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  • The lost history of the Lowland Scottish pipes
  • David Johnson
Pete Stewart , The day it daws: the Lowland Scots bagpipe and its music, 1400–1715 (Ashby: White House Tune Books, 2005), £17.50

One has to admire Pete Stewart's courage in attempting this history of the Lowland pipes (Border pipes, Scottish smallpipes) from the late Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. This family of closely related instruments is at present in a rather odd position. During the last 30 years it has been revived, and it now has manufacturers, emerging virtuoso players, an enthusiastic society for its promotion, nascent festivals … but no notated repertory dating any further back than 1980. Its earlier tradition dwindled and died in the 19th century, all its previous players having been illiterate—or, if literate, having concealed their manuscripts so well that none has yet come to light. [End Page 497]

Two important modern books have reconstructed the instrument's 18th-century repertory: Gordon Mooney's Collection of the choicest Scots tunes for the Lowland or Border bagpipe (Edinburgh, 1990), and Matt Seattle's Border bagpipe book (Newbiggin, 1993). Both these collections are eminently practical for performers. Seattle's is the better of the two, as he found a reconstructive short cut: the English Northumbrian pipes are a relative of the Lowland instrument, with an unbroken tradition and a repertory that has been notated fairly fully since 1800. Seattle contends that the 18th-century bagpipe repertory was much the same on both sides of the Border. His book played fair as to where he had got his versions of tunes, and which bits of variation sets he had composed himself.

Seattle had hardly published his book when he made a discovery which appeared to put it straight out of date. This major find was the William Dixon manuscript of 1733–8, made by a Northumbrian piper and previously wrongly identified as a Scots fiddle book. Seattle immediately published an edition of that as well, under the title The master piper: nine notes that shook the world (Newbiggin, 1995). This, too, is a practical book. Among other things it confirms the accuracy and viability of Seattle's 1993 reconstructions.

Pete Stewart's book is something entirely different. It includes 118 tunes, but in forms which are hardly welcoming to players: most have dire problems of range and chromaticism (assuming that modern Lowland-pipe manufacturers have got it right), as well as being, in my opinion, pretty poor music. Nor is it a satisfying history. One might have expected dates, places, names of players and patrons, developments in instrument design and so on to be arranged in an orderly way, but this is like a tour of an enormous landfill site, with the guide reassuring the visitors that everything will make sense if they are patient. It does not help matters that Stewart's approach recalls the guided tours of other rubbish tips offered, in the past, by William Tytler of Woodhouselee (1779), John Leyden (1801), and William Stenhouse (1839). These pioneer Scottish ethnomusicologists did their best, but have we learned nothing since?

In fact, Stewart's irritating approach is caused by the same problem that beset the early pioneers—that the information he would have liked to give us, which would have joined everything neatly together, is not available. Stewart is disarmingly frank about this. His tune-illustrations are actually just a set of titles culled from poems and other documents, fleshed out by any notations he could lay his hands on (including some which are probably different tunes under the same names). He is fairly sure that the design of the instrument changed during 200 or 300 years from mouth-blown to bellows-blown, and from one drone to two or three. He is reasonably clear about the patronage of Lowland pipers by town councils between 1500 and 1800, what the duties of town pipers were, and that these posts were often hereditary. He gives a distinct impression that pipers and their audiences were obsessed with drink and sex, but perhaps the entertainment industry has always been like that. He leaves the reader in no doubt that Lowland pipes have had a splendid history, even...


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pp. 497-498
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Archived 2008
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