The Bagpipes in Peace
Greg Dawson Allen
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.
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
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
"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.
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