It was once part of the instrument played by the Blind Piper of Gairloch, a one-of-a-kind artifact dating to the golden days of Gaelic music in Scotland.
But news that his Canadian descendants were donating the artifact to a Scottish museum after it had been in Nova Scotia for 205 years has sparked a furious debate about where its proper home should be.
“It’s part of the founding culture of this country,” said Barry Shears, an expert and author on bagpiping in Nova Scotia. “At the time of Confederation, Gaelic was the third most spoken language. Not a lot of people know that.”
The disputed artifact is a 17th-century chanter, the stick-like part with small holes allowing a bagpipe to create a melody. It once belonged to Iain Dall MacKay, one of the most revered Highland composers and musicians, and is thought to be among the last survivors from his era.
Mr. Shears said it is unclear whether the artifact actually was made in Scotland, though, noting its resemblance to Continental melody pipes and that it was constructed from exotic lignum vitae. And even if its history is rooted in Scotland, he argued that its long presence in Canada gives it relevance here.
“Should we go up to Quebec and clear out all the silver made for New France? It doesn’t make much sense,” he said.
The chanter’s last private owners, brothers Michael and Donald Sinclair, could not be reached for comment Tuesday but were quoted in British press articles about the unveiling ceremony at the National Piping Centre in Glasgow.
“There's great scholarship in piping associated with the museum and we felt that it would be a good location for the chanter to be seen and appreciated by young pipers,” Michael Sinclair said. “We hope that its story will inspire them in their piping schooling.”
John G. Gibson, the Cape Breton-based author of two books on bagpiping in Europe and the New World, is hoping the Canadian government will seek the chanter’s return under heritage law. He noted that Ottawa can prevent the export of culturally important artifacts.
“We are diminished and the country is diminished for losing it,” he said.
“There’s many Stradivariuses around but there’s only one of these,” he added. “It’s a great loss to Canada, it’s a great sadness. It means we’re playing second fiddle.”
Canadian Heritage spokespeople did not return inquiries before the end of Tuesday.
The chanter in question came to Canada with one of Iain Dall MacKay’s descendants in the early 19th century and remained here until last month.
“The family that brought it out were pissed off with Scotland, pardon me, and they did very well here,” Mr. Gibson said. “If it had been Champlain’s or Cartier’s pipe there would be a great outcry and this is as important to the Scottish community [in Canada]”
The issue also sparked a war of words online, where opinion appears split. Many people say the artifact is for the Sinclair brothers to do with as they wish. Others argue it has a larger importance because of the long Scottish presence in this province.
“It’s symbolic of how cultural legacy was in some cases willingly relinquished, in others, pried out of their fingers,” wrote one person on a bagpiper enthusiasts’ forum. “For many, it may be nothing less than reclaiming who you are.”