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The Day it Daws: The Lowland Bagpipe and its Music, 1400 to 1715 by Pete Stewart (White House Tune Books, No 7) Review by Iain MacInnes

WITH HIS latest publication, Pete Stewart has set a new bench- mark for research into the Lowland bagpipe. The collection brings together 110 tunes (some in multiple settings) with a lucid and well-informed account of lowland piping, and an explora- tion of the context in which pipers made their music during the heyday of the instrument.

Using Robert Sempill’s famous poem The Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan as the starting-point for his discus- sion, Stewart examines a vibrant repertoire, ranging from dance music and work songs, to tunes rooted in border custom and tra- dition, such as the civic ceremony of riding the marches. Along the way we’re introduced to French brawls, Spanish pavans, and

morrismen entertaining Charles I at the gates of Perth. This is a pan-European perspective, and it is one which helps cast light on the often shadowy and fragmented piping repertoire of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Robert Sempill’s poem mentions five tunes played by Habbie Simson, the Piper of Kilbarchan. Of these, Stewart is able to identify three (The Hunt is Up, The Day it Daws and Trixie), and to furnish musical settings based on original sources, adaptations from lute and fiddle collections, and modern composite settings which he has made himself.

The approach is scholarly, displaying an impressive knowledge of early music sources. With The Hunt is Up, for instance, he prints seven different versions of the tune, gleaned from sources ranging from the Mynshall manuscript of the 1590s to Jane Pickering’s lute book of 1616. Elsewhere, he makes full use of well known published collections such as John Playford’s English Dancing Master and James Oswald’s Caledo- nian Pocket Companion. In many instances his own settings are the most accessible, possi- bly because he has created them with the Lowland piper in mind (his setting of the The Day it Daws is a case in point).

The powerful links between pipe music and dance are made clear in his examination of two wonderful early sources, the 15th century poem Colkelbie Sow, which identifies a num- ber of popular dances of the period, and the 16th century political tract The Complaynt of Scotland (published in 1550), which contains a much-quoted and unexpected list of contemporary folk instruments, and the dances which they would have been expected to accompany.


Reed pipes and bagpipes are well to the fore in this instrumental melange, and Stewart has gone to great pains to make sense of the steps and dances, gently leading us through the basics of the hey, the trace, the brawl and the buffon, and providing music to match. This is no mere academic exercise: the point is an important one - that the repertoire (and indeed instruments) of these early Scottish pipers owed a great deal to influences from beyond our borders.

By the 16th century, tune types such as “The Scotch Jygge” had made inroads both in Scotland and in Elizabethan England, and Stewart is able to trace the thread of continuity between these early tunes (in 4/4 time) and the “Scots Measures” which came a century later. With tunes such as O Gin Ye Were Dead, Gudeman, pipers who have grown up in the Highland tradition will feel on reasonably comfortable ground, for these are the tunes and tonalities which make up the core of the modern reel, quickstep and march repertoires.

Elsewhere Stewart explores music for the thrice-yearly military musters, the “wappinschaws”; he includes a fascinating selection of early morris tunes, both English and Scots; and he introduces us to some of the old tunes associated with the trade guilds, such as the sparse and elegant Thrie Sheips Skinns, which was supposedly played on the bells of St Giles on the day on which leather workers had their annual procession. Music for wooing and marriage also takes a prominent place, encapsulated in the mildly ribald song Hey Jenny Come Down to Jock, and its multiple variants, and if one thing has changing little in the intervening centuries, it is the piper’s pride of place at the bridal ceremony. Stewart makes the point that most Border music is thoroughly enmeshed in the song and dance traditions, and bears few signs of the sort of lairdly patronage which has been such a feature of Highland piping. Border tune titles can be, frankly, couthy and vulgar (“scatological baroque” as he puts it), which, at the very least, exercised the minds of the 19th century collectors as they sought to clean up the musical legacy of their forebears.

In all, this collection works well at two levels: firstly, as a straightforward good read which touches on most of the key issues concerning Lowland piping and its musical heri- tage; and, secondly, as a reference work which, through detailed indexes and appendices, leads the reader to the key early source works. The book would have benefited from better picture captions and clearer cross-referencing between the main text and the music exam- ples, but on the whole the layout is very attractive, and the music is easy to read.

If Stewart has the time and energy, I would urge him to get some of this music recorded, for it is only then, I suspect, that many of us will really get a feel for the tunes, particularly those that derive from continental dance forms such as the pavan and “base dans”.

The book also touches on the likely nature of the early instruments which, on the basis of the few surviving carvings and illustrations, would appear to have fitted the general European model of a mouth-blown bagpipe with a short, conical chanter and a single long drone (not unlike the modem gaita of Northern Spain).


Stewart cites the 1778 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica which describes a bellows-blown Scots Lowland Pipe with a nine note scale from C sharp to high D (in the higher octave), which, like the Highland bagpipe, is “a very loud instrument”. This descrip- tion is made with such clarity and confidence that it seems churlish to argue with it, but as far as I am aware there are no surviving chanters in Scotland designed to play at such a high pitch, and the evidence of manuscript sources (such as George Skene’s of the early 1700s) would seem to point to tunes written in more conventional bagpipe keys such as A and G. The author of the Encyclopedia Britannica entry, though, appears to be describing an instru- ment which was still in use at the time, so perhaps there is evidence on pitches and tunings still to be unearthed.

Pete Stewart’s book is a revelation, and it comes thoroughly recommended.