Bag and bellows from past to present

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We can thank the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society (LBPS) for the successful revivial of bellows-blown bagpipes that’s taken place in Scotland in recent years. The Society was founded by a handful of enthusiasts in Glasgow in the early 1980s. At the time, the instrument and the pipe music of lowland Scotland had virtually died out.

Jock Agnew edited the LBPS’ journal for a few years and wrote a series of articles in the Piping Times on bellows piping. With the LBPS’ annual conference – the ‘Collogue’ – taking place online today, we republish Jock’s first article for the PT.

We will upload more of his articles in due course.

By Jock Agnew

We cannot ignore the recent growth (some die-hards might say intrusion) of bellows blown pipes into the Scottish piping scene. Few can doubt that these pipes are here to stay, and that their acceptance – indeed popularity – will increase. But where did they come from? How should they be played? What should be their role?

I hope to provide answers to some of these and other questions in this series, drawing not on my own wisdom and wit (severely limited commodities!) but on information that crosses my desk as editor of Common Stock, the journal of the Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society (LBPS). And it is as well to make the point at this stage that many of these questions are still in the lively process of being researched and debated.

In 1994 a survey carried out within the membership of the LBPS indicated that the majority (some 60%) came to the Scottish bellows pipes from a Highland piping background, about a third from the Northumbrian piping environment, and the rest had some other musical background. Since then, of course, many more players have taken up these pipes, but I suspect the mix is broadly the same.

So what are these bellows pipes? In future articles I will explore more of the individual differences and similarities, but for the moment the pipes being considered are: Scottish smallpipes (drones from a single stock, open ended chanter with a parallel bore); Border pipes (drones from a single stock, chanter with a conical bore); and Pastoral pipes (drones from a single stock, chanter with a conical bore and foot joint).

Great bellows piping from Enora Morrice of Breton/Swedish duo, Naora.
Enora Morrice of Breton/Swedish duo, Naora, playing at Piping Live in 2019.

As with most musical instruments, the true origins and development of these various pipes are unclear. There are museum examples. There are references in poetry and other literature. Town Hall records and similar archives sometimes reveal, often through their financial accounts, the employment of pipers. And, of course, there is legend and myth.

Hugh Cheape, in an article in January 1989 (Common Stock (Volume 4, Number 1), describes a set of smallpipes in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland which may be said to be of vital importance in establishing a date and place of the maker. Clearly early in the style of its manufacture, this pipe bears an inscription which, assuming it to be contemporary, allows us to date the instrument with more precision than is usual with early surviving sets of pipes. On an ivory ring mount of the drone stock is inscribed, ‘Honl. Coll. Montgomery 1st Highland Battn. Jan 4 1757’.

The diary of a George Skene in 1729 describes a journey on horseback from Edinburgh to London and “it is clear that both he and his brothers were pipers”, writes Keith Sanger also in Common Stock. “Leaving Carlisle they moved on to the Crown in Penrith where they met the English piper, James Bell, and the diary produced what is probably the only direct comparison of Scottish and English bellows-blown pipes written by a contemporary source.”

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.

There is evidence from both Town and Kirk Session records of (probable) Border pipes being played as early as 1542, when Haddington had a town piper, as had Kirkudbright in 1578 and Stirling in 1582. And there were some well-kent names: Geordie Syme (who’s portrait has been adopted as the logo of the LBPS); Habbie Simpson, who is commemorated by poem and statue; James Alan, piper to the Duke of Northumberland.

The continuity of oral tradition in the playing of bellows pipes virtually died out in the 19th century, and almost a hundred years lapsed before these pipes were to re-emerge as either modern copies of museum examples (like the Muckle Jock Milburn Border pipes in the Morpeth Bagpipe Museum), or adapted versions of smallpipes initially pioneered by Colin Ross to allow half-closed (i.e. Highland) fingering to be used with a choice of tonic options.

Now, some 20 years since this renaissance started, the bellows blown pipes of Scotland are once again finding their place in a world of traditional, and sometimes not so traditional, music.

• From the July 2000 Piping Times.