Paul Roberts ponders an enigmatic comment from history.

The following is an extract from an unfinished monograph on the three regional bagpipes frequently referred to in 17th century English sources: the “Lincolnshire”, “Lancashire” and “Scotch” bagpipes. This grew out of two short talks to the International Bagpipe Organization and the Bagpipe Society in 2016-17, and a short article based on those talks which appeared in Chanter, Winter 2017.

Some background may be necessary to make sense of the extract. The essay suggests that the Lincolnshire, Lancashire and Scotch bagpipes were probably refined “pastoral” instruments rather than authentic peasant bagpipes, the names containing a strong metaphorical component, and it stresses the importance of the east coast sea highways in their evolution and dissemination: both the maritime connections to Scandinavia, the Baltic, and the Low Countries, and the major coastal trade route linking Kent to Caithness. It suggests that the European “Dudey”, a Pastoral small pipe, entered east coast ports from northern Europe and became the “Scotch” (later “Northumberland”) bagpipe, and that it formed the template for the bellows-blown great pipe that appears in the paintings of the two Van Heemskercks (London/Oxford c.1680-1720), an instrument that is clearly the ancestor of our present day “Border pipe”. It argues that the Heemskerck instrument was in fact the “Lancashire bagpipe” of period literature, and that while there is some evidence for Lancashire roots, much of the development and refinement probably took place in London. Moreover.......

“………There is yet another region to be considered in the evolution of the Heemskerck/Lancashire bagpipe. In the late 18th and 19th centuries Tyneside, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen were the main centres for manufacture of this instrument (and other types of bellows pipe) and north-east Scotland was to remain the instrument’s most important outpost in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is tempting to see this deep connection as a pointer to an original heartland. There is one piece of evidence for this, though as usual it is problematic. In 1814 the antiquarian Alexander Campbell interviewed Walter Scott’s uncle Thomas about the “Border bagpipe”. Among other things Scott made a surprising observation:
“Mr Thomas Scott is decidedly of opinion that the Border bellows-bagpipe is of the Highland (or, at any rate, the north-east coast) origin, as all the pipers with whom he was acquainted positively declared. This is a remarkable fact, not generally known, and difficult of belief.”

Campbell was only the first of many to find this hard to believe. After all, there is no real evidence for the instrument in either Highland or north-east Scotland before the late 18th century, unless we stretch things a bit and count the Ballinton piper (who may be 18th century anyway, and who may be playing a smallpipe). And clearly Campbell, a Highlander himself, had no knowledge of the instrument in his native region. However, if we discount the “Highland” bit as reflecting a border farmer’s view of Scottish geography (or perhaps his nod to fashionable Highland Romanticism) and look at the all-important qualification “or, at any rate, the north-east coast”, it starts to make sense, as long as we realize the limits to Scott’s knowledge. His list of “the best bagpipers of the border, most of whom he knew personally”, in fact only names seven individuals, six of them from the same small area of north Roxburghshire - four from a 15 mile stretch of the Tweed valley between Galashiels and Kelso, and two from Jedburgh some 15 miles to the south: i.e. all from Scott’s own local area. He later mentions the Allan family of Yetholm, about 8 miles from Kelso. So this is a small and geographically very limited selection of men, and given their proximity to the east coast sea-highway (23 miles from Kelso to Berwick-on-Tweed, 35 miles from Galashiels to Edinburgh) it seems quite likely that they would indeed have sourced their instruments from the area between Edinburgh and Aberdeen, the heartland of bagpipe manufacture in 18th century Scotland, and a major source of any new ideas coming from England or Europe. The problem with extrapolating from this an ultimate north-east Scottish origin is that a bagpipe known in London in the 1680s, and possibly as early as the 1630s, could have been travelling up and down the east coast maritime highway for 100 years by the time Scott was born in 1731, and be nearly 200 years old at the time of his meeting with Campbell. Ultimately the survival of this instrument in Northumberland and eastern Scotland is probably more indicative of the rapid decline of bagpipes south of the Tyne in the 18th century than of anything else. But perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for a single point of origin anyway, particularly for the simple idea of configuring a great pipe like the smallpipe, which could easily have occurred in several areas independently: there is no reason the instrument should not have Lancashire, London and Aberdeenshire roots, with ideas flowing back and forth along a three point network centred on London.”