Matt Seattle reports on a unique event, and re-creates a moment from 300 years ago - or was it 400?

The first residential Border Piping Weekend to be held under   the ægis of The William Dixon Foundation took place at Middleholms near Langholm, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, Friday 21 - Sunday 23 October   2011. We were seven pipers and one cook, and this account is but one person's story. For this person the chain of events began some time before publication (June 2011) of the new edition of The Master Piper with an inkling, growing into an intention, to do something closely related to the Dixon repertoire, but stepping sideways to focus on the pipe tunes with a West Border connection which Bill Telfer and I had been exploring. This intention was made public on 12 June, and there was sufficient early response to make the Weekend appear possible. The two significant West Border sources we know, and which some of you may also have explored, are Robert Riddell's Scotch, Galwegian, and Border Tunes (Edin- burgh, 1794) and John Rook's manuscript collection (Waverton, Cumbria, 1840). Both are reproduced in full on Ross Anderson's excellent online piping resource (

It is from Riddell that the term ‘West Border’ is adopted, more as a thematic focus than to distinguish it from other music of the wider Border region: one interesting thing about Riddell's book is that some tunes given this label are also known as Northumbrian pipe tunes (among them All The Night I Lay With Jockey, Jockey Stays Long At The Fair, both under different names), another is the anecdotes he records, and a third is that he says that most of the tunes are ‘wrote from Performers, who could not write or read Music.’ Rook's collection is huge, erratic, and fascinating. It is drawn from many sources, but a few items show he was in close contact with the Northumbrian piping that was going on in or around Newcastle, as he has some of the same ‘extra’ strains to some of Peacock's tunes that appear in the Ancient Melodies Committee manuscript of the Society of Antiquaries, Newcastle upon Tyne. He also has, astonishingly, and a whole century later, the closest known concordance to William Dixon's Dorrington [Lads], in a version which makes little sense as a Northumbrian smallpipe tune but enormous sense as a Border pipe tune, given the different natures of the respective chanter scales. And so, one day in mid-July Bill and I are happily, as is our wont, playing through tunes familiar and unfamiliar, when one from Mr Riddell's book takes our fancy: neither of us had particularly taken to Weel Bobbit Blanch Of Middlebie beforehand, but it is suddenly ‘there’ for us and asking to be played - and played. Blanch (more usually spelt Blanche) was to become an obsession, an adventure - a Quest!

Riddell's Weel Bobbit comes with an anecdote:

‘WELL BOBBIT BLANCH OF MIDDLEBIE - according to the tradition of the country, This West Border Air has its name from the following anecdote; When Charles the second was in Annan- dale, He was at Middlebie, and saw BLANCH, a young Lady of the family, dance a Jig, or Cumberland, to this tune - The Lady danced so well, that the King called out in raptures, Well bobbit BLANCH of Middlebie, which then became the name of the Tune.’

Both tune and anecdote can be taken completely at face value as being ‘according to the tradition of the country’ as Riddell heard it. The mention of ‘a Jig, or Cumberland’ is intriguing, and although extensive inquiries of those who know about traditional dance yielded much informed conjecture, definitive information is still lacking. My reason for seeking ‘the’ dance is connected with interpretation of the tune. It will be clearly seen that it is a ‘normal’ jig in the modern sense in strains 1 and 2, but strains 3 to 5 feature the faster runs characteristic of Dixon and Peacock variations. Can it be played at dance speed, and/or can it be danced at playing speed? If you're going to teach people to play something it helps if you know how it goes. The question was to be ongoing through the course of planning, organising and advertising the Weekend.

As for the tune itself, it is a member of a large family of tunes built on a harmonic foundation (not quite reflected in Riddell's published bass line) which, in various permutations, underpins many Border pipe tunes. This foundation is familiar to Northumbrian musicians as the Elsie Marley pattern, but Blanche's tune has closer melodic relatives than Elsie's, among them

1    the Highland pipe tunes Sandy's Farm Steading or Larach Alasdair

2    and The Old Wife of the Mill Dust or Calleach An Dudain;

3    [Over The Hills And Away To] Newbigging, a pipe tune of uncertain Lowland or Border origin, its harmonic foundation displaced relative to the oth- ers listed here;

4    more distantly, William Dixon's Hey For Newbiggin;

5    and, very tentatively, one of the several Irish tunes, otherwise unrelated to each other, called King of the Pipers or R’ na bP’obair’.

What makes Weel Bobbit a Border pipe tune is seen both in what it is not:

though it uses the same scale as the Highland pipes its fast runs are alien to the Highland idiom; though these runs feature in older Northumbrian small- pipe tunes this tune does not coincide with the native chanter scale;

and in what it is:

it uses the range and scale of the Border chanter, and the fast runs charac- teristic of the Native Baroque idiom which coincides with the historical flourishing of the instrument and which permeates William Dixon's music. Back to our Piping Weekend. After consulting those who had already ex- pressed interest and checking other events to avoid possible clashes, the chosen date was announced with a tar- geted mailing and in the usual online places on 3 August. Following on from this and from the June announcement there were soon a dozen or so potential customers ranging from the committed to the curious. There would be some fluctuation in numbers, including a late cancellation due to illness, but the half dozen who did commit meant the book- ing with the venue could be confirmed. Work on the music selection was ongo- ing with Bill and myself, with enough high quality pipe tunes with West Bor- der connections from which to draw an appropriately-sized programme incor- porating a variety of musical effect and a range of technical difficulty. I had been working on a questionnaire for partici- pants covering practical arrangements (accommodation, diet, transport) and musical considerations (instrument/s played, number of years' experience, genre/s). This was sent out on 13 Au- gust. Tuesday 16 August 2011: Enthused by the suggestion of an en- actment of Weel Bobbit Blanch Of Mid- dlebie to conclude the Piping Weekend,

Bill and I drive to Middlebie to see the lie of the land. A now small crossroads settlement, lending its name however to a parish including Eaglesfield and Waterbeck, it has a Community Centre and a Church - which holds a cream tea every Sunday afternoon 2-4 pm, most fitting. Now on a lunch quest, we go next to Eaglesfield, then to Ecclefechan, where Bill suggests we visit Thomas Carlyle's Birthplace. A National Trust for Scotland property, it is closed on Tuesdays but, undeterred, Bill rings the bell and a woman appears, helpful even on her day off. When we disclose our mission, she immediately identifies Blanche and invites us in for a cup of tea. A most intriguing and thoroughly useful visit with many connections made and mutual acquaintances noted. I don't remember now whose the suggestion was, but I well remember Mary Hollern, the Carlyle Birthplace custodian, telling us that we were looking for Blanche Irving of Middlebie whose name, as she showed us, features in an Irving family tree at an appropriate date, and that Blanche's descendant, also Blanche, is now living in Ecclefechan!

This, well, clinched the deal. Many contacts and arrangements would need to be made, and they were made over the following weeks, with local history enthusiasts equally enthused and willing to help: we were now hopeful not only for a conclusion of our Weekend, but a completion. On 9 September music was sent out to those who had indicated commitment. Five carefully edited and thoroughly road-tested tunes varying in length, difficulty and function, with six weeks to get to know them as intimately as one chooses. Once the formal pattern of Riddell's Weel Bobbit revealed itself (why 5 strains, rather than 4, 6 or 8?) then the additional strains appearing under these fingers took their place in a new sequence of nine with a coherent and therefore memorable overall form. One of the mysteries of Border piping is that it takes so long for tunes to write themselves. This is also one of the joys - the missing piece was not there before, but once in place it is seen as an inevitable part of the picture: revitalisation, a qualitative as well as quantitative step beyond simple revival.

The dance question and its relation to tempo had been ongoing. I had assumed, and was not contradicted by those more expert, that a step dance of some kind was likely to be involved. With no-one more local able to solve the mystery of the "Jig, or Cumberland” I had contacted Mairi Campbell, who learnt her step-dancing in Cape Breton. She kindly agreed to have a session with me stepping to the tune. It seemed to both of us that a jig has its own tempo dictated by the human body and gravity, from which she drew the brilliant conclusion that the fast runs should be - fast. I could only agree with her that a good player, then as now, is a good player and not averse to showing it. The strategy for the tune on the Weekend would be that those who could, would, and those who couldn't would play held notes to reinforce the harmonic foundation or melodic outline. With Mairi dancing I was well aware that I needed to improve the speed and accuracy of my own playing.

Despite this it was a wonderful session, and probably the first time in a long time that the tune had been played for dancing. To address the tempo question I later devised a slow exercise designed as an oblique approach to the fast passages. Mairi would have danced for us at Middlebie but for another commitment, so other dancers were recommended and contacted: all expressed interest but none were avail- able on the day. On 26 September I received a late enquiry for the Weekend from Ben Power, directed to me via Pete Stewart of LBPS (thanks, Pete!). Ben introduced himself as ‘an Irish traditional flute and bodhran player and sean-nos dancer in the main, but have been playing away on a set of Hamish Moore's smallpipes in D for a year or so with great enjoyment. In addition, I have been conducting research on instrument making in Irish and Scottish traditional music, and particularly the revival/reinvention of small bagpipes in Scotland in the last 30 years or so, on which I intend to write my Ph.D. thesis.’ We exchanged emails, Ben enrolled for the Weekend, and I asked him, a little sheepishly, about Irish sean-nos (old style) dancing. On a recent video (see of his students dancing to The Priest In His Boots not only did the dancing look great but the tune was played at a tempo which seemed just right for Weel Bobbit - fast enough to sound like a jig while still slow enough to accommodate the fast runs. When I told Ben of our predicament he was happy to help. My gratitude to Ben for this unexpected in-house solution overrode any con- cerns over the dancer's gender or the provenance of the dance tradition.

Our company of seven plus one assem- bled at tea-time on Friday 21 October from points as near as Langholm and Hawick and as far as Alberta and Cali- fornia. We began our first session with introductions and I asked that we all state our aims for the Weekend, my own aim expressed as a wish to share a perception that, while Border pipe tunes may be longer and more full of notes than other pipe tunes, all the notes are there for good reasons. Having had the set tunes for six weeks we began by learning a tune by ear and playing it in unison, in canon, as melody and accompaniment, with and then without pre-assigned roles. This had the desired effect of bringing us together as a group.

Over the Weekend we had our serious times and our moments of hilarity - we can take the music seriously, but we don't need to take ourselves that seriously. We worked through all the tunes and in due course the plot was revealed which would have us all in Middlebie Community Centre on Sunday afternoon. As a friend remarked when he saw the flyer which had been circulated locally, ‘nothing like a surprise performance in public to galvanise the attention...’ It did. After Sunday lunch, the last meal prepared by our excellent cook, we travelled in convoy to Middlebie. The Community Centre people laid on a fine tea, a respectable-sized audience gathered to hear our entire repertoire, and we were joined by Fergus Hall and Julie McLeod from nearby Samye-Ling to refresh our ears with some wonderful singing. Mary Hollern had made sure that Blanche Armstrong (nee Irving) was invited, and Blanche was as pleased as we were to be there for the bobbing to the tune named for her ancestor.

Ben, not the only one of the company suffering from the rigours of travel, rose magnificently to the occasion and, to the acclaim of all those present, bobbit exceedingly weel. Thus our tale is concluded and completed - save for an intriguing footnote: Mary Ritchie, Blanche's sister, introduced herself on our arrival at Middlebie. She traces her family back through the Irvings to the Bells, and she showed us a page from a privately printed history of the Bell family containing a more detailed account of the Weel Bobbit episode than Riddell's, and with a significant difference: the location is specified as Between-the-Waters, a name still attached to a farm in Middlebie parish; the dancer is Miss Blanche Bell; and the King is James V (1513- 1542), placing the event a clear century earlier than Riddell's version. With these clues we are able to find an appearance of the same story in G Willis, Willis's Current Notes, London, 1852:

NOTE ON SIR WALTER SCOTT. - In Sir Walter Scott's Novel of Redgaunlet, a slight inaccuracy occurs in the first volume, ch. xii. Sir W. has there quoted the following expression, ‘And then bob it away like Madge of Middlebie.’ Now, though in general a correct antiquarian, Sir Walter has here fallen into an error with respect to the name of the heroine, which ought to be ‘Blanche of Middlebie,’ and the circumstance which gave rise to the saying is as follows : - King James V, on one of his clandestine rambles, rested a night at the house of ‘Bell of Between the Waters,’ in the parish of Middlebie, in Dumfriesshire, and the laird's daughter, Miss Blanche Bell, per- formed a jig before the monarch; having a good ankle, she held her petticoats rather high, at which the King, being well pleased, laughed heartily, clapped his hands, and ever and anon, as the young lady pirouetted round, cried out, ‘Weel bobbit it, Blanche o' Middlebie.’ Moreover, when the dance was finished, tradition records that the King gave her a kiss, and swore that ‘She bore the bell frae a' the lasses ever he saw dance;’ from which this family of the Bells derive their motto, still carried on their coat of arms, ‘I beir the bel.’

Matt Seattle, Hawick Nov 11

[Ed: We received the following from one of the participants in this event: “My sister, a retired teacher, said that a good teacher should 'inspire interest in her subject and elucidate the difficult points'. Matt certainly meets those criteria and for that reason I'll always be along anytime he offers some of his time. In spite of the focus on a few selected tunes the course covered a lot of musical ground – especially in the evenings! “]