The national poet and the national instrument
By Dr VIVIEN ESTELLE WILLIAMS
With Robert Burns as the national poet of Scotland, and the bagpipe as the national instrument, it comes as no surprise that there should be a narrative connecting them. This article examines the presence of the bagpipe in Robert Burns’ works and thought, pointing out the range of connotations the poet endowed the instrument with. It is perhaps not a coincidence that many of them are still relevant to how the bagpipe is viewed to this day, and how it is perceived in the 21st century. I will first of all provide a context for my discussion, analysing some of the key features of 18th century Scottish history and literature. I will then move on to analyse the role of the bagpipe in this context, and this will lead me on to discussing more specifically Robert Burns’ attitude towards the instrument, and the different notions at play when he refers to it in his poetry and letters.
The early 18th century
Arguably the main issue which characterised Scotland’s history during the 18th century was Jacobitism. The movement, which sought to restore the Stuart monarchy to the throne, was very destabilising for the British Establishment, as it was seen as the expression of Highland disloyalty to the House of Hanover. This contributed significantly to cast a negative light on the Highlanders, and on the Scots by synecdoche, in much literature and art. The repercussions of Jacobitism were in fact felt through the whole of Britain, and this was pivotal to how Scotland was viewed and how it viewed itself. There were rather grossly-sketched parallels circulating at the time, which Peter Womack describes as the “Tory-Jacobite-Scot-Highlandman associative web”:
Since Tory die-hards had presumably welcomed the prospect of a Jacobite restoration, they could be linked to the beggarly Highland army too. This association spread easily to all Tories, and then to all and any opponents of the ruling Whig oligarchy.1
Essentially, being Scottish was tantamount to being a Jacobite (and little or no distinction was made between Lowlanders and Highlanders); a Jacobite was by association a Tory, and Catholic. Although the Jacobites at Westminster were Tories, what is not so widely considered is that, though admittedly they shared the interests of the rest of the party, they nevertheless represented an “extreme of the political spectrum.”2
This view essentially united very different concepts into monolithic ideological ‘blocks’. Quite eloquent is, for instance, the case of an anonymous pamphleteer referring to the Tory party in the mid-18th century as being “generally composed of secret Papists, Jacobites, Non-Jurors, and such bigoted Churchmen.”3 This kind of discourse ended up over-simplifying the issue of Jacobitism and the political situation in Scotland. This is how elements of a broader Scottish culture were equated to Jacobitism, and thus used as a means for Scottish vilification by the British government and anti-Jacobite propaganda; as was the case for tartan and the kilt.
The Jacobite risings had a strong impact on reinforcing a set of stereotypical ideas which saw the Scot as a savage, blood-thirsty brute with bestial traits and unhealthy, potentially dangerous habits. This is most eloquent in satirical prints such as ‘The Chevaliers [sic] Market, or Highland Fair’4 (1745), or ‘The Highland Visitors’5 (1746), where Scottish presence or domination is portrayed as tantamount to degeneracy, and certain decline of civilisation. The descriptions became so intensely negative that the Jacobite/Highlander/Scot (since these ‘definitions’ were, as we have seen, inaccurately seen as synonyms by many) acquired devilish traits, as for example in Edward ‘Ned’ Ward’s 1710 Nuptial Dialogues and Debates. These are a series of fictional conversations by different married couples, and in ‘Dialogue XV, Between a Dissenting Alderman, and his High-Church Lady’, the Alderman completely loses his patience with his wife:
Am I possest with an infernal Sprite,
You Witch of Endor, nay, you Jacobite?
Must I be lectur’d thus, you Harradan,
Because I am not of your High-Church Clan?
Avaunt, thou Satan, I abhor thy Pipes,
The very Name torments me with the Gripes.6
In this case the Anglican faith shares, in the view of the dissenting husband, the traits typically attributed to the Roman Catholic faith, and therefore to Jacobites also, and we can see how explicit the connection between Jacobites and bagpipes (synecdochal for Scotland) and the devil is in Ward’s words.
Jacobitism saw its culmination with the Battle of Culloden in 1746, which also marked its defeat. The defeat meant though that, gradually, Scotland no longer constituted a threat for England and the Hanoverian rule.
The late 18th century
The post-Culloden phase sees a change of attitude towards Scotland in many authors and artists. Once the danger was perceived as past, it was possible to cast a benevolent view on the country, and even to romanticise the ‘lost cause’ of Jacobitism. Once the de-stabilising element for the House of Hanover had been ruled out, it was possible to re-consider the dynamics between England and Scotland. With the hatchet buried, even the most stereotypical traits of the Scot could be re-interpreted – the once proverbial savagery became tinted with nuances of nobility. Scholars such as Hugh Cheape and Steve Newman7 have describes this process as a “rehabilitation”, and the bagpipe very much followed this development, taking up different connotations and characteristics as the status of the Scot changed.
The period which followed the Culloden disaster also coincided with the publication in 1760 of James Macpherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry, which were followed in 1762 by Fingal, Temora in 1763, and collected in The Works of Ossian in 1765. Macpherson claimed to have collected fragments of ancient Gaelic poetry sent down orally from generation to generation among the people in the Highlands; he translated them into English and wove them together with personal interpolations to create a unitary whole. This created a big case in literary criticism, as the authenticity of the fragments was therefore questioned and Macpherson’s work was seen as fraudulent by many scholars. In spite of the doubts and criticism, the Ossianic fragments became one of the key works of Romanticism, translated into all major European languages, and they placed Scotland at the very centre of European literary debates. This publication contributed to bring the culture of Scotland to the fore, and gave prominence to the nation worldwide.
Only two decades after that, in 1786, Robert Burns published the famous “Kilmarnock edition” of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. The tremendous success of Robert Burns, both nationally and internationally, also added up to give Scotland the status of ‘literary nation’. As Murray Pittock points out:
The link with Burns and Scotland (and later Edinburgh, in particular) is obvious: Edinburgh (like Athens, the ‘Athens of the North’) will culturally lead – as it arguably did from 1760 to 1820 – the Great Britain in which Scotland is now incorporated, and the greatness of that culture is best represented by its greatest poet.8
So this was the cultural climate Scotland was embedded in by the second half of the 18th century. We can just imagine Scotland’s aura at that time, with epic grandeur of the Ossianic fragments, and the literary phenomenon of Robert Burns and his poems presented to the world. Parallel to this was also an incremental presence of the Highlander in warfare at home and abroad. This was another pivotal issue for the ‘rehabilitation’ of the Scot: the involvement of Highland regiments in international warfare from the 18th century gave the Highland soldier greater prominence and visibility, particularly thanks to the role played by the Highland regiments during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). The Highlanders achieved great military successes, especially in their actions in North America, and this helped the propagation worldwide of the icon of the Scot and Highlander.
And the bagpipe, as a cultural signifier which ‘followed’ the steps of the country’s history, benefited from these social, cultural, and political changes in the way it was viewed and described. The bagpipe went from being seen in the first half of the 18th century as the instrument of the “Whore of Babylon”,9 to that of war heroes in the second half of the century. Such was the case for instance for George Clerk, who during the battle of Vimeiro of 1808, heroically kept playing to incite his fellow-soldiers in spite of having been wounded, and as such was commemorated in literature and artworks.10 The bagpipe came to embody ideals of nationhood, independence and military valour; the very charismatic aura now attracted very different imagery and descriptions compared to the previous half of the century.
According to Roger Fiske, Robert Burns was, with James Macpherson and Sir Walter Scot, one of the three key cultural exports of Scotland11, and their literature and cultural legacy lives on to present day. The antiquity of Macpherson’s Ossianic fragments was such that the bagpipe did not feature in them at all (the ‘events’ related in the fragments dated to the third century, which is far too early for the bagpipe to have been at all present in Scotland).12 But it is perhaps no coincidence that Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, key figures of Scottish Romanticism, not only refer to the instrument frequently, but they also endow it with a variety of connotations, many of which are still relevant today.
Robert Burns and the bagpipe
So, what ideas does Scotland’s national instrument evoke in the mind of the national poet? Scotland was the subject-matter of Burns’ poems – even the poetic forms he used spoke about his country (i.e. the ‘standard Habbie’ stanza), and elevated its folk culture and heritage to a high status. What does the bagpipe mean to him? Given the poet’s works’ complexity of meaning and feeling, it is hardly surprising that the bagpipe appears in his prose and poetry in a variety of contexts, as he seems to attribute it different ‘voices’. His view is far from static or monolithic: he endows the bagpipe with very different meanings and values, which span from the military to the pastoral and the devilish. Quite often he will refer to “pipes” rather than “bagpipes”, which makes those instances too dubious for me to include in this discussion, so I will focus on the occurrences of the word “bagpipe” and contexts in which he is definitely referring to the ‘bagged’ version of pipes.
The military sphere
Perhaps one of the most striking, unique characteristics about the bagpipe in Scotland is its martial value. The military connection between Scotland and the bagpipe has been ongoing since at least the 16th century, when a French military officer wrote in his Histoire de la guerre d’Ecosse that “Les Ecossois sauvages se provocquoyent aux armes par les sons de leurs cornemeuses” – “the savage Scots incited themselves into battle with the sound of their bagpipes”.13 By Burns’ time, the martial side of the instrument was certainly very much a reality, especially in the not-too-distant aftermath of the Jacobite Risings with which the instrument was often associated. The bagpipe is in fact mentioned in many Jacobite songs, and featured in much anti-Jacobite propaganda – such was the association between the instrument and the risings.
The connection between the bagpipe and Jacobitism is in fact very much present in Burns’ mind when he wrote the poem on the American War of Independence ‘When Guilford Good our Pilot Stood’.
Scotland drew her pipe, an’ blew,
“Up, Willie, waur them a’, man!” […]
An’ Caledon threw by the drone,
An’ did her whittle draw, man. 1414
There is a clear nod to the Jacobite song “Up an’ Waur ‘em, a’, Willie” (in which the bagpipe also features, significantly, in the refrain: the most captivating part of a song). There are also hints to other Jacobite songs in Burns’ poem: what emerges clearly is that the bagpipe is the instrument of change, of revolutions, which is why Burns mentions it in a martial context and endows it with Jacobite undertones. The poet in his works does not seem to differentiate between varieties of bagpipe, but I feel it is safe to assume that in this case given the martial association, he was referring to a Great Highland Bagpipe.
Military bagpipes are the protagonists of some of Burns’ fond childhood memories. Scottish military life and piping in fact closely went together. Recruitment, for instance, often happened to the sound of the bagpipe. As Burns explains in his letter to Dr Moore in 1787:
The first two books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read since, were The Life of Hannibal, and The History of Sir William Wallace. Hannibal gave my young ideas such a turn, that I used to strut in raptures up and down after the recruiting drum and bag-pipe, and wish myself tall enough to be a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice into my veins, which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.15
Such was the inspirational value the bagpipe had for Burns, the deeds of Hannibal, the Carthaginian commander, were to him in tune with the feelings aroused by the recruiting bagpipe, while the famous Scottish knight and leader instilled in him patriotic pride.
It was custom in the late 18th century to recruit soldiers with drum and bagpipe formations marching around the various Scottish towns. This, apart from Burns’ words and others, is attested in art such as the 1793 ‘View of Glasgow from the South’.16
The perspective adopted in this image is the same that can be found in various works by different artists.17 This urban periphery landscape shows two banks of the river Clyde, with the city centre in the distance. There is a small procession marching towards the bridge, and it is evident that the figures are well-dressed; a red figurine suggests a military attire. We can also discern a soldier with a gun perched on his shoulder, behind him is a Highland piper, and a drummer next in line. This is most likely a military parade similar to the one Burns describes from his childhood memories.
The pastoral sphere
Aside from the military side, Burns also adopts a rural setting for his ‘pipes’ – though he does not limit the instrument’s imagery to an idyllic description of a Scottish countryside. He pushes its meaning and symbolism beyond that, and gives it an extra dimension and significance.
‘Amang the Trees’, also known as ‘A Fiddler in the North’, starts off as typically bucolic in the first four lines, but then turns into something more complex:
Amang the trees, where humming bees
At buds and flowers were hinging, O,
Auld Caledon drew out her drone,
And to her pipe was singing, O;
’Twas pibroch, sang, strathspey, or reels,
She dirl’d them aff fu’ clearly, O,
When there cam a yell o’ foreign squeels,
That dang her tapsalteerie, O.
Their capon craws and queer ha ha’s,
They made our lugs grow eerie, O;
The hungry bike did scrape and pike,
’Till we were wae and weary, O;
But a royal ghaist wha ance was cas’d
A prisoner aughteen year awa,
He fir’d a fiddler in the north
That dang them tapsalteerie, O.18
In these stanzas Burns is commenting on the worthiness of Scottish music compared with the effeminate voices of the much more celebrated Italian castrati, who dominated the scenes in the British art music world. The hint is towards the masculinity of Scotland’s music versus the Italian “capon craws and queer ha ha’s”.
It is by now well-established that Burns was far from a “heaven-taught ploughman”, but rather his verses are well-informed, and demonstrate a good knowledge of the classics and of his literary predecessors. Burns’ poetry is rich in tributes and nods to fellow-poets and authors – and such is the case for ‘Amang the Trees’. The poem takes up and re-elaborates arguments we find in, for instance, Allan Ramsay’s ‘To the Music Club’:
And show that music may have as good fate
In Albion’s glens, as Umbria’s green retreat:
And with Correlli’s soft Italian song
Mix “Cowden Knows”, and “Winter nights are long”:
Nor should the martial “Pibrough” be despis’d;
Own’d and refin’d by you, these shall be more priz’d.19
Ramsay suggests the union between Corelli and traditional, typically Scottish tunes: bagpipe music, “refin’d”, should be brought into an environment normally reserved for music of the highest urban status. The difference between Burns’ and Ramsay’s poem is that Ramsay tries to elevate Scottish music to the status of Corelli; Burns is less ‘flexible’ and simply states his weariness from listening to the “foreign squeels”. It is not a question of the listener being elevated by classical music and moved by traditional music, as in ‘To the Music Club’; it is rather a tout–court irritation at camp Italian music – to which Scotland’s music is the antidote.
The devilish sphere
In a letter dated 7th July 1787 Burns wrote to his friend, the writer John Richmond, the following lines:
I am all impatience to hear of your fate since the old confounder of right and wrong has turned you out of place, by his journey to answer his indictment at the bar of the other world. […] His chicane, his left-handed wisdom […] will, now the piratical business is blown, in all probability turn the king’s evidences, and then the devil’s bagpiper will touch him off “Bundle and go.”20
A whole synopsis of the letter would be redundant in this context: what is significant for my purposes in this discussion is noting a demonic side of the bagpipe, which truly sank its roots in Burns’ imagination. The “devil’s bagpiper” is a very striking image, and one which reminds the reader very much of one of Burns’ most original poems, and certainly one of his most famous accomplishments: ‘Tam O’ Shanter’. In the poem, Tam, a man who enjoys his ale too much for his own good, is on his way home when “The de’il had business on his hand”, finds himself witnessing an “unco sight”:21 Alloway Church is alive with lights, and dancing of witches and warlocks:
Nae cotillion brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels:
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge;
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl. […]
As Tammie glowr’d, amaz’d, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew;
The dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit,
‘Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it in her sark!22
Not French, but strictly Scottish music sets fire to the spirits’ heels, and none but the devil himself provides the music for such ghastly merriment. It is certainly a very evocative scene, which Burns as we’ve seen develops beyond this poem. So where did he take the idea for this kind of imagery?
Though ‘Tam O’ Shanter’ is a very well-known work, what is less well-known is the fact that the bagpipe for centuries in many European countries has had diabolic and bawdy connotations. Since the Middle Ages at least, it is possible to find depictions of devilish creatures playing the bagpipe, or generally representing sinfulness. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Miller – a lusty, vulgar character, known for his vices and filthy talk – was a piper, and that is no coincidence: the bagpipe symbolised vices of various nature, and as such it features in a number of the Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel’s depictions of the Seven Deadly Sins.23 A well-known early 16th-century German satirical print depicts the devil playing the head of a monk as a bagpipe,24 and devil-pipers become a quite an established topos in anti-Jacobite satires, as I mentioned above. The bagpipe for centuries has symbolised bawdry, sinfulness and debauchery. Francis Grose, whom Robert Burns knew well, in the first edition of his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, under the entry ‘Bagpipe, to bagpipe’ simply writes: “a lascivious practice too indecent for explanation”.25 We can see how the path from the concepts of vice, excess, sex, phallic imagery and rowdiness to devilish connections would be quite straightforward. From the examples above it is clear where Robert Burns is coming from with his devilish description of a rowdy, debauched episode, and its connection with the devil, and in turn the devil’s connection with the bagpipe.
It is difficult to establish whether Burns was in fact aware that this kind of discourse was so widespread, as we can find instances of this imagery Europe-wide, as I pointed out, from the Middle Ages onwards. The notion certainly rests on a solid basis, which was shared quite broadly by authors and artists at the time and was a result of centuries-old heritage. It is an image which has continued to be picked up and re-interpreted to this day – and Robert Burns’ ‘Tam O’ Shanter’ has played his part in keeping it alive. Since the publication of the poem and right through to this day in fact, there are authors, artists, and composers who have been inspired by the poem, and many take their artistic cue from the scene of “auld Nick”.
Examples in the visual arts feature the above print ‘The Witches Dance in Tam O Shanter’26 by Samuel S. Smith in 1839 after John Masey Wright; it was an illustration to Cunningham’s edition of the poems of Robert Burns. In the top right hand corner we can see a devil playing a single-droned bagpipe while the witches frisk about. His figure is almost wrapped in darkness, which adds to the disquieting feeling of the image. Other 19th century artists include Joseph B. Kidd, who painted a series dedicated to Burns’ famous poem and the devil-piper features in more than one piece.27 Also William Carse,28 whose depiction of the scene of the witches’ dance features a devil-piper – with disquieting lights streaming torch-like out of the instrument’s chanter and drones, almost as if the light of the flames of hell was glaring through the bagpipe itself. In music, examples include Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie, who in his 1911 ‘Scottish Rhapsodie no.3’ op. 74 called ‘Tam o’Shanter’ has a few bars in which the orchestra is made to sound like a Great Highland bagpipe – this is a clear hint to the witches’ dance to the devil’s bagpipe. Sir Malcolm Arnold in his 1955 ‘Tam o’Shanter Overture’, Op. 51, even includes a bagpipe chanter in orchestra, which clearly hints to the devil’s instrument in the poem. And today all it takes is to have a look at various kinds of media to see the interest and fascination for the poem – and for the section on ‘auld Nick’ and his bagpipe – has not decreased.
Robert Burns’ perceptions about the bagpipe take up various forms. The instrument is present in his childhood memories, he develops recurring symbolism about it, and endows it with ideological meaning which connects it strongly to his native Scotland. A close look at the kind of imagery he connects to the bagpipe not only give us an idea of what the instrument stood for in Burns’ time, but it also shows how the poet made these notions his own by reinterpreting them and providing his own take on them. The military side of Scottish bagpiping is something which can still be appreciated today, as is the notion of the instrument representing a voice of Scotland: the sound of the bagpipe speaks of national uniqueness to today’s listeners. Whether he was aware of it or not, Burns’ devilish association with the instrument connects the bagpipe to a broader, ancient European heritage; but it also is a concept which has a broad appeal to this day for the sheer evocativeness of the imagery. All this only goes to show the relevance not only of Burns’ works, but also of the bagpipe in the 21st century: both still speak to us, and their messages are something which we can make our own, and re-interpret, in the light of the culture and society we live in.
- Peter Womack, Improvement and Romance (Houndmills and London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1989), p. 17. ↩︎
- Daniel Szechi, Jacobitism and Tory Politics 1710-14, (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1984), p. 3. ↩︎
- Anon., The Balance; or, the Merits of Whig and Tory Exactly Weigh’d and Fairly Determin’d (London: Printed for J. Payne, 1753), p. 3. ↩︎
- British Museum 1867,0511.54. ↩︎
- Library of Congress LC-USZ62-102369. ↩︎
- Edward Ward, Nuptial Dialogues and Debates, in 2 volumes (London: printed for C. Hitch et al., 1759), vol. 2, p. 206. ↩︎
- Hugh Cheape, ‘Gheibhte Breacain charnaid’, in From Tartan to Tartanry, ed. by Ian Brown (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 13-31 (p. 20); Steve Newman, ‘Ballads and Chapbooks’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Romanticism, ed. by Murray Pittock (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 13-26 (p. 23). ↩︎
- Murray Pittock, ed., The Reception of Robert Burns in Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 2. ↩︎
- Thomas Brown, ‘Letters from the dead to the living, and from the Living to the Dead, both Serious and Comical’, in The Works of Thomas Brown, ed. by Sam Briscoe, in 4 volumes (London: Printed for Sam Briscoe, 1719), vol. 2, p. 300. ↩︎
- Harry Ross-Lewin, With ‘The Thirty-Second’ In the Peninsular and other Campaigns (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co., 1904), p. 111. ↩︎
- Roger Fiske, Scotland in Music: A European Enthusiasm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. ix. ↩︎
- The first unquestionable evidence for the bagpipe’s presence in Scotland does not appear until the 1400s, as is testified by the carvings in Rosslyn Chapel and Melrose Abbey. There is precious little to testify to the instrument’s presence before that (e.g. Giraldus Cambrensis’ reference to a ‘choro’), and what we have is but dubious. ↩︎
- As quoted in Francis M. Collinson, The Bagpipe (London: Routledge&Kegan Paul Ltd., 1975), p. 140. ↩︎
- Robert Burns, The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. by James Kinsley, in 3 volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), vol. 1, p. 51. ↩︎
- Robert Burns, The Complete Letters of Robert Burns, ed. by John De Lancey Ferguson, rev. edn. by George Ross Roy, in 2 volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), vol. 1, p. 136. ↩︎
- From the author’s own collection. ↩︎
- E.g. John Knox’s ‘Old Glasgow Bridge’, c. 1816. ↩︎
- Burns, The Poems and Songs, vol. 1, p. 354. ↩︎
- Allan Ramsay, The Poems of Allan Ramsay, ed. by George Chalmers and Alexander F. T. Woodhouselee, in 2 volumes (London: printed by A. Strahan, 1800), vol. 1, p. 358. ↩︎
- Burns, The Complete Letters, vol. 1, p. 127. ↩︎
- Burns, The Poems and Songs, vol. 2, p. 560. ↩︎
- Burns, The Poems and Songs, vol. 2, pp. 560-561. ↩︎
- The bagpipe features both in ‘Gula’ (Gluttony) where a bagpipe dangles from the branches of a tree, and in ‘Luxuria’ (Lust) where on the left-hand side there is a monk with his robe almost undone from the waist downwards playing as he smiles at what appears to be a screaming frog-demon. ↩︎
- British Museum 1972,U.1097. ↩︎
- Francis Grose, ed., A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London: Printed for S. Hooper, 1785), s.v. ‘bagpipe, to bagpipe’. ↩︎
- ©Trustees of the British Museum. Museum number 1871,0812.2759. ↩︎
- ‘On Horseback, Galloping away from Alloway Kirk’, and ‘Witches Dancing in Alloway Auld Kirk’. Collection of the South Ayrshire Council. Accession numbers AYRTOS:100088 and AYRTOS:100086. ↩︎
- ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Collection of the City of Edinburgh Council. Accession number CAC2010/18. ↩︎