John Murdoch Henderson (1902-1972)
The John Murdoch Henderson Music Collection
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The Bagpipes in Peace
Greg Dawson Allen

Page Three

The Piper in peace time, whether attached to the clann system or not, had an important role in day to day society. At celebrations, such as anniversaries and weddings, the piper had a privileged position. In the 19th century the piper piped in the morning of the wedding and followed the bride and groom as they separately led processions of their relatives and friend around the houses. The joining of the couple in marriage heralded a united march through the neighbourhood. The title of ‘piper’ eventually gave way to other occupations and in the much sought after skills of his music his daily trade was set aside to provide the entertainment.

"I am a jolly miller
I come o’ the millers o’
And if you do not know me
My name is Willy Spro,
I play upon the bagpipes
Wi’ mickle mirth and glee
And I care for nobody, no, not I
And nobody cares for me"

The piper was also present at the more sombre occasions of funerals. A lament on the pipes accompanied the coronach, a mournful recitation of cries in remembrance of the dead, immediately after the death. (MANSON 152)

The coronach gradually faded into obscurity but the presence of the piper continued, particularly in Aberdeenshire. The death of a clann chief in the highlands brought the whole population of the area to the graveside. The death of a chief in Skye was recorded as having a procession of two miles in length with six men walking abreast. Apparently seven pipers were in attendance and played the lament, each placed along the route from the house to the cemetery; "Upwards of three hundred gallons of whisky was provided for the occasion, with every other necessary refreshment." (MANSON 153)

A parody of the last Will and testament of Andrew Kennedy by William Dunbar, "Testament Of Mr Andro Kennedy", describes custom pertaining to customs of the Carrick district of Ayrshire and is representative of Wills of the 15th century; it follows a strict format, firstly commending the soul to the Lord God in Heaven, secondly, makes provision for the deceased’s request for the burial, thirdly, dispenses goods and chattels to friends and relatives, and lastly, outlines plans for the funeral:

"I will na preistis for me sing,
Dies illa, dies ire, Na yit na bellis for me ring
Sicut semper solet fieri,
Bot a bag pipe to play a spryng
Et unum ail wosp ante me
In stayd of baneris for to bring
Quatuor lagenas cervisie,
Within the graif to set sic thing
In modum crucis juxta me,
To fle the fendis than hardely sing De terra plasmasti me."

Dunbar, "Maister", as he was known was present in the court of King James IV but little is known of him other than his poetic works and regular accounts of salary paid to him by the Royal Treasury. He is believed to have died just prior to 1515.

The piper was, and still is, a lifter of the burden of dreary toil, and brought a respite from the physical and mental drudgery of hard labour. In 1786 squads of workers, linking communities together, with passable stone based roads each had a piper to help ease the tedious, heavy lifting. Likewise, the launching of a boat across single beaches was aided by the piper setting a rhythm to which the men could co-ordinate their efforts as one. The reapers during harvest welcomed the steady pipe music to assist in the swing of their scythes, and, in the celebrations of the “Meal an’ Ale” when the harvest was in, the piper was an honoured guest, to take the farm workers’ minds off the bleak winter ahead.

Many of the Scottish travelling people are exponents of the bagpipes and incorporate the music of the pipes in their style of singing the “Muckle Sangs” or big ballads. Here they are overlapping one tradition with another – that of storytelling and music, and presenting the whole in accented story/song, sung with true feeling and realism. The kirk session, the great defenders of Scottish morality, served to document local social issues and it is from these sources that the piper can be identified as the “Deil’s” provider of music and dancing;

"A winnock bunker in the east,
There sat Auld Nick in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gi’e them music was his charge;
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl."

Robert Burns, when writing “Tam O’ Shanter”, conjured up the spirit of the presbytery’s opinion on the bagpipes and their use for providing music for dancing. Probably most elders of the Kirk session didn’t oppose the use of pipes, preferring the “skirl” of the pipes to the chant of the psalms.

The bagpipe in the late 18th century and early 19th century was as common place in the western highlands as the fiddle was in the bothys and houses in the east. However, neither were exclusive to any one place and, where entertainment was to be had, music, in all its forms was called upon.

Puirt a beul (mouth-music), diddling and cantering, all consisting of nonsensical verses, but which kept a time without the elaboration of balladry words, were engaged in creating a jovial atmosphere. (CANNON 105)

The Small Pipes were more commonly used indoors for dances but neither the players of the latter or the Piob Mhor were refused at any social event.


The most frequently performed dances of both east and west were the Reels (ruidhle), Jigs and Strathspeys.

The Reel, usually a combination of a three person dance, using a figure of eight configuration, is said to be the oldest and of Norse origin. In a piper’s repertoire the Reel is played in Alla Breva time, 2/2, with two beats to the bar. Jigs are composed in 6/8 time and are fast in tempo. The tradition of the Jig is more upheld in Ireland where it is also a solo step-dance. Piping tutors in Scotland, printed in the 19th century, on average, contained around twenty Jigs within a hundred tunes, but the decline in the Jig saw, in 1900, only five Jigs per one hundred tunes. Strathspeys are more associated with the fiddle but equally have their place in pipe music. A distinctive style of Reel, the Strathspey had prominence in Aberdeenshire and in districts around, also in Deeside, Moray and Buchan. The Strathspey Reel uses extreme “pointing”, dotted rhythms played as if double dotted with a reverse accent made (as in fiddles playing) with the bow. The Strathspey for the pipes are mainly arranged from the original fiddle tunes. (CANNON 110-112)

One of the best known tunes for both pipers and fiddlers, to which the Rev. John Skinner of Longside in Aberdeenshire in the 18th century added words, is “Tullochgorum”, described by Robert Burns as , “The best Scotch song ever Scotland saw.”

"What needs there be sae great a fraise
Wi’ dringing, dull, Italian lays;
I wadnae gie our ain strathspeys
For half a hunder score o’ them;
They’re dowf and dowie at the best,
Dowf and dowie, dowf and dowie,
Dowf and dowie at the best,
Wi’ a’ their variorum;
They’re dowf and dowie at the best,
Their allegros an’ a’ the rest,
They canna please a Scottish taste
Compared with Tullochgorum."

The piper in Scottish society from the Highlands to the Borders is an accepted and welcome figure. His, and her position is set upon a solid foundation of fact and folklore and a staunch musical and bardic tradition, which, can be said, has occurred, historically speaking, in recent times. Yet, to try and untwine one tradition from the other would be impossible as one is inextricably bound in the other and therefore inseparable.

Greg Dawson Allen

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