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By Rev. W.A.P.Johman, M.A.

This is the concluding part of the “transactions” from the Hawick Archaeological Society, the Seventh Meeting, 28th October 1913 - see Common Stock Vol 18 No 2 for the first part.

Sir John Carr in his “Tour through Scotland in 1807” gives a graphic delineation of his experience. “Having mentioned” he says “to some of my friends my enthusiastic admiration of music, I was promised a rich treat, as the competition of the Scottish pipers was at hand. That no part of this musical banquet might pass untasted, I was pressingly invited to the re- hearsal in the ancient Assembly Room before the judges, and informed it was a great favour to be admitted. I shall never forget it! As soon as the prize-judges were seated, the folding doors opened. A Highland piper entered in full tartan array, and began to press from the bag of his pipes, which were decorated with long pieces of ribband, sounds so loud and horrible, that, to my imagination, they were comparable only to those of the eternally tormented. In this manner he strutted up and down with the most stately march, and occasionally enrap- tured his audience, who expressed the influence of his instrument by loud and reiterated plaudits. For my part, so wretched is this instrument to my ears, that I could not discover any difference in regard to expression, between “The Gathering of the Macdonalds,” and “Abercromby’s Lament,” each sound being, to me, equally depressive, discordant, and horrible. A few short but welcome intervals followed filled up by Highland dancers, in reels, accompanied by a peculiar shrill whoop, to the dismal drone of the pipes, in which agility, without the slightest accompaniment of grace, seemed the only object of attainment. Butler’s Hudibras gives the witty description:-

“The bagpipes of the loudest drones, With snuffling broken winded tones, Whose blast of air, in pockets shut, Sound filthier than from the gut, And made a viler noise than swine, In windy weather when they whine.”

Whether in derision, Johnson is reported to have been so fond of the bagpipes that he used to stand with his ear close to the great drone. Sir John, in common politeness, endured three hours of it, and says “he left with the same sensations with which he should have quitted a belfry on a royal birthday.” Sir John goes on to note that “the pipers were intended as a sort of dessert to the Leith races, which concluded with a theatrical entertainment, in the course of which the dancers, in their filibegs or short petticoats, with their springs and caperings would have alarmed the sensitive feelings of a member of the ‘Society for the prevention of Vice’, had one been present.”


He says “he afterwards met with several persons of both sexes, who, with the highest fond- ness for their native country regarded the bagpipes with the same disgust as I did.”

While Sir John’s criticism of the national instrument is nothing short of savage, he seems to fancy its use in war by relating an incident at the battle of Quebec in 1760. “At a stage in the battle, the British troops were retreating in great disorder when a Field Officer com- plained to the General - ‘You did very wrong to forbid the pipers to play, nothing encour- ages the Highlanders so much in the day of action. Even now they would be of use.’ ‘Let them blow like the devil then, if it will bring back the men.’ The moment they heard the skirl of a favourite martial air, military formation followed and the tide of battle turned.”

History records the gain of many a victory by the soul-stirring music of the pipes, though our Southerner holds it is because “its sounds are calculated to scare and annoy.”

“As good as a piper” might be added to the foregoing characteristics. A Highland officer was ordered to add a drum to his bagpipe. Jealousy as to precedence, and a quarrel fol- lowed. The piper’s view took this shape - “Ads wunds, Sir, and shall a little rascal, that beats upon a sheepskin, take the right hand o’ me, that am a musician.”

Our traveller bewails the fact that while refinement is spreading rapidly over Scotland, the barbarous martial music of the country does not yield to music more agreeable to the ear.

“The bagpipe is amongst the few remaining barbarisms of Scotland.”

Of course it was expected that these lugubrious vaticinations [prophesies] would be realised at an early date, and that the piper would disappear with the harper from Scottish annals.

The progress of Scotland in refinement, as they thought assured it?

In reply look at this recent event. At the Braemar annual gathering of September last (1913) the Balmoral men were attended by their band led by Pipe- Major Forsyth, Chief piper to the King and Mr Charles Macintosh, bearing the Royal Standard. The Farquharson men had Piper Robertson in charge of the Band with a Lochaber axe of formidable proportions. Then the Duffs, with Colin Campbell, a white haired veteran, private piper to the Princess Royal. At Dunblane, Pitlochry, Oban, in fact at every Highland rally today, the presence of two features are a certainty. These are the bagpipe and the tartan kilt.



Braemar annual gathering, 1848.


Habbie Simson, the piper of Kilbarchan [see cover picture and CS Vol 17 Nos.l & 2 - Ed.],

needs some mention as he is the foremost of all the Lowland pipers.

Habbie the Piper - says the Complaynt - was in the habit of leading the Ring Dance , peculiar to the Lowlands of Scotland during the intervals of labour in the harvest field. This custom is now fallen into complete desuetude. It was danced with the greatest glee at the Kirn. In it the aged shepherd took his wife by the hand and the young shepherds the maids whom they loved best. It was danced to the music of the Lowland bagpipe. They com- menced the dance with three loud shouts of triumph and by thrice tossing their hooks in the air.

Ramsay says Leydon regarded Semple’s poem of fifteen roystering verses, with its rough pleasantry and humour, as the standard of this species of composition. The poem is entitled “The Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan,” or “The Epitaph of Habbie Simson.” [see CS 17.2]

“Who on his Drone bore bonnie flags, He made his cheeks as red as crimson,

And bobbed [danced] when he blew his bags.”

The first verse is:-

“Kilbarchan now may say alas!

For she hath lost her dame and grace Both Trixie and the Maiden Trace

But what remead [redress]?

For no man can supply his place.

Hab Simson’s dead!”

The reputation of Hab is well-confirmed in the well-known Scottish song - Maggie Lauder: “Weel hae ye play’d your part quo’ Meg,

Your cheeks are like the crimson, There’s nane in Scotland play’d sae weel Since we lost Habbie Simson.”

If Maggie is a true judge the Kilbarchan piper is first, and Rob the Ranter is second of the perpatetic Border pipers. For says Maggie:-

“If ye be Rob I’ve heard of you, Live you upon the Border?

The lasses a’ baith far and near, Hae heard o' Rob the Ranter.”

Tennant in “Anster lAnstruther] Fair” says his name was Robert Scott, and that he was a native of Hounam, on Kale water. Kilbarchan (the Chapel of the hill-bounded vale) is 6 miles south-west of Paisley.


In Kay’s Portraits we have a worthy pictured “Old Geordie Syme, A famous piper in his time.” His home was in Dalkeith. He was attached to the house of Buccleuch. He lived be- yond ken, and was old when his portrait was taken. Annually suited in his long red-lined coat, with plush breeches, white stockings, and buckled shoes, he was more likely to be taken for the town crier than for the Duke. At any rate he circumambulated the town twice daily, gave close attention to the calls of the family, was a sine qua non at all the entertain- ments, and though the salary was small, the smiles of the nobility and gentry were profuse. Geordie found no fault with his living wage, and so far as any memory can say, he came and went like Melchizedek - in birth and death, - dateless. This incident is recorded:-

Lord Drummore of the Court of Session, was a patron of his. A great lover of the pipes, the lawyer, in the get-up of a common piper, took a round in the country one day. He met a glazier who had a job at the Palace, and after a friendly crack the tradesman offered the supposed piper a dram. While discussing it, a tune on the pipes by his Lordship brought the hearty word of praise - “Foul fa’ ye, man, gin ye dinna play amaist as weel as our ain Geordie Syme.” When they arrived at the mansion house the glazier’s surprise can be imagined, when wine took the place of the humbler refreshment, and a common piper was transformed into a lord.

Geordie’s successor was Jamie Reid, a worthy who had the sagacity to take care of the greatest number, which he held to be number one. Of him it is related that of every return of the widow of Duke Henry to Dalkeith he would arrange to meet her a mile or so out of town, when ensconced conspicuously he would play, “Dalkeith has got a rare thing.” Similarly when her Grace chanced to go from home, there was Jamie with the appropriate tune, “Go to Berwick Johnnie.” Of course the Duchess came ready prepared with the piper’s “awmous.” So Jamie was forced one day to say to a cronie - “Losh keep me, man, I wonder how it is, for the Duchess maun aye carry siller in her han’, for she nae sooner sees me than out pops my five shillings, without any one ever seein’ her han' gawn tae her pouch.”

Jamie had a son named Tom - the not unusual distinction of a frolicsome blade. He grieved his father much because he rarely was out of mischief.

All penal methods of cure were unsuccessfully adopted. One expedient remained to be tried, the value of which consisted in this, that in addition to satisfying the law of transgression, the father hoped to qualify his offending son to be his successor. The secret was this, being somewhat of a mechanic, the father was the possessor of a vice, so that when Tom was de- clared guilty the father fixed him by the coat tails, suspended his power to move, then fixing the drone of the pipes to his ear, he blew until the poor offender was stupidly senseless. A friend in remonstrance against the cruelty, and urging the alternative of a rod to his back, got from the perplexed father the reply - “A rod to his back, haith ye little ken him. Ye may break a’ the hazels in the Duke's wood ower him, an he’ll no be a bit the better. Na, na! I have trid a’ that, but ye see this maks the callant as quiet as pussy, and besides, dings the music into his head; an’ I hae great hopes he will, ae day, mak’ a grand piper, for by this way he has learned a’maist a’ the tunes already.”


As Jamie Reid was succeeded by Robert Lorimer it is to be feared his education of Tom proved a failure, and that if “born at Dull, though educated at Dron, Tom must have finally settled in the neighbourhood of Dunse.” Robert acted as town piper for many years. When he died his son got his post, plied the trade of a shoemaker, drew the salary of a sinecurist with this sole responsibility to repair to Dalkeith House twice a year in uniform, and to re- ceive on one of these visits, on the Duke's birthday, the annual suit of clothes. Though the pipes were not entirely dumb, by about 1821 the community regarded that office as a relic of barbarism and useless. Its abolition, it is supposed, was brought about by the following skit:-

O Lorimer! thou wicked wag

I wish thee, and thy dinsome bag Were twal feet ‘neath a black peat-hag

Wet as the Severn

Or pipin’ to the Laird o’ Lag In Belzies Cavrn.

I ferlie what intentions be

Could hae, wha thus commissioned thee, Against a’ rule an’ harmony,

Our nerves to shock; My sang! It is a sad decree

For peaceful’ folk.

Ee’r daylight peeps within my chaumer Is heard thy vile unearthly clamour,

Waukes the gude wife - the young anes yammer Wi’ ceaseless din;

I seize my breeks, an’ outward stammer Compell’d to rin

But here it were ower lang to tell O’ a’ the ills ye heap pell-mell, Baith on my neighbours an’ mysel’

Frae day tae day,

Nor do remonstrances avail Ae single strae

But lad ye yet the day may rue,

That now sae high ye crook your mou’; Our Baillie sure can ne’er allow

Things sae tae gang.

Ye’ll wind yoursel’ a bonny clue Ee’r it be lang.


Kent younf Buccleuch o’ our distress, Frae Lunnon he’d send down express, To strip him o’ his gaudy dress,

Frae tap to tae.

He’d ne’er permit him to haress His leiges sae.

In 1895 there apeared in the Border Magazine an interesting paper by George Watson - one of our most useful members - on “Robert Hastie - A Border Town Piper.”

In his paper Mr Watson gives a record of the matters common to all these public servants, such as duty, dress, service, salary etc., and this is followed, in the ancient line of these Jethart [Jedburgh] officials, by a luminous description of Robin’s quaint career. It is suggested all particulars affecting the bagpipe in relation to our own town, that both of these might be incorporated in a paper, as a sequel and to be read at an early date. [And will appear in a future edition of Common Stock]





“Old Geordie Syme, A famous piper in his time.” (See page 14)