P82/83) As with the bard and harper, the piper held prominence beside the clann chief and often son followed in father’s footsteps and position.

The MacCrimmons were perhaps the best known of the distinguished piping families. In all seven generations of pipers and seven years of personal tuition was required for bestowing the true title of Hereditary Piper. (MANSON P257) The MacCrimmons were the pipers to the family of MacLeod of Dunvegan in the Island of Skye. The progenitor of the MacCrimmons was said to be of Italian descent from Cremona in Italy, with the unlikely name of Donald, who arrived in Scotland and settled in Glenelg on the west coast on the opposite side of the Minch from Skye.

Supposedly his son, Iain Odhar became the first of his line of the great MacCrimmon pipers to MacLeod of Macleod. Other heredity pipers include the MacKays of Gairloch and Raasay, the Rankins (Clann Raing) in Mull, who were descended from Clann MacLean of Duart and went on to become pipers to the MacLeans of Coll after the former lost lands in the early 18th century. The list also includes the MacIntyres of Rannoch, the Cummings of Badenoch and Strathspey, who were official pipers for that clann until the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746, and the MacArthurs, pipers to the MacDonald of the Isles.

The MacCrimmons and the MacArthurs were said to have been the finest pipers and exponents of the piobaireachd and history relates great rivalry between the families for supremacy. Both the MacCrimmons and the MacArthurs had colleges for piping students; the former on the farm of Boreraig, eight miles south west of Dunvegan Castle on Skye, the latter at Ulva near Mull. For the MacCrimmon pupils seven years study was necessary in their apprenticeship. The pupils had a solitary designated area of open space in which to practice the scales and tunes on the chanter, the Small Pipes and Piob Mhor before being allowed to perform for their Master Tutor. The college at Ulva had four rooms; one for cattle, one for guests to stay, one for practice and one specifically for the use of students. In both cases the countryside was preferred for practice as was, and still is, deemed correct for the Piob Mhor. (MANSON 272-274)

Incidentally, the bards too had to devote much time and effort to their learning. Bardic studies in Ireland lasted twelve years before being given the title of “Bard”, and learning comprised of committing to memory sixty thousand verses which they had to be able to recite on the command of the chief. The notion that clann society was ignorant and backward could not be further from the truth. (LOGAN 223)

The Bagpipes In Peace - Page Two


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