Ian Kinnear describes two early sets of bellows pipes from the North-East of Scotland

I have been working as a professional smallpipe maker for over 20 years and have been located in Edzell, Angus since 2006. I am aware of a rich history of bellows piping in this part of Scotland and have been lucky to work on a number of old original sets from this area over the years. However, nothing quite prepared me for the Davidson sets which turned up in Glenesk a few years ago. This article is about how they came to my attention, their provenance and what I feel is their significance. As a pipe maker I am interested in them from an organological perspective – what we can learn from them about the instruments and making of that period. Having recently completed an MLitt in ethnology I am interested in how they can also give an insight into how instruments develop in response to changing fashions and how and why they may fall out of and come back into use. I am interested in how a constantly changing cultural landscape can present new contexts and functions for instruments which became irrelevant several generations ago.
It was a few years ago, after piping at the Tarfside Highland Games in Glenesk, that Angus Davidson first mentioned his grandfather’s pipes to me. Angus, now in his eighties and a lifelong resident in Glenesk, told me that although his father was a fiddler his grandfather had been a piper. My interest was awakened when Angus told me the pipes his grandfather had played were not like my Highland pipes but had some bent bits of metal tube….and he still had them in the attic somewhere! A few months later Angus appeared at my workshop with a polythene sack containing his grandfather William Davidson’s pipes. When I opened the unceremonious packaging I found it contained parts of 2 sets of pipes – a set of border/reel/ lowland pipe drones (2 tenors and a bass) complete and still reeded and a set of pastoral pipes which were in quite poor order and missing the tenor drone. Both sets are made in laburnum with bone mounts suggesting they are somewhat older than the 19th century era when William Davidson would have played them. I assembled the bass drone on the lowland set and, observing they were still reeded but not wanting to remove the drones which were seized in the stock, I cautiously blew through the stock. A comic book puff of dust came out of the drones followed by a rich raspy drone sound as they kicked into life. I tuned the bass to the tenors and they locked into a pretty solid tone very close to A 440. I was amazed! Over 100 years in an attic and these drones, with cane reeds which I could see were not in the best of order, tuned straight out of the “box”! They produce a bit more volume than is currently fashionable with borders pipes and this is probably largely due to the wide diameter of the reeds. The bass is 12.5mm in diameter and the tenors 9mm and they have been tapered quite a bit to fit the reed seats. They appear to be made in elder and there has been substantial shaving of the tongues to make them work at a comfortable pressure.


Although the pastoral set are not in a playing condition they are extremely well made and look to have been a good instrument in their day. They are a simple instrument with no regulators or chanter keys. This along with their construction in laburnum and bone would suggest they are a quite early set surviving in use into the late 19th century. The drone tops are similar to the lotus style common on Hugh Robertson sets but unfortunately there is no sign of a maker’s mark. The chanter is in the baroque oboe style that we see on many pastoral sets with double bulb at the neck and a detachable foot join with one tone hole. The ferrules are hand rolled tapered ferrules in brass, and the tubes have also been rolled out of sheet and formed into a lovely curve with fitted end caps to fit over the wooden joints to which they connect, to save any danger of splitting. As is common with pastoral sets the bass drone is linked through the top of the stock which is a neat solution removing the need for a second bend and keeping the drone compact. Unfortunately, there has been some warping of the wooden parts in the bass drone and more significantly the chanter.

The chanter 12” in length and 17 ½” with the foot joint. The bore looks to be a straight taper between 3/16 and 7/16. I would say from the chanter size and testing reeds in the drones that this set would have played close to Eb.

glenesk pastoral

Although not the best surviving examples of borders or pastoral pipes for me one of the most interesting things about these 2 sets of pipes is their provenance. Many old sets of pipes appear in auctions or car boot sales and while they are interesting in themselves they have no back story. With William Davidson’s pipes I was able to speak with his grandson Angus to find out something about the man and musician. William Davidson was born in Glenesk in 1836 and died in 1904 So roughly speaking he would have been of an age to play these pipes between 1850 and 1900 which is quite late for bellows piping (particularly pastoral piping) in Scotland, and would lend weight to the idea that the north east was one of the areas of Scotland where bellows piping survived longest. There are a couple of interesting sets of pastoral and union pipes in the national collection of the Museum of Scotland which have strong links to the North East. One set was bought at auction alongside a manuscript with a name and address for William Mackie in Aberdeen as well as correspondence with makers in Dublin about maintenance. This correspondence would suggest that this set was still being played in the late 1880’s but that local makers with the expertise to maintain them were hard to find.1 There is also the wonderful blackwood and silver presentation set of Union pipes which were gifted to Montrose piper Robert Millar in 1830. These also came with a collection of music which give a great insight into the repertoire of that era.2 Although William Davidson’s sets are more simple and not in as good condition, viewed alongside sets with similar provenance like the Miller set and the Mackie set, oral testimony of Francis Markie playing at fairs into early 20th century and with the knwon presence of 5 bellows pipe makers in Aberdeen (Naughtan, Davidson, Massie, Mark and Sharp) operating until the mid- 19th century3 these Davidson pipes provide another piece in the jigsaw which helps build a more accurate picture of bellows piping in the North East of Scotland. It is great to be able to put a pin in the map in Glenesk and say that in the 19th century bellows pipes were played in this community. For me as a pipe maker making bellows pipes 15 miles away at the foot of the Glen it was the equivalent of a palaeontologist finding a dinosaur skeleton in his back yard!
Although quite remote now, and with a road that is a dead end, in the 19th century Tarfside would have been a vibrant rural community on a drove road that linked farmers in Deeside with livestock markets in Angus, like Trinity outside Brechin. Within this community William, whose mother’s family can be traced back to 1768 in the Glen although his father came from Deeside, worked as a joiner and undertaker. He was born, lived all his life and ran his business from the family homestead at Dykeneuk, north of Tarfside. He had eight children including James, Angus’ father who carried on the joinery business and was also a musician being well known as a fiddle player in the Glen.4 Angus told me “Father and Geordie Skene (Alastair Skene’s uncle) and my Aunt was very good at the piano and they used to belt away night after night at dances and things like that”. Although he never met his grandfather he remembers the pipes being in the house and his father talked of grandfather William playing them. “As far about the pipes…they were always in a drawer. That was the bits that you saw. That’s all I’ve ever seen of them. I think there was a wee bit of the bag or cloth but that’s all I’ve ever seen of them. My father used to tell me that my grandfather used to strap on the bellows and play the things. I don’t know if he was ever any good at it or anything, Dad used to say that he used to play them”.
When I visited Angus to find out more about the pipes and his grandfather he said he had come across another piece that used to be kept with them and after a bit of rummaging produced a lovely boxwood flute in F. It is stamped Beckett Wood and Ivy, London who were making baroque style flutes in the 19th century. Angus also talked about a smaller ebony instrument which sounded like a piccolo size but he thinks was blown like a whistle rather than a flute. This was given to a niece some years ago. I was interested in the idea that in the second half of the 19th century in the north east of Scotland William Davidson may have been playing 2 different types of bellows pipes which potentially required different fingerings as well as flutes and whistles but not highland pipes. All these instruments are designed as ensemble instruments and their function in a rural setting like Tarfside would probably have been playing with other instruments such as piano and fiddle for dancing. The pastoral set in particular provide an important link between bellows pipes which had existed for several hundred years in Scotland and the modern uilleann pipes. When I grew up and learnt pipes in the 1970’s and 80’s the only instrument you would expect to find in your pipe case would be highland pipes. This has largely changed and many of the younger generation of pipers also play bellows pipes, whistles and flutes and there is an increasing interest amongst Scottish pipers in uilleann (and pastoral) pipes. It is fascinating to think that the contents of William Davidson’s pipe case in the 19th Century so closely resembles that of a modern-day piper given that this was not the case for 100 years. What these instruments reflect is a desire to play with other musicians and for pipes and pipers to be an integrated part of our musical culture.
These 2 sets of pipes also provide a reminder of how instruments’ fortunes are often linked to fashion. Although we think of these instruments as “traditional” (i.e. rooted in the past) so much of their history and development has been about embracing contemporary ideas from outwith. Pastoral pipes are a great example of how, as people moved from rural areas into the cities during periods of industrialisation, they wanted an instrument to play in drawing rooms and theatres that could recreate some essence or romantic version of their pastoral roots. For indoor and non - dance settings they were looking for an ensemble instrument which was quieter than the lowland pipe and more versatile to blend with piano, cello and violin. The pastoral pipe that evolved in the 18th century is a fusion of traditional and contemporary ideas from continental Europe, Britain and Ireland. By combining European ideas in the form of the baroque oboe with something similar to bellows blown lowland or smallpipe drones5 the pastoral pipe was developed and produced by makers in Edinburgh, London, Dublin and Aberdeen. Their market was probably gentleman pipers and the contexts where they would have been playedwere urban high society drawing rooms and theatres as well as grand country houses. In this respect William Davidson’s pastoral set were probably played out of the normal context for these instruments, more in the rustic rural setting itself than the romantic version of it that these instruments had been developed to recreate. However, as in Ireland, the prevalence of large country houses and castles in Aberdeenshire, Angus and the Mearns may have provided a suitable context for these types of pipes to stay relevant for longer than in other parts of Scotland. Ultimately their popularity in Scotland was to be fairly short-lived as the Highland pipes gained dominance through the military, and in the 1870’s the accordion arrived from Europe and started to replace the bellows pipes as one of the instruments of choice for dancing.
The development of the pastoral pipes and their subsequent evolution into what we recognise today as the Irish uilleann pipe are a great example of how makers respond to contemporary contexts and changes in function and musical taste.6 Similarly, I feel the strength of the current resurgence of interest in bellows pipes in Scotland was due to people becoming interested in these instruments again, not to reconstruct a musical idiom from the past, but in response to a desire to facilitate integration of pipes into the modern cultural construct of the folk group. The folk revival had seen the development of performance groups combining singers and instrumentalists playing traditional songs and tunes largely for concert audiences at festival and folk clubs. Although modern amplification allowed the integration of highland pipes into this developing scene, pipers like Jimmy Anderson with Clutha and Rab Wallace with The Whistlebinkies saw the benefits of a quieter, bellows blown bagpipe which could play in more suitable keys for other instruments than the Bb of the Highland Pipes. 30 years on, there are any number of groups in Scotland and beyond utilising bellows pipes in this type of setting both for performance groups and dance or ceilidh bands. While the function and contexts may be different from in William Davidson’s day the idea of pipes being made and used as ensemble instruments to play with fiddle, flute, piano etc. would be very familiar to him.

bass drone

It was really a chance conversation that brought William Davidson and his pipes to my attention. But it has made me realise there may be many more similar instruments hidden away in drawers and attics. The survival of these sets is probably partly due to the fact that the Davidson family have stayed in the same community for several generations and also, as Angus remarked, he never throws anything away! Many sets have probably not been so lucky. Largely because these instruments are unidentifiable – certainly without a bag they don’t look like what people may have in their mind as a bagpipe – many sets may have been dumped over the years. I hope there are also many waiting to be discovered which will help build the picture of bellows piping in the North East of Scotland and help us understand the demand that sustained a number of bellows pipe makers in Aberdeen into the second half of the 19th century and why this style of pipe may have survived here longer than in other areas of Scotland. It would appear that the furthest William Davidson’s pipes travelled since he put them down was when his grandson Angus brought them to my workshop 15 miles down the glen. It was a great thrill to be the first person to hear those lowland pipe drones in over 100yrs. I am now working on a reconstruction of the pastoral set and look forward to playing these in Tarfside to bring the sound of William Davidson’s pipes to life once again in Glenesk.
1 Hugh Cheape, Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National instrument (Edinburgh: NMS Enterprises Ltd 2008), p. 99.
2 Cheape, pp. 120-122.
3 Jeannie Campbell, Highland Bagpipe Makers (2011), pp. 26-30.
4 Margaret Fairweather Michie, Glenesk: The History and Culture of an Angus Community, ed by Alexander Fenton and John Beech (East Linton: Tuckwell Press Ltd, 2000), p. 242.
5 Cheape, p.80.6 Ross Anderson, The Pastoral Repertoire, Rediscovered http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14/music/pastoral.pdf, p. 4.
Editor’s note: This article was originally printed in the programme of the 2016 Pipers’ Gathering