Perth Pipers Tales

THE PIPERS AND DRUMMER OF OLD ST. JOHNSTONE

Down to the year 1800,in addition to a drummer, the Fair City of Perth had an official called the town piper.The last piper was called Johnny Smout, and was famous for his skill in playing the Irish pipes. Johnny's official costume was a scarlet cloak, with wide sleeves and white cuffs; the sleeves hanging down loose by the side of his arms and the pipes were carried under the cloak. The principal duty of Johnny Smout was in conjunction with Geordie Munro, or as he was called, the ‘Rough Black Dog’, to go round the town every morning at five o'clock, summer and winter, and disturb all and sundry with their ill-timed harmony. There was also an evening performance at seven o'clock, when these musicians were always accompanied by an immense number of idle women and children.

After Munro's death one Sandy Bell, a regular bred drummer, succeeded him, when the improved quality of music created quite a sensation in the town as they paraded the streets, playing Rosslyn Castle and other old Scottish tunes. An officer who had been in the Indian War against Hyder Alley, related the following anecdote in allusion to Johnny’s pipes: As the soldiers were ascending the Ghauts a piper struck up an old Scottish air, when the officer heard one of the soldiers in the rear say to his neighbour, "Lord man does na', that mind ye o' Johnny Smout in the Shoe-gate in the mornings?"

The salary of the piper and drummer was three shillings a week, in addition to which they realized a considerable sum by going through among the respectables with the drum and pipe on Hansel Monday (Auld Hansel Monday was the first Monday of the New Year and was a day for giving and receiving gifts.The practice is retained in some measure by the giving of Christmas Boxes to postmen, milkmen etc)

(The reference to Irish pipes in the foregoing is most likely explained by the existence of several 18th century hybrid bagpipes, which are more akin to the Lowland bagpipe than the Irish. A set of these Scottish / Irish bagpipes is in the Cocks Collection (Bagpipe Museum, Newcastle) made by 'MacDougal' in Perth 1792-1834. So it would seem highly credible that Johnny Smout was playing these hybrid pipes made by MacDougal. Of course this 'MacDougal' was the great-grandfather of Duncan MacDougal founder of the famous Aberfeldy firm of pipe makers.

MORE PERTH PIPING

In 1559, just before the Reformation took place, a band of 300 patriots marched from Perth to Stirling with ropes round their necks-called ‘St Johnstons ribbons or tippets’ - to prosecute the Reformation or die in the attempt. Their object was to destroy all monuments of Popish superstition and purge the kirks of idols. George Penny in his "Traditions of Perth" (page235) says that he had been favoured with a copy of a very old march "The Perth Glovers March" said to have been played on that occasion, I suspect by pipers, but as yet have not been able to trace the tune.

On the 2nd May 1580 the Perth Kirk Session passed the following act anent the Dragon Hole

"Because the assembly of ministers and elders understand that the resort to the Dragon Hole, both by young men and women, with their piping and drums striking before them, through the town, has raised no small slander to this congregation, not without suspicion of filthiness following there-upon; the said assembly for avoiding thereof in times to come, have, with consent of the magistrates of this town, statute and ordained that no person, whether man or woman, of this congregation, shall resort or repair hereafter to the Dragon Hole, as they have done in times past, namely in the month of May, nor shall they pass through the town, in their way to it, with piping and striking of drums, as here-to-fore they have done, under the pain of twenty shillings to the poor, to be paid by every person, as well as woman, that shall be found guilty; also they shall make their public repentance upon Sabbath day in the presence of the people.

The death of Johnny Smout at the beginning of the 19th century meant an end to a long tradition of piping in the Fair City and was much regretted "the music having an effect in the morning inexpressibly soothing and delightful " .( George Penny ,Traditions of Perth. )

THE CURFEW BELL OF PERTH

On week-days, St John's Workman or Skelloch Bell was rung at 5.30a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. In the evenings of the same days but at 8 0' clock, the Curfew Bell was rung for five minutes - which used to be the warning for all good citizens to be within doors. The same evening at 10 0' clock, "Lang Lowry" or the "ten o' clock bell " was rung - the intimation far all lights to be out and the city gates shut when Perth was a walled city. The "ringing" consisted of 40 slow tolls, which tell how slow life moves in its earlier years, 20 fast tolls which tell of life passing fast away, and 10 slow tolls tells of the slow step of old age . Three score years and ten.

Perth Past and Present p 272