The Black Chanter of Clan Chattan

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The Black Chanter of Clan Chattan is housed in the Clan Macpherson Museum, Newtonmore, Scotland.
The Black Chanter of Clan Chattan is housed in the Clan Macpherson Museum, Newtonmore, Scotland.

• From the October 1984 Piping Times.

By Diana M. Henderson

“As fierce as the tiger that prowls in their forest,
Those sons of the Orient leap to the plain;
But the blade striketh vainly wherever thou wanest,
Black Chanter of Chattan bestir thee again!”
1

Diana M. Henderson.
Diana M. Henderson.

A Mrs Ogilvie wrote these lines to the great Black Chanter of Clan Chattan about 1857, calling upon its legendary mystical powers to save the worsening military situation in the Sepoy Mutiny in India at the time.

While working amongst the Macpherson of Cluny papers in the Scottish Record Office I recently came across three short letters, buried in a host of other material, which deal with the restoration of this chanter to Ewan Macpherson of Cluny as Chief of Clan Chattan, in October 1821.2

A Victorian painting depicting the Battle of the Bridge of Perth, 1396.
A Victorian painting depicting the Battle of the Bridge of Perth, 1396.

The history of the Black Chanter lies deep in the mists of Highland legend, myth and fact. In the lawless disorder of Scotland of the 14th century, clan feuds, battles and raiding were common occurrences. It is known that about 1396, two clans agreed to settle their differences by a form of judicial combat, around 30 men representing each side. The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland of the time contain an entry, “£14 2s 11d for wood, iron and making the enclosure for sixty persons fighting.”3 The two clans involved were named by contemporary writers as The Clan Yha, being it is thought Hay or Kay, and the Clan Quele, which name has never really been identified with any certainty.4 It is claimed however that men of Clan Chattan took part in the fight in 1396 on the Inch of Perth, in the presence of King Robert III.5

Combat proceeded using two-handed broadswords with great slaughter on both sides and near the end of the battle, so the legend goes, a piper appeared in the sky, played a few notes and then let his pipes fall to the ground, where, being made of crystal they broke; all except the chanter, which, being of wood only cracked. The Clan Chattan piper seized the chanter and began playing. The fight was immortalised by Sir Walter Scott in his novel, The Fair Maid of Perth.

It was believed that possession of this particular instrument would bring success and fortune to whoever held it. Ultimately, it is said to have come into the hands of the Grants of Strathspey and the Grants of Glenmoriston and its absence at the battlefield of Culloden, due to the MacPhersons being late, was widely believed to have been the cause of the Prince’s downfall.

The letters in the Scottish Record Office mean nothing without this background.

Invermoriston 20 Oct 1821

My Dear Sir,

‘The Chaunter of the Pipe has only now come to my hands by some mistake of my pipers it was detained in Inverness which I regret as I fear Cluny is by this time gone to Edinb.

The Post is impatient to be forward to … ? … which obliges me to conclude this shortly. With best wishes believe me to remain

My Dear Sir, Yours most truly
James Murray Grant.

*********

“Kinlochness 22nd October 1821.

The Black Chanter of Clan Chattan is housed in the Clan Macpherson Museum, Newtonmore, Scotland.
The Black Chanter of Clan Chattan is housed in the Clan Macpherson Museum, Newtonmore, Scotland.

My Dear Sir,

Many thanks for having sent the Chaunter. Its arrival will afford much joy to the young Chief of Clan Chattan. I am sure you will be in great favour with the Clan … ? … on this account. I have sent the Chaunter over, it will just be in time to reach before he leaves the County. With best respects to Mrs Grant.

Believe me
To remain, My Dear Sir, Your most truly
Archd. F(?) Fraser.”

********

“Cat Lodge 23rd Oct 1821

To Abertarff
Restorer of the Chaunter
Greeting
Fort Augustus.
My Dear Mr Fraser,

I am happy to inform you that the Chaunter arrived here last night in the greatest safety, We are quite convinced of its being the true Chaunter owing to the split up the middle which has been handed down as one of its marks. Beannach shise an (or air)s on chuir n’air (n) ionsuidh. I was exceedingly glad to see our old rent companion John dubh dry (?) machan I assure you his presence created a great deal of joy. I hope to have the satisfaction of seeing you in Edinburgh for I shall miss you very much this winter. I am very much hurried as we are off in half an hour but still I must have a tune on the Chaunter before leaving. All here unite with me in kindest love to you.

I remain my dear Cousin
Yours very truly Ewan Macpherson.”

This last letter is very faded and was obviously written in great haste. The Badenoch Gaelic is difficult to read and is of course now only by a handful of native speakers, but can be very literally translated as, “Blessed peace be with you and them that follow you.” The letters, however, show that the Chanter was restored to the Macphersons of Cluny in 1821, not 1855 as is commonly thought.

While Professor Haddow [pictured, right] disagreed,6 some have linked the pibroch, The End of the Great Bridge with the fight on the Inch of Perth, while General Thomason thought that The Battle of the Bridge of Perth was a tune related to the event.7 If either of these tunes are connected it would certainly make them very old.

Anyway, it’s a lovely story.

References:

  1. Quoted in The Highland Bagpipe. W. L. Manson pp230-232.
  2. GD 80/951
  3. Quoted in Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603. W. Croft Dickinson, Ed. A. A. M. Duncan p 201.
  4. Wyntoun, The Book of Pluscarden and the Register of Moray.
  5. The Clans of the Scottish Highlands. R. R. Mclan p161
  6. The History and Structure of Ceol Mor. Professor A. J. Haddow p64
  7. Ceol Mor. General C. S. Thomason.