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KEITH SANGER follows in the footsteps of the Brothers Skene, whose recorded piping foray across the Border in 1729 reveals some interesting aspects of both Scottish and English piping at
the time.

ON THE 8th of September 1729, George Skene of Skene, his younger brother David, their friend Thomas Burnett of Kirkhill and one servant, all mounted on horseback, left Edinburgh on a journey to London which was to take them 30 days. During this journey George kept a diary, now deposited in the National Library of Scotland, and from this account it is clear that both he and his brothers were pipers. A literal  interpretation of the use of "we" the diary might extend this to include Thomas Burnett as a piper as well.

The first reference to playing occurs when they halted first night at the village of Linton. An evening of conviviality would seem to have been blunted by the presence of a Lady Murray's Chaplain for “the parson prayed when I played on the pipe and reckoned us reprobates, prayed audibly two or three times by break of day and drank alone three chopins of wine”. A chopin was almost an English quart - a prodigious quantity for a man of the cloth.

The following morning the party moved on, and again "played on the pipe” during a break for lunch at Bield. On the evening of the third day the party had reached Carlisle where they stayed at the King's Arms: "I was very weary but played on the pipe which brought the mistress, her two daughters and all the family to listen as something singular". The next day was spent sight-seeing in Carlisle and in the evening, “we came home against six and played on the violine and pipe and danced with our landlady's eldest daughter".

Leaving Carlisle, they moved on to the Crown in Penrith where they met the English piper James Bell and in the following passage from the diary produced what is probably the only direct comparison of Scottish and English bellows-blown pipes written by a contemporary source.

Here we got the famous piper James Bell, who plays exceeding fine upon the small pipe closs hand but plays beyond the whole world I may say on the double small pipe, he following the small pipe manner, and winding them even, thinking it a grace on the big one, tho' he winds the small one fine, yet he has some very clever touches and graces on the big pipe, and upon the small one a great many beautiful ones peculiar only to himself. He brought with him besides his big one which is so flatt that it tunes to the violine, two set of double small pipes and two sett of single ones, each differently key'd. I bought his sharpest double one for David which has three burdens for which with a bellows pay'd half a guinea. He admired the burdens of my pipe but did not fancy the chanter so much however I observ'd that he played better and sweeter on them and with greater variety than on his own. In a word he makes more out, of variety in all parts with the double small one, than I thought cou'd possibly have been made of any small one. He beat Humphry at London and a high German, being sent for express on a wage of 1l000Libs sterl. and beat the famous fellow at Newcastle and was formally crowned King of the pipers there.

By the eighth day of the journey they had reached Preston where the diary records that they entertained on pipe and violin and "the whole town came to the windows tho' a rainy night and the mistress daughter danced and then came in a Bawd Mrs Alison, twixt 12 and one, we went to bed and the young madam to bed with one of the officers. Note: Our servant R. Walker was always taken for the piper by the bellows and they plagued him for tunes whenever he came."

Apart from the numerous references to the pipes, which would seem to have been the favoured instrument, the diary provides a comprehensive insight to the period. Fortunately a music manuscript compiled by George Skene circa 1717 is still extant and provides a sample of his repertoire. Catalogued as National Library of Scotland MS 5.2.21, it is usually described as fiddle music but “What I got Lat Yestreen - Bagpipe set", and "Gird the Cogie for Pipe Ingrams Set" are clearly pipe tunes and quite playable as written. Given the manuscript's provenance, it would seem probable that some of the other tunes in the book would also have been played by George on his pipes.

Thomas Burnett was the eldest of the three travellers, having been born in 1689, admitted to the Society of Advocates in 1722 and practising in Aberdeen till his death in 1763. George Skene succeeded to the Lairdship of the lands of Skene, near Aberdeen in 1724, aged 29. He died in 1756 and the regard in which he was held locally was shown by his annual election to the Rectorship of Marshall College and university from 1737 to circa 1745. David Skene, who was 21 years old at the time of the journey, died at sea in 1733 while returning from the East Indies.

The diary, now National Library of Scotland MS 3806, was edited and published in the "Miscellany of the Third Spalding Club vol. II (1940)", from a transcript made before the original was temporarily mislaid. Comparison shows the edited text to be an accurate version of the original. The manuscript also contains, among some later material, a list of expenditure incurred during the journey. This contains two relevant entries: "to Linton piper 3d" and "To Davids double pipe bellows and iron case 11s6d". An iron case? Now that is tender loving care for the instrument