A Memoir of the Early Days of the Lowland and Border Pipers Society

by Gordon Mooney

The revival of bellows blown bagpipes in Scotland and the formation of the Lowland and Border Pipers Society are significant cultural phenomena that require some documentation and assessment. These are my personal memories of how that revival began and developed, and some commentary on the cultural context and the, sometimes surprising, way things have played out or may play out in the future.

I was born in 1951 in Edinburgh. I started to learn to play Highland bagpipes in 1958 in Edinburgh with Pipe Major Hance Gates. However, it was during the early 1970's that my interest in Scottish music and bagpipes really took off. Weary of Anglo - American Pop, Rock 'n Roll, Jazz and commercial music, I looked for social, traditional music making, and my roots.

As a student in Dundee in the early 1970's I remember hearing the wild and fluid playing of Northumbrian piper Billy Pigg on the BBC Radio 2 - John Peel Show, and I recall buying a Finbar Furey album, curious about the Irish bagpipes. At that time, apart from photographs, I had never seen a bellows blown bagpipe. A few years later when working in the Planning Department in Edinburgh I discovered that my colleague, Graham Dixon had ordered a set of Northumbrian smallpipes and I became interested in that instrument with its potential for playing with other instruments and its chirpy sound.

Around the same time (1977) I remember hearing Rab Wallace playing his Lowland bagpipes at the Linlithgow Folk Club and then later at Newcastleton Folk Festival (1978). It was also at Newcastleton that I encountered Colin Ross, Anthony and Carol Robb, Richard Butler and the older Northumbrian musicians. I ordered a set of Northumbrian smallpipes from David Burleigh and received them in mid 1979. I recall struggling with the bellows and the tight fingering and as I had just gotten married to a bassoon player we both drove our neighbour below us crazy.

About the same time I was going to Muirhead and Sons pipe-band practices in Grangemouth and I started trying to make a set of Lowland bagpipes. I had asked pipe makers if they would make me a set but all had declined. Rab Wallace suggested I start by getting a chanter from Bob Hardie and in due course Bob gave me a ¾ size chanter. I got a bag and bellows from Northumbrian pipemaker David Burleigh. I had tried turning some drones at a night class but got banned from using wood on the engineering lathe, so I tried making drones in aluminium. These worked fine in tone but were heavy compared to wood. I used the Cocks and Bryan drawings for the drones.

Once I had mastered the bellows with the Northumbrian pipes, Graham Dixon and I would go regularly to Alnwick Pipers Society for lessons with Joe Hutton and listening to Willie Taylor and Will Atkinson and the Robbs. Those musicians had a very big influence on me, particularly Joe, who was a natural musical genius. I loved the style and character of the Northumbrian music and the community musical values. Joe liked Scottish dance band music and the dance orientated rhythms in his playing were infectious. By the end of 1979 I had assembled and could play my homemade set of Border pipes, pitched in B. This was and still is my favourite bagpipe, because of its responsiveness and wild edgy quality. It evokes for me the spirit and character of the Borderlands which I came to know intimately from many trips and living there from 1985 to 2003.

In summer 1981 I got a letter from Mike Rowan, who had heard of my interest in Lowland pipes. He was a performance artist also known as Big Rory; a restorer of Castles and interested in bellows bagpipes. He suggested that there should be a Society to revive the Lowland bagpipes and he set up a meeting at the Edinburgh Folk Festival to discuss this. In due course I went along to Teviot Place and met Mike, Hugh Cheape, Jim Eaton and PM John MacLellan. I had the set I had built; Jim Eaton had an antique set that didn't work, and Hugh had pictures of sets in the Museum. Mike had irrepressible enthusiasm for creating a Society, and John MacLellan agreed to place a small announcement in the International Piper magazine that he published. Thus we formed the Lowland and Border Pipers Society and I was the Secretary, Mike the Chairman.

A few weeks after the International Piper was published, I started to receive letters from far and wide, expressing interest in joining the Society. I spent many, many hours replying to enquiries. At my flat in Linlithgow, I got a visit from Cedric Clerk , a rather eccentric character who had a Lowland pipe in G made by Willie Hamilton. Cedric was a wretched player who rambled about the lost tribe of the Israelites but he gave me the phone number of one Jimmy Wilson, whom Cedric said played Lowland bagpipes. I phoned Jimmy, who was at first a bit guarded when I mentioned Cedric, but he agreed to see me and I visited him in Hamilton. He was a delightful character, full of stories, poems, songs and pipe tunes. He gave me some hickory wood to make drones with. These were what he called 'shunting poles' used in the railway goods yard. They worked well for a set of drones that I played for many years. Jimmy played a blackwood set of Lowland pipes (conical bore) made by Peter Henderson. They sounded really good and Jimmy played really well. I told Mike Rowan about Jimmy and they subsequently became really firm friends. Mike brought Jimmy to many of the early LBPS meetings.

After a few months of writing and receiving letters, there were enough names to consider holding regular meetings. At first these meetings were at Mike's home (Mains Castle) where I met David Hannay and Iain MacDonald, or in a pub in Edinburgh or Linlithgow. I remember Hamish Moore and David Taylor coming to the meeting we held in the back room of the Star and Garter, Linlithgow. A few meetings were held at the Border Country Life Museum,Thirlestane Castle, Lauder at the suggestion of Brian Holton. I recall Hamish Moore, Jim Gilchrist, Paul Roberts, Mike Ward, Robbie Greensitt, David Hannay, Jeannie Campbell coming to these early meetings. We tried holding meetings at the College of Piping in Glasgow but often got poor attendance. I remember myself and Jeannie Campbell being the only two who turned up for one meeting. However, I also remember that the Society was formally constituted in 1983 in Glasgow, but thereafter we held most meetings in Edinburgh at the School of Scottish Studies.

From the late 1970's I had been researching pipe tunes for the bellows pipes. It started with the town tune of Linlithgow “The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow” aka the “Roke” or the Linlithgow March. I was curious to find out what the tune title meant. This started my regular lunchtime visits to the Central Edinburgh Public Library and the National Library, hunting for Lowland and Border pipe tunes and anecdotes about pipers. This was long before the internet etc. Word got out that I had all these tunes and other pipers wanted them. I was persuaded to make a little book of tunes, and so I pasted it together one evening with hand written music and text. I gave many of the tunes to Hamish Moore for his album Cauld Wind (1985) and I started to get people offering me money for copies.

My researches in the libraries were also spurred by an awakening in me of my “Scottishness” or Scots ethnicity. Like many of my generation, growing up in Scotland, we had been subjected to the ethnocide (cultural killing) perpetuated and sustained by English imperialism. As children we had been physically beaten with the tawse for speaking Scots or Gaelic at school. We had been taught English folk songs, not Scottish ones. We read William Shakespeare, not Robert Burns, and we were mocked and derided for playing bagpipes, or for even wanting to play them. Our language was 'gutter language' and our music 'barbaric.' This was particularly true in the more Anglophile society of Edinburgh. We were offered elocution lessons to make sure we spoke the Queens English. As you might imagine this treatment could leave a bitter aftertaste.

In my job as a building conservation officer in late 1970's Edinburgh, we were trying to conserve the built heritage of the city. Knowledge of Scots architecture and terminology, Scots history and Scots language came to the fore for me. I also lived in Linlithgow, where almost everyone spoke Lallans – Scots language was the norm. I began to realise that all around me was a rich and distinct culture that had been deliberately concealed from me and suppressed. My reawakening was a reacquainting with my indigenous culture and appreciating its true value. It was discovering that my accent and language were normal, and my interest in bagpipes and Scots music was legitimate and deeply relevant to my experience in Scotland and not something to be embarrassed or ashamed about

Contemporaneously, I discovered that Scotland once had another bagpipe culture - free of kilts and uniforms; a bagpipe that played for dancing at kirns and shearing the corn, accompanied songs, led wedding processions and played laments at lykewakes and funerals. It was the bagpipe of the Toun Pipers who woke the Burghs in the morning and sounded Couvrir Feu (Curfew) in the evening and who were the repositories of ancient ballads and wild otherworldly music. “The Auld Loveable Use” celebrated in song and lore. Bellows bagpipes were therefore a valid, exciting and nuanced means of artistic expression in Scotland, free from the imperialistic, paternalistic, militaristic ethos that is often found in the marching pipe-band.

I must emphasise that this was my personal journey; one that reached a public expression in my album “O'er the Border” in 1989. I had no Nationalistic agenda. The music I played was a personal interpretation of historical material, and an attempt to connect and integrate the music and myself with the natural and cultural environment in which I lived. This is also reflected in the tunes I chose to put in my tune books. My musical training was limited; I made many technical mistakes. I wasn't setting out to be an 'authority' or get a PhD. I just liked playing my bagpipes and I adapted and modified old tunes, to suit my taste and make them exciting, attractive or pleasant to listen to.

People raised outside of post-war Scotland did not necessarily experience the ethnocide that the Scots suffered, therefore, they don't have the same perspective, both about the use of Scots language or the cultural ownership of the bagpipe music and Scots songs. Furthermore, there are particular sensitivities which can “raise the hackles’ when there is over analysis of Scottish music by outsiders or academics that can be construed as patronising or imperialistic. No Scot picks up his pipes and thinks “I'll play a tune in Mixolydian mode, or maybe Lydian?' No Scottish piper ever composed a tune according to the rules of equal temperament or chord sequences. Bagpipes are a 'drone' instrument and don't follow conventional musical rules. In fact, it is the bagpipes idiosyncrasies that make them attractive to me.

As William Honeyman said: “Scottish music – and more especially that which is not composed as vocal music – defies all rule. Anyone with theories of harmony very badly on the brain, and wishing to be driven frantic, need only listen to some of our best Scottish dance tunes, in which not only consecutive fifths, but consecutive everything else, are cooly introduced by the melody suddenly in the most eccentric fashion, sinking one note, and repeating the first phrase in that new key..... The secret of this idiosyncrasy, I believe is that the most ancient of these tunes were composed for the Scottish bagpipes.....The bagpipes may perish off the face of the earth, and be heard no more; but in spirit will haunt purely Scottish and Irish music through all time. How inseparably wedded this music is to the bagpipes or violin is seen the moment we attempt to render genuine Scottish strathspeys or reels upon any other instrument.”William Crawford Honeyman 1845-1919 From the Violin – How to Master it. 1883.

Equally troubling to me is the trend toward “fast food” music. Where proficiency in Scots (or Celtic) music is claimed to have been achieved after attendance at a weekend camp in such unlikely places as Spain, California or Italy or from listening to CD’s. The French use the word “Terroir” to express the qualities that make French wine special and uniquely French. Difficult to quantify and often subjective these qualities are nevertheless perceived as real and also apply to ethnic music, where intimate familiarity with local landscapes, histories, language and climate give a special empathy and understanding to performance and composition.

Returning to 1983 when I was invited to play in the Official Edinburgh Festival. At an after performance gathering I met Peter Cooke, lecturer at the School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh University. Peter had heard about the fledgling LBPS and suggested that we hold our meetings at the School in George Square. He may have had an ulterior motive to be able to document this cultural and musical revival. Ironically, although I have mixed feelings about what the role of academia has in folk music, nevertheless this was a major turning point in the fortunes and popularity of the LBPS. It gave the Society the 'blessing' of academia and removed it somewhat from the 'Highland' piping world which, at the time, tended to sneer at the bellows pipes and saw the early LBPS as 'a bit weird'.

Bi-monthly on a Saturday afternoon we tried to hold a meeting and that was when Colin Ross, Hamish Moore's father, Jimmy Wilson, Andy Hunter and others came to give talks, play, sing and give advice. Julian Goodacre, Ian MacInnes, John Swayne, Jimmy Anderson, Jock Agnew, Jim Gilchrist all came to meetings and began to take active parts in the Society, leading to the magazine Common Stock, to competitions and other events. There also began a commercial side which was the emergence of professional bagpipe makers – Colin Ross and Robbie Greensitt were soon joined by Julian Goodacre, Hamish Moore, Jim Anderson, Nigel Richard and then several others each with their own particular version of the instrument. The interests of makers and the development of the Society from then on became inextricably linked.

Although the Society had at first been primarily interested in the conical bored Lowland or Border bagpipes, it was the Scottish smallpipes that became immediately popular, and would give several makers a good living in years to come. In the late 20th century there emerged an unexpected yet significant demand for a socially acceptable chamber bagpipe that could play with other instruments. First a smallpipe with a tonic of D, then followed by sets in Bflat, A and C. These were basically built around a standard Northumbrian smallpipe reed and utilised the 'dry' or cauld wind technology of the Northumbrian smallpipe. Ironically, without this North of England 'know how' about dry reeded bagpipes brought by Colin Ross  there would not have been the Scottish smallpipe or the general revival in Scottish Lowland or Border bagpipes.

However, the Scottish Smallpipe is relatively easy to make compared to the multi-keyed, multi droned Northumbrian pipe, and it has also provided several Northumbrian pipemakers with the mainstay of their income. The market for Northumbrian smallpipes being much smaller than that for Scottish smallpipes.

The Scottish smallpipe is also easy to copy and many individual makers have come into the fray since, in Scotland, England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, Germany, Russia, Italy etc. The industrial might of the Highland bagpipe industry has also added Computer Numeric Control, Goretex, plastics and carbon fibre to enable mass production of the instruments. In the 1970's no Highland bagpipe maker was commercially interested in bellows bagpipes. The bagpipe makers I spoke to in 1970's Edinburgh had heard about “Cumberland” bagpipes and Irish pipes but knew nothing about Lowland or Border pipes. In fact they just laughed about the whole idea.

With the boom in Scottish Smallpipes, the revival of the louder conical bore instrument –the Lowland or Border pipes - began to languish until Nigel Richard developed his pipes to play in A 440, before that only Colin Ross and Robbie Greensitt had made Lowland pipes in B flat. The conical bore instrument is probably still more of a minority interest, yet in my opinion, it is a much better performance instrument than the smallpipes, and an excellent foil to the fiddle or other instruments.

Between 1983 and 1985, with the help of Peter Cooke, I wrote a Tutor for the Cauld Wind Bagpipes printed at the University. The first edition sold out rapidly. I also published the two volumes of The Choicest Collection of Scots Tunes for the Lowland and Border Bagpipes. During this time I was also playing in West Lothian pipe bands and was the Toun Piper of Linlithgow. Fortunately, I only had to get up once a year at 4am to wake the town. I must have played the “Roke” a thousand times. In 1983 I recorded, in one afternoon, The Border Reiver cassette tape with some of the Border tunes I had found. However, over the year 1988-89 I recorded with Robin Morton at Temple Records, the much praised album O'er the Border to take the project of Border pipes and their music quite a bit further in terms of arrangements and material. Barbara Mooney added bassoon and flute; Nigel Richard played Mandola; Dougie Pincock and Alan Reid of Battlefield band added their talents.

Of course, a large part of my interest in the bellows bagpipes was influenced by the path blazed by Rab Wallace and Jimmy Anderson in the folk bands Whistlebinkies and the Clutha. Playing with other instruments suggested exciting possibilities and using Scottish Smallpipes and Border pipes opened up new musical ideas. For example, in the piece “O'er the Border” I took an old Border pipe jig that had been written to commemorate a 'Border inroads' (a cross Border raid or Reiving) and rearranged and augmented it into a performance piece using varied tempo, split timing, combination with other instruments and 'wild abandon' free rubato to express my experience of living in the Borders of Scotland. Having shown this direction, hoping to influence other pipers, it surprises and saddens me that most pipers playing Border pipes still stick rigidly to their “Highland” piping style and repertoire. A very conservative approach prevails when the instrument offers artistic potential validated by historic reference to such techniques as “shiverin the back lill”. Probably 90% of bellows pipers are playing only tunes and techniques from the larger 'Highland' canon.

Often far too much emphasis placed on the pipes themselves: their monetary value, what wood, what mounts, silver or gold ferrules - and versions now exist with 4/5 drones, contra-bass drones, keyed chanters...mouth blown smallpipes, and Border pipes abound in Delrin plastic and now - nylon 3D-printed extended range pipes; Gimmicks exist alongside genuine advances. While mass production and technological improvement is admirable it can also threaten 'traditional' methods, hand and craft skills and 'de-personalises' the instrument and its relationship to the natural environment. It can also threaten the independence of makers who produce hand made items. There once was a traditional instrument made of natural materials called a Cauld Win' bagpipe that played Scottish music. Now it seems “anything goes. Experts also abound touting “learn to play in a week;” “learn to play French, Spanish, Appalachian or bluegrass on your bagpipe” and “how to join in an Irish music session in G”. Where are we going with this and does it matter? I often see espoused the argument that these bellows blown bagpipes are a revival instrument and the tradition of playing them was broken therefore 'anything goes'. I don't agree. For me piping in Scotland is a continuous tradition and is well documented over the last 400 years or more, mostly in the Lowlands. I mentioned Jimmy Wilson playing Scottish Bellows pipes in the 1960's and 70's and in the same era Willie Hamilton was making and playing Scottish bellows pipes. I was told by Davy Stewart, a traveler, that he remembered bellows pipes being played in 1950's in Blairgowrie. The term “Cauld Win' pipes” was still familiar in 1955 when Hamish Henderson was collecting in the North East of Scotland http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/11526/1 and bellows pipers and fiddlers, Francie Markiss and 'The Wonderful Boy' Joseph Sim were still remembered. In the 70's and 80's antique Bellows pipes were turning up in attics and old kists and still do. I think they were probably more common than we think and would have been a second or home instrument for pipers who would be better know for playing the big mouth blown bagpipes. What is certain is that these smaller bagpipes were played with open fingering and on open ended chanters and the repertoire in the North East and Lowlands would have been Scottish music and in the Borders most likely they would have played Town Tunes and music mention by James Allan as having been played “Time out of mind on the Border”.

In 1993 Andy Hunter wrote a letter published in Common Stock suggesting some ground rules for the Society. Following his impassioned comments at the Galashiels Collogue about the “Anglicisation' of the Society (where he was accused of being Fascist or overly nationalistic), he wished to clarify his views. He was adamant that the Society keep Scottish-based performance at the centre of its activities, and resist the drift of the Society to becoming one more group of musicians in a vague North British or Celtic context.

Andy felt that the Society, like many other Scottish cultural organisations was - like it or not - at the forefront of a vital struggle as Scottish culture and institutions were being ground down by an uncaring, Anglo-centric ruling class. Being aware and proud of a Scottish ethnicity does not make a Fascist or a racist. With Brexit and the rise of English nationalism, Andy's prescience is ever more pertinent today. Andy suggested that the LBPS should be renamed as a Scottish Smallpipe Society and that it should fully engage with the Highland piping community. Arguably, outside of the Society this has already happened in many ways, as many band players use the smallpipes as practice instruments and in sessions to play their band repertoire.

The emergence of the bellows bagpipes, playing at reasonable volume, and in 'friendly' keys has opened up the huge catalogue of Scottish bagpipe music to players and the public, and offers the opportunity to take back the music from fiddlers and accordionists. As Honeyman said the bagpipe music is the spirit of Scottish music.

Honeyman may have wished that the bagpipe would die out, but the opposite has actually occurred.

I also question that there is a real divide between Highland piping and Lowland piping. I think that in reality there is just good Scottish piping and bad piping. Many contemporary “Highland” pipers did not grow up in the Highlands and many have never been to the Scottish Highlands or even to Scotland. There are many reasons for playing these bagpipes and much has been achieved in reviving the bellows bagpipe. The revival is providing jobs and income for makers, providing good reliable instruments, enabling aging pipers to extend their playing lives, being inclusive and welcoming regardless of sex, race, age etc., as well as providing a means of remaining on speaking terms with the neighbours and to have fun and socialise. However, there is much more to do to consolidate the Scottish cultural ownership and prevent the 'drift' to a nebulous “North Britain,” “world music,” “early music” or “Celtic music” category where anything goes. The Society, after all, was formed to promote the bellows blown instruments of the Scottish Lowlands and Border and their music.

What is going on in the 'folk music' scene, “Superstar piper” scene or in “Alternative bagpipe” events in the USA and elsewhere is a real mixed bag of personal egos vying for the limelight, bagpipe makers sales and marketing efforts and event promoters trying to make money. Many of the people engaged in these activities will not be members of the Society nor be aligned with its aims. That is regrettable but is outwith the remit of the LBPS to influence. Fortunately, I observe that the Society continues to maintain great integrity and intellectual focus and I hope that will continue. It will soon be forty years since I embarked on my bellows bagpipe adventure and it is amazing to see the currently huge number of players and makers of the instrument and the researchers and performers that have and continue to enjoy themselves with the Cauld Win' pipes. Long may it continue. We have come a long way since that first meeting in Edinburgh. I am also heartened that the international cameraderie of the Society helps to progress Robert Burn's idea that human beings the world over will one day be united in their commonality.