Sanquhar Pipers Tales


The Royal Burgh of Sanquhar, up till the latter portion of the 18th century, continued to have its town piper. His principal duties were to perambulate the burgh morning and evening. His services were in request on all occasions of public rejoicing, and indeed no festivities were reckoned complete unless accompanied by the pipers talents.

He was assigned a livery and a small salary out of the public funds, and enjoyed certain privileges, the chief of which was his right to solicit the goodwill of the towns-people, each householder feeling bound to pay him some small sum yearly according to means. At births, christenings and marriages the piper was always to the fore, and he was a welcome guest at many of the farmhouses, supp1ying music for the kirn and other merry-makings, and frequently enlivening the shearers in the harvest field.

The piper’s daily march through Sanquhar extended from the "Gallows Knowe" to the "Piper’s Thorn". The Piper’s Thorn was a hawthorn tree which grew at the roadside near the west corner of the square at the top of the Wee Brae. Under the shade of the tree was a large stone forming a convenient seat, and here the piper was accustomed to rest and recover his breath after playing through the town. In those past days, no more picturesque figure appears than that of the burgh-piper as with stately step and ribbons streaming in the wind he made his march through the town.

Pipers are proverbially thirsty souls and this weakness lead to the untimely death of one of the Sanquhar minstrels:

The piper had been at some jollification at a distant farmhouse, and his way home led him through Sanquhar Moor. He was very drunk and on nearing the Black Loch he stumbled and fell. A company of soldiers happened to be on the Moor at the time, in pursuit of a Covenanter who was known to be hiding in the moss hags. They mistook the piper for the fugitive, and thinking when he fell that he was trying to hide, fired. The shot was fatal, the poor piper dying on the spot. Great was the sorrow of the soldiers when they discovered what they had done, for the piper was a general favourite, and had skirled through the burgh for many years. His body was carried down to the town, and in order to show their respect for an old friend, the whole of the garrison of the Castle followed the coffin, the Duke of Queensberry himself being one of the mourners. A heap of stones was raised by the soldiers on the spot where the piper fell, and stands to this day, being known as the ‘Pipers Cairn.’

Piper’s Close

The dwelling of the pipers was a low thatched house in the close at the Corseburn. It was known as the 'Pipers Close', but in later years this was changed to the 'Fiddlers Close' , after another public minstrel, James Kerr, who lived there. Fiddler Kerr was the last of the old order of musicians in Sanquhar.He was no mean player,and for many years supplied the music for the dancing at the majority of marriages in Sanquhar.

It was a blithe sight to see the ' auld fiddler' playing "Woo'd an' married, an' a" at the head of a long string of lads and lasses marching to the Council House or the Crichton School, where the dancing at weddings usually took place.

The last of the official pipers of Sanquhar was a great worthy. He had the misfortune to be married to a shrew of a wife who made his life a misery for many years. When she died, the manner of her burial became a somewhat remarkable, although disgraceful affair. On her demise, the piper’s friends and acquaintances went to console or rather congratulate him; and with drinking and merriment the time between death and burial was passed.

On the night previous to the day fixed for the burying, an extra lot of liquor was brought in to properly convene the "Lykewake" or 'Kistin.' Before long the mirth and fun was at a great height. Some of the lads had brought their lasses with them and it was proposed to have a dance. But the house was small and a great deal of room was taken up by the coffin. This obstacle to their enjoyment did not remain long. The grave was already dug, why not bury the corpse at once?

So, in the grey dawn of a summer morning the funeral took place. The piper in all the paraphernalia of his office, took his place at the head of the coffin, and followed by the company in pairs, played a merry quickstep up the street. The sound of the pipes at such an unearthly hour raised the citizens from their beds, and as they stuck their night-capped heads out or doors and windows, the sight that met their eyes was one they never forgot.

The coffin was carried shoulder high by four young fellows, and the piper never stopped playing until the kirkyard was reached. After the lowering of the coffin, he again took up the pipes, and continued to play until the last spadeful of earth had been thrown into the grave. The company then returned to the Gorseburn, and the scandalous ceremony ended in a drunken debauch. The piper did not venture into matrimony a second time, but continued to live alone.

A story is told of him in his later years when the thatch of his roof got 'tirled' by a violent wind on a winter’s night. He was roused by his neighbours, who informed him of the damage. "A' weel," he stoically replied, "If the win' has blawn aff the roof, the win'll jeist hae tae blaw't on again," and turned himself round for another sleep. He of course meant the wind of his bagpipes, and that the proceeeds of his playing would pay for the repairing of the roof. —-Folk Lore and Genealogies of Uppermost Nithsdale, William Wilson 1904-Sanquhar pp9-14


William Cunynghame of Caprington had evicted George Crawford from his land in Brockloch and had installed Lawrence Murdoch as his tenant. George Crawford brewed a deadly hatred against Cunynghame and his tenant.and had ‘by mony secreit and hid practizes sought their utter wreck and destruction".

On the 17th June 1607, William Cunynghame was in Edinburgh, so Crawford saw his opportunity. With several others "all oppin and avowit rebels malefactors and oppressors, they plotted "thair wicked and ungodly interpryse on the morn following."

They made an arrangement in advance with Sir Robert Dalzell and William Carmichaell, Sheriff of Nithsdale, to await their return from the dirty deeds they planned,and rescue them from a pursuit or 'hot-Trod' if necessary.

It followed that on the 18th July "by brek of day' Crawford and his accomplices lay in wait at the back of Lawrence Murdoch' s dwelling in Brockloch, armed with "lanceis, speiris, gantillettis, hacquebuttis and pistolletis." Murdoch had been out on the hills that morning and on, returning "hame to mak himself ready to gang to the kirk" he was " siezed and assailed by the armed bandits, who gave him "mony straikis and woundis with grite battonis and rungis" on his head, arms and body. They left him "lyand for deid, and cast him in ane ditche and gwitter surelie belevand he had bene deid".

They then assaulted Murdoch’s wife "with the gaird of ane sword" to the effusion of her blood, then locked wife, children and servants in the house to prevent them raising the hue and cry. After helping themselves to the contents of the house, they leapt on horseback and rode to the place where their allies were waiting. On leaving they told a man to tell Cuqynghames wife "to caus her bind her manis heid, for thai had layed him up to sleip."

At Mylne of Cumnock, Dalzell and The Creychtoun (William Carmichael) Sheriff of Nithsdale, were waiting for the robbers. Dalzell as provost of Sanquhar had "be oppin sound of drum thro the toun of Sanquhar that day, convened all the inhabitants and The Creychtoun had convened the haill barony of Sanquhar." Thus two hundred persons, on horse and foot bearing arms came with "drum and pype to the place appointit." Cunynghames’ son, learning of the assault, raised a posse and pursued the culprits. They rode as far as the March outside Cumnock, not expecting any such thing as an "ambuschment and troupis of horsmen and futmen as were lyand thair." Dalzell, The Creychtoun and Crawford rode forward to meet Cunynghame and denied all knowledge of the crime. Insults were hurled and the conspiritors tried to incite a quarrel. Cunynghame wisely talked his way out of fight and took the case to the Lords of the Privy Council, where he asked that the culprits be declared outlaws and rebels. —-Register of the Privy Council 1607 p.p.522-524.