How the Bagpipes came to Scotland

This is a very widespread traditional legend among the Italian makers and players of the Zampogne or Italian bagpipe. The tale has a precise historical date and although it is only a legend and not a reliable historical source it suggests bagpipes were contemporary with Caesars invasion if Britain.

We know from Seutonius, that the emperor Nero in the last years of his life could play utricularis (i.e player of the bagpipe). Nero died in 68AD a full century after Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55BC.

It is told that Caesar, while conquering Britain, became worried about the resistance of the local warriors, particularly in the North. These warriors, although less outfitted and prepared than the Roman soldiers, had indominable courage. Caesar realised that he would have to devise some means of overcoming the resistance of the fearless locals in order to avoid excessive losses. He asked his faithful counsellors for suggestions.

Some thought to erect a new Trojan horse, but the idea was rejected. Somebody remembered the mirrors of Archimedes, with which the Pythagorian set fire to the enemies ships. But then they realized that the British sun was certainly not like the Sicilian sun!

Suggestions about how to terrorize the Northern tribes flowed and were rejected one after another, all day and night long. One of the soldiers guarding the tent where the summit meeting was being held was a strong young man from the Sannite province just south of Rome. His name was Turno. He was a real virtuoso on the Utriculus and had transmitted his love for music to many of his soldier friends, to the point that many Romans were able to play the instrument.

Turno, after a long night guarding, could not resist his wish to play to relax after his work. But that was not the right time to play as everyone was sleeping. He had the idea of withdrawing to the edge of the camp, near a paddock where the horses were gathered together. As soon as he started playing the first notes from his bagpipe, the horses bolted violently because of the sudden powerful sound of Turno’s bagpipe.

All the turmoil awoke the camp and poor Turno was seized and beaten by his fellow soldiers. He was led before his General and admitted his fault and the reason for the violent reaction of the horses. Then the idea flashed into Caesar’s mind. He ordered all the soldiers skilled in wood working to be gathered together. He ordered that the right woods be collected and that many goats and sheep be killed to make bags. In a few days 100 bagpipes were built. When all played together it was possible to hear them as far as the French coast. The wonderful pastoral concert or cacophany would be the secret weapon to win against the Northern tribes.

Two days later the definitive military attack was launched. The Romans chose a large grassy valley as the battlefield. The British were skilled on horses and loved to make cavalry charges against the Roman troops. The Britains were compelled to cross a long stretch of valley, and Caesar had placed players of the utriculus on either side of the valley. At the precise moment they all blew their bagpipes together. The roaring sound frightened the British horses so much the the natives were thrown off their mounts and fell as easy victims to the Roman swords.

When the British understood the cause of their defeat, they immediately considered the bagpipe as an instrument of divine nature, with great magical properties. For this reason they were lured by its sound to the point of idolising and worshiping it, wishing at the same time to conquer its magic.

That battle inspired the British to copy the Roman war pipes, and build their own. The bagpipe which became a distinguishing feature of the Scots and Irish culture stills inspires worship and obsession to this day!

This legend has been told by the maker of zampogne Geraldo Guatieri in June 1986. Geraldo lived and worked in Scapoli (in Molise region) the Italian capital of bagpipes. He is a simple man; an old and illiterate farmer who makes his instrument using ancient artisan techniques.

An essay on piping in the Lowlands of Scotland

Before the agricultural revolution and Highland Clearances in Scotland from the middle of the 18th century and before the industrialization and growth of cities which followed in the 19th century, northern Britain comprised two distinct and almost separate cultural entities. Down the eastern seaboard of Scotland, through the Mearns and following the Highland boundary fault to Dumbarton, marked the approximate northern limit of the ‘Inglis’ speaking people –Lowland Scots of Anglo Saxon/Norman society.

North of this line was the Gaelic speaking society of ‘Erse’ or Irish origins. The southern boundaries of north Britain were the lands of Cumbria and Northumbria. The present day English/Scottish border was of little relevance for the Borders of old stretched from the Lothians to Northumberland and from Galloway to Cumberland.

The Lowlands from at least the 15th century were distinctly European in character, thriving with trade and commerce to Europe and Scandinavia and following French, Dutch, Spanish and Italian fashions. The centers of this way of life were the Burghs, dotted about, throughout the Lowlands and generally one was situated within a days walk of the next. The Burghs were truly part of the countryside being the market and trade centers, the domains of merchants and craftsmen. Even large Burghs were very small places by todays standards. Probably the largest were no more than 15,000 souls.

The Burghs were administered by a mutual admiration society called the Town Council and through various taxes, raised money for the so-called ‘Common Good Account’. From this fund the Council provided for improvements to the town such as causewaying, town house, drainage, etc. Perhaps more importantly, the fund provided for the employment of the Council’s bodyguard, amongst whom were the Town Piper and Town Drummer. These personages, while providing both morning and evening music and performing civic duties, were in truth a status symbol or mark of prestige and attainment to the Burgh which employed them. There was a long pedigree of association of musicians with royalty and nobility and this rubbed off on the often self important Town Councillors.

At the renaissance courts both in England and Scotland during the 15th and 16th century minstrels and music makers were in great demand and highly esteemed. At the courts of James IV and V of Scotland we read of French, Italian, Moorish, Dutch, English, Gaelic and lowland Scots performers and the same situation prevailed at the English court. Minstrel was generally a term denoting a professional musician who would be retained by the King or nobility. They were ‘ministers’ of music, and took their Art seriously. They were accomplished in the playing of several instruments, dancing, singing and reciting heroic ballads. Outwith the courts there were those devoted to music on its lighter side — the Joculators, Jugglers or Jockies. These characters roamed the countryside and the Burghs, telling a tale for a drink, a song for a meal and a tune for a price. A few of these Jockies were still wandering about in Scotland in the late 18th Century.

When we look at the Burghs during the 16th century we find that their power and wealth was increasing due to the lucrative trade with Europe. The Burgesses of these towns began to act and perhaps see themselves as nobility and even as Kings. It is no surprise that when they employ pipers and drummers in emulation of the courts they call these musicians ‘minstrells’; the touns minstrels. They dressed their servants up in bright flamboyant clothes, with the towns arm embroidered on the cloaks, provided them with shoes, accommodation and gave them the right to demand food from any householder of substance.

These displays of civic pride , while not only being in emulation of the nobility were also distinctly European in style. The town side drum used in this period was called a ‘swash’ and derives from the term ‘Sweesh’ or “Swiss’ denoting a side drum from Switzerland. Not only did several English towns such as Alnwick and Liverpool have pipers and drummers but many north European towns had also.

The Bach family were town musicians in Germany for several generations before Johan Sebastian. Some of the pipers instruments may also have come from Europe. A 16th century piper in Aberdeen is mentioned as playing the ‘Almany whistle’ (Almany=Alegmagne i.e. Germany)

The bagpipe was certainly one of the most important medieval instruments in Europe and enjoyed tremendous popularity during the renaissance. The instruments popularity was due to its perfect suitability for accompanying dancing, particularly out of doors and was ideal for parading the town giving morning and evening music.

As one might expect , musicians employed by a particular town would become partisan in the naming of music they played. Thus tunes come down to us bearing the names of towns e.g. Souters o’ Selkirk, Soor Plooms in Galashiels, Braw Lads O’ Jethart, Duns Dings A’, The Linlithgow March, Lads of Alnwick, Berwick Johnie and so on.

The types of instruments the town pipers played must have been widely different, each a law unto themselves , some played flutes or fifes, others shawms, but most preferred the bagpipes in one form or another.

It is important to realize that there was no standard type of bagpipe either Highland or Lowland until the late 18th century or early 19th century. During the 16th century ‘Gryit pypes’ are mentioned in documents but in places as far a part as Jedburgh, Aberdeenshire and Elgin. The use of the term ‘Great Pipes’ at this time would beg the question and suggest that earlier pipes were smaller or at least quieter.

Commonsense would also suggest that it would be easier to make a smaller instrument than a larger one given the technology of the time.

Reeds must have presented a difficult problem to the old pipers. Did they import reed cane from France or Spain or did they make do with local materials such as elder shoots? It is a bit of a mystery.

The addition of bellows to the bagpipe sometime in the 17th century may have been a bright idea to preserve the reeds as long as possible. Bellows pipes had advantages – dry stable reeds and less physical effort to play not to mention the at the piper was free to accompany his playing with voice. It apparently became the hallmark of a good Lowland piper that he could sing, dance and play at the same time.

We know that the town pipers of Perth, Arbroath, Dalkeith and Haddington all used pipes with bellows and thus by the middle of the 18th century the town pipers had brought the instrument and the playing of its music to a high level of sophistication. The town pipers were also carriers of the Scots ballad tradition and would have certainly accompanied their piping with voice. Thus it became the hallmark of a good piper if he could sing, dance and play, all at the same time.

By contrast, the instruments of the Highlanders of the same period appear crude, and it is difficult to believe that ‘Great Music’ could have emanated from them even in the hands of the Gods. The whole question of the quality of piping in the Highlands before the 1745 rebellion is unresolved. Books and tutors published in the late 18th and early 19th centuries are contradictory, both among themselves and with what has come down as traditional.

Pibroch aside, a great many of the reels, strathspeys, jigs and marches which appear in collections for the Great Highland bagpipe can be shown to be acquisitions from the Lowlands; some from the Borders and even a few from England. The names of the tunes are often an indication of this acquisition; either they have Lowland Scots wording or indicate material connections which have no Highland roots. The ubiquitous Highland Laddie played at every highland gathering was originally a Lowland Folk song called The Bonny lass O’ Livingston.

This aside for the moment, let’s consider the role of music in the old Lowland rural society. Until the mid eighteenth century the methods of farming in the Lowlands had remained relatively unchanged for over 1000 years. The system of agriculture was feudal, medieval and extremely inefficient. The tenant farmer paid for his rent in money or in kind to the Laird; increased agricultural production only meant increased rent so there was no incentive to improve the system. Even the best farmers were by any standards very poor and the cottars or farm labourers lived interminably in squalor. The people were intensely superstitious and ‘dyed in the wool’ traditionalists; putting these values before sense and science.

The subsistence farming practiced was grueling hard work, totally at the mercy of the weather, crop disease, greedy Laird or Robbers. The staple diet was oatmeal, relieved only by bearmeal, sowans(fermented barley), thin milk, thinner ale, kail, pease, butter and some cheese. Meat of any kind was a rarity and often only because an animal had died of disease or old age.

The farmhouses were no more than huts, damp, cold and dirty with very Spartan furnishings. The cattle shared the house, a partition separated the living quarters from the byre; the cattle provided warmth in winter.

The appearance of the countryside was vastly different from that which we now know. Many more people lived on the land than do now; they practiced an open field system of farming, with no enclosure, hedges or dykes. Trees were a rare sight as most of them had been removed for building or burning and besides, copses or woods were reckoned to be the homes of fairies and evil spirits and therefore to be removed.

Even in the best years this way of life was an interminable struggle. A bad harvest meant almost certain starvation and probable death. In that community what did people turn to for diversion and relaxation? There was one ever popular comforter – music.

Every branch and family of man has its music; music begins and is inherent in speech. Everyone who speaks is a singer although they may not be aware of it. The same phrase spoken by people of different regional dialects will be influenced in rhythm and inflection by that dialect.

Modes of speech will influence modes of song construction. It is self evident that song preceded instrumental music, therefore it is reasonable to assume that local melodic forms had been established before sophisticated instruments became available. The inherent rhythms of dance also must have considerable importance to rhythm in instrumental music.

Bearing this in mind, let us return to our peasant predecessors, sitting round the fire on a cold wet winters night, or dancing on the green in summer, and consider their musical methods and manners.

The prime instrument of music is the voice, but others readily available are clapping hands, drums of one sort or another are excellent accompaniments to dancing especially when joined with the voice. The next group of easily constructed instruments are whistles, flutes and reed pipes fashioned from animal bones, or horns and elder branches. One particular instrument which we know to have been common among the peasantry was the hornpipe or ‘stock’n horn. This is a reeded instrument made from a bone with horns at each end and with eight finger holes. It can properly be considered the ancestor of the bagpipe. The hornpipe is of great antiquity and was probably in use in Britain long before the Birth of Christ.

Right up to modern times it was commonplace for the country people to recite long historical ballads which they chanted to a simple melody. These ballads were passed from generation to generation by aural transmission and it wasn’t until Walter Scott and others collected them that they were written down. Some of the ballads relate to events which preceded their recording by several hundred years.

In the old agricultural communities, the movement of people was very limited, change was imperceptible and until the 18th century the society remained socially stable for nearly 1000 years. In this system where almost all knowledge was traditional it is easy to see that aural transmission could be very reliable and tunes and songs could be passed on over a span of many hundreds of years.

Many folk songs and tunes collected in the 17 and 18 hundreds can be traced back to the 17th century with documented certainty a few others to the 16th century. When a hundred years represents three generations and that these generations of people we are discussing lived in a closed community for several centuries it is extremely likely that many songs and tunes may precede their first written documentation by many hundreds of years.

Mention should also be made of the Jockies, those itinerant musicians and tale tellers who wandered the countryside picking up tunes, passing them on and perhaps composing a few besides. A good tune is like a contagious disease; it spreads like wildfire. We also read of enactments against ‘maisterless’ people such as vagrant songsters, fiddlers and pipers.

To a rural people the turn of the seasons is of primary concern and the fertility of the land and themselves is vital. Music and dance have always attended ritual and festivity and lowland Scots people carried this out as much if not more than others.

Music was always attendant at the feast and festival days such as Mayday, Beltane, Hallowmass and Yule as well as all the religious holidays. These all had some symbolic or superstitious significance often relating to pre-Christian religion. The post Reformation Church records abound with references and repressions of these ‘heathenish’ practices.

All the folk lore that we now associate with England, such as Jack in the Green, Beelzebub, Robin Hood, Morris Dancing and such were just as popular in Lowland Scotland before the Reformation in 1560.

Every festival had some connection with agricultural or human fertility, and the most symbolic ritual of all was the wedding. Almost everything involved in the wedding or ‘brydal’ was symbolic. The church ceremony was a token gesture behind which was the ancient celebration of human fertility. The dances and accompanying music at the wedding often had moral or sexual association. The betrothal and wedding gifts had implicit sexual symbolism, the food at the wedding meal and even the drink were similarly regarded.

How difficult it is for us with our reason, knowledge and science to understand these peoples reliance on superstition, traditional knowledge and divination. Their understanding of the world and its workings revolved around magic and myth in a twilight between sense and nonsense, inhabited by witches, warlocks, brownies, spirits, peeries, gremlins and ghosts. Everything they saw could be interpreted as a sign for good or bad. When things went wrong it was the workings of evil spirits. It should come as no surprise that their music , like all the many charms they treasured was a power over evil and something to drive away bad spirits.

As the bride went to church the piper played before her to scare off evil spirits; as the corn dolly “Maiden” was brought in from the fields the piper played before it; when someone died the piper was called to play at the ‘Lykewake’ to prevent evil spirits from inhabiting the corpse.

It is from this pre-industrial age that most of the stories and anecdotes collected here derive.

Notes on the Bagpipe Music of the Border Region

Today we have what appears at face value to be two distinct ‘traditional’ types of bagpipe music in North mainland Britain. These are the “Highland” music and the ‘Northumbrian’ smallpipe music. Highland pipe music is nowadays designated in three categories; 1. The Great Music or Pibroch 2. Middle Music comprising developed marches, strathspeys, reels and hornpipes, 3. Little music including simpler marches, jigs, reels etc.

Northumbrian music is not categorized but also includes developed tunes, i.e. those with several variations, and a large number of hornpipes, airs, jigs, polkas etc.

Officionados of each instrument tend to remain apart, and many Highland pipers look at both the smallpipes and its music condescendingly, believing, quite unjustifiably, that the ‘Great Highland bagpipe’ is superior and its music gives greatness. The terminology of Highland pipers tells much “the Great Music’, ‘The Great Pipe’.

Piping circles in Scotland are dominated by ‘experts.’ Controversy reigns and fierce emotions are released by mere criticism of the instrument, its myths or masters. It should be noted that the term ‘Great Pipe’ first crops up in 16th century records only to differentiate the large bagpipe from the small.

Bagpiping in Scotland tends to have remained separate from both the folk revival and from art music. The reasons for this include the general incompatibility of the pipes with other (orchestral) instruments and the separation of piping from other ‘folk music’ genres. Nevertheless the mainstream piping in Lowland Scotland is the instrumental folk music par exellence, of the people although they may not recognize this.

The re-emergence of the bellows bagpipes in modern pitches (A=440Hz) and played amongst other instruments in modern interpretations opens up exciting possibilities of linking the centuries’ old tradition of piping into the main stream folk establishment and to the art music genre. The bias then shifts towards the music and although of great importance, the instruments have to be seen as a means to an end.

The source music is historic and from varied origins. Intrinsically it allows direct connection to the minds and souls of our forebearers and brings to our consciousness the recognition of the warm hands of collective knowledge and experience which pushes us firmly onward. Wholly rejected is the mawkish, sentimental, self consciousness of invented ‘Scottishness’

In an era obsessed with newness and fashion, traditional art forms can easily be pushed aside and swamped by the transitory whims of mass media culture. Once broken the threads which connect past with present are not easily rewoven. That the old gives way to the new is a commonplace but when the new draws nothing from the old then it can become ephemeral and often meaningless. Traditional music contains the synthesis of the experiences and feelings of many many minds stretching back countless generations. A continuous linking connected-ness of imagination and ideas, resolved to feed the collective psyche. The collective consciousness of a people, an asset as valuable as the gene pool itself.