Hornpipes – from jaunty dance to finger fireworks in a few years

Ross McNaughton piping for the Sailor's Hornpipe at the 2019 Atholl Gathering.
Ross McNaughton piping for the Sailor's Hornpipe at the 2019 Atholl Gathering.

• From the January 2012 Piping Times.

By Iain Bruce

Ross McNaughton piping for the Sailor's Hornpipe at the 2019 Atholl Gathering.
Ross McNaughton piping for the Sailor’s Hornpipe at the 2019 Atholl Gathering.

The hornpipe has had a long run in the history of music but it is not clear how long. The Oxford Companion to Music describes two meanings of the word ‘hornpipe’. In the first place it refers to an obsolete musical instrument [pictured] which consisted of a wooden pipe with a reed, perhaps a bit like a practice chanter except that the hornpipe had a curved bell at the bottom which was made from animal horn and gave the instrument its name. It was also called a ‘stockhorn’ in Scotland.


The hornpipe was used to accompany a solo dance which was popular throughout the British Isles and not known anywhere else. The dance was known as a hornpipe, so this is the second meaning for the word. We can add a third meaning because the music played for the dance is also called a hornpipe. Somehow, the dance became popular amongst sailors, even though it had no original seafaring associations, Composers Purcell and Handel both included hornpipes in their musical works. We have all heard the Sailor’s Hornpipe played on a flute or piccolo, or even by the full orchestra. It is light and fast, well suited to the traditional dance which embodies actions like climbing ropes and looking into the distance, characteristic of the work done by sailors on old sailing ships.

My first piping teacher was James Lawrie, from Linlithgow, and over the years he taught me to play a good number of tunes from a book compiled by Robert Reid, a selection of tunes from books 3 to 8 of Logan’s collection. There is no date of publication, but the back cover bears an advertisement for The Piper’s Piper’s Delight. According to Roderick Cannon’s Bibliography of Bagpipe Music, the Piper’s Delight was published late in 1932 or early in 1933, so it is likely that the ‘3 to 8’ collection was a pre-war publication. My copy contains many pencil markings where my teacher dotted and cut the note groups of four semiquavers. The Sailor’s Hornpipe appears on pages 38-39 as a six parted 2/4 tune though only part of it shown below:

It would have been sourced from one of the Logan books, but it appears to be an elaboration of a four measure tune called ‘Jacky Tar’ in Donald MacPhee’s Selection of Music for the Highland Bagpipe, which was published shortly after 1876. Another six-measure version was subsequently published by G. S. McLennan in 1929 in his book Highland Bagpipe Music. This version was arranged by a Lieutenant J. McLennan, Edinburgh, his father. The tune would do well as a 2/4 march, which is effectively how I learned it and played it all those years ago, following the pencilled pointing marks. As a hornpipe it sounds more like the lumbering of an elephant than the jaunty dance performed by the people in sailor suits at the games. The original tune falls well outside the compass of the chanter scale, and most attempts to adapt it seem to involve too much transposition of notes and composition of new phrases, producing an overly cumbersome imitation of the original work.

But pipers who are called upon to play for hornpipe dancers do not play this tune. There are plenty of two-parted tunes that capture the mood and spirit of the dance. In Robert Reid’s collection there is a tune called The Liverpool Hornpipe, also known as The 78th’s Walk Round, which suits this purpose:

There are many others, including Corn Riggs are Bonny, My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet, and The Boys of Blue Hill. Donald Varella, in Volume 1 of his collection to mark the US Bicentennial, has a two measure version of the Sailor’s Hornpipe arranged by Pipe Major Donald MacLean:


This arrangement retains much of the original melody, along with its life and lift. These simpler tunes are instantly recognisable as hornpipes because they feature characteristic musical turns which are embodied in the classic hornpipe idiom. These are:

(i) Arpeggio sequences of notes (spread out chords),
(ii) Runs up or down the scale,
(iii) Triplet runs, making six notes to a beat, and
(iv) The three note motif ‘yo ho ho’, which can occur at the ends of measures or just about anywhere else.

A tune that has all of these features is The Ladies’ Hornpipe, published in
the Scots Guards Collection in 1954:

As happened in piping with marches, strathspeys and reels, where simple marching and dancing tunes were transformed into challenging and complex works for exhibiting the piper’s skill, so also hornpipes have been divorced from the dance to produce pipe tunes of considerable sophistication.

In 1970, Captain John MacLellan spent five weeks in Brisbane, Australia. During this time he judged bands and solos, and gave an extended series of lectures at the University of Queensland. On the subject of hornpipes he said that a hornpipe is a 2/4 march played like a reel. In September 1971 I received from him a copy of a new hornpipe which he had composed, entitled Archie Campbell of the Highland Division:

Archie Campbell of the Highland Division

He said that he had originally ended the measures with the three note motif E, A, A, buts later changed this to E, D, A because ‘it sounded more ‘Gaelic’. That John should want to make a hornpipe sound more Gaelic is a sure sign that the bagpipe was taking over the hornpipe to produce a new musical genre. John inserted a B-gracenote grip between the D and the low A. In due course the tune was published in 1984 in the Caber Feidh Collection, where it appears on page 199. Some changes have been made. The title has been altered by inserting ‘51st’ before the words ‘Highland Division’. A new second time has been added to the fourth measure. Four edre movements have been inserted into the third measure, and the three-note endings of the measures have been replaced by the four-note ending E, D, B, A, with doublings on E and low A.

Archie Campbell’ could have been put forward as a 2/4 march, and it sounds quite well played that way, with left and right beats in each bar balanced by good intervening upbeats, all housed within the ongoing progression of four two-bar phrases per repeated part. But if we are told that the tune is a hornpipe, it will require a different treatment. There would be a diminution in gravity and attention to phrasing, plenty of life and lift, and a rise in tempo. The left and right beats are still separated by balancing upbeats but the whole feel is more jaunty.

Perhaps we could have made the tune less like a 2/4 march by playing it as a reel. Bob Brown said that a reel should be played “dot and carry’ in each bar. This is reminiscent of the strong/medium pulses in the bars of 2/4 marches, but the reel is a much more freely going performance. In 1978 I asked Donald Morrison how to express reels, and he said ‘march to them’. This brings us full circle. These considerations seem to group 2/4 marches, hornpipes and reels in a way that John MacLellan may have been suggesting. Hornpipes are built out of two-bar phrases, just like 2/4 marches and reels, but the phrasing emerges more subtly in the dance music, for nothing must detract from the ongoing uplifted beat which creates a mood of lightness and freedom from care. A reel can be played immediately after a hornpipe, or vice versa, without any sense of discontinuity.

Is a hornpipe a 2/4 march played like a reel? ‘Archie Campbell’ certainly appears to be. But there are many 2/4 marches that cannot be played as reels, and there are many modern hornpipes that could never be mistaken for 2/4 marches, even though, like reels, it may be possible to march to them.

Donald MacLeod set the heather on fire in 1953 with the publication of his original composition Crossing the Minch in the Edcath Collection. It is the only hornpipe in the book. It includes ‘slurred’ doublings on B (also known as double strikes), which consist of active gracenotes high G, E and low G played onto the passive gracenote B and finally theme note B. The movement is found in other tunes on C or D. Crossing the Minch is firmly in the idiom of the Sailor’s Hornpipe and could never be mistaken for a 2/4 march. Donald became a prolific composer of hornpipes, many of which are in Gaelic mode without any nautical associations. Good examples are The Man from Skye, Dr. MacInnes’ Fancy and Duncan Johnstone. Many composers kept to the nautical idiom. John Allan MacGee wrote Jim Tweedie’s Sea Legs, which appeared in the Seumas MacNeill Collection in 1960. Donald Shaw Ramsay wrote Tam Bain’s Lum and it was published in the Edcath Book 2 – the only hornpipe in the book – and listed in the index as a 2/4 march.

As well as the Gaelic style, new hornpipes began using more complex fingering. J. A. Barrie’s tune John MacKenzie’s Fancy, published by John MacFadyen in 1973, includes the piobaireachd movements edre, darodo and open crunluath fosgailte. As with reels, a rounded style of playing was introduced, in contrast with the pointed expression of classic hornpipes. Duncan Johnstone’s hornpipe The Streaker can be played straight after the rounded reel Lexy MacAskill without any impression that the tune type has changed, even though reels are in 2/2 time and their eight bar measures are not repeated.

The more recent collections of pipe music contain a plethora of hornpipes. There are nine in book 1 of Bob Worrall’s collection and 13 in book 2. A recent collection by R. S. MacDonald contains 13. Tied notes are used to produce syncopated effects in many of the newer tunes.

The hornpipe is now well recognised as a specific musical form in piping. It has gained huge popularity with pipe bands and solo pipers playing at recitals. In competition the hornpipe is usually paired with a jig. Complex fingering is involved and a good performance is a rewarding experience for player and listener alike, but as yet the event does not have the status of marches, strathspeys and reels. This may change, for there is plenty to study in the field of modern hornpipes. They have moved a long way from the classic shipboard dance.