One of the earliest piping competitions took place in Edinburgh in 1784 and was organised by the Highland Society of London. It had actually been intended to hold the contest at Falkirk but a decision was made at the last minute to move it to Edinburgh. The competition took place in Dunn’s Assembly Hall. Duncan Bàn Macintyre, a famous bard of the period, opened the competition with a Gaelic poem praising the bagpipe.
With the highlight of the solo piping calendar, the Glenfiddich, taking place next week, we today take a look back at this early competition through the eyes of a French geologist who was visiting Scotland at the time, Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond. His account is an interesting – and enjoyable – comparison of those early major contests and those now. The Frenchman stayed in Edinburgh with Adam Smith, the famous Scottish economist, author of the great work, The Wealth of Nations. Smith obviously had more than a passing interest in bagpipe music and no doubt enjoyed the reaction of this newcomer to the scene. Saint-Fond‘s commentary appeared in his book, A Journey through England and Scotland to the Hebrides in 1984.
As the reader will agree, our leading competitions certainly have come a very long way since those days but it’s always interesting to hear the views of those new to our music – as Burns wrote, “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us!” – but as for Saint-Fond’s comment on landlords being the “natural judges” of a piping contest, we make no comment.
He asked me one day, whether I was fond of music? I answered, that it formed one of my chief delights, whenever I was so fortunate as to hear it well executed. “So much the better,” said he; “I shall put you to a proof which will be very interesting for me; for I shall take you to hear a kind of music of which it is impossible you can have formed any idea, and it will afford me great pleasure to know the impression it makes upon you.”
Next morning at nine o’clock, Smith came to my lodgings. At ten he brought me to a spacious concert-room plainly but neatly decorated, and full of people. I saw. however, neither orchestra, musicians, nor instruments. We sat waiting for more than half an hour, A large empty space in the middle of the room was surrounded with benches which were occupied by gentlemen only; the ladies were dispersed among the other seats. “These there,” said he, alluding to the gentlemen who sat in the middle, “are the judges of the competition which is about to take place among the musicians. Almost all of them are landlords living in the Isles or Highlands of Scotland; they are thus the natural judges of the contest; they will award a prize to him who shall best perform a piece of music which is favourite with the Scots. The same air will be played by all the competitors, no matter how many of them there may be.”
A few moments later, a folding door opened at the bottom of the room, and to my great surprise, I saw a Scottish Highlander enter, in his costume of Roman soldier, playing upon the bagpipe, and walking up and down the empty space with rapid steps and a military air, blowing the noisiest and most discordant sounds from an instrument which lacerates the ear. The air he played was a kind of sonata, divided into three parts. Smith begged me to give it my whole attention, and to tell him afterwards the impression it made upon me.
But I confess that at first I could distinguish neither air nor design. I only saw the piper marching always with rapidity, and with the same warlike countenance. He made incredible efforts both with his body and his fingers to bring into play at once the different pipes of his instrument, which made an insupportable uproar.
He received nevertheless great applause from all sides. A second musician followed alone into the arena, wearing the same martial look and walking to and fro with the same haughty air. He seemed to excel the first competitor; as I judged from the clapping of hands and cries of bravo that resounded on every side; grave men and high-bred women shed tears at the third part of the air
After having listened to eight pipers in succession, I began to After having listened to eight pipers in succession, I began to suspect that the first part was connected with a warlike march and military evolutions: the second with a sanguinary battle, which the musician sought to depict by the noise and rapidity of his playing and by his loud cries. He seemed then to be convulsed: his pantomimical gestures resembled those of a man engaged in combat; his arms, his hands, his head, his legs, were all in motion; the sounds of his instrument were all called forth and confounded together at the same moment. This fine disorder seemed keenly to interest everyone.
The piper then passed, without transition, to a kind of andante; his convulsions suddenly ceased: he became sad and overwhelmed in sorrow: the sounds of his instrument were plaintive, languishing, as if lamenting the slain who were being carried off from the field of battle. This was the part which drew tears from the eyes of the beautiful Scottish ladies. But the whole was so uncouth and extraordinary; the impression which this contrasted so strongly with that which it made upon the inhabitants of the country, that I am convinced we should look upon this strange competition not as essentially belonging to music but to history*. It should be remarked that we find no trace of a written language among these people, neither in monuments nor in manuscripts; whence I presume that they consigned the memory of the events which interested them most to this kind of chant. which could be easily handed down from generation to generation.
Accustomed to hear these airs from their infancy, and taught by their parents to connect them with the deeds they commemorate, the Highlanders have The same air was played by each competitor, of whom there was a considerable number. The most perfect equality was maintained among them; the son of the laird stood on the same footing with the simple shepherd, often belonging to the same clan, bearing the same name, and having the same garb. No preference was shown here save to talent, as I could judge from the hearty plaudits given to some who seemed to excel in that art. I confess that it was impossible for me to admire any of them. I thought them all of equal proficiency; that is to say, the one was as bad as the other; and the air that was played, as well as the instrument itself, involuntarily put me in mind of a bear’s dance.
The competition was followed by a lively and animated dance formed by one part of the pipers, while the others played suitable airs which had some melody and character; but the union of all these bagpipes produced an unbearable noise.
The competitors afterwards formed themselves into a line two deep, and marched in that order through a part of the town to the foot of the castle of Edinburgh, which is perched upon a volcanic rock. There they played an air, a kind of ballad, in honour of the unfortunate Mary Stuart for whom the Highlanders, as well as the inhabitants of the Isles, have retained an attachment and a kind of religious respect, which the misfortunes of that queen have only served to increase. They are affected every time they speak of her; they look on her as innocent and as the victim of the cruel jealousy of the implacable Elizabeth. Mary was their Queen. They know that she was beautiful, gentle, affable and generous; that she languished in a long and touching captivity; and that she died with resignation and courahe. Much less than this is enough to interest honest peaceable men, whom state policy, and the crimes which it engenders, have not yet corrupted, and who abhor the shedding of blood in any way but for legitimate defence.
While the musicians were at the Castle, the judges were engaged in discussing the merits of the several competitors, in order to award the prize to the most worthy; a bagpipe with ivory mountings, a fine instrument with everything complete, or other suitable objects are each year presented to the winner.
I do not know to what period, probably a very ancient one, the institution of these prizes goes back. It is not known if the competition has always taken place in the town of Edinburgh, on account of the distance of the Highlands, or if it was Queen Mary who transferred it to her capital.
They told me during my stay in Mull that there had been beyond all time of memory in that island, a college or society of bagpipers, which was not even entirely extinguished after the death of the famous Rankine, who had the direction of it about 30 years ago. M‘Rimmon kept a similar school in the isle of Skye, and some of the principal families of the Hebrides always kept a piper. whose office was hereditary.
* Johnson makes the following observation on an air which he heard at the seat of Sir Alexander M‘Donald in the Isle of Skye: “As we sat at Sir Alexander’s table, we were entertained, according to the ancient usage of the North, with the melody of the bagpipe. Every thing in countries has its history. As the bagpiper was playing, an elderly gentleman informed us, that in some remote time, the M’Donalds of Glengarry having been inferred, or offended by the inhabitants of Culloden, and resolving to have justice or vengeance, came to Culloden on a Sunday, where finding their enemies at worship, they shit them up in the church, which they set on fire; and this, said he, is the tune which the piper played while they were burning.”
* First published in the March 1974 Piping Times.