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A History of Piobaireachd, Part 1

..... MacDonald to whom more detailed reference will be made presently says so plainly, and describes the Highland Pipe as a martial instrument for use in the field of battle and the Lowland Pipe as only fit for a room. At the famous battle on the North Inch of Perth in 1390, the rival champions are said to have stalked into the warriors to the sound of their own Great War Pipes. In 1549 a French Officer describing military operations near Edinburgh, said that the wild Scots encouraged themselves to arms by the sounds of their bagpipes. An unpublished poem of 1598 b the Rev. Alexander Hume, Minister of Logie, speaks of three different kinds of pipes: Highland, Scottish and Irish. In 1745 Prince Charlie is said to have had 32 pipers playing before his tent at meal time.

 

But we have nothing written by any practical piper, and so we have no evidence of what the pipers played except one very interesting allusion in the Wardlaw MS, which tells us briefly of competition held in 1651 and of the earliest instance of an eminent piper getting a prize on his reputation and not on his playing. When Charles II was at Stirling in May 1651, we are told, he reviewed his army. "There was first Great Competition between the Trumpeters, the next one was amongst the Pipers but the Earl of Sutherland's Domestick carried it off all the field for none could contend with him." "All the Pipers in the Army gave John MacGurman, i.e. MacCrimmon the banner and acknowledged him for their patron and chief." Then in the morning when the King was reviewing the Regiments and Brigades he saw 80 pipers in a crowd bareheaded with John MacGurman in the middle of them with his bonnet on. The King asked what Society that was. He was told, "Sir, you are our King and yonder old man in the middle is Prince of Pipers." The King then called John MacGurman and gave him his hand to kiss. Instantly John MacGurman played an extemporaneous part "I got a Kiss of the King's Hand" of which the chronicle adds "he and they all were vain."; There is no reason to doubt, I think, that this was the tune which we now know as "I got a Kiss of the King's Hand." Most of us pipers perhaps will doubt whether it was actually composed on the spur of the moment, but in this case we would say that the tune was probably one which already had been made, and which was waiting for a name.

 

But the story tells us these things:
  • Firstly that the MacCrimmon Family was at that date held in the utmost respect by all pipers.
  • Secondly, that at that date the Prince of Pipers used piobaireachd as the form of music in which he expressed his reverence for his sovereign.
  • Thirdly, that the MacCrimmon Family did not remain buried in Skye, but took service with the other chiefs and notables.
Nearly 100 years later there was another occurrence also recorded in writing which showed the complete supremacy which other pipers acknowledged to be the right of the MacCrimmon Family. In 1745 the MacLeods marched into Aberdeenshire as part of the Government Forces and were defeated by the Jacobites at Inverarie. One of the MacCrimmons was taken prisoner. Next morning none of the pipers in the Jacobite Army would play. The Prince asked the reason and was told that they would not play so long as MacCrimmon was in captivity, and they did not play until he was released.

 

The tradition that there was a school of piping held by the MacCrimmons in Skye is supported by a deed written in 1743 by which it was agreed between Simon, Lord Lovat and his servant David Fraser (who had already been taught by Ewan McGregor, His Lordship's late piper) that David Fraser be sent to the Isle of Skye at His Lordship's expense to be perfected as a Highland Pyper by the famous Malcolm MacCrimmon. David Fraser was to serve Lord Lovat for seven years, receiving board, lodging, clothes and 50 Scots marks a year.

 

These fragments of stories show that all other pipers held the MacCrimmons in very great esteem for the sake of their piping abilities, and it is pretty safe to say that at any rate from 1650 the piobaireachd, which was certainly a MacCrimmon production, must have been considered the highest form of Pipe Music.

 

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