Town Pipers

1503 – Oct …Item – to the common piparis of Edinburgh 28 shillings— Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer

This is one of the first recorded reference to toun pipers, although in the same account book for 1489 there is an entry: –‘to the Inglis pyparis that com to the castle yett and playit to the King.’ This does not necessarily mean that the pipers were English, but rather they spoke Inglis as opposed to Gaelic.

The Dunfermline Burgh Records of 1503 tell of an Andro Piper whose pipe was broken in a fight.

It was in this period that surnames developed and professional pipers along with baxters (bakers) souters (shoemakers) masons, wrights etc. began to assume a surname denoting their occupation. An examination of present day telephone directories show the surnames of Pyper and Piper occuring throughout Scotland. That these are references to bagpipers is reinforced by the existence of separate words in Scots for flute or whistle players ; these being respectively Pifer and Quhissler.

The fashion set by the large Burghs was soon followed by the burgh towns and villages. The curious entry from the Burgh Records of Ayr in 1586 illustrates the remit of a town’s minstrel.

‘ That the common minstrels of the town, pyper and drummer, gang dayly ilk day through the town, evening and morning, and if they fail, they to receive no meat that day they gang not; so being that they be not starved by the intemperateness of the wedder’.
— Burgh Records of Ayr

Most Burghs also employed a drummer called in old Scots, a swasher (from the German word Scwash – to beat). Sometimes he would accompany the piper on his morning and evening rounds of the town, but the drummer’s duties also included making announcements—an early form of advertising in an age of illiteracy; and drumming miscreants out of town by ‘tuck of drum.’ Drumming, like piping, has a long and honoured tradition in Scotland, maintained and enshrined in the pipe bands.

The tunes played on the bagpipes in the Lowlands at the present time are so numerous as to almost provide a lifetime supply of music. Some are old tunes, some are recent compositions, and some are taken from fiddle tunes or songs.

Occasional reference in old records or books is made to the tunes played by the pipers in the towns and countryside of old Scotland. Very few of these tunes mentioned have survived, and the ones which can be traced are inevitably not found in bagpipe collections. This is understandable, as the playing of bagpipes relies on a good memory. Writing down tunes was a rare skill, and it is only when a tune caught the fancy of a trained musically literate musician or skilled writer that it was committed to paper.

Several tunes are still passed on by oral tradition and must be of considerable antiquity. Good examples are Teribus the town tune of Hawick and The Rock and Wee Pickle Tow, the town tune of Linlithgow. Of the tunes I have been able to track down, some are curious, some well known, some beautiful, some not; however it has been said that every piece of folk music is a minor masterpiece.

Toun Pipers

In the order of toun-pipers, piping was hereditary as in royalty, in that it was given that son would succeed father and so on. Unlike royalty, both skill, and privileges were passed on.

Pipes were very well made showing a very high level of craftsmanship. Not only was the toun piper job hereditary, but also the making of instruments, bags, reeds was also part of the job. The passing on of tunes was also very important. Walter Scott mentions the town pipers as important keepers of ballads and tunes. They were versatile musicians, pipers, singers and also frequently fiddlers. Pipes would be one of the only types of music a person would know or would hear in times past before radio, T.V. and recording.

In the past, pipers were an integral part of the community social life and culture. They performed important duties, acted as alarm clock by waking the town. The question is often asked ‘who got the piper up?’ The answer is variously ‘a boy,’ ‘the piper’s wife’ or ‘a dog.’ Why did the town not have a Town Cock? Well I suppose the town needed some dignity, and it was also described that the effect of being woken by pipe and drum was ‘awfully sublime.’ Was it awful or sublime?

For many years I lived in Linlithgow and every year in June at the ‘marches,’ the town would be woken by a flute and drum at 5.00am, then piper and drummer at 6.00am. The strains of The Rock and The Wee Pickle Tow drifting into your consciousness was indeed sublime. In the evening the pipers played a curfew literally from French Couvrir Feu — Cover the fire. Fire risk was very high with thatched houses and timber framed buildings. At harvest the pipers would play in the fields to keep the rows of shearers (mostly women) cutting in unison. Pipers also played at weddings, which was a big part of their musical and financial life.

The burgh towns supported the pipers. At first the pipers were paid in food, or meal (Scots =maill) and this term also became used for money, hence the word ‘blackmail’ = black rent or money (a Border Scots word). Clothing and good shoes were supplied by the town. Shoes seemed very important and denoted high status. Many people did not wear shoes, and I remember as a boy in the 1950’s going barefoot along with other little urchins. The piper’s clothes were very elaborate but they were not treated like modern ‘pop stars’. The pipers were needed by the community for ceremonials and to support the way of life. Pop stars are superficial.

In the Highlands pipers were also fully integrated into the Gaelic way of life. The town piper was part of a wider European style and included Town Musicians such as the Bach family and Town Waits in England. These men were required for all types of domestic and ceremonial purposes.

Unwritten Music

This was also an era where there was little or no written music. Music was memorised and was a community resource, passed by memory. Pipe music particularly did not start to be written down until the 18th Century and then only in a few sources. We do have a tune book written by a Town Piper. William Gunn, town piper of Bridgeton near Glasgow compiled a small book …tunes for weddings, some Irish melodies and many traditional standards. Once you have played a tune, or heard it over and over, you don’t forget it and you don’t need written music. Many of the old traditional tunes are cross linked with dances, songs, laments etc. Tunes also gave a sense of place – eg Town Tunes, Gathering Tunes.

The music became separated from the song and dance I think, after the 1914/18 War. A large part of the male population was killed. That war changed forever British Society. Before 1914 the UK was a paternalistic society. In the country large estates with large work forces held regular dances and kirns. Everyone danced and/or made music. After the Great War the country was in mourning and the way of life changed. An economic depression followed and new music types arrived from America, with radio, films etc. People turned away from the old dances and ways of life – perhaps disillusioned by the effects of paternalism.