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Another ‘very rude musical instrument’

Pete Stewart marks Homecoming Year with a look at Robert Burns' tentative venture into the ancient art of hornpiping and the instrument's English and European counterparts

SINCE THIS year is the anniversary of Rabbie Burns it seems appropriate to reconsider one of his lesser-known contributions to Scottish culture. Lesser known in the wider world,

that is; within the world of Scottish music, and that of piping in particular, it may be more familiar. It concerns his attempts to acquire what he knew as a “stock and horn” Here is his description, included in a letter to the music editor and publisher George Thomson, written on 19 November 1794:

“I have, at last, gotten one, but it is a very rude instrument. It is composed of three parts: the stock, which is the hinder thigh bone of a sheep, such  as you see in a mutton ham; the horn, which is a highland cow's horn, cut off at the smaller end, until the aperture be large enough to admit the ‘stock' to be pushed through the horn, until it be held by the thicker or hip-end of the thigh-bone: and lastly an oaten reed exactly cut and notched like that which you see every shepherd boy have, when the cornstems are green and full grown. The reed is not made fast in the bone, but is held in the lips, and plays loose in the smaller end of the ‘stock', while the ‘stock' and horn hanging on its larger end, is held by the

hands playing. The stock has six or seven ventiges in the upper side, and one back ventige, like the common flute. This one of mine was made by a man from the Braes of Athole, and is exactly what the shepherds were wont to use in the country However either it is not quite properly bored in the holes or else we have not the art of blowing it rightly, for we can make little use of it.”

This instrument, or at least the bone “stock”, is now in the Piping Museum in Glasgow.

The most comprehensive discussion of the context of Burns' instrument was presented in The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities for 1949/1950, written by Lyndsey G. Langwill, who describes it as “A vanished type of 18th century pastoral pipe a surviving specimen is of the utmost rarity, and references to it in art and literature are equally rare.”(i)

Langwill suggests it is to be regarded as “a hybrid between the hornpipe and the bagpipe chanter” and reproduces photographs of the only two surviving instruments. The first is in the collection of the Royal College of Music at South Kensington.(ii)


 has a cylindrical tube of wood pierced by seven finger-holes and one thumb-hole. The lower end terminates in a short bell of natural horn. The upper end, into which would be inserted a single reed, is covered by a wooden capsule like that of the practice-chanter. The total length is 21 inches.

The second is now in the Piping Museum in Glasgow.


f this specimen Langwill says: “The probably unique example is that preserved in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. It has a narrow ‘stock' of ebony, a double bore

— each bore of 5 mm in diameter and 9 inches long - and pierced with seven finger-holes and a thumb-hole so arranged in pairs that each finger and the thumb opens or closes two holes at once. The late Canon F W Galpin, the noted English musicologist, has observed that the object of the double bore appears to have been the production of a strong beating tone from mistuned consonances, precisely as in the Egyptian zummarah or double reed- pipe of to-day in which single-beating reeds are employed. The scale is from f to g", and the total length 22 inches. Both these instruments are decorated with bands of ivory between the finger-holes, and might be the work of the same individual. The reed-cap of the Edinburgh specimen is 7 inches long and is roughly carved with a thistle device and the letters ‘J.A.' The horn ‘bell' is 6 inches long and 2‘A inches in diameter at the mouth. Nothing is known of its origin beyond the fact that this stock-and-horn was in the collection of Scottish antiquities presented by the Trustees of James Drummond, R.S.A., in 1877”.

These instruments can hardly be described as “very rude”; they are the work of a skilled instrument maker. However, they do closely resemble the instrument depicted by David Allan in his vignettes for Ritson's Essay on Scottish Songs, published in 1794 (see front page). The absence of any other similar specimens, and the context of the pictorial evidence, suggests that these two were made for particular “pastoral” performance purposes, or for a particular player; I suspect that they may actually be the only ones of their kind ever made, although Langwill tells us that Allan Ramsay owned a stock-and-horn which passed into the hands of Sir David Wilkie, who depicted his The Gentle Shepherd(iii) playing it (and wearing the blue bonnet which had also belonged to Ramsay, according to Langwill, who adds that both these relics disappeared after 1919). Wilkie's instrument appears to be similar to the surviving two, though the reed-cap/mouthpiece appears to bend slightly towards the player. Ramsay's description of this instrument

in his renowned 1725 poem The Gentle Shepherd suggests a “ruder” instrument:

When I begin to tune my Stock-and-Horn Wi a' her face she shaws a cauldrife scorn.

Last night 1 play'd—ye never heard sic spite! O'er Bogie was the spring and her delyte,

Yet tauntingly she at her cousin speer'd

‘Gif she could tell what tune I play'd' and sneer'd. Flocks wander where ye like, I dinna care,

I'll break my reed and never whistle mair


It is not disputed, of course, that “ruder” versions did exist. One such is described in the Notes to Dr Pennecuik's Description of Tweeddale:(iv)

“The common flute is an improvement on the original genuine Scottish pastoral pipe, consisting of a cow's horn, a bower-tree(v) stock from stoc (Gaelic) (vi) called the Stock-in-Horn, with stops in the middle and an oaten reed at the smaller end for the mouthpiece.”

Just such a substitution is depicted in the 1788 edition of The Gentle Shepherd, where David Allan illustrated the scene in which Roger, having had his stock and horn despised in the passage quoted above, is offered a ‘flute' by Patie (The stock and horn lies discarded at Roger's feet).

Another shepherd's pipe, which probably relates closely to this “original genuine Scottish pastoral pipe”, seems to be referred to by Lady Grizel Baillie in her poem Absence

Oh, the ewe-buchtin's bonnie, baith e'ening and morn When our blithe shepherds play on the bog-reed and horn

and this was probably a descendant of the “corne pipe” mentioned in the 16th century Complaynt of Scotland, where of the seven musicians listed “the feyrd [fourth] played on an corne pipe, the fyft playit on an pipe maid of ane gait home” (viii)

In his reply to Burns's letter, Thomson wrote: “I doubt much if it was capable of anything but routing and roaring. A friend of mine says he remembers to have heard one in his younger days (made of wood instead of your bone), and that the sound was abominable.”

By the few authorities who have written on the subject of the stock and horn, it has been taken to be a Southern Scottish version of the “hornpipe”, and that the true “pibcorn”, with horns at both ends of the stock, was unknown in Scotland. Indeed, Balfour(ix) says that Hipkins and Gibb in their Musical Instruments were mistaken when they described the “Lowland Scotch shepherd's pipe” as being “made of horn, the cover of the reed being also of horn.” (x) Given the rarity of the stock and horn itself, it seems rash to dismiss the possibility of the double-horned hornpipe having been current in Scotland at some time. It was certainly familiar enough in England. It is most likely to have been the instrument Chaucer referred to when he used “hornpipe” to translate the French word estives in The Romaunt of the Rose:

Yit wolde he lye

Discordaunt ever fro armonye And distoned from melodie

Controve he wolde, and foule fayle With hornepipes of Cornewaile

and it was still known 200 years later, in 1596, when Robert Greene wrote in his Groatsworth of Witte; “My young master desiring them to play upon a hornpipe, layde on the pavement lustily with his leaden heels.”

There are two fine examples in English stained glass, both from the mid- 15th century.

Left: hornpipe Player from Church of St Peter

Mancroft, Norwich (xi)

Right: hornpipe players, Beauchamp

Chapel, St. Mary’s, War-

In the Inventory of one Symon Beryngton, Scholar, dated 1448, there appears, according to Langwill, the entry “Item-Unum Hornpipe.” (xii)

But the double-horned instrument is most commonly represented in Britain by the Welsh “pibcorn” John Tose has described the three surviving examples, which are now in the St Fagans National History Museum, Cardiff.(xiii) One of these appears to be the one that Barringon sent to the London Society of Antiquities in 1770. Since the paper he read to the Society forms the basis of much of what has been written since, it is worth quoting at length.

“I send herewith another very rude musical instrument which is scarcely used in any other part of North Wales except the island of Anglesey where it is called a Pib-corn. Mr Wynn of Penhescedd gives an annual prize [for players of the instrument],(xiv) I heard lately one of the lads [who had won the prize] play several tunes upon the instrument. The tone, considering the materials of which the Pib-corn is composed, is really very tolerable, and resembles an indifferent hautbois. How it is produced will appear by the drawing of the different joints of the instrument. .. As the name of it signifies, the hornpipe [literally pib corn], I have little doubt but that the musical instrument which is thus called to this day, was originally made for dances which were performed to this instrument.”(xvi)


Most commentators from Balfour onwards have agreed that these instruments are members of a wide family of single-reed pipes spread across Europe from Asia. Sophisticated examples are now played in Spain and the Basque country, where it is known as the ‘alboka' (Arabic- ‘the horn') and carvings of various forms survive in Aragon and other parts of the region from the 11th century onwards.(xvii)


Was such an instrument ever played in Scotland? What might be a single hornpipe appears on a gravestone dated 1721 in Kirkmichael, Ayrshire, not far from where Burns was born (right).

Left: hornpipe player (?) from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Spanish, 13th century
(Left) Double hornpipe (alboka) from the Cantigas, 13th century

Right: Pictish stone at Ardchattan,

Argyll, 11th century (?)

The 13th century alboka player's cheeks are acting as a 'bag', using circular breathing as today's players do. It is only a small step to using a bag, and many types of bagpipe, from North Africa, Greece and further east, are merely hornpipes amended in this way

The Ardchattan Stone, which is believed to date from before the establishment of the Priory at Ardchattan in the early 11th century (xviii) shows a harper and a player of the triple-pipes. A third figure, similarly attired and pictured below the other two is holding an object which has not been reliably identified. Unfortunately the stone was not included in Stuart's Sculptured Stones of Scotland in 1851 and has since become much worn. Romilly Allen's 1903 work (xix) contained a photograph of a rubbing of the stone and Allen was the first to suggest that this object was “an unrecognisable instrument”, though he later decides it is “a crown”. (xx)

This last description has been generally adopted, as the stone has further worn, and could not be discerned clearly when drawn for the Society of Antiquities in 1898. However, a photograph of the stone is held at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland, where the similarity between this carving and the Spanish images can be seen.(xxi)

Controversy remains, therefore, over whether the Ardchattan Stone is evidence for a “double” hornpipe in 11th century Scotland.

  • Langwill, Lyndsey G., Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities, vol. LXXXIV 1950, p. 173ff. This article is now posted on-line at 80.p df. [04/05/2009]
  • Copies of both instruments were made and are now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, See [04/05/2009]
  • Now in the National Gallery of The image was re-used in several places, including a clock now in the National Museum of Scotland.
  • Langwill adds the following note: ”lt should be noted that although Dr Pennecuik's work dates from the Notes are of much later date, being partly by Armstrong in 1775 and partly by Pindlaterin 1802.”
  • bower-tree =Elder The late 15th century Scots poem ‘Colkelbie's Sow' has “And davy doyte of the dale/ was thair mad menstrall/ he blew on a pipe/ maid of a borit bourtre” The elder has a central pith which can easily be removed, thus saving the pipe-maker a boring
  • Wiktionary gives stoc - Scottish Gaelic = trunk of a
  • Chambers, , The Songs of Scotland Prior to Burns, Edinburgh, 1862
  • Leyden, John (ed.), The Complaynt of Scotland, 1801 The original dates from 1549/50.


  • Balfour, , “The Old British ‘Pibcorn' or ‘Hornpipe' and its Affinities” in The Journal of Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. xx, 1891, p. 142ff
  • Hipkins J., illus. Gibb, William, Musical Instruments Historic, Rare and Unique,

Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh, 1888

  • Note that the player at the top has what in Scandinavia is called a ‘willow flute' and in Hungary ‘tilinko' which is a fipple=f1ute with no holes; it is played using the high harmonics which can be varied using the fore-finger to close the tube-end.
  • Langwill, l, fn. 4
  • Langwill says that this competition was held until 1800 but gives no reference for
  • Francis Galpin, in his Old English Instruments of Music. (Methuen, London, 1910), says that Barringtonn's specimen was of ‘reed' He mentions a Saxon vocabulary of the 8th century which translates sambucsu - the ordinary name for a pipe - as ‘swegelhorn'

Swegel, he tells us is Old German for the long leg bone; “we were informed by an aged Welsh peasant many years ago, the tibia of the deer - if it could be obtained - was considered the best material for the tube of the Pibcorn”

  • Daines Barrington “Some Account of Two Musical Instruments used in Wales” in Archaeologia, Society of Antiquities, London, 1775 [not 1779 as later references give], p. Read to the Society in 1770. The other instrument Barrington describes is the crwth.
  • Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland, XXXIII, (1898/99), p.


  • Romilly Allan, , Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, 1903, vol II, p. 387
  • The object ‘revealed' by the rubbing appears to show central ‘peak' which, if it is not the remains of the holder's hand, suggests against the likelihood that this is a
  • In their essay “Archaeological notes on some Scottish early Christian sculptures” in Proc. Soc Ant. Scot., 1984, Lloyd Laing & Jennifer Laing describe this object as “a curious object, possibly some kind of percussion ”

Stock and Horn, James Drummond of Edinburgh (see page 12)

Image © National Museums Scotland