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Nigel Bridges invites us to think about the scale and seriousness of piping competitions in the 18th century, and what lessons we can learn.



Last year’s 2003 Collogue included a very interesting talk by lain MacInnes on the George Skene manuscript of I 729. A previous edition of Common Stock (Vol 18, No 2, Dec 2004) printed some of the manuscript’s passages.

Another talk, given by Julian Goodacre, covered the formation of LBPS and Don Ward offered some observations on the approach of those who formed the Bagpipe Society by way of comparison. One thing Don pointed out was that the Bagpipe Society did not want to encourage competition amongst its members. Coupled with Iain’s discussion of Skene’s manuscript this struck me as interesting.

It is easy to understand why many pipers, from various traditions, dislike competition. However, the most remarkable observation made by George Skene in 1729 was that James Bell competed against a piper named Humphrey in London and a ‘high German’ who was brought over specially as part of a wager for £1000.

Hang on a minute!

If the LBPS put up a prize purse of £1000 for a competition I am pretty confident we could entice most of the ‘big names’ (and not just Scots) from the wide world of piping to any venue we cared to name. No doubt we would also have to filter the would be competitors as well to reduce the field of entrants to a manageable size. Over time, if it was a regular event, it would also raise the probability of a massive upsurge in demand for bellows pipes as other pipers see ‘something worth going for’, (bagpipe makers, there is your cue to get to- gether and put up the prize money!).

George Skene also records that he bought a set of bellows pipes, complete with bellows from James Bell for half a guinea. That is 55p in today’s money. £1000 sterling divided by half a guinea represents 1818 sets of pipes that could have been bought with the wager money. A good set of smallpipes, today, will cost in the region of £1000 (a very rough and meaningless average) which makes the wager referred to by George Skene worth £1.82 million in bagpipes!

This is absurd!

A little delving into the historical value of money yields some more realistic information. The purchasing power of £1000 in 1729 would be equivalent to approximately £91,000 to- day. This still equates to a massive wager. I can only assume that the piper did not receive this money, the wager being between ‘gentlemen’ to prove a point - but what point?


The London competition was clearly not a one-off, for George Skene records that James Bell also went to Newcastle to play against, and beat, a Northumberland piper (presumably?). He was “formally crown’d King of the pipers there”. This crowning cere- mony suggests the culmination of a competitive process.

There is a lot to be inferred from George Skene’s observations. There must have been judges of some sort capable of fair adjudication of the players and presumably the players had to respect and accept the verdicts. We do not know if the pipers were playing the same types of pipes or any other details surrounding the encounters. The wager may have been frivolous but the amount does not support that view. A ‘formal’ crowning suggests that the pipers considered it a serious affair and one that they cared about. George Skene records that James Bell was a “famous” piper and he specifically set out to meet him. The word of his prowess had spread suggesting it was a topic worth talking about and James Bell was a man whom George Skene thought it important to meet.

We know that piping once flourished south of the Border but this document also reveals that formal competition amongst pipers existed. The standard must have been high (as high as any other piping tradition) for two parties to bet against each other and the betting parties must have reckoned they knew a thing or two about piping to bet such a large amount.

This document indicates that a competitive piping spirit once existed in England. Musical competition is a universal phenomenon and not solely a Scottish preoccupation.

NOTE: The LBPS annual competition will be held on Saturday 2nd April 2005 (this is the Saturday immediately after the Easter weekend) at St Annes Community Centre, Cowgate, Edinburgh.