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Review: Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Instrument by Hugh Cheape

I received the offer to review Bagpipes; A National Collection of a National Instrument from my English friend James Merryweather due to me being a genuine ‘Scotch piper’, and can now say how glad I am for taking up the request. This book now takes its place on my shelf next to the likes of John G. Gibson’s Traditional Gaelic Piping and William Donaldson’s Highland Bagpipes and Scottish Societies. In the same vein as these works, it founds its material on up to date contemporary evidence, whilst constantly leaving the door open for future research and interpretation.

The book isn’t simply a history of the bagpipe

but rather a study of Scottish, English, Irish and

generally European culture with the bagpipe as a focal

point. A major example is how Cheape deals with the

subject of the great hereditary piping dynasties such as the MacCrimmons and MacArthurs. Here he looks at the social structure underlying the bardic tradition, rather than relying purely on the folklore and myths surrounding these big names of the piping world. The same approach is taken in the chapters on pastoral-union pipes. The author argues that this new eighteenth century instrument was part of a neo-baroque style tied to the wider developments of the enlightenment. The topic of pastoral-union pipes constitutes a large part of the book and gives a much needed view of the instrument outside of Ireland. Cheape looks at the early repertoire, including the examples of John Geoghegan’s Competent Tutor for the Pastoral Pipes and The Beggars Opera. Later he discusses the impact of Macpherson’s Ossian on the perceived culture of Scotland, describing the use of pipes in the pantomime-opera Oscar and Malvina. He then gives evidence of the ‘gentlemen pipers’, men of wealth and leisure who are now seen as the founders of the union pipe tradition. This section was particularly interesting and quite unexpected, as the majority of piping historians tend to emphasise geographical context rather than social and political.

There are some fantastic citations from original source material in the book, especially when dealing with the pipes amongst the Gaeltacht. This vivid and vicious diatribe comes from William McMurchy in the turner manuscript; ‘I am weary of praising you, and your beast of a pipe with its stinking smell, filled with disgusting spittle, a bag of sticks under your arm, more bitter than the henbane its screaming’.

With a writer like Hugh Cheape, the text always comes first, yet there is also the attraction of the high quality photography and prints of everything from the instruments themselves to concert programs, paintings, book covers and some beautiful etchings.

There is also a CD-Rom thrown in with the book witch is a nice extra. For anyone interested the national museums of Scotland website offers a large part of their archive to view on line.

My only real complaint would be that it was too short. I have been to the museum at the piping centre many times and admired the varied collection of bagpipes on display. I was hoping for a couple of chapters on this topic, but perhaps Cheape felt the subject was already well covered in the lowland and borders piping society journal. Having said this I still feel that the chapters on pastoral and union pipes were worthy of the extensive care and detail given.

For anyone with a scholarly interest

in bagpipes within Scotland this work would

be a good starting point. It has all the aspects

of a balanced modern academic book whilst

still remaining accessible to the layman. He

does however use some Gaelic quotations

without English translation. Nevertheless you

can still get the right idea from the context of

the quotes, and perhaps I should just learn

more Gaelic. Unlike the Scottish history books of old which clung to the same over- simplifications and national myths appertaining solely to Scotland, it takes a wider sphere of influence into account; from the links to the Irish Gaeltacht, the relationship with the union and the cultural trends of Europe and western civilisation as a whole.