A Highland Laird’s thoughts on a famous Lowland piper

It is a summer’s evening in the countryside east of Edinburgh in 1741. In a tavern known as ‘Lucky Vint’s’, at the west end of Prestonpans, close to the spot where four years later Johnny Cope would meet his nemesis, a group of gentlemen have gathered. One of them, the Rev. Alexander Carlyle, has bequeathed us a record of the evening. As well as himself, the company includes Mr Erskine of Grange1, Simon Fraser, [Lord Lovat]2, Lovat’s son and several of his fellow-travellers.  Carlyle, having explained that Lovat had arranged for him to be invited to dine with this company in the hopes that he would befriend Lovat’s ‘untutored savage’ son,3 describes the evenings entertainment:

“We had a very good plain dinner. As the claret was excellent, and circulated fast, the two old gentlemen [Lovat and Grange] grew very merry, and their conversation became youthful and gay. What I observed was, that Grange, without appearing to flatter, was very observant of Lovat, and did everything to please him. He had provided Geordy Sym, who was Lord Drummore’s piper4, to entertain Lovat after dinner; but though he was reckoned the best piper in the country, Lovat despised him, and said he was only fit to play reels to Grange’s oyster-women. He grew frisky at last, however, and upon Kate Vint, the landlady’s daughter coming into the room he insisted on her staying to dance with him. She .. was a mistress of Lord Drummore, who lived in the neighbourhood5 –Lovat was at this time seventy-five, and Grange not much younger; yet the wine and the young woman emboldened them to dance a reel, till Kate, observing Lovat’s legs as thick as post, fell a-laughing and ran off. She missed her second course of kisses, as was then the fashion of the country, though she had endured the first. This was a scene not easily forgotten.”6

Hogarth’s portrait of Lovat on his way to his trial and execution, 1747

Here, then, is the society’s favourite piper, Geordie Syme, ‘a famous piper in his time’, according to the artist John Kay, whose depiction of him is the Society’s logo, being dismissed by a highlander in no uncertain terms. This remark seems to me to be indicative of two things; firstly that there was a distinct difference between Geordie’s playing and that which a highland laird from an ancient family might expect. In 1741 the music of the highland piper would have been almost entirely ‘marches’, that is, pibrochs; the lowland piper, on the other hand had a long tradition of playing music for dancing, something that Lovat clearly felt was beneath a highland piper’s dignity. The second point that this passage raises is the patronage of Syme himself; here he is described as ‘Lord Drummore’s piper’. In his notes to his etching, Kay says:
“Geordie was much taken notice of by the nobility of his time … and his presence was considered indispensible at all their entertainments. Among his particular patrons were Lord Drummore and the Earl of Wemys, then Mr Charteris of Amisfield.7
Kay opened his Edinburgh print shop in 1785; in his notes to the published edition of Kay’s work, published in 1834, Paton says that the engraving of Syme must have been one of Kay’s earliest attempts, implying it was done either shortly before or around that date, that is, more than forty years after the tale told by Carlyle. At this point Charteris was living in No 33 St Andrew’s Square in Edinburgh. ‘He was well known’ says Grant, ‘during his residence in Edinburgh as the particular patron of ‘Old Geordie Syme’ the famous town-piper of Dalkeith, and a retainer of the house of Buccleuch”. Drummore died in 1755. The title of Duke of Buccleuch changed hands from father to grandson [aged 4] in 1751; it seems likely that it was this 3rd Duke, [Henry] who was Geordie’s patron at Dalkeith. Unfortunately we do not currently have any earlier information regarding the piper of Dalkeith
Henry was married in 1767 and died in 1812 and it is his widow whom Paton describes as being the patron of Jamie Reid, Syme’s successor, who was ‘still remembered by a few old people in Dalkeith’ in 1834. A few moments with the sums will suggest that these figures do not really add up. The earliest date for Paton’s story is 1812; the earliest date for Jamie Reid’s taking over from Syme is 1785; anyone born during Reid’s tenure could not be more than 49 in 1834, and probably less- hardly the remnant ‘few old people’ that Paton describes.


1. Lord Grange, who, with Lovat’s connivance, had his wife kidnapped and exiled to St Kilda.
2  Lovat was the last man to be executed publicly on London’s Tower Hill, in 1747.
3  Carlyle was then aged 21
4  Lord Drummore: Carlyle, who was indebted to him for his preferment, has only good things to say about Drummore, apart from disparaging Drummore’s taking of a mistress after his wife died. However, he has in the above passage already credited Drummore with two sons by another mistress in 1741. Others are not so constrained, and it has been suggested that he was ‘very fond of fine claret and oyster-women who were smuggled into his home, Preston House, for his delectation’. [hence Lovat’s reference to ‘your oyster-women’. It is Drummore who figures in Kay’s anecdote about the disguised wandering piper.
5  ‘His estates lay in the two parishes of Inveresk and Preston pans’ says Carlyle, whose father had been a great friend of Drummore.
6  Carlyle, Alexander, Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle, minister of Inveresk; containing memorials of the men and events of his time. Boston, Ticknor and Fields, 1861, p. 50
7  In his ‘Old and New Edinburgh’ Grant says Wemys was fifth earl; in fact he assumed the title of 7th earl in 1787, although the earldom had been forfeited after the ’45. Charteris was born in 1749 and died in 1808. The reliability of these ‘Old Edinburgh’ books, including Chambers’ should be regarded as dubious.