Investigating the title for the well known hornpipe, ‘The Black Bear’

Black barley

• From the May 2008 Piping Times.

By Joe Wilson

I refer to the Black Bear letter [pictured, right] on page 47 of the February [2008] Piping Times. Below is a copy of the tune from a manuscript penned by one Donald Shaw of the 86th Royal County Down Regiment which was formed in 1793. No date is given on the copy. However, an entry on the following page of the manuscript book is dated 18/10/66 (i.e. 1866). It would appear that the regiment had been amalgamated into the Royal Irish Rifles during the year 1881. I find it strange that there were three regiments within the British Army all raised about the same time and all numbered as ‘86’. Perhaps some reader will have further knowledge of this.

The important and interesting part for me, however, is not so much the history of the regiment but the title of the tune which is given as the Black Baird Hornpipe. Now that is unusual and as yet I have no conclusive explanation. Again, some reader may be able to enlighten me and, I am sure, many others.

We have received the following interesting letter from Robin Beck, Isle of Tiree:

“I do not know the source of the tune or its title but I do have a suggestion to make. The Scots word for barley is ‘bere’ and, in 18th and 19th century documents, it is usually spelt thus, but sometimes bear (pr. ‘beer’). An old popular variety of this grain had black beads on the heads and was known as ‘the black bere’. I have actually seen the cereal grown and, nowadays, it is called ‘black headed barley’.

Black barley

There seems little doubt that the word ‘beer’, meaning ale, comes from ‘bere’ meaning barley. Should the tune be called The Black Beer (i.e. porter or stout)? It used to be customary, in some regiments, for the pipers to play this tune when entering the barracks after a route march or a day’s manoeuvres. At a certain point, the whole battalion gave a great roar, possibly in anticipation of foaming pints in the mess.

“In Burns’ Tam o’ Shanter (18th century), Satan with his pipes made sure that: ‘Hornpipes, Jigs, Strathspeys and Reels Pit life and mettle in their heels.’ The late Captain John MacLellan once defined a hornpipe to me as, ‘a 2/4 march played as a reel’. It all depends on the timing, particularly the pointing. I would think that a joyful, rollicking port such as this is more likely to be associated with ‘reamin swats’ than with an animal which has been extinct in Scotland for a thousand years and more.

“We find a similar situation in the district of Bearsden near Glasgow. In Scots, a den is a narrow, sheltered valley and, in this case, one that is suitable for cereal growing; in other words, ‘Barley Glen’. Very likely it would, originally, be pronounced ‘Beerden’, but I don’t suppose that present-day Bear-denizens would like that very much.”


Here is a clip of the tune (plus Scotland the Brave) being played by the Massed Pipes and Drums at the Basel Tattoo in 2017: