Scotland’s toun pipers played at every civic occasion of note

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Contemporary sketch of 18th century town piper and drummer.
Contemporary sketch of 18th century town piper and drummer.

By Moses Jenkins

Moses Jenkins.
Moses Jenkins.

Today many Scots towns from Milngavie to Montrose have a resident pipe band. In days of antiquity, however, it was not a pipe band which would be affiliated to a town but rather an individual piper known as the ‘toun piper [toun=town|. These pipers had a number of roles within the community they were a part of and were, in some instances, rewarded handsomely for their work. This article aims to furnish a brief description of the duties and functions of the town pipers of Scotland and give some background to this once common tradition. Some of what has been discussed here is contained in histories of the pipes but as these are perhaps not as widely available as would be desirable it is hoped that by drawing from these works and providing further examples from a variety of primary sources this will prove an apt introduction to the subject of town pipers for those readers who know little of the institution.

It would seem that for a period of around 200 years almost every town in the country maintained a town piper. Edinburgh had three public pipers as early as 1497 and by 1505 Dumbarton, Biggar and Dumfries all had similar Performers1. Stirling certainly had a town piper in 1607 when ‘John Forbes, Pyper’2 was in the employ of the Burgh and in 1672 appointed ‘John Inneis to be common pyper’3. It would be impossible to include all instances of toun pipers in Scotland here but some further examples are interspersed throughout this’ text “arid many more are contained in town and Burgh records throughout Scotland. What is clear is that the majority of Scots towns at one time or another maintained a piper. Indeed, Walter Scot in his ‘Border Minstrelsy’ describes the town pipers as being attached to ‘every town of note’ and further as ‘an institution of great antiquity’4. There’ is, therefore, a great deal of evidence proving the existence of the institution of town pipers in Scotland. Of further interest is the varied roles which they played in society.

Contemporary sketch of 18th century town piper and drummer.
Contemporary sketch of 18th century town piper and drummer.

The main duty of the burgh piper would seem to be to circumnavigate the town in the morning and evening to signal the start and end of the day. Mackenzie tells in his ‘History of Scotland’ that the pipers’, ‘evenings and mornings and other times needful march through the town to refresh the leges’5. The town records of Stirling for 1672 command the town piper, John Inneis, to ‘accompany the drum every evening and morning’6. Morning would appear to occur at a very early hour indeed, the town piper of Lanark in 1567 was commanded to ‘gang throw the toun at four houris in the morning’7 and his counterpart in Banff was similarly ordered to make his rounds ‘at exactly 4 a clock in the morning

and at eight of the clock at night’8. These early morning duties were not the only occasions in the life of a town at which the town piper can be seen to be evident. It would seem that they played at important civic events such as the election of town officials as they could ‘hope for a dollar upon the day of the election of magistrates9. There is also some evidence in rural areas of them touring the surrounding countryside at harvest time to encourage the harvest workers, ‘at spring time and harvest the town pipers were wont to make a tour through their respective districts’10. The duties of John Walsone, piper of Lanark in 1566 included him playing at fairs, horse races and the annual riding out ceremony11. The importance of the institution of town piper can clearly be discerned from the variety of duties that he performed. It would seem that at one time or another the piper played at every occasion of note in the life of a town. This allied to the fact that they would be heard every morning and evening meant that the piper would be an omnipresent feature of life for the people of the majority of lowland towns. The importance of the piper to a town is further attested to as, for the performance of these duties, the piper in many places was paid handsomely from the public purse. The town piper of Stirling in 1672 received ‘twentie foure pounds Scotts yearlie’12 which was considerably more than the somewhat miserly ‘ten pund Scotts of yeirlie fiall’13 which his counterpart in Edinburgh received or the ‘sum of six poundis’14 the piper in Banff was paid for the year 1681. The £24 paid to the piper in Stirling was more than double the wage of an agricultural servant of the period15 and even the ten pounds paid to the Edinburgh piper was more generous than that received by many workers of the period and double that paid on average to female workers16.

In other towns a plot of land and a house was afforded to the piper for the duration of his tenure, a piper of unknown locale received for his services ‘the piper’s croft as it is still called, a field of about an acre in extent17. Indeed, it is still possible to see the piper’s house in many towns to this day, Jedburgh being only one example of this18. Not all towns were as generous, In some the piper would simply stay in households turn about throughout the year. This duty was not performed by all whom it fell upon as is recorded again by the historian Mackenzie who states “some even refuse to entertain the piper when it comes their turn and are fined for their pains’19. In those places whereby it was the custom to perform at the harvest the piper would often receive payment in part from that, ‘they were usually gratified with a measure of seedcorn’20.

Most towns provided their pipers with coats in the livery of the burgh, the records for Stirling in 1607 recording an order to ‘the theasaurate to provyde and furnes George Crawfurde, drummare, and John Fobes, pyper, ilk ane of thame, with breikis and  schankis of  ryd stemmyng’21. Such clothing may not always have been of the highest quality, however, as the red and yellow coat which the piper in Banff received was to be obtained “at the easiest reatts possible”22. It also seems to have been the custom for the piper to receive tips during the festive season, the piper in Banff receiving “wadges and gratuities peyt to them by the inhabitants at Christmass and other times”23. The status of the town pipers is thus easily discernable through an examination of the payment they received. Their wages were relatively high compared to other workers at the time and they received food, clothes and in some instances a house and land for the performance of their duties. This is clearly indicative of a performer of considerable importance to the local community. That even relatively small communities were willing to expend such resources on their piper demonstrates the importance of the pipes and pipers to communities throughout Scotland.

One further point that should be made of the town pipers is that they appear to have favoured the lowland pipe for the execution of their duties. This pipe had a chanter and three drones – two tenors and a bass, the three drones being mounted in a common stock, and used with bellows strapped under the arm to provide a supply of air. This can be seen in the illustration of Haddington’s town piper, James Livingstone who is pictured on the front page of this issue with such pipes. Other sources would appear to confirm this to be the case24. Although the reason behind this preference is unclear, perhaps the Highland pipes simply made too much racket or, alternatively, as a largely lowland institution perhaps those were the pipes the performers were used to.

As is the case with any profession not all town pipers were particularly hard working and some can be seen to fall foul of their municipal employers. In 1600 the Glasgow piper was accused by the council of such crimes as ‘ganging to vther townes and brydellis’, of ‘nocht making service in dew tyme mornyng and evenyng’ and finally for ‘drinking extraordinarlie’25. A far worse crime was alleged of the piper of Largs who was accused of going to a certain well in the area reputed to heal gout and stealing away the money left there by those seeking curative properties26. In 1708 the town piper of Linlithgow was convicted of unspecified immoralities and as well being relieved of his duties was excommunicated!27 It seems the pipers were not always keen to perform their allotted duty, James Raney, the piper of Banff in 1720 being reprimanded by the council for ‘being remiss in going through the town with pipes’28. Despite these indiscretions the majority of the evidence shows the town piper to be a well liked part of the community despite his duty of disturbing the populace from their beds.

Geordie Syme, town piper of Dalkieth in the mid-18th century, Geordie Syme, the piper of Dalkeith, was allowed, beside a small wage, a suit of clothes: this consisted of a long yellow coat lined with red, red plush breeches, white stockings and shoes with buckles.
Geordie Syme, town piper of Dalkieth in the mid-18th century, Geordie Syme, the piper of Dalkeith, was allowed, beside a small wage, a suit of clothes: this consisted of a long yellow coat lined with red, red plush breeches, white stockings and shoes with buckles.

Toward the end of the 17th century the institution of town piper can be seen to have gone into somewhat of a decline with an increasing number of town’s records beginning to omit to show a ‘pyper’ in their employ. As early as 1630 Aberdeen disposed of the services of their piper, the council describing the practice of piping every morning as ‘ane incivill forme to be usit within sic a famous burgh’29. In 1660 Edinburgh Burgh Council abolished the office of piper, they decided that the office was ‘neidlis and unnecessar’ and of the poor piper they ‘refuisis to sive him any hous or keip’30. Despite this the institution continued in some parts of Scotland into the 19th century. The last town piper of Haddington was appointed in 1834 and Perth also maintained the tradition until the mid 1800s. If the earliest and latest known dates for which town pipers are recorded in Scotland are taken they were part of Scottish life for a period of 337 years between 1497 and 1834. This is a remarkable achievement when the seismic shifts in Scottish culture and belief that occurred in this time are considered embracing as it does the periods of Reformation, Covenanting wars, Jacobite rebellions, Scottish enlightenment and industrial revolution. Certainly, the importance of the town piper both to the lives of the people of Scotland and to the development of the instrument cannot be underestimated. As they could be found in every town of note in the country, certainly in the Lowlands and East, the institution of the town piper can be seen to pave the way for the development of the bagpipe as the national instrument of Scotland. They would be heard by the people of a town almost every day of life and would be present at all occasions of note in the life of a burgh. For the performance of these duties they were rewarded well and seem to have enjoyed considerable status in the community. The evidence presented here I hope certainly demonstrates the importance of this institution both to Scotland’s history and our instrument.

• The author was taught to play pipes by his grandfather and spent a number of years playing with Callander Pipe Band. In recent years he studied Scottish History at both Glasgow and Stirling Universities. He currently works for Historic Scotland as a Research and Development Officer.

References

1 Colinson FE, The Bagpipe, (London, Routledge, 1975) p.97.
2 Renwick R. (Ed), Extracts from the Records of the Royal Burgh of Stirling, (Glasgow, Glasgow Surlingshire and Sons, 1887) p.118.
3 Renwick R. (ed), Extracts from the Records of the Royal Burgh of Stirling p.12.
4 Scott W., Border Minstrelsy, (London, Lang, 1910) p.165.
5 Mackenzie J., The History of Scotland, (London, Nelson, 1890) p.248.
6 Renwick R. (ed), Extracts from the Records of the Royal Burgh of Stirling p.12
7 Scottish Burgh Record Society, Extracts of the Royal Burgh of Lanark (Glasgow, Carson and Nicol, 1893) p.39.
8 Cramond W. (ed), The Annals of Banff, (Aberdeen, 1891), p.185. 9 Scott W., Old Mortality, (London, Macmillan, 1905) p.26.
10 Renwick R. (ed), Extracts from the Records of the Royal Burgh of Stirling p.12.
11 Scottish Burgh Record Society, Extracts of the Royal Burgh of Lanark p.71.
12 Renwick R. (ed), Extracts from the Records of the Royal Burgh of Stirling p.12.
13 Wood M. (ed), Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, (Oliver and Boyd, 1927), p.184.
14 Cramond W. (ed), The Annals of Banff, p.160.
15 To take just a few examples, in 1695 the annual wage of an agricultural servant in Aboyne was £6 6s, in Ellon £9 12s and in Cruden £10 3s which are all less than half that paid to the Stirling piper and in most case less than that paid to the Edinburgh piper. Gibson A. and Smout T., Prices, Food and Wages in Scotland 1550-1780, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.335.
16 Gibson A. and Smout T., Prices, Food and Wages in Scotland 1550-1780, p.335.
17 Scott W., Old Mortality, p.29.
18 The ‘Pipers House’ can be seen in Duck Row in Jedburgh, other examples of this being ‘Pipers House’ in Skirling and ‘Pipers Croft’ in Aberdeenshire (Map references N1T65232059, NT0/653908 and NJ55021931 respectively).
19 Mackenzie J., The History of Scotland, p.248.
20 Scott W., Old Mortality p.29.
21 Renwick R. (ed), Extracts from the Records of the Royal Burgh of Stirling, p.118.
22 Cramond W. (ed), The Annals of Banff, p.200
23 Cramond W. (ed), The Annals of Banff, p.185.
24 As well as this there is a further painting of Livingstone and an illustration entitled “Burgh Piper” attributed to Sir William Allan from the early 19th century both showing the lowland pipes being used.
25 Marwick J. (ed), Extracts from the Burgh of Glasgow, (Glasgow 1876), p.203.
26 Dalyell J., Musical memoirs of Scotland, (Edinburgh, Stevenson, 1849), p.37.
27 Dalyell J., Musical memoirs of Scotland, p.36.
28 Cramond W. (ed), The Annals of Banff, p.197.
29 Lawrence R., The Bagpipe in History and Anecdote, (Aberdeen, 1928) p.2.
30 Wood M. (Ed), Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, p.241.

• From the December 2006 Piping Times.