Falkirk Pipers Tales

Falkirk has always been an important centre for pipers to meet and play . An old rhyme tells us

Glasgow for bells

Linlithgow for wells

An’ Falkirk for pease and beans ( Or bonny lasses ; which ever takes your fancy )

This testifies to Falkirks importance as a market town and it was here that the drove roads from the Highlands and Lowlands, alike, converged upon the annual Falkirk Trysts for the buying and selling of "black cattle". All types and sorts were attracted to the Trysts for honest or dishonest dealings.

The first organised Highland bagpipe competitions after the 45 Rebellion were held at the Trysts. Not a very romantic venue, one might think, but here pipers from all parts of Scotland could congregate and play their instruments with some impunity, for the first competition was held in 1781 but the Highland Disarming Act was not repealed until 1782. (From 1746 until 1782 the Highland dress was banned )

Even in this Lowland town the Highland and Lowland, piping traditions remained apart, or so it seemed. At the contest of 1783 Highland dancing was introduced into the programme of pibroch as an interlude between the more serious items. The music for these dancing interludes was not provided by the competing pipers, but by a band of ordinary musicians, probably 'fiddlers or bellow pipes with a cello for bass.

Highland pipers scorned such music for dancing as being unfit for their high art. One suspects that perhaps there was an element of inadequacy in such bullish remarks. There is evidence to suggest that Highland pipers did not play dance music. Joseph MacDonald in his Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe writes that the Highland pipes would only be used for pieces of music specially written for them such as pibroch and jigs, thus suggesting that melodic folk tunes were not worthy of performance on the Highland Bagpipe. Coroberation of this is given by the late Pipe Major John MacDonald of Inverness when he recalled his early tuition.

"I received most of my tuition in piobaireachd from Calum MacPherson at Catlodge, Bedenoch. Calum was easily the best player of piobaireachd I have ever known. He hardly ever played March, Strathspey and Reel, only piobaireachd and Jigs."

Also J .F. Campbell the 19th century folklorist says from a conversation with a nephew of John Ban MacKenzie "Many a story did old John Ban MacKenzie tell me when I was turning his lathe for him and learning music with him.He was fourscore when he died and that is more than twenty , years ago. It must be nearly a hundred years since he was in Raasay learning Ceol mor, great music from (John MacKey). They had two drones then, and played no grace notes. They had no Ceol beag then, no small music, they only played Ceol mor on the pipes, battle tunes, and laments, and salutes and such like".

So at the Falkirk Trysts in the 1780' s the pibroch was most likely a simple undecorated music. By contrast the music played by the" ordinary musicians" for dancers would have to be at least rhythmic and as contemporary and earlier Scottish fiddle manuscripts show was decorated with trills and grace notes. Scottish Lowland society was in direct influence from the European Musical Renaissance of Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli etc the Highlands were not so much.

One town piper of Falkirk ceased his musical career in the following manner. The piper was sentenced to death for horse stealing, and on the night before his execution he obtained, as a special privilege, the company of his brother pipers. As the liquor was abundant and their instruments in tune, the fun and music grew fast and furious.The execution was to be at 8 0' clock in the morning, and the poor piper was recalled to a sense of his situation by the gathering dawn. Suddenly silencing his pipes he exclaimed,"Oh, but this wearifu' hanging rings in my lug like a new tune,"and with that epitaph went out to meet his fate.

Horse theft was a serious crime in the 17th century: in 1634 at Linlithgow David Lindsay was found guilty of horse stealing and his sentence was "to be led from the Tolbooth to the Avonwater and there -to be drowned."

Punishments in the past more than fitted the crime. Punishments ranged from exposure of the criminal at the market cross on the "Cuckstool " for the trivial charges or banishment from the burgh. This last sentence was regularly carried out at Falkirk with the town's drummer beating to the tune "Thiefs March" behind the little procession.

Even with a regular stream of offenders to escort, the Town piper of Falkirk seemed to have too little to do and found his leisure hours tedious. He appeared before the Kirk Session charged with drinking and"tonkering of the drum at unseasonable hours on the sabbath morn’ He was found wanting and made to do penance for his indiscretions.

The Highland Bagpipe W.L.Manson

Falkirk - Its Origins and Growth - J. Stewart

Linlithgow Burgh Records.