Dante’s Bagpipes: A Divine Comedy

Piping research can seem at times to be a Dantésque sojourn into the unknown. It inspires detective work for sure. The skills needed often run between being Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones. Last issue’s History article, “The Way Home to Dunoon” featured “The Dunoon Home Guard,” a tune allegedly penned in the hand of John Maclellan, DCM. Plausible information has emerged to suggest that this is possibly not the case. Equally plausible information suggests that it is. So which is it? While the tune’s compositional credit is accurate, the penmanship on the original manuscript is in question. Who knew how difficult it would be to verify something this simple in the twenty-first century!

Let’s face it, piping research is still in the Dark Ages. Scholarly documentation—musical or otherwise— still has the feel of descending dark staircases in dank monasteries to look through scrolls and crumbling parchment. (Where is Virgil when you need him?)ppIf you look at other fields of musical study, the available source material for research and information gathering are organized, accessible, and open for the most part. It is not a mystery where to find just about any information you might be seeking. But try to find a written example of one of the old pipe tunes, or try to access the available manuscripts of the great compilers and composers. I think Freemasons are more willing to give up their secrets. There may as well be a sign such as Dante saw above the Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.”

Look around. Technology has shrunk the world, and with that, shrunk the resources at our disposal. Efforts to modernize scholarly materials abound. We may not have a Virgil to guide our way as Dante did, but in his place has sprung the preponderance of blogs; Google Books; Microsoft’s digitizing of the Bettmann archive as well as materials at the British Library; the BBC’s efforts to digitize and open their archives of historic media. These all stand as just a few examples how modern techniques stand to help future study for all. The main point is, however: it will be open. This quality is essential to any effort to disseminate information and history. Much of history is too important to be left in the hands of an elite group or select individuals who are “blessed” with access to the most important source material—often by other elite groups. History is dynamic and scholarship generally suffers and stagnates when one point of view is rigidly expressed over time. Sound familiar? Examples abound, both big and small, of the importance to historical research of general access to information. Is piping exempt? Hardly.

Even more owing to its “niche” status as a field of musical study, Highland piping is in desperate need of new points of view. The need for greater and open access to piping’s source material is not only apparent, but necessary. The Piobaireachd Society’s recent posting of the Donald McDonald and Hanny- MacAuslan manuscripts are excellent steps in this direction. However, in Pipers for example, William Donaldson mentions several other manuscript collections, the existence of which were unknown to many until the publication of his book. If Pipers had never been published (as I’m sure many would have wished), these documents would have remained in obscurity to be known by only a few. This knowledge now leaves the door open for general scholarship by anyone interested in serious or casual study of the Highland bagpipe and its music—but only if it is accessible to the student. Only then will this study eventually lead to new voices on the subject, as well as inspire future Indiana Jones types to cast light into the dark tunnels in search of piping ephemera.

Definitive corroborating evidence is difficult to come by for the general student of piping, but The Voice extends a request to all readers for comparative documents/images that might show the music scoring and/or penmanship of John Maclellan of Dunoon. Send scans or resource information to voice@euspba.org.

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