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Parting shot that hits the mark

Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Instrument, by Hugh Cheape, National Museums of Scotland, 154 pp, with CD- ROM

Review by Iain MacInnes

HUGH CHEAPE'S parting gift to us as curator at National Museums Scotland takes the form of an in-depth catalogue of the NMS piping collection and a thought-provoking series of essays, drawn together in this lavishly-illustrated and beautifully-presented volume.

The book draws heavily on the national collection for its illustrative material, but ranges far and wide in its treatment of the bagpipe and the social context in which it flourished. Like the collection itself, there is a sense here of a project long in the making, of thoughts well-matured before being committed to paper

The publication has not been without controversy A final chapter detailing the emergence of a modern pipe-making industry in Scotland in the late 18th century caught the attention of the national press. “Bagpipes a

modern invention”, ran the headlines, extrapolating from the author's contention that “marching in step with the emergence of a national stereotype was a hitherto invisible ‘Great Highland Bagpipe', created in fact in the last quarter of the 18th century and adopted as archetype in the first quarter of the 19th”

The argument is a neat one: encouraged by the demand for deluxe instruments, most particularly for use as “prize pipes” at the competitions run by the Highland Society of London, pipemakers responded by refining pre-existing designs, making use of quality imported hardwoods and expensive decorative mounts and ferrules. Foremost in this regard were Hugh Robertson and Donald MacDonald in Edinburgh and Malcolm MacGregor in London (all of whom held the prize-pipe commission), who were willing to draw on a range of stylistic influences including the architecture which surrounded them in Edinburgh's New Town. “Architected columns, capitals, bases and mouldings can all be seen in the design of the Great Highland Bagpipe of this period. The “head” of the chanter carries an ovolo moulding and beading and the ‘foot' is modelled as the base of an Attic column.

Projecting mounts on chanter and drones reflect ornamentation based on the structural features of the classical column and are evident in the earliest surviving prize pipes.”

 

This is wonderfully fresh analysis, although it rather skirts the issue of the acoustic properties of the new instruments. These early 19th century bagpipes may have been gleaming, chiselled and refined, but did they sound much different to their rather homelier forbears? This brings into focus the perennial quandary of musical instrument collections, that the instruments themselves are often so delicate or worn as to make it is impossible to subject them to the sort of robust physical scrutiny, including playing them, that would furnish the complete picture. Where the author is willing to see the work of Robertson, MacDonald and MacGregor as representing a new model, a “new Great Highland Bagpipe”, others might prefer to see their instruments as super-refined specimens built to an established template. The case is well made for a period of change and refinement in Highland bagpipe design in the early 19th century, but whether this amounted to wholesale re-invention is open to debate.

It is fitting that the book concludes with Cheape's thoughts on the Highland bagpipe - the national instrument - since the opening chapter makes it clear that, paradoxically, this was one of the least-well represented instruments in the national collection until the mid- 1980s. Replete with many wonderful specimens of Pastoral, Union and Border pipes, as well as chamber instruments such as a musette bought (and misidentified) in 1872, it was to take the acquisition of the contents of Andrew Ross's workshop in Edinburgh's Lawnmarket in 1983 to add real ballast to the collection.

Ross's shop included a good deal of material left by his predecessor J & R Glen: this “supplied at a stroke one of the most important building blocks of a national collection, that is a mass of different parts and fragments of bagpipes as well as a range of other musical instruments giving a detailed picture of the development of the instrument from the early 18th through to the late 20th centuries.”

Cheape himself was deeply involved in the drawing up of a coherent collecting policy in the mid-1980s, with the amalgamation of the Royal Museum of Scotland and the National Museum of Antiquities, to the extent that the collection now houses over 2000 items. Recent acquisitions have included an early 19th century Donald MacDonald bagpipe in near-perfect condition, a rarity in a piping culture in which instruments seem largely to have been played to destruction. (The exception appears to lie with the more refined parlour instruments, often owned by the well-to-do, and consequently more likely to survive.)

The story of the creation of the national collection is well told, and the CD-ROM which accompanies the book furnishes the detail - the descriptions, measurements and photographs of the core items. The remaining essays do not confine themselves to the contents of the collection, but rather take a free-ranging approach loosely united by the principle that the instruments need to be understood in terms of the context in which they were played.

Early chapters explore pan-European piping roots and the establishment of the “great pipe” in Highland culture. The piping dynasties - the MacCrimmons, MacArthurs, Rankins and MacGregors with whom we are so familiar - take centre-stage in a chapter examining links with the learned orders of the Gaidhealtachd. The great pipe may have come late to the Highlands (certainly in comparison with the harp), but it was quickly absorbed into the pre-existing cultural milieu. Cheape makes the point that “arguably the pipes were of no

 

particular interest until they played the music that people wanted to hear”, and in the case of clan society this found expression in the immeasurable legacy of the ceòl mòr tradition.

Devotees of the bellows will find much to interest them in two chapters detailing the emergence of pastoral and union pipes in the 18th century, instruments that can justifiably bear the tag “invented”. These chapters find Cheape at his best, setting the new instruments squarely in the context of the musical demands of the baroque and neo-baroque, and making intuitive links to the established orchestral instrument makers of the day If an instrument looks a bit like an oboe, features similar detailing, and is sold from an oboe-maker's shop, then that is probably where we should be looking for its genesis.

Such is the case with the “Pastoral or New Bagpipe” featured in John Geoghegan's remarkable Compleat Tutor published in 1746 (containing 40 tunes as well as playing instructions), available for purchase from “John Simpson at the Bass Viol & Flute in Sweetings Alley opposite the East Door of the Royal Exchange, London, Where may be had Bagpipes, & Books of instructions for any Single Instrument.” John Simpson was a prominent woodwind instrument maker

The new bagpipe found its place in the ballad opera productions of the time, a stage instrument with a hint of the rustic but with a sweet tone and an impressive melodic range. Geoghegan's tutor appears not to tap into any deep-rooted piping repertoire, but rather reflects the popular Scots, Irish and English melodies of the day The emphasis is on novelty, adaptability, versatility, a forward-looking instrument with a dash of raffish sophistication. The Union pipe built on the foundations laid by the pastoral, with centres of development in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and the North East of England, as well as London and Dublin. By the time that O'Farrell published his Collection in 1804 the mood had swung in favour of the National repertoires - Irish and Scots - and the instrument had evolved into the “Irish organ" with its astonishing agglomeration of chanter, drones and regulators.

Cheape's analysis takes the broad view, and he spreads his net wide in setting the bagpipe in its proper musical and cultural context. Indeed significant portions of the book are not about pipes or piping at all (for instance an account of the Gaelic learned orders, and a description of developments in the late baroque period), and although these passages may seem tangential, they serve to put piping developments into context. He is also willing to work from the material evidence presented by the instruments themselves. Of interest to Lowland pipers, for example, is the fact that there are remarkably few physical differences between Highland and Lowland instruments in the period predating the design revolution of the late 1700s. There may well have been distinctive Highland and Lowland piping cultures in Scotland, but these were not defined by the instruments alone.

This is an erudite volume, and is undoubtedly a significant addition to the canon of piping literature.