Keith Sanger reports on the discovery of the earliest evidence for bellows-pipes in Scotland

Most of the early history of the bagpipe in Scotland leans more on theory than hard facts. The oldest surviving instrument we have are the original parts of the ‘MacIntyre Pipes’ which only date back to 1674.1 Beyond that the evidence has to come from some stone carvings and manuscript illuminations, sometimes of debatable accuracy. This can certainly be augmented with contemporary written references, but these also lean more towards generalisations rather than solid detailed descriptions of the actual instrument.
We now know a lot about the pipers themselves, their names, where they were and in many cases what their function was, but the only thing we can say with any certainty about their instruments is that by circa 1600 there were two sizes of bagpipe in use. One described in contemporary terms as ‘small’ and the other as ‘Large’, or more commonly in Scots as ‘Great’. Beyond that, over the course of the 17th century, there are a number of references to the cost of a bagpipe or its repair and the purchase of new bags2 but it is not until 1671 that another firm description appears. This occurred in a work by the English playwright Thomas Shadwell which referred to a snuffle worse than a Scotch Bag Pipe that has got a flaw in the Bellows.3
Until now that was the earliest datable evidence that some Scottish pipers were using bellows-blown pipes, but a recent discovery, (by TB), has indicated that bellows were actually in use by around 1633 or earlier. The evidence comes from an entry in the Rutherglen Burgh Court book from the 21 February 1637 when a piper called William Jack was ordered to pay Richard Meikle piper in Strathaven the sum of £5 along with 10 shillings of expenses. The debt was described as ffor the pryce of ane great pype ane pair of pype bellowes ane small pype bage and for the counter burdoun of ane great pype. These were bought and received by Jack from Meikle about four years previously according to Jack’s own confession.4 The piper Richard Meikle does not seem to have been noticed before, but William Jack is probably the piper of that name who served in the Earl of Eglinton’s regiment between 1640-41.5
Although short, apart from the pair of pype bellowes and ‘pair’ in this instance is being used in the older Scots meaning of ‘complete’, the entry conforms with that early division of Scottish bagpipes into ‘large’ and a small’ sizes. However in this instance it adds a new variation to the description with what seems to be an optional extra with its reference to the counter burdoun of ane great pype. The use of ‘counter’ in this context to describe a ‘burdoun’ or drone seems to mirror the word’s seventeenth century use of the term ‘counter tenor’ to describe a higher pitched male voice. In this case it presumably indicates a drone of higher pitch than the bass drone of the ‘great pipe’ and what would in today’s Great Highland pipe be simply called a tenor drone.

Keith Sanger and Thomas Brochard
4 May 2019


2 Sanger, K. ‘Patronage or the price of the piper’s bag’. Common Stock. Volume 24, No 2, (December 2009).
3 Shadwell, Thomas. The Humorists. Act !, (1671)
4 Glasgow City Archives. RU2/1/2, fo. 45v
5 Sanger, K. ‘The pyper has gone for a soldier’, Common Stock. Volume 24, No 1, (June 2009).

 On the subject of ‘small pip’ and ‘great pip’, Keith Sanger also sent us this, from the Stirling Presbytery Minutes for 1600:

The quilk day comparit James mcfarlane piper in auchinbowie quha being accusit for prophanatione of ye sabbath be playing upon publiclie upon that craig callit ye peace craig querby many pepill was conveinit to dancing at ye quilk tyme tulzeing and bludshyd fell out to the dishonre of god and the profanation of his holie sabbath. The said james confessed that Alexander Bruce appierand of auchin bowie his master tuke him violentlie furth of his house and brak his small pip Because he refusit to play and thairafter compellit him to play upon the great pip and alledgis all that he did , he was compellit [therto] & the brethrein ordaines ye said alexander bruce to be [produced] to answer for ye said offence and .... ‘