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This talk, given by Roderick Cannon at the Peebles 1997 Collogue, was illustrated with overhead projector and taped music (as well as practice chanter on occasion).

I’m going to let William Dixon himself have the first word - or rather the first notes:.                      

Music Example 1: Wally As The Marquess Ran (Dixon No.22)(1)


I played that piece on the Scottish Highland pipes, simply because those are the pipes I play.

I know Matt would want me to stress that in his view the Dixon music belongs to the                   Border pipes, with nine-note chanter and three drones, but bellows blown and not so strident as the piob mhor.

But with great respect to Matt’s view I would differ from this, not just because the Highland pipes are musically so close to the Border pipe, but more because I believe that really good music will transfer from one medium to another and still be good music. At any rate I tried to play as close as I could to what I imagine to be Dixon’s style - reasonably fast, with not much pointing, and with a minimum of grace notes.

So, if you have never heard Dixon before, what do you make of it? This piece is typical in every way: it has a long set of variations; it is abstract i.e. music just to play and listen to, not a march, song, dance or whatever; and it has a very simple, almost mechanical structure. Each part is made in sections. It goes XY XX, in Matt’s notation, where X means a bar of music which is essentially built on the note A - you might say, in the key of A - and Y is a bar in or on the note B. The parts all follow the pattern absolutely strictly. On paper it looks unenterprising, but in practice, it works.


On the slide I’ve highlighted the sections in colour, green for X, red for Y, and I'll do this with all the other pipe tunes I play. To us pipers, this X and Y, green and red structure is still quite familiar. To most other musicians today it must seem odd and unfamiliar; but the first point I want to make in this brief introduction is that, as we roll back the centuries, Dixon fits in more and more with general musical practice.

It used to be known as playing “divisions on a ground”. In the seventeenth century it was a standard composing technique. The ground is a succession of notes in the bass, which is repeated over and over. The composer is free to invent any tune to play over it as long as it is consistent with the bass harmony. In the simpler compositions, the different divisions also relate to the opening statement of the tune, so they come out as variations on the theme. But entirely different tunes could be and often were composed over the same ground. A famous exposition of the method was The Division Viol, a book of instructions first published in 1655 by Christopher Simpson.(2) Here is an example of what he says:

When you are to play Division to a Ground, I would have you, in the first place, to Play over the Ground itself, plainly and distinctly; for these reasons: 1. That others may hear what notes you divide upon. 2. That yourself may be better possessed of the Ayre of the Ground, in case you know it not before. 3. That he who plays the Ground unto you may       better perceive the Measure of Time.

Although many pieces were composed, written, and published to be played as written, there was also a practice of extemporising over a ground (we still have it in the form of the 12-bar blues), and indeed Simpson’s title makes that clear. The ground may pass through a considerable number of notes (or chords) and it can have the effect of a real tune in itself, as in this nice example:

Music Example 2, The Irish Ground (from Playford, c. 1701).(3) Here played on piano.


This little tune is from Playford’s Dancing Master and it has a significant instruction to the musicians “The Bass played twice over to every couple before they begin”.

Divisions came to be a name for variations, as in the rare book published by Thomas Marsden in 1705 “A collection of original Lancashire Hornpipes...containing divisions on each.” (4) Marsden’s book contains 25 pieces, with anything from 3 to 18 “divisions”. The bass notes are not printed, but the sectional structure is just as apparent as in Dixon, as you will hear when I play one of the pieces in a few minutes.

The Marsden and Dixon grounds are much less tuneful then Playford’s Irish one and those of the master composers like Purcell. In fact they are usually made of just two notes, or at most three, in one of a small number of patterns such as XXYX or XYXY. Matt has analysed the tunes on this basis, and the same patterns can be found in a lot of contemporary Scottish tunes of the same period. But this two-tone principle is much older: it has been traced through popular dance music of the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries and back to the middle ages.

In a comprehensive survey by Professor J.M. Ward, many of the examples are actually bagpipe pieces;(5) and I can’t not point out that most of the Highland pibrochs are also twotoned in this sense, though in many of them the X/Y patterns are more complicated than in the dance tunes. Whether the two-tone pattern originated with the bagpipe, or has simply survived longer, is a question for music historians.


Here is another fine tune - Dixon’s masterpiece according to Matt, and as anyone will agree after learning to play it:

Music Example 3. Dorrington. (Dixon No. 2). First four parts only, played on Highland   bagpipe.


Here again I have highlighted the sections in colour. But there is a big difference. The opening section of each strain is in, or on, the note G, which is dissonant with the drone, and the closing section is in or on A. And whenever we come to the note C it is sharp, even though to a classical ear, or rather to a classical eye scanning the music, it looks wrong and should be natural. Matt discusses the effect in connection with this tune and several others in the Dixon MS. This kind of tonality is not a feature of Northumbrian pipe music today, and I’m pretty sure it’s not a common feature of fiddle tunes on either side of the Border.

But I want to stress that it is a well-established feature of Highland bagpipe music, even in the most Highland repertoire of all, the pibroch:

Music Example 4. Lament for the Viscount of Dundee(6,7)


I hope you can hear the tone-pattern in spite of the rather slow tempo. And from the small music repertoire, here is another:

Music Example 5. Cabar Feidh


At the risk of offending some fellow pipers I have stated elsewhere,(8) and I still consider, that most if not all tunes of this sort were adapted to the pipes from elsewhere. At any rate, it is true to say that the best known ones can be found in fiddle or song versions with different and more “conventional” arrangements of sharps and flats.(9)

But now I want to take this opportunity of retracting something I said much earlier on the same subject.(10) When searching for possible English bagpipe tunes, back in 1970, I went through a number of seventeenth and eighteenth century viol and fiddle collections. I found a considerable number that sounded “pipey”, some indeed which still survived a century or more later as pipe tunes, and one or two actually stated to be “bagpipe hornpipes” or “in the bagpipe manner”. But many of them, although quite restricted in range, still would not fit the chanter because when transposed to the right pitch they had at least one note above high A. I mean, transposed in the normal musical sense, keeping the same arrangement of tones and semitones in the scale. I considered then that if they were indeed bagpipe tunes, they were meant for a chanter that would overblow to the second octave. That may have been so in some cases, but now I prefer a simpler explanation for most of them.

Roderick Cannon and Matt Seattle

Photo; Bill Sutherland

They could have been played on a ninenote chanter with note intervals much as we have them today, starting on low

G and using the sharp C in the A                   passages, regardless of what classical

purists might think. Of course the bagpipe C even today is not as sharp as the orchestral C sharp; it is tuned lower to give a good consonance with the drones. Maybe on the old chanters it was lower still. Maybe the people who put the tunes on to other instruments perceived the notes as sharp because their training made them expect them that way. Maybe... but whatever the explanation, and however the early chanters may have sounded, I am now much happier with these tunes on the old unreconstructed bagpipe. That is something I have learned from Dixon, and my last piece is a case in point. It is printed by Marsden in the

or if you like, in a minor mode of A, that is, with a signature of one sharp but beginning on the note A. Ten years ago it was revived by John Offord and printed with some much needed editorial corrections. Now here it is with an editorial emendation - an extra sharp at the front, Dixon-fashion:

Music Example 6. Mr. Preston’s Hornpipe. (T. Marsden, 1705; ed. J. Offord, 1985(11);              re-ed. RDC 1997)


It was a great day for piping when Matt Seattle recognised the significance of the William

Dixon MS; I would like to thank him especially for letting me in on the secret so early (it’s

a shame I was away when he first phoned up with the news, but Elizabeth still talks of the excitement of that first disclosure); and also on behalf of everybody for his energy and enterprise in publishing it so promptly. Thanks also to Sally Tudge, for the beautiful playing of the Irish Ground, and to Elizabeth Gruer for some useful discussion at the Collogue.

(1) Seattle, Matt. (ed). The Master Piper, Nine notes that shook the world, a Border bagpipe repertoire prick'd down by William Dixon AD 1733. Dragonfly Music, 10 Gibson Street, Newbiggin by the Sea, Northumberland NE64 6PE. 1995

(2)Simpson, C. The Division- Viol or the art of playing ex tempore upon a ground. First published 1659. A lithographic facsimile of the second edition [1665], with foreword by N.

Dolmetsch, published by J. Curwen & Sons Ltd, London, n.d. p.56

(3)Playford, J. The English Dancing Master, 11th ed. 1701). Tune reprinted in Barlow, J.

(ed.) The complete country dance tunes from Playford’s Dancing Master (1651 - ca.1728). Faber Music Ltd, London, 1985. p.102

(4)Marsden, T. A collection of original Lancashire hornpipes, old and new. Containing               divisions upon each. London, printed by William Pearson, for Henry Playford 1705. (The British Library has the only copy).

(5)Ward, J.M. “The Lancashire Hompipe”, in L. Lockwood and E. Roesner (ed.) Essays in Musicology: a tribute to Alvin Johnson American Musicological Association, 1990. pp 140-173.

(6)Transliterated from the Campbell Canntaireachd MS (c. 1797), vol 2, NLS MS 3715, tune 30, where the title is Tha[i]nig Gorrie, meaning Corrie(?)’s coming, i.e. a war march. ‘The better known version played today as “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee” comes from Angus MacKay’s collection published in 1838. It has some of the G notes changed to A. But Joseph MacDonald makes it clear that in 1760 he knew the tune much as it is shown here.

(7)Cannon, R.D. Joseph MacDonald's Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe The

Piobaireachd Society, 1994. p.72(8)Cannon, R.D. The Highland bagpipe and its music. John Donald, Edinburgh, 1985. p.40

(9)Examples: John Paterson’s Mare, Cameronian Rant, Cabar Feidh; Dixon Tunes 2, 38

(10)Cannon, R.D. "English Bagpipe Music". Folk Music Journal ii, 3, (1972). pp 176-219

(11) Offord, J. John of the Greeny Cheshire Way. Published by the Friends of Folk Music,

55 Kingsway, London SW14, 1985. p.52