Up until the nineteenth century it was commonplace for the musically inclined to travel the countryside earning a living from their piping. It is probable that these characters were responsible for spreading tunes throughout the country and inventing a few more besides. Mostly they were welcome visitors to town and village alike, but occasionally they made a nuisance of themselves.
In June 1560 the Town Council of Edinburgh passed the following order:
The threat of branding on the cheek did not seem to be enough to deter the minstrels from the lucrative pickings to be had in the busy city . For in 1587 on November 17th the Town Council of Edinburgh ordained the following:
Little remains to tell us how these vagabond pipers lived but the following account of William Nicholson - The Galloway Poet - gives a fair idea of the kind of lives they must have led. One of the most remarkable and talented of the itinerant brotherhood of musicians was William Nicholson (Wull) born in August 1783 at the Parish of Borgue (Galloway) and died in May 1849.
He was the son of honest peasant folk who endeavoured to have him educated. However, at school, Will was both idle and obstinate; the sum total of his learning was an indifferent ability to read, bad spelling, wretched writing, and a very slight knowledge of the rules of arithmetic and grammar. Even in later life he considered all learning as pedantic and unbecoming the notice of men of genius, and in boyhood thought he was acting with consumate wisdom. When he reached 14 years of age it was considered time that he should be apprenticed, but here a difficulty arose. His powers of vision were so poor that he could only read when a book was close to his nose, a disadvantage which prevented him from becoming a mechanic, shepherd or even a farm servant. At length it was decided he should become a packman (travelling salesman) and a wooden box full of needles, pins, combs, thimbles, scissors and other smallwares was provided for him.
For twenty five years he carried the pack and took the country "braid and wide." At first his round embraced not only the whole of Galloway, but a great part of the counties of Ayr and Dumfries. It was on these journeys that his fondness for music developed; enlivening the quarters where he lodged with songs and tale. His ear was excellent and his voice passingly melodius and strong. A ‘pair of pipes" were procured by him at the age of twenty enabling him to give additional zest to his minstrelsy. He said he got the pipes from a young man, who was afterwards drowned in the Carlingwork Loch, brought three pair frae North America. Wull got one of these; and from then on carried them constantly on top of his pack.(In the introduction to his Poems they are mentioned as Irish Pipes -probably they were the Hybrid Lowland Bellows pipes or Pastoral Pipes. The pipes were the undoing of his business, for instead of attending to his customers he frittered away his time and opportunities by indulging in musical rhapsodies. On one occasion Wull was found in a deserted quarry hole piping away to half a dozen young lads , who were capering about like mad to the sound of the bagpipes.
"I has mair pleasure", said Nicholson, "in piping to these daft cowts than if the best ladies of the land had been figuring away at my poor music."
By 1813 his trade had so fallen away that he had to abandon it as a loosing concern. It was then that he determined "to see what printing a book would do for him". He thus began collecting his poems which he had been composing at intervals for many years. The work appeared in 1814 and Nicholson filled his pack with books instead of draperies and after supplying Edinburgh and Glasgow, travelled homeward through Ayrshire and Galloway , "delivering copies and hauling in the siller".
The book was successful and he made £100 which enabled him to take to the road with a fresh stock of smallwares. However, Nicholson's success as a poet hastened his ruin as a merchant. On his return to Galloway he found himself famous. Invitations to the various inns were numerous, and such invitations were seldom refused. The result was that Nicholson became increasingly fond of drink, and in consequence began to lose his respectable position. His affairs became unsettled and he conceived the foolish idea that he must preach the doctrine of "Universal Redemption" everywhere. He even went so far as to publish a pamphlet on the subject.
In obedience to his spirit voices, he undertook a journey on foot to London in order to lay his mission before the King. On reaching London and after several escapades he was naturally refused an audience with the King and was soon afterwards shipped off to Scotland by his friends, as the continual scrapes he was getting into rendered it unsafe for him to remain in London. On his return to Galloway Wull proceeded to earn his living by "wandering over his native district singing his own songs to the music of the bagpipes’. He became famous at weddings, fairs and merry-makings of all descriptions and most of the public-houses in the County resounded at times with his music and singing. Three of his songs ‘The Banks of Tarff’, ‘The Braes 0' Gallowa'’, and the "Hills of the Highlands", are said to have been favourites on these occassions.
In the Autumn of 1827 Nicholson, who had found employment as an assistant drover, was attacked near Warrington, in Lancashire, and his pipes were stolen from him. In defending his pipes he was beaten and thrown into a canal, where he nearly drowned, being rescued , just in time to save him. Eventually he returned to Kirkcudbright where he arrived minus "his bagpipes, his unfailing comfort in all his troubles". Fortunately his friends rallied round him and persuaded him to publish a new edition of his poems. This was attended to and the new work greatly increased his fame and affluence. Unfortunately he promptly squandered the proceeds and was in a short time as poor as before.
It was said of him that he may rank with any but Burns as a Song writer. His ‘Wild Woodside, " ‘The Braes O' Gallowa', " “My only hope my Harry O”, and some others are truly excellent, they have all that simplicity and directness which constitutes good Scottish songs, and as a proof of their worth were being sung in his own time by all the peasantry: “None but the peasant can touch the feeling of the peasantry, to all others they remain impregnable.”
His personal philosophy was expressed in his poem “Rural Retirement"
"This life's just like yon toddling burn, Though cross craigs whiles may stint it, Comes soughing by ilk thrawart turn, And never looks ahint it.’
In his latter days Will’s poem “Aiken Drum" was a fitting description of his own haunting appearance.
"There cam a strange wight to our town-en' , And the feint a body did him ken; He tirled na lang, but he glided ben- Wi' a dreary, dreary hum. His face did glare like the glowo' the west, When the drumlie cloud has it half o'ercast~ Or the struggling moon when she's sair distres't
O sirs! twas Aiken-drum. I trow the bauldest stood aback Wi a gape and a glower till their lugs did crack, As the shapeless phantom, mumling, spak- "Hae ye wark for Aiken-drum? "
Nicholson’s final years were spent wandering as before but now in the guise of a “gaberlunzie” of dissipated habits, playing at fairs and markets; the grave at last closing in gloom over the ruins of a man of real genius. He was found dead one morning on the roadside of Borgue, and was buried in the Parish churcyard in 1849. A monument was erected to his memory by the villagers in 1899.
From - East Galloway Sketches -Alexander Trotter, Castle Douglas 1901 pp40-49, Also The Poems of William Nicholson 1894
Perhaps a more typical gypsy minstrel was named Davit Cammil, who came from Lochgelly, and travelled over Berwickshire some 150 years ago, delighting (Sometimes frightening) young and old alike with his pipes. Davit spoke the Fife dialect and so was often mistaken for a Highlander; but when taxed with the allegation, he used to say "Me a Heelieman? me a Heelieman.' Aw nivver was i' the Heelies, but gawn a' ye yods !"-(meaning "I a Highlander, I a Highlander, I never was in the Highlands, but going on the roads)