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some thoughts on Borders and Piping.


Paul Roberts gave this thought provoking paper at the 2003 Collogue, in Melrose.



I want to begin by describing some key aspects of the popular culture of one particular county within the British isles, as it was around the mid-18th century.

In this county the common people lived mainly in single storey thatched cabins of stone or mud. If they had a vegetable garden or smallholding it was called a croft. Their staple food was oats (or meal) made into porridge or small cakes called bannocks or bunnocks. On special occasions they might eat bag-pudding, the dish we now call haggis. They often used peat for fuel, which they called turf. They clothed themselves in hodden grey and the chequered cloth we call tartan, but which they called plaid or plad, and “plaid weaver” was a common occupation. For recreation they danced reels, jigs, and hornpipes to fiddles and bagpipes and drank much alcohol. Illicit distillation of spirits was an important cottage industry and in some areas something like war existed between the people and the excise.

They celebrated the usual European calendar customs like Mayday and New Year, which they called Hogmana, but almost any occasion was excuse for riotous festivity or a rant. A quieter social gathering - a storytelling, a good gossip with the neighbours - was crack. They didn’t speak standard English - in the local dialect a phrase like “the pretty young girl didn’t know the church over the bridge” “the bonnie wee lassie didna ken the kirk o’er the brig”. Politically the county was a hotbed of Jacobitism, perhaps more out of regionalist contrariness than any love of absolute monarchy, for within 50 years it had become a hotbed of democratic radicalism.

It sounds like the world of Rabbie Burns, but as you have probably guessed, I am using this collection of lowland Scots cultural cliches to try and trick you. Probably you think I am describing the far north of England, Northumberland or Cumberland. Possibly a few lateral thinkers have plumped for somewhere in Ulster, and I could easily have added a string of Irish cliches to the Scots ones, involving pigs, potatoes, holy wells, wakes, Catholics fight- ing Calvinists and the like. In fact the county is Lancashire, the southernmost county of northern England, though in most respects it could be almost any English county north of the Humber, and I don’t doubt much of this description could be extended southwards. But from this one example I think you can see that our current ideas of national cultural integrity are seriously wanting. I want to try and get you looking at the Anglo-Scottish border in a different way to the prevailing norm.


Perhaps the first thing to emphasise is that the border hasn’t always existed. Not so very long ago in the grand scheme of things there were no such people as the English or the Scots. Our ancestors had other names for themselves and other borders in other places. Generations of schoolchildren have learnt that Hadrian’s Wall was built to keep the Scots out of England, yet Hadrian’s Wall actually divides one part of England from another, and at the time it was built England and Scotland didn’t even exist. Back then there were no people called English or Scots anywhere in Britain: they came later, first as raiders then as settlers. Those settlers went on to create numerous small kingdoms, which fought and absorbed the various existing polities and each other until only two large kingdoms bearing their names remained as serious players for island dominance. The final border between those two kingdoms was in no way inevitable, and it certainly didn’t reflect pre-existing cultural divisions: it was the result of centuries of military conflict culminating in military- political stalemate, and there could have been many other outcomes. Which is why the border has moved considerably and repeatedly over the years.

Lowland Scotland - the region south of the Forth-Clyde line - was once northern England, and before that the northern half of the English kingdom of Northumbria, though the status of its west was always highly volatile, veering between English hegemony and a series of independent Cymric and Norse kingdoms. The whole area was annexed in the early Middle Ages by the kingdom of the Scots, expanding out of its Highland home. For a long time Scotland also held what is now northwest England, Cumberland and Westmoreland, though never very firmly. For some 200 years Cumbria moved around between England, Scotland and independence, before finally ending up as English around the mid-12th century.

Even after the border settled into roughly its current position it remained locally fluid right up to the Union of the Crowns in 1603. During the medieval Anglo-Scottish wars whole towns and counties regularly changed hands and nationality, while large areas of the border were classed as “debateable land” whose people belonged to neither kingdom. That is why Berwick, despite being the county town of a Scottish county, has for most of its history been either part of England or classified as neither English nor Scots. As late as the mid-16th cen- tury Dumfries-shire had a brief sojourn as an English county: some contemporary observers believed most of the southwest was willing to become English, but within a few years the Scottish king ruled both kingdoms and the issue was irrelevant.

The great border riding families, with their habit of changing national loyalties with the po- litical tide, remain deeply symbolic of this era. Many of these families extended across both sides of the border. Some had moved from one side to the other: the most notorious of the English clans, the Grahams of the west march, originally came from Scotland, whilst Scot- land’s worst bandit family, the Armstrongs of Liddesdale, were settlers from England. In- deed, many of the leading Scottish riding families were English in origin, but this is hardly relevant when most of the border clans had cross-border kin and alliances. In this they were no different to the biggest bandits of all: the English and Scottish nobility were truly inter- national in culture and kinship, and often held land, titles and office in both kingdoms.


In fact the borderers’ lax attitude to national identity wasn’t that unusual, when other people had to make these kind of choices they could be equally flexible. Throughout the Anglo- Scottish wars we find both the English and Scottish armies routinely included large numbers of the opposing nationality, reflecting cross-border feudal and family ties, the importance of mercenaries, and the simple lack of the hard national identities and loyalties we now take to be normal.

Cross-border ethnicities were probably a factor too, for the border split self-aware cultural zones that must have retained memories of the old kingdoms of Northumbria and Cumbria. In medieval Scotland Lowlanders were still usually referred to as “the English”. In the early days some of them were still occasionally called Welsh, a reminder that back then any linguistic or ethnic divide ran on an east-west not a north-south axis, between a relatively homogenous English east between Humber and Forth, and the linguistically diverse Strath- clyde/Cumbria region with its mix of Cymric, Norse, English and Gaelic. Cross-border ethnic loyalties may explain the behaviour of the Scots after 1066 when William the Conqueror laid waste England north of the Humber. According to Simeon of Durham: “those who escaped death fled to the south of Scotland, which was so stocked with English, both men and maidens, that they were to be found in all the farms, and even the cottages”. This isn’t the sort of hospitality normally awarded refugees, but in 1066 the Lowlands had only been part of Scotland for around 50 years, and the northern English were still “kith and kin”.

The Anglo-Scots border was determined by the sword not by culture, and only slight changes in the actual course of events could have given us very different polities and bor- ders. If Northumbria had remained intact a unified English kingdom might now reach up to Edinburgh, Stirling and Glasgow. If the Kingdom of the Scots had succeeded in its long- term aim of annexing southern Northumbria Scotland would now end around Hull and Manchester. If Northumbria had retained its independence we might now have a middle state between Forth and Humber. In fact, Northumbria sometimes seems like a phantom presence in medieval politics, lurking in the shadows, never quite going away. There is evidence that some of the peasant rebels of 1381 planned to restore the Anglo-Saxon king- doms, and 25 years later England again came close to dismemberment when the rebel lords

- Mortimer, Northumberland and Owen Glendower - agreed to divide it into separate north- ern and southern kingdoms, and to extend Wales over much of western England.

Interestingly, this Northumbria followed not so much the line of the old Kingdom as of the Danelaw, and included most of the north midlands, a reminder that we haven’t even consid- ered the impact of the Vikings yet. Remember that for much of the so-called Anglo-Saxon era most of England was actually ruled and heavily settled by the Vikings, and that during the short life of the unified pre-Norman kingdom it had Danish as well as Anglo-Saxon kings. Given that much of coastal Scotland also came under heavy Norse influence and settlement it is quite likely that but for the Norman invasion England and Scotland would have disappeared within a series of Scandinavian provinces.


This kind of speculation is fun, but it does have a serious point. If the border has moved considerably over the years, if whole populations have changed their national and ethnic identifications, if whole areas have belonged to neither kingdom, if a slight realignment of events could have made the English into Scandinavians, most Scots into Englishmen, and Brummies into Welshmen, how can we reconcile this with conventional Nationalist thought categories that would give us all an “essential”, eternal, unchanging Scottishness or Eng- lishness? For nationalists the fluid border presents real problems, and at various times in the past people have seriously suggested that the lowland Scots are “really” English, that the northern English are “really” Scots, or that the northern and southern English are “really” two nations. The truth is that nations are simply political-military constructs and they con- sist of what they consist of. I know of no other definition of nationality that actually works. The citizens of Dumfries are Scots because they live within the Scottish border and the citizens of Carlisle are English because they live in England: attitudes to tartan, haggis, Morris dancing and the Tebbitt cricket test are simply irrelevant.

Shifting borders and national identifications are only problems if you accept the erroneous but widespread equation between nationality and culture. Modern nationalism typically involves a highly restrictive view of society in which national identity is presented as some- thing homogenous, static, unique, clearly and absolutely bounded. As nowhere has ever actually been like this, nationalists continually find themselves trapped in an unwinnable struggle against the “corruption” of their culture, whose allegedly “correct” form is always located some time in the past, and whose present is always threatened by the young, the in- novators, the neighbours and the incomers.

In reality culture is a process which we live, not a fixed thing that we own, and all of us are continually involved in its creation. National identity is simply what a given people think and do at any given moment in time, in all its variety, fluidity and unpredictability. But I don’t want to talk about change over time so much as change over space, and here the col- our spectrum seems to me a good basic analogy. The spectrum of light visible to the human eye is continuous, it has no borders - these are arbitrarily imposed by human beings, and different cultures have placed the breaks in different places. I think it helps to see human culture, viewed geographically, as a spectrum. Like colour it also changes gradually and without sharp breaks, and the borders we impose on it can also be fairly arbitrary.

The spectrum model means that wherever you draw the political boundaries the people on the other side will always be different. It also means they will not be very different within the immediate area of that divide. If the proverbial Martian were to visit Caithness and then Kent he could easily see the differences. But if he were to visit Berwickshire and Northum- berland the situation would appear less clear-cut. After a while he would start noticing sub- tle differences, but these would not be as great as the differences between Berwickshire and Caithness or between Northumberland and Kent. The spectrum gives us greater differences within each nation than exists between them at the border.


Colour isn’t a perfect analogy. For one thing the cultural spectrum is overlaid with vertical divisions along lines of class, gender and age which tend to transcend national, regional and ethnic frontiers. And we can also detect horizontal fissures - between language groups for example, or where cultural contact is disrupted by physical barriers like the sea. Even so, the breaks are rarely as dramatic, sudden, thoroughgoing and clear-cut as people like to think, and they rarely match the political frontiers. Historically the two most important breaks in the British spectrum have not included the Anglo-Scots border: they have been Scotland’s Highland line and England’s Humber-Mersey line, and neither has ever been a literal line.

The Highland line was really a vaguely defined zone of mixed speech and culture within a string of border counties. But it was till recently the most important ethnic rift in Britain - not simply because of the intensity of the culture change, but because of its sheer longevity and the depth of the mutual antagonism involved. Highlanders used to describe relations with the Lowlanders as simply “the great hatred”. When King James set out to centralize, unify and subdue his joint realm he used the full might of the law in the borders, but in the Highlands he simply ignored the law, imposing “civilizing” colonies of lowlanders exactly as in Ulster.

The Highlanders were “savages” like the Irish: people to be culturally remade or driven out. Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of Scotland’s ethnic rift than James’ readiness to use the very worst of the border bandits as “civilizers” in Gaeldom. George IV’s famous donning of Highland dress in 1822 is often seen as a symbolic turning point in attitudes, but at the time one Highlander simply observed that it was “a great mistake that offended all the southron Scots” and it is worth remembering that it occurred in the middle of the Highland Clearances. Perhaps the “great hatred” tells us something about the original annexation of the Lowlands, when colonization, clearances and contempt must have operated in the other direction.

The Humber-Mersey Line is really a vague region of accelerated change around the old Northumbrian border. It has been of particular interest to students of dialect, and they con- ventionally divide English (including Scots) into northern and southern zones along it. In reality the different isoglosses or breaks which linguists study never match the old Northumbrian border perfectly, nor do they match each other - the flat A follows one line, the change to the hard G another, and so on. Moreover, it’s now known that some of these isoglosses have moved considerably over time. Many of the most distinctive features of northern English/Scots are simply archaisms that have retreated northwards - the flat A, the rolled R, bairns and the crack.

The truth isn’t that dialect suddenly changes the moment you cross the Humber, rather that throughout the English north midlands there is an accelerated but complex change in many aspects of vernacular speech and culture. But it is a phenomenon reasonably consistent over time, and significant enough for us to treat northern England and lowland Scotland as a dis- cernable historical entity within the island, as a kind of quasi-ethnicity.


If we look back to the 18th century, the golden age of bellows-piping, it’s quite clear that in ethnic and historical origins, language, religion, literacy, social organization, folklore, music, architecture, and almost every aspect of vernacular culture, Lowland Scots had far more in common with the northern English than with their Highland countrymen, which is why one Scottish clergyman could write in the 1770s that “to pass from the borders of Scot- land into Northumberland was rather like going into another parish than another kingdom”

Of course, the political border, manifest in things like different legal and educational sys- tems must have always had some impact on popular culture and created some cracks in the spectrum. For example the Scots were far more law abiding than the northern English. But the most powerful force for creating national differences and internal homogenisation is nationalism itself, historically a fairly recent phenomenon. Nationalism seeks to exaggerate national differences to more clearly demarcate “us” from the nearest “other”. This inevita- bly entails emphasis on cultural forms which are thought to not exist over the border, and given the nature of the cultural spectrum these tend to be regional forms from districts far distant from the border. We can clearly see this in Scotland with the modern emphasis on all things Highland and Gaelic, on those things that are most obviously NOT English. We can see it in England too, where the banal cliches of nationality tend to reflect the world of the midlands, far from both Scotland and France. It is Warwickshire thatched cottages and Shropshire half-timbered houses that adorn the chocolate boxes. It is a southwest midlands ceremonial dance - the Cotswold Morris - that has been turned into a national symbol.

Nationalists frequently complain about the spread of American music and Australian soaps, but people have always shared tunes and listened to the same stories, interpreting them in a local way. It is kilts in Roxburgh and Morris dancing in Durham that are really worrying.

Perhaps we need to distinguish between homogenisation and cross-fertilization. People and ideas have always moved around, and against the backdrop of history they have done so on a big scale. If they hadn’t we would still be hunter-gatherers crammed into central Africa.

This is perhaps the most important qualification to the spectrum model. It only takes mini- mal interaction between communities for an idea to spread rapidly, though it helps to speak the same language. All it needs for a joke to reach John O’Groats from Lands End within hours is ordinary day-to-day contact between one local community and the next, and so on along the chain. And in the golden age of British bellows-piping whole segments of the population lived on the move: sailors, soldiers, peddlers, packmen, journeymen, the unem- ployed, not least of all professional entertainers and musicians. Such groups, could travel considerable distances, but most lower class people moved around regularly within small, roughly defined, economic-cultural regions, and many travelled much further afield. It is estimated that in the 17th century 1 in 6 English males spent part of their lives in London (think about it: that’s probably more than today) while the number of Britons who moved permanently to Ireland and America in the 17th and 18th centuries ran into millions. And unlike today travel back then involved continual contact with new people in new regions.

Travelling on foot, horse or coach, passing others on the way, stopping nightly at wayside inns, the spread of ideas and culture was rapid and easy.


Nowadays we travel insulated from each other, and move so fast that I can reach Edinburgh from the south Pennines in a matter of hours rather than days, in terms of personal experi- ence and human contact missing out the entire area in between.

So - what does the model I have outlined suggest as regards bellows-piping in its golden age, about, for example, changes in pipe construction, tune types, playing styles, or levels of popularity, across the island? The basic spectrum idea suggests that changes overall would tend to be gradual and not sharply defined, with the greatest contrast at the geographical ex- tremes, and little real contrast anywhere we choose to randomly draw a border. But the ar- eas of accelerated change we call the Humber and Highland lines would modify this, giving us three main macro-regions (excluding Wales): southern England, the Highlands, and old Northumbria in between. We could expect noticeable differences between these regions, and a certain homogeneity within them. The habitual movement of people within small eco- nomic regions would inevitably create numerous micro-cultural regions within all this, though undoubtedly ill defined at the edges, and would give us distinct local slants on more general models. The Chinese whisper of everyday human contact linking the entire island and the continual movement of certain sections of the population over quite large distances, would encourage rapid and productive cross-fertilization and also help create a certain over- all homogeneity, especially within the English-Scots language zone - and it could also lead to a few glaring exceptions to general rules. We might also expect to find personal networks and patterns of transmission following particular lines of communication, especially the main roads and coastal sea lanes.

When we fit together the known facts about piping in this period they fit this model ex- tremely well - much better than the crude nationalist model we all grew up with. More than that, I believe this model can help us fill in some of the gaps in the bellows-pipe narrative. I hope to develop these ideas in a later paper, for now there is no time. But as both preview and finale, let us look again at George Skene, the 18th century Aberdeenshire gentleman who not only left us one of our earliest tune manuscripts, but a diary which includes unique references to the piping culture of the early 18th century. I don’t want to duplicate too much of Iain’s [MacInnes] talk! To that end I’ll avoid a proper look at Skene’s tunebook, but his diary is too valuable to ignore.

This describes a journey he made to London in 1729. Back then the easiest way to travel between northeast Scotland and London was either by sea, or down the Great North Road, the direct route and the best road in 18th century Britain. To first travel to northwest England was a major detour and a difficult journey. Yet this is precisely what he does, because he is keen to meet and play with an English piper in Penrith, James Bell. Bell appears to play small-pipes, double small-pipes and “big pipes”, which seem to be Border pipes.

Our Aberdeen visitor seems perfectly familiar with all these instruments and with closed and open playing styles, and is able to comment knowledgeably on many aspects of the Cumbrian’s playing. The Cumbrian seems to have no problem playing the Aberdeen man’s pipes. Skene is taken with some of Bell’s self-created decorations and buys a set of his


double small-pipes. It looks a bit as if Bell may be a pipemaker as he has brought several different sets with him: that may be one reason why Skene has come all this way. Skene tells us that Bell had been crowned King of the Pipers in Newcastle after beating “the famous fellow” and in a London competition he beat “Humphrey” and a “High German”, which means a Dutchman. For what it is worth, Humphrey is predominantly a surname of London and southeast England, so Humphrey could well have been the local boy.

In other words, a piper from northeast Scotland was sufficiently aware of piping develop- ments elsewhere in Britain to go well out of his way to develop contacts with a piper in northwest England, whose own experiences link to piping in northeast England, London and Holland. Some knowledge of locally created Cumbrian pipe decorations plus a set of probably Cumbrian made pipes thus transfer to Aberdeenshire - and doubtless Bell absorbs a bit of Aberdeenshire in return. There is no hint in the meeting between these men that their instruments or music are in any way alien to the other party, and Bell’s competition history suggests pipers in northeast and northwest England, London and even Holland were playing music that was similar enough for judges to make meaningful comparisons.

However, if you then compare Skene’s tune book to material from northern England and southern Scotland we see it does have a very strong regional flavour as regards favoured tune types, the way variations are constructed, and the relative importance shown to grac- ing: these all show strong similarities to period Highland piping. As predicted, such com- parison suggests piping in the Scottish borders was more like piping in northern England than it was like piping in northeast Scotland. But Skene’s music, though showing strong Highland links, is overall closer to that of the southrons. It is basically the same kind of music. You could use a linguistic analogy: Skene, is speaking the same language as the southrons but a different dialect. The dialects are mutually intelligible, but Skene has a strong Gaelic accent.

This was a world of regional variety, but not of isolated, clearly bounded, separate cultures, and the political border seems to have been fairly irrelevant. Skene’s music has a strong local flavour but its context was British, and even European. He appears as part of an island wide piping culture and network with European links. His story provides an excellent illus- tration of my model. But if you want further elaboration - and hopefully some possible answers to such old chestnuts as “what were the Lancashire and Lincolnshire bagpipes” - you will have to wait!