Galashiels Pipers Tales


The piper of Galashiels is known to posterity principally by a mock heroic poem entitled "The Maid Of Gallowshiels" in which the towns piper is celebrated.The Author was Hamilton of Bangour, [who was he?] and the poem tells of a contest between the piper and a fiddler for the love of the Maid of Gallowshiels.[around what time?] The first part of the poem relates how the fiddler challenges the piper to a trial of musical skill, and proposes that the maid herself shall be the umpire, then the poem relates the history of the competitors.The piper deducing his origins from Colin of Gallowshiels who bore the identica1 bagpipe at the Battle of Harlaw, with which he was resolved to maintain the glory of the piper race. In part of the poem is the detailed description of the Lowland bagpipe.

"Now in his artful hand the bagpipe held,

Elate the piper wide surveys the field,

O’er all he throws his quick, discerning eyes,

And views their hopes and fears alternate rise;

Old Glenderule , in Gallowshiels long famed,

For works of skill, the perfect wonder framed;

His shining steel first loped with dextrous toil,

From a tall spreading elm, the branching spoil;

The clouded wood he next divides in twain,

And smoothes them equal to an oval plane ;

Six leather folds in still connected rows ,

To either plank conformed, the sides compose ;

The wimble perforates the base with care ,

A destined passage opining to the air;

But once inclosed within the narrow space,

The opposing valve forbids the backward race;

Fast to the swelling bag, two reeds combined,

Receive the blasts of the melodious wind;

Round from the turning loom, with skill devine ,

Embossed, the joints in silver circles shine;

In secret prison pent, the accents lie,

Until his arm the lab'ring artist ply;

Then, duteous, they forsake their dark abode,

Fellows no more , and wing a separate road;

These upwards thro' the narrow channel glide,

In ways unseen, a solemn murmuring tide;

Those through the narrow path their journey bend,

Of sweeter sort, to the earth descend;

O'er the small pipe, at equal distance, lie,

Eight shining holes, o' er which his fingers fly ;

From side to side the aerial spirit bounds,

The flying fingers form the passing sounds;

That issuing gently through the polished door,

Mix with the common air and charm no more."

The piper won the contest, of course, but the maid, with the proverbial fickleness of woman, gave the preference to the loser and went away with the fiddler.

Archibald Campbell mentions (Additional Notes to the Scots Musical Museum p.379) a Donald Maclean, piper at Galashiels (father of William Maclean, dancing master in Edinburgh) who was a capital piper, and was the only one who could play properly on the pipe the old popular tune of "Sour Plums of Galashiels" ,it required a peculiar art of pinching the back hole (shiverin'the back lill) of the chanter with the thumb, in order to produce the highest note in the melody (High B). Donald Maclean died about the middle of the 18th century .Campbell also tells us that a Richard Lees, manufacturer in Galashiels , had Maclean’s bagpipes in his possession in 1816.

The motto and arms at Galashiels consist of a plum tree with a fox on each side and the motto "Sour Plooms." The origins of this motto is supposedly connected with the retreat of the English from Scotland in 1337. Tradition affirms that a party of the English suspecting no danger, straggled from the main body [where?] and began to gather wild plums that grew in profusion in the locality. While so engaged they were surprised by the Scots who fell upon them and cut them off to a man, their bodies being thrown into a trench situated in the Eastlands which is termed the "Englishmens Syke", to the present day. In commemoration of this exploit, the inhabitants of the village , who may have taken part in this skirmish, adopted the sarcastic title of the" Sour plums of Galashiels " .

It is more likely that the motto is taken from the medieval tales of Renard the fox, where the fox is unable to reach the grapes so declares that they are sour and wouldn’t want them - hence the expression ‘Sour Grapes’

The "Soor Plooms of Galashiels" were celebrated in an old song, the words of which are lost, though the tune remains and is reputedly the composition of one of the town pipers of Galashiels about 1700. Sir Walter Scott recorded that his uncle, Mr Scott,"died at Monklaw, near Jedburgh, at two o’ clock on the 27th January 1823, in the 90th year of his life and fully possessed of his faculties. He read till nearly the year before his death, and being a a musician on the Scotch pipes, had, when on his death bed, a favourite tune played over to him by his son James, that he might be sure he left him in full possession of it. After hearing it, he hummed it over himself , and corrected it in several of the notes. The air was that called "Sour Plums in Galashiels".

Wm Stenhouse, Additional notes to the Scots Musical Museum

History of Galashiels - Robert Hall, Galashiels 1898 pp4-7

Introduction to the Complaynt of Scotland --John Leyden - for the poem The Maid of Gallowshiels

Robert Burns wrote two poems about Galashiels, "Sae Fair Her Hair" and "Braw Lads". The latter is sung by some of the townsfolk each year at the Braw Lads Gathering. Sir Walter Scott built his home, Abbotsford, just across the River Tweed from Galashiels. The Sir Walter Scott Way, a long-distance path from Moffat to Cockburnspath, passes through Galashiels.

There is some largely good-hearted rivalry between some of the Galashiels townsfolk and those of other border towns, particularly Hawick, the next largest town in the Scottish Borders. Galashiels' citizens often refer to their rival as dirty Hawick while the 'Teries' retort that Galashiels's residents are pail merks, supposedly because their town was the last to be plumbed into the mains water system and so residents had to rely on buckets as toilets.[9]

Galashiels was also home to the author of the famous Scottish song, "Coulters Candy". Robert Coltart was a weaver in the town, but also made confectionery in nearby Melrose. The song was created as an advertisement, and hence was renamed as "Sugar Candy" when played by the BBC. The song is possibly better known by the first line of its chorus - "Ally, bally, ally bally bee". Coltart died in 1890.