The reference in the Aberdeen Records was first cited many years ago; here we explore its full significance.

“The haill communitie … conducit Johnne Cowpar to pas euerie day … throw all the rewis of the toune playand upon the almany quhissil;”
So says the entry in the Burgh Records of Aberdeen for 1574. But this was not the first mention of such a thing in a civic context. In her work Mediaeval Plays in Scotland Anna Mill included a record dating from 1532 of payment to ‘the man that playit one the almeny quhessill one the octo day’1
Now it is fairly obvious that this ‘quhissil’ is something more than what we might understand by the equivalent ‘whistle’ today. There are numerous mentions of it in Scottish records: 1501–2 To Guilliam, taubronar, to by him quhissillis;2 1555 . For thair playing on the trumpet and quhyssill;3 1559 . [To] William Thomsone, quhisler … for his laubouris in playing vpone the quhissall at the wache; [the Watch]4 1560 To John and Moreis Dowis for playing vpone the swesche and quhissill befoir the nychbouris of this burgh twa dayis quhen thai wer in armorie;5 1599 He saw her [Queen Elizabeth of England] dance … the Spaines pavie to a whissill tabourier;6 1617 To the Earle of Abircornes tabernour and quhisler for attending the youthes at the moreis dance the nycht of the fyrwarkis;7,8
The first (and possibly the last two) of these seem to refer to players of the three-holed pipe and the small drum today referred to as a tabor. The Scottish records include many payments to taubronaris, ostensibly ‘drummers’ but clearly from the context also ‘quhissillaris’. In this instance the ‘quhissillis’ that Guilliam bought were three-holed pipes. But what kind of instrument was played in 1555 alongside the trumpet, or for the night watch? And what is an ‘almeny quhissil’?
Almeny here means ‘German’, as in the French term ‘flûte allemande’; the problem word is ‘whistle’. In his Pallas Armata, written in 1671, Sir James Turner proclaimed “In some places a piper is allowed to each company: the Germans have him, and I look upon their pipe as a warlike instrument. The bagpipe is good enough musick for them who love it; but sure it is not so good as the Almain Whistle. With us any captain may keep a piper in his company, and maintain him too, for no pay is allowed him, perhaps just as much as he deserveth."9
It’s worth noting that, along with his mention of the Almain Whistle, Turner has introduced us to the quagmire that is the precise definitions of the various terms for musical instruments, particularly ‘pipe’ and ‘piper’.10 What, for instance, were the ‘pipes’ played by the English musicians at Berwick in 1333?
Atte Berwike, Be-side þe towne.
This was do with mery sowne
wiþ pipes, Trompes, & nakers þer-to;
And loude clariounes þei Blew also.
And þere þe Scottes leyen dede.11

Before stepping into this territory, however, we should explore a little more about the history of the ‘quhissil’ as a military instrument. The use of musical instruments for signalling in military contexts is ancient; amongst the earliest were animal horns, and the use of these persisted into the 16th century.
There are also clear signs of the use of the three-holed pipe, known to Virdung in 1511 as the ‘schwegel’12 , played together with the drum by the same player; the mural by Lippo Vanni in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, depicting the Sienese army in the battle of Sinalunga, 1363, shows a row of three such in mid-battle:13

siena p&t
Detail of the mural by Lippo Vanni in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, 1364

The combination of drum and the ‘transverse flute’, that Virdung calls ‘Zwerchpfeiffe’ (cross-flute) was certainly in use in a social context by 1344 since it appears in the manuscript of The Romance of Alexander’ illustrated by Johan de Grise (see next page; the artist’s grasp of the size of the fife is somewhat vague)..
By the mid-15th century the ‘fife and drum pair’ had replaced the pipe and tabor in a military context too, as a result of its use by the Swiss Eidgenossen (‘Comrades under Oath’), mercenary units formed by the various cantons that made up the confederacy that is now Switzerland.14 The use of this ‘Swiss Pair’ is well documented in the Chronicles prepared between 1470 and 1485; that by Diebold Schilling, commissioned in 1474, is a collection of three volumes of history of the canton of Bern, which altogether includes almost 2000 pages with over 600 illustrations, of which quite a few depict the drummer and fifer, both leading marches and at the centre of the ‘pike square’ formation which had made the Swiss units almost undefeatable till the introduction of artillery in the early decades of the 16th century.15 So successful had the ‘pike square’ been before then that it was quickly taken up by German and French armies.

pair in battle
Detail from p. 561 of the Amtliche Berner Chronik (Official Chronicle of Bern), Diebold Schilling, 1474-1485.

A major change did occur towards the very end of the 15th century. Up till then the drum had always been shown in illustrations as being of narrow depth, held vertically and suspended from the wrist or hand, with a diameter of perhaps 30-35cm. This is clearly seen in the many depictions included in Schilling’s Chronicle of Bern,
The result of this arrangement, which seems to have been derived from that employed in the playing of tabor and three-hole pipe (the drums are very similar in size to the tabors of the era), is that the left-hand stick is always beating from the rim of the drum and cannot have produced as much sound as the right-hand.


pair on march
Detail from the Bern Chronicle, p. 611

However, sometime towards the end of the century this arrangement changed and much bigger drums began to be used. Virdung was the first to picture this change, in 1511, though he does not give a dimension; by the middle of the 16th century these drums had grown to the limit of skins available for the heads, a diameter of up to 60cm, as seen in the many illustrations of the drum and fife players from the period. This change may well have been in response to the need to increase the volume produced when played amidst the sound of firearms which became prominent during the early part of the century. These huge drums went on being held more or less horizontally and the left hand still rested on the rim, though the drum itself could no longer be suspended from the wrist.
According to Hadden,16 larger drums first appeared in 1490, though various depictions show different sizes and proportions. Hadden shows a number of depictions of drums from the early 16th century which show the various sizes of drums, as can be seen from the images on the following page. The Scots ‘Men-at-Armes’ who played such a prominent role in French military activities during the 15th century must have encountered this use of drum and fife for signalling, though no mention of it is made in William Forbes Leith’s Men-at-Arms and Life Guards Scots in France 15th century.17

pike square five
The Five Members of the Swiss Pike Square, Daniel Hopfer, 1525

drums dancing

Left: from the Workshop of Albrecht Altdorfer, c. 1510: Right; Detail from Departure of the Helvetians, Godefroy le Batave, 15

Note that the painting by le Batave shows the pipe and drum pair playing for dancing, as do a number of others of the period; this had in fact been a function of the pair since at least the mid 15th century; the Bern Chronicles, both the earlier one by Tschachlant and that by Schilling, show the events that took place below the Castles of Leubegg and Mont in 1439:

soldiers dance

Two depictions of the same event, on the left, from Schilling’s Chronicle, and on the right that from the earlier one by Tschachlant (c. 1479). The accompanying texts read ‘‘The Bernese and their allies dance in front of the Laubegg and Mannenberg castles before they go into the storm’ - ‘In front of Laubegg castle more than a thousand men danced…’

Although the vast majority of these illustrations of the pair show them either in battle or marching, there are one or two depictions among them that show the musicians playing in other non-conflict circumstances, such as this detail from Schilling’s Chronicle page 875, in which soldiers arrive by the boatload:


The German Flute

Although the vast majority of these illustrations of the pair show them either in battle or marching, there are one or two depictions among them that show the musicians playing in other non-conflict circumstances, such as this detail from Schilling’s Chronicle page 875, in which soldiers arrive by the boatload:

The German Flute
The Dictionary of the Scots Language gives the following under the entry for Quhissil:‘Almany quhissil, a fife. Cf. 17th c. Eng. almain whistle id. (1670–71).’
Nancy Hadden tells us that “the term ‘fife’ occurs first in a French description of 1489” where “tambourins, fifres et trompettes” played at a wedding feast, but she also quotes Keith Polk’s observation that the German term Pfeiffer is ‘one of those troublesome words that can be both specific and general’ pointing out that it could refer to a shawm player and later to professional players who played a variety of wind instruments (for instance, the German city’s Stadtpfeiffer).18 In France the Phiffre Suisse, Swiss players of flutes in the French army of Charles VIII, were first recorded in 1489. The German equivalent Schweitzerpfeiff (Swiss flute), was first used in the German treatise by Agricola Musica instrumentalis deudsch, published in 1529. Both these acknowledge its early association with the Swiss. In 1514 the first unambiguous description of an instrument called ‘German flute’ appeared in France as ‘fleuste dallemant’.”19
Turning to Scottish usage, in the Dictionary of the Scots Language we find that the multiple meanings of these terms applies as much here as anywhere: under Pifer, for instance:20
‘Pifer, n. Also: piphre; pepher, -our; piffer, ‘ for both the pipe and the player, and Peif(f)erer, -are, Pyphirer for the player.
1. A player on the fife; a ‘piper’. (a) 1564–5 To the haill trompetouris and sueschouris and pephouris … in playing afoir the toun;1590 To the said tabourers and pepher the day of the upcuming of hir maiestie to the abay;1593–4 To the pyphirer for his service at the wapinschawing; 1598 To the foure swescheouris and peifferers; 1600 Extracted from the records of the City of Edinburgh:Nov 28:, ‘ordaines Patrick Eleiss to pay to the pephereris and twa extraordiner drummeris nyne merk,
The Dictionary then adds helpfully:
2. A fife or other wind instrument. (a) ‘Praise him with trumpet piphre [MS. fifre] and drumme;’ (from James VI Poems} ‘Drums trumpetis piferis hard on the nicht;’21 ‘Like the beatting upon drummes and playing upon piffers and the sound of trumpets;’
The Dictionary also includes similar entries for alternative spellings:
(Pifer-,) Peif(f)erer, -are, Pyphirer, n. Also: pepher-; piffer-, piffar-. [f. prec., in sense 2.] A player on the fife. = Pifer n. 1. — 1632 Linlithgow Burgh Records: Peiferare; 1634 Dumfries & Galloway Society; Peifferer; 1641 To the drummers and piffarers;
Two things are clear from these: there are two uses of words that are sometimes very similar, especially in the case of ‘piffer’, which is the instrument, and pifferer, which is its player. And there do not seem to be any usages recorded earlier than 1564. Nevertheless, we remain unenlightened as to what this ‘piffer’ actually is, even if the DSL is happy to call it a ‘fife’, by which at this era is meant a ‘German flute’, the transverse flute seen in the above illustrations. It may be that the entry for James VI’s usage in the manuscript of the spelling ‘fifre’ is one justification for this reading of the words.
So much for the DSL; however, a different picture emerges when we look at the Treasurer’s Accounts, where instances of use of the various forms of the words, particularly ‘pyparis’, date back much further;22
1489 x july, to Inglis pyparis, that come to the Castell get and playt to the King, xij demyss 1491 aug xxi Item, the saim tyme, to iij Inglis pyparis, viij vnicornis vijfi .iiijš. 1497 jan 1st Item,to the comoune pyparis of Abirdene, xxviijs
And it would appear we have a clue from the accounts for 1505 :
1505 March 25; giffin to thir menstrales undirwritin, that is to say, the four Italien schawmiris and the More taubronar1505; item May 3 xxelne French tanne for the four Italien piparis
Which seems to prove that these piparis were schawmiris; in this case there seems little doubt. There are also payments to multiple piparis in various towns: 1505 to the common piparis of Edinburgh xviii 1506 to Linclowden, to the piparis to part amang them 1505 to the piparis of Abirdene.23
This plural usage for Town musicians is strongly suggestive of shawm players; as far as I am aware the appointment of a town [bag]piper is always singular. Again, in 1506 we learn of payments to the twa piparis of Edinburgh, the French quhissillar, the Inglis piper with the drone, ilk man ix s.
This item has been much discussed. Two explanations seem to present themselves. Either a bagpipe with a drone was an unusual if not unique presence at the time, or the twa piparis of Edinburgh were not playing bagpipes. The droneless bagpipe (Choro) had been a real possibility in the 12th and 13th centuries; one is depicted in The Murthly Hours which has been in Scotland since the 14th century. But evidence from France suggests that ‘the drone’ was present by the end of the 13th century, in France at least, and by the end of the 15th century there were at least four depictions in Scottish buildings (Haddington, Rosslyn and Melrose). We might assume that the French quhissillar was playing the fife, and the unusual usage of ‘piper with the drone’ suggests, not just that this was a bagpipe, but that the Edinburgh Piparis were playing something else that did not have a drone, most likely shawms . This makes sense until we note that this item is the last in a list of payments made on Pache Tuesday April 8th; the list includes harpers, taubronars, trumpetis, lutars and ‘the four scawmeris’. However, these four shawm players were almost certainly the four ‘Italien menstrales’ that appear many times in the accounts over a considerable period, and as we have seen, in 1505 they were referred to as ‘piparis’.
Whilst there remains some doubt about exactly what a ‘pypar’ was in 16th century Scotland, it is clear that it certainly was not always a bagpiper.
Which brings us to the question of military usage. Scottish soldiers were well established in the French court in the period 1425-1483 during the reigns of Charles VII and Louis XI. it seems unlikely that during that time the Scots did not encounter the ‘Swiss Pair’. Unfortunately, as we have seen, Forbes-Leith, in his discussion of the history of that presence, makes no mention of martial music. Even in the best-documented history of the continental wars of the early 17th century, while we hear of ‘drums beating and banners flying’, there is no mention of any kind of pipering.24 However, we know that the ‘schues’ was already in use by 1524 in Edinburgh, according to the records of the Guild of Hammermen: ‘To the boy that played upon the schues’and we might perhaps assume that this was a recent introduction, based on the payment that Anna Mill cited dated 1529:‘To the man that playit on the new swas’However, thirty years later we hear of the drum and whistle played together at a muster of armed men in Edinburgh (‘wappen schawing’): ‘1560 For playing vpone the swesche and quhissill befoir the nychbouris of this burgh twa dayis quhen thai wer in armorie;’25
When it comes to actual military records, however, the picture is less clear. There is a record of the ‘Scots Brigade, ‘given at the Hague, the 26th June 1588’: ‘a compagnie colonelle of two hundred Scottish infantry, which shall include, besides his person and boy, a liutenant and ensign each with his poy [sic], two sergeants, two drummers, one piper, three corporals...” However, according to the same source, the regiment to be commanded by William Wallace at the same time had no piper listed.26
Another early record of a Scottish Regiment’s composition is the muster roll of the Laird of MacNaughton, drawn up in December 1627.27 It includes two men described as ‘pypers’; Keith Sanger points out that they both had lowland names. Sanger also pointed to the record dated 1643 in The Records of the Parliament of Scotland which lists the pay for various ranks: ‘That .. thair is allowit to each company ane drumer and ane pyper,’28,29
These records might be taken as conclusive evidence that where ‘pipers’ were employed in the Scots regiments of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, they were indeed playing bagpipes. However, what are we to make of the following two remarks made in a letter from James Ogilvy to the Earl of Nithsdale in 1627? Ogilvy is writing to inform Nithsdale that he has collected together a number of potential recruits for Nithsdale’s regiment: ‘Ane of them … pleyes excellentlie vpon the recorder and will be ane fyne pifferer to this compenie;’ 30 Ogilvy goes on to add: ‘I will desyr your lordship to cause by ane fyne piffer of brase to him in Edinburgh; (I will desire your lordship to have bought a piffer of brass for him in Edinburgh).Now whatever a piffer is in this instance it is certainly not a brass bagpipe; and in case we might think it to be a trumpet, the same source has this, from 1678: ‘Like the beatting upon drummes and playing upon piffers and the sound of trumpets’31 and in 1628 Montrose was in St Andrews where he paid 40sh to ‘the drummer and pifferer of the town.’32


I have tried to bring together here what evidence I can find to suggest that the various words used in the records to describe ‘pypers’ in the Scots sources, both civic and military, may refer to players of the ‘German Flute’, that is the old transverse fife as depicted in 15th and 16th century illustrations. It is also possible that this is true of military ‘pypers’, at least up until the decisions of Parliament in 1643 referred to above.
It should go without saying that I am not arguing that every entry has this meaning; references to the ‘Grite Pyp’ frequently appear in both civic and military contexts. What is more, something similar can be deduced from the early continental sources, though out of more than 300 illustrations of ‘fifers’ in the Bern Chronicles I have found only three.

piper 1piper 2
On the left above is a detail from page 417 of the Bern Chronicle written by Benedicht Tschachtlan. This is the only image of a lone piper I have found in these chronicles. The image at the right here is from Schilling’s Chronicle.
And to finish, here is Schilling’s opening illustration.

 piper 3

Adendum: After this article was completed I uncovered this entry in the Edinburgh Accounts for 1665-66 : To William Clark, tabrounor, Jhonn Dow, phiphes, for thair playing befoir the toun be the space of thre dayis … (my italics)


1. Mill, Anna. Mediaeval Plays in Scotland. ; ‘octo’ (sometimes ‘octave’) is the day a week after a festival day, such as Pache or St Cripsin’s
2. A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, ‘qhuissil’
3.Extracts from the records of the Burgh of Edinburgh. II 219)
4.Ib. III 57
5.Ib. III 63
6. Fraser, Sir William. Memoirs of the Maxwells of Pollok.; II 36. Edinburgh, 1863
7. Master of Works Accounts, 1529–1649. II 928. There are also records from the same era that make it clear that ‘quhissil’ could also refer to a small whistle; such things might be even made of gold. With gold chains to hang them around the neck – especially that of the King. By the 19th century it had become a children’s toy: Jamieson (Abd. 1808 ) has ‘Almanie whistle, a flage[o]let of a very small size, used by children’; there also records of the term used to describe a duck lure or bird whistle.
9. Turner, James, Sir. Pallas armata, Military essayes of the ancient Grecian, Roman, and modern art of war written in the years 1670 and 1671
10. Keith Polk; 1380-1420: DISPERSAL OF THE ENSEMBLE TRADITION p. 162 ‘It is essential to understand that the term 'pfeifer' could be both specific and general, like the modern term 'horn' (for present-day players horn can mean quite specifically the French horn, or, especially for jazz musicians, almost anything that will produce a musical sound)’
11. This is from the version of THE ROMANCE OF THE BATTLE OF HALIDON HILL, A.D. 1333 quoted in The Brut, or The chronicles of England. Edited from Ms. Raw. B171, Bodleian Library, &c., by Friedrich W. D. Brie, with introduction, notes, and glossary .. Brie, Friedrich W. D., b. 1880.
12. The word swegel firs’ppears in the 12th century, applied to an image of a transverse flute.
13. Detail from Fresco by Lippo Vanni in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. Sienese army in the battle of Sinalunga, 1363’
14. In fact the use of ‘fifes’ and drums in military contexts is first recorded clearly in 1347: ‘The city of Basel engaged schwegel players and drummers (separate players) for town processions and festive occasions as early as 1374.’ (Hadden p.41, though she produces no source for this statement) The schwegel is an early term for the transverse flute (as early as the 12th century); for Virdung in 1511 it was used only for the three-hole pipe; the transverse flute was termed Zwerchpfeiff (‘cross pipe’). Sebastian Virdung, Musica getutscht, 1511
15. Schilling , Diebold, Amtliche Berner Chronik, vols. I-III. Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Mss.h.h.I.1 · Bern · 1478-1483
16. Hadden, Nancy. From Swiss Flutes to Consorts: History, Music and Playing Techniques of the Transverse Flute in Switzerland, Germany and France ca. 1470-1640
17. Forbes-Leith, William . The Scots men-at-arms and life-guards in France From their formation until their final dissolution A.D. MCCCCXVIII.-MDCCCXXX.
18. See note 16;
19. Polk’s work, Instrumental Music in the Urban Centres of Renaissance Germany is at
20. The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue,
21 This is quoted from the margin note; the full passage reads ’there wes hard, vpone the night, beating of drums, vther tymes sounding of trympetis, playing on pifferis, and ringing of bellis … Trubles follouit.’ (Memorialls of the Trubles in Scotland and England, Spaulding, 1850;
22. Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland
23. According to the Extracts from the Council Register of the Burgh of Aberdeen, in 1509 these two pyparis were ‘Robert Piper and Johnne Piper, comon menstrallis,’
24. Monro, Robert, Monro, His Espedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment called Mac-Keys etc,; 1637. See Common Stock, December 2019, Vol. 36 No 1
25. Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, entry for ‘shwesch’ and ‘quhissill’
26. Ferguson, James, Papers illustrating the history of the Scots brigade in the service of the United Netherlands, 1572-1782; 1899, p.84 the original Dutch has ‘twee trommelslagers, een pijper’. On 19th February 1594, William Balfour was commissioned to take charge of Balfour’s regiment, reduced to 150 men but retaining the two drummers and the piper.
27. Highland papers, edited for The Scottish History Society by J. R. N. Macphail. v.1 p. 114; ‘Roll of M’Nachtane’s Soldiers schipped at Lochkerran (Campbelltown) 11th -28th December 1627’; this was a ‘company of 200 Highland bowmen’. It appears that they had been intended to join Buckingham’s expedition to relieve the French town of La Rochelle, but that had failed earlier in 1627 and what became of the regiment is not recorded. The pipers are William Steill pyper, Allester caddell pyper, also with them went Harie mcGra Harpar fra Larg
28. Sanger, Keith. ‘The pyper has gone for a soldier’; Common Stock, Vol. 24 No 1, June, 2009.
29. The records of the parliament of Scotland to 1707 ([1649/5/343]): The records also include the statement ‘the pay of a pyper to each companie to be 12 lib. Monethlie’,’ ([1643/6/85])
30. Fraser, Sir William. The Book of Carlaverock: memoirs of the Maxwells, Earls of Nithsdale, Lords Maxwell and Herries. Edinburgh, 1873, p. 91.
31. Calderwood, David The History of the Kirk of Scotland. Original edition 1678.
32. From a manuscript kept by Montrose’s factor between 1628 and 1629 of Montrose’s personal expenditure quoted in Memorials of Montrose and his times Volume 1 p.119

 Pete Stewart