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Scottish highland bagpipe

The Highland Bagpipe by Simon McKerrell

Last week I was away with the family camping in Argyll. Driving the roads around there, passing places such as Tarbert or Kilberry, reminds one of how deeply connected the landscape of Scotland is to piping history. It made me consider again the role of the clans, certainly the Campbells of Argyll, but others, too, in the history of piping.

The Gaelteachd ("Gaelic-speaking lands") were the stronghold of piping in the 18th and 19th centuries. Each clan had its own pipers, filidh (poets), clarsairs (harp-players) and doctors, all of which were hereditary posts. Pipers were recognized in clan society as important people and were apportioned land and a house appropriate to their station (changed days!). Some, such as the MacArthurs and MacCrimmons, were so important that they did not pay any rent on their land.

The most famous of these families was undoubtedly the MacCrimmons, pipers to MacLeod of Dunvegan in Skye. These were hereditary patrilineages -- others included the Rankins, pipers to MacLean of Duart; MacKays, pipers to McKenzie of Gairloch; MacArthurs, pipers to MacDonald of the Isles; MacIntyres, pipers to Menzies of Menzies; and Cummings, pipers to the Grants.

There are so many tunes associated with Highland clan history, and in Argyll many of those tunes have military links, such as "The Men of Argyll" and "The 8th Argylls Crossing the River Po," while many others commemorate famous individuals such as "Allan Rowan of Port Appin." Most tunes associated with Argyll were composed by pipers from that part of the world, like John MacLellan of Dunoon, Willie Lawrie, John MacColl and George MacIntyre. This is because Gaelic society further north and west often had more contact with the seafaring northern societies than it did with mainland Scotland. Ships sailed from all over the west coast of Scotland to Ireland, Norway, the Orkneys and the Isle of Man, forging political and social links with these nations.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2019 issue of Scottish Life.

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