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james livingston haddington 92a3d
This contemporary drawing shows James Livingston, toun piper of Haddington until 1783, doing his rounds accompanied by the 'swascher' or drummer and a local simpleton. Here Keith Sanger delves into the records to unearth more information about Lowland pipers

THE MAJOR sources of information concerning pipers in Lowland Scotland are in most cases derived from brief references in the surviving contemporary records. The search is still far from exhaustive, with the bulk of the unedited material that is available relatively untouched, but sufficient has probably now been recovered for us to consider how far the nature of the source material has influenced the conventional image of the Lowland piper and his traditional status in society.

Records were not kept to provide biographical detail and certainly the piper was not alone among the population in gaining an entry through a misdemeanour, particularly with the kirk sessions' records, which provide an endless variety of transgressions - William Wricht and Thomas Edmane in Stirling in 1582, probably for playing at Sunday weddings which were subsequently banned; Thomas Clochope, Jhone Hagy and William Williamsun, pypers "all admonisit to keip holy the Sabbath and not to use ony pypeing in the nicht time in the stretis nor efter supper, not na uther filthy playing" at St Andrews in 1590, and William Blythe pyper in Leucharis comperit in 1600 (2); John Paterson, piper in Mearns and Robert Fisher, piper residing in Lochwinnoch, cited for "keeping a green on Sundays" in 1607” (3); and Laurence Clerk, “pyper comperit in the parochin of Dron (Abernethy)" in 1620 (4).

The list could continue for many more pages and with few exceptions the pipers that appear in these records are the objects of the Kirk's wrath’. Turning to the parish registers for births where a more neutral tone of reporting would be expected, a measure of ministerial censure continues to break through, an example being those for Dumfermline which record that Janet Robertson, "ane beggar", had a daughter, Janet "quhom scho fatherit on one   Galloway, ane vagabund pyper" (6) . The impression of pipers conveyed by these kirk  records is of a troublesome group of musicians of no great status in society, the image which seems in fact to have become permanently associated with the profession, yet there are grounds for suggesting that this is a one-sided view, a product of the nature of church records.

To retain a perspective, it should be observed that all strata of society feature in the kirk   records and it is predominantly the less savoury aspects of life that are most prominent, although the frequency with which the ministers were moved to censure their flocks suggests that their admonitions may not have carried quite the weight that has been         believed. On examining the secular records, a more balanced picture emerges, the good as well as the bad, and among the earliest references to the former is that of "John pipar of St Johnstoune" who was sufficiently graced with royal favour that the King provided the "Toquher" for his marriage in 1532 (7). Indeed St Johnstown of Perth seems to have taken a benevolent view of pipers, still employing a John Jacksone as town piper in 1691 and with recorded payments for pipers up to 1774 (8).

After the church, court records contain the most detailed information concerning those members of the piping fraternity who attracted their attention, and pipers appeared on both sides of the action. For example, on January 17, 1502/3, at the Dunfermline burgh assize one Rob Purrock was found guilty of assaulting Andro piper and "brekkin of his pip" (9). Another injured party, quite literally, was one John Thane, "pyper in Kingorne", (Kinghorn in Fife), whose murderer, James Baxter, was put to the horn at Cupar mercat cross in 1520 (10). By contrast, the Calder Barony Court in an entry for an assize in 1586 records that   Andro Purdy was to " pay James Muir, smyth in Calder, ten pounds in full satisfaction and assythment of the hurting of the said James Muir in his right arm committed by John Forbes pyper (11).

For the first recorded habitual offender, Habbie Simson of Kilbarchan fame would seem to take the credit. Hab or Habbie are diminutives of the name Robert, common to the west of Scotland, and it is as "Robert Simpsonne pyper" that he was banished from the Burgh of Paisley in 1603 for his "misbehaviour and certane offences, injuries and wrongis oft and diverse tymes done and committit be him to’ the inhabitants thairof in their awin housis within the samin wes banishit furthe thairof as the said act beirs; and notwithstanding thairof and in contempt of the saidis Baillies and Counsell the said Robert privetlie repairit within the said Burghe and continwit upon the xxvj day of this instant publictlie when he was apprehendit and put in the stocks and as yet remanes thairin for his contempt and injuries, that the said Robert Simpsonne, pyper, sould in nawayis in onietime cuming resort nor repair within this Burghe without speciall licence of the Baillies".

By January 30, 1605, a suitably chastened pyper was making a supplication to the Baillies and Counsale that “quhair the said Robert be his misbehavious within the Tolbuith of the samin, quhair he remainit, induring thair will, and at his releis and libertie of his awin     consent as principall with William Cumeyne, burges of the said Burgh as cautioner become actit in the Borow Court Buiks of the said Burthe, that he sauld nawyse repair within this Burgh after the dait of the said Act without licence of the Baillies thairof under the pane of twentie punds toties quoties. And seeing the said robert is now penitent for his misbehaviour bygane and intends be Gods (help) to stryve to mend in tyme cuming,B eseiching the saids Baillies and Councill, thairfore, that the said Act may be dischargit and delet further of the said buiks, and that he might be licentiat be the said Baillies and counsale to repaire within the said Burgh".

From the internal evidence of Sempill of Belltrees' poem on Habbie Simson, the poem and the piper's death are dated to circa 1645-68; he would therefore have been a fairly young man at the time of his involvement with the Burth of Paisley, suggesting a birth date no     earlier than the 1580s (12).

Possibly the saddest reference found among the legal records is that of Ann Hastie, daughter of Robert Hastie, town piper of Dunbar. Imprisoned in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh convicted of child murder, the unfortunate girl was banished to the plantations in America for life on August 8, 1760 (13).

References to burgh pipers abound, and while the Musselburgh magistrates seemed suitably distressed when James Waugh, the common town piper, was abducted by a battalion of soldiers in 1691 (14), taken overall the burgh pipers were a pretty mixed bunch. Most burghs seem to have employed pipers at some period in their history but the relationship between employer and employee became very distant at times. However, the frequent declarations banning minstrels (and others) from the burghs can often be seen as a sensible precaution with the ever-present threat of pestilence. Burghs too were effectively "closed shops" of burgesses and there would have been a tendency to prevent competition for the resident   pipers who in some cases were themselves admitted as burgesses (15).

The ultimate achievement of a piper's ambition was probably, as in the Highlands, private patronage. It is difficult to gauge the full extent of the practice in Lowland Scotland but “he who pays the piper” can certainly be demonstrated from its most forceful application; "His master...brak his small pip...and thereafter compellit him to play on the great pip" (16), to the more conventional contracts of the late 17th century.

Two at least of these have survived. The first, dated July 26, 1678, is an obligation by William Job, violer and piper residing at Craiglockhart, to Mr John Clerk of Penicuik, acknow- ledging the receipt of a violin and case worth £48 which, with certain other causes and considerations, bound and obliged him to attend said Mr. John Clerk at his house of Newbigging, the town of Penicuik, or at Edinburgh for up to 40 days yearly during William's lifetime to play the violin or pipes as required by John Clerk (17). The second example is a tack dated February 18, 1695, granted by James Ogilvy of Cluny to Patrick Syme, piper in Coathill of two acres of land at Concragie for his lifetime in return for various piping duties (Clunie lies about four miles west of Blairgowrie), (18).


  • 1 Kirk ed, Stirling Presbytery Records 1581-1587, 84, 191-2.
  • 2 Kinlock ed, Reliquiae Antiquae Scoticae, 65, 74.
  • 3 Metcalfe, a History of Paisley, 203.
  • 4 Ecclestiastical History of Abernethy, 357.
  • 5 Two exceptions appear in the kirk session record for Dunfermline on August 10, 1647, a disbursement to Isabell Brown the “pypers wyff" and January 24, 1664, when James Brugh, drummer, was deleted for swearing of John Horne the piper.
  •  6 Paton ed, Parish registers of Dunfermline, 1561-1700, 247.
  • 7 Pitcairn's Criminal Trials, 279.
  • 8 Sandeman Library, Perth. MS B59/24/3/9 and B59/24/3/19.
    9, E. Beveridge ed, Burgh Records of Dunfermline, 1488-1584, 127.
  • 10 C. Dickinson ed, The Sheriff Court Book of Fife 1512-1522, 179.
  • 11 National Library of Scotland, MS 3724 £25.
  • 12 M. Metcalfe ed, Charters and Documents relating to the Burgh of Paisley (1163-1665) with extracts from the records of the town council (1594-1620), 256, 275-6; for discussion of the poem and dating, see K. Buthley, “Habbie Simson", in Bards and Makars, ed A. Aitken and R. Black in Gaelic Society of Inverness, transactions Vol L, 1976-78, note26, page 363,
  • 13 Dobson ed, Directory of Scots Banished to the American Plantations, 1650-1775, 73-
  • 14 Register of the Privy Council, Vol XVI, fol 269a.
  • 15 cf J. Anderson, The Burgesses and Guid Brethern of Glasgow, 1573-1750; Alexander Scott pyper, August 26, 1600, Thomas Boyill, March 13, 1601, and Donald Blair, October 25, 1714,
  • 16 Quoted in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue under pipe, (section ib)...a source of many useful references to pipes and piping.
  • 17 Scottish Record Office, GD 18/2285, My thanks to Sir John Clerk of Penicuik BT for permission to use this reference.
  • 18 Scottish Record Office, GD 16/28/186.