Musical Instruments Associated With The Highland Clans


   People invariably associate bagpipes with Scotland and the Highland clans. It may come as a surprise to learn that the bagpipe was not always the preeminent instrument of choice. That honor was originally claimed by the cornu, a type of horn or trumpet, and later, the harp. The Celtic Druids are believed to have recited their sacred legends accompanied by the cornu (variously, the carnyx). It was a long, curving or sometimes straight instrument of the trumpet family with a gently flaring bore. The mouth of the instrument was often fashioned by the Celtic Druids in the shape of an animal’s head. The cornu was also used in the Roman Empire, where it was associated with high ranking military personnel. The advent of Christianity brought about the eventual demise of the Druids, and the cornu likewise fell out of favor. Horns of various types were later employed in warfare as signalling devices. Smaller horns, such as the hand trumpet, also became popular for use in the chasing and hunting of game animals; they were used to keep a group of hounds in order and to send signals between the hunters. Many of the horns could be plugged and thereby converted into drinking vessels, most often used for communal quaffing following a hunt.

   Giraldus Cambrensis, a Welshman writing in the year 1187, noted that: “In Ireland they use for their delight only two instruments – the harp and the tabor. In Scotland we find three – the harp, the tabor, and the choro… It is the opinion of many at this day that Scotland has not only equalled her mistress, Ireland, in musical skill but has far excelled her, so that good judges are accustomed to consider that country as the fountainhead of the art.” It is believed that the instrument Cambrensis referred to as the choro was the bagpipe. The word means much the same as our English word ‘chorus’ or ‘choir’, and could describe the sound of the bagpipe. The instrument called the ‘tabor’ was a small, hand-held drum.

   The Medieval bard often recited his verses accompanied by harp music. George Buchanan, in his 1582 History, noted that: “Their songs are not inelegant, and, in general, celebrate the praises of brave men, their bards seldom choosing any other subject.” The harp that was used was a small, hand-held one known as a frame harp. The Gaelic name for the small harp was the clarsach (variously, clarishoe). It was usually constructed from oak, and sometimes beautifully carved. It was strung with twenty-eight to over thirty strings, although some, such as the Welsh harp, had as few as four strings. The strings were usually made from catgut, but some were brass. The frame harp of the Medieval Age changed little over time, simply getting larger to become the freestanding harp of the modern orchestra.

   The harp had come to Scotland by way of Ireland. Boys learned their craft in Ireland and then traveled across the Irish Sea to take up positions in the clans of Scotland. Known as harpers some began their education in playing the harp as early as the age of ten years. Because some harps were strung with brass wire, it was necessary for harpers to let their fingernails grow long. It was also said that the greatest disgrace for a harper was not so much to be turned out from the clan he had served, but to have his fingernails trimmed short before being turned out.

   Harpers were sometimes employed by clan chiefs to accompany their armies into battle. Rory Dall served as harper for the MacLeods at the battle of Dunvegan. The Earl of Argyll took his harper along with him to Glenlivet in 1594. Whether going into battle or simply supplying an accompaniment to the clan bard, many harpers gained quite renown. Roderick Morison was known to serve as harper for the MacLeods of Dunvegan until his death in 1714. Another harper, Murdoch MacDonald, was harper to the MacLeans of Coll until 1734. Public records note the haroers associated with the Thane of Cawdor, the Laird of Balnagowan, the Countess of Crawford, and the Bishops of Ross and Caithness according to Frank Adam, in his The Clans, Septs, And Regiments Of The Scottish Highlands. King James IV is known to have retained three harpers: Patrick Sinclair, Alexander ----, and James Mylson. It should also be noted that certain monarchs were accomplished harpers. James I and Mary Queen of Scots were noted for their abilities with the harp.

   The harp’s popularity in Scotland extended well into the Seventeenth Century. The Reverend Robert Kirk, in his book, Secret Commonwealth, noted that the harp was still quite popular in Atholl at the end of the 1600s.

   As the popularity of the harp began to wane near the end of the Seventeenth Century, another stringed instrument, the viol, began to rise in popularity. The viol was a precursor to the modern day violin, and its country cousin - the fiddle. A primary difference between the viol and its descendant, the violin, was the viol’s fretted neck similar to the lute. The viol also was constructed with a bridge that was designed with a flatter top than that of the later violin. This meant that the hairs of the bow would have to come in contact with more than one string at a time, thereby making it easy to play full chords. The violin’s bridge would have a more rounded top; the bow would play a single note. Another differentiating aspect of the viol was, in some but not all cases, a bridge designed for six main strings and up to forty ‘sympathetic’ strings. As the main strings would be played with the bow, vibrations from the main strings would cause the ‘sympathetic’ strings to also vibrate and act as drones.

   As with the harp, the position of violer for the clan was one of some importance. A man by the name of Alexander is known to have been paid twenty Merks per year to serve as violer (and piper) to the Laird of Grant in the 1650s.

   While the harp and viol served the purpose of providing an accompaniment to the clan’s bard, the bagpipe was emerging as an instrument of war. The piper’s music was used to stir the men into action, and it was sometimes utilized to give signals. The volume possible from a single bagpipe made it the ideal instrument to be heard above the din of battle. From the middle of the Sixteenth Century, Scottish armies seldom went onto the field without a piper. Although most Scottish army units had only a single piper, some, such as Sir Donald Mackay’s Regiment boasted of thirty-six pipers.

   The bagpipe is a reed instrument uilizing a bag as a reservoir for air. The purpose of having an air reservoir was to enable the player to take breaths of air without interrupting the instrument’s sound. The bagpipe consisted of the bag, a chanter (i.e. a fingered melody pipe), and one to three drone pipes. The chanter and the drone pipes were straight, either cylindrical or conical in shape. They were variously constructed of wood, cane, bone, or in rare instances, metal. The chanter, being the pipe intended to produce the melody, was of course, drilled with holes which would be ‘fingered’, i.e. either covered or uncovered by the player’s fingers, to produce varying tones. Both, the chanter and the drone pipes were fitted with reeds at the ends which were connected to the bag. The bag was initially made from an animal skin, with or without the hair left on. This leather bag might also be covered with the clan’s tartan woven in wool.

   In Scotland the favored type of bagpipe was known by its Gaelic name: Piob-mhor. This translates as the Great Highland Bagpipe. The Piob-mhor initially was constructed with a chanter, blowpiece and just one drone pipe. By the Fifteenth Cetury a second drone was added to the instrument. It would not be until the end of the Eighteenth or beginning of the Nineteenth Centuries that the third, or bass, drone would be added. There were two other types of bagpipes played in Scotland: the Irish Union (variously known as the Uilleann Pipes), which contained four drones, and the Lowland Bagpipe. The Piob-mhor was the only of the three which was played by the piper blowing air into the instrument. The other two were played by pumping air into the bag by a bellows held under the arm.

   Hugh MacLeod provided a description of the modern-day bagpipes in an article he submitted for the Highland News:

The Highland bagpipes are of three sizes - first, the Great Highland Bagpipe, the Half-Set or Reel Size, and the Miniature, and there is, of course, the Practising Chanter. It is scarcely necessary to refer in detail to the minor characteristics of these three, which are all alike, but some of you may be interested to know the names of the different parts in Gaelic. The bag, which is usually of sheepskin covered with flannel or other cloth, and an outer garment of tartan or velvet, is called the màl. To this is inserted tightly five pieces of well-turned wood, called stocs. The chanter is called the feadan, and contains eight holes, besides a hole right across and near the base, to give volume and width to the tone. It has a small leather valve, called siunnach, to prevent the wind coming out. The reed of the chanter is called the rifeid. The bass-drone or dos-mòr has two slides used for tuning, while the small drones have only one each, i.e. the duis bheaga. At the end of each drone is a reed, called, in this case, na gothan, being previously widened or closed by moving up or down a string which is tied round each of them. Now, as to the notes of the bagpipe, They are nine in number, beginning with G sharp and end in A natural. The tone of the drones is lowered by lengthening the drones, and when in tune the two small drones should be in unison with one another and with the lower A of the chanter, the bass drone being tuned to an octave lower. . . . One would suppose that, owing to the limited number of notes in the pipe, the capability of producing melody would be very limited, but if you follow any practised player on the pipes you will at once catch what you might call half or mixed notes, called “grace notes.” In this way, then, we have an almost unlimited number of tunes or notes, giving rise to an infinite variety of tunes. The chief and noblest, and also the most ancient published class, is piobaireachd, or ceol mor, in common parlance. Ceol mor is of three different kinds. First there is cruinneachadh, or gathering; the cumha, or lament; and the fàilte, or salute. The spaisdearachd, or march, I consider a minor style of ceol mor. A piobaireachd opens with the urlar, or groundwork, played twice, and the rest consists of variations on this theme, such as the siubhal; then the taorluath, taor-luath-breabach, and a doubling of this; then comes the crunluath breabach, and a doubling of it; and in large pieces we have crun luath fosgailie, and the crun luath mach.

   During the Seventeenth Century certain pipers and piping clans gained notoriety. The most famous of hereditary piper clans was the MacCrimmons (variously, MacCrummens), pipers to the MacLeods of Dunbegan. One of them, John MacCrimmon, led the pipers who heralded the coronation of King Charles II in 1651. Patrick Mor MacCrimmon was born in 1595 and died in 1670, and during his lifetime, he was considered one of the finest pipers who ever lived. Patrick was the first of a long line of noted MacCrimmon pipers. The MacArthurs, pipers to the MacDonalds of the Isles, were also pipers of reknown, as were: the Macintyres, pipers to the Menzies of Menzies; the Mackays, pipers to the MacKenzies of Gairloch; the Rankins, pipers to the Macleans of Duart and Coll; and the Campbells, pipers to the Campbells of Mochaster.

   Despite the fact that, by the time the 1700s had rolled around, the bagpipe had come to be regarded as the quintessential Highland instrument, it had not won everyone over. Writing in his Modern Account Of Scotland in 1679, Thomas Kirk noted that Highand music was “not the harmony of the sphears, but loud terrene noises, like the bellowing of beasts…” Niall Mor MacMhuirich, in his epic poem, Seanchus a Piob bho thus, stated that the music of bagpipes and the funeral lamentations of women were similar devilish types of music.