Monday, April 21, 2008

It's an Ill Wind..........

It must have been with much chagrin that many of the Francophobes of the British Isles found that they could not blame the perfume wafting over them the past few days on their nearest neighbours. They did their best by referring to it as ‘Le Stink,’ in preference to ‘Der Stink,’ rather in the same way as ‘Gallic Pride’ is used, always in exclamation marks, as though having pride is something to be ashamed of.
But there was an even less salubrious breeze rustling the kilts and sporrans north of the border.
According to Hugh Cheape, a leading Gaelic historian and expert piper: “The written and received history of the great Highland bagpipe reflects in many of its parts the triumph of sentiment over fact ... an orthodoxy has emerged from surprisingly modest origins in the first half of the 19th century and it was elaborated by repetition, speculation and guesswork in the second.”
Mr. Cheape, whom I am sure knows of what he speaks, strikes me as being a brave man to have come clean.
Apparently feeling that the memory of Bonnie Prince Charlie needed a bit of a lift, two loyal pipe makers crafted what can only be described as the Airbus A 380 of pipes in the early 19th. century. This was designed so that only those who had spent an apprenticeship tossing cabers and whose legs were modelled on hefty tree trunks could perform with any ease on the instrument, the behemoth of blow.
Pipes had, of course, been around for centuries but were hardly the gargantuan model now on display, requiring lungs like blacksmith’s bellows to operate.
Queen Victoria was delighted. She seems to have been easy to please and commanded a piper to play every morning outside her bedroom window.
We have a similar performance here by the feral cat population but find that a bucket of water and a half brick usually take care of it.
Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was about as Scottish as spaghetti bolognese, arrived on the Isle of Eriskay and was fortuitously befriended by a Piper MacNeil from Barra who was visiting at the time. It now seems that his pipes would have been little more elaborate that the sort of pibrochs that are still to be seen at the festivals in Brittany today, the biniou, although history says that an air for pibroch and bagpipes, ‘My King has Landed at Moidart’ was number one in the charts for a while shortly after.
Apart from royalty, bagpipes have had a mixed reception down south, where they are generally thought of as an ill wind that no one blows good. In Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat,’ he gives a graphic description of the trials of young Jefferson attempting to learn the machine.
The main trouble for we Sassenachs is identifying a melody and not confusing it with the tuning up bit.
Sir Henry Wood summed it up when he said that personally he had no aversion to the bagpipes but he did feel that they were heard to best effect from the far side of a mountain.
In his new book, to be published by the National Museums of Scotland, Mr Cheape claims the Highland bagpipe was never used to lead the Scots clans into battle against the English, nor was it used to play laments to fallen chieftains.
He added: “We have to admit that the great Highland bagpipe that we now know was part of this invention of tradition.”


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