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Paul Roberts


Perusing the latest edition of Common Stock [Vol 15, No 2, Dec 2000] I notice that at least three contributors once again raise the issue of “appropriate” decoration in Border/Lowland piping. Personally I think it is perfectly appropriate for Highland pipers to transfer their music and style to bellows pipes, indeed, for anyone to play whatever they want and how- ever they want on any instrument. However, for those of us intent on recreating the music of the era there is a real issue here - what kind of decoration did the 18th century Border pipers use? The subject is not as opaque as many seem to think. I’ve been meaning to write a proper article on it for ages, in the meantime here’s a relatively quick summary of my own conclusions.

  • Take a bow, Mr B.W. Wakefield of Kentucky for at last suggesting what should have been obvious to enthusiasts years ago! Yes, pipers in England and lowland Scotland and eastern Ireland in the Georgian era undoubtedly used all the standard baroque A wide range of standard gracings were common to both popular and an music in this era to all instruments. The two most important were probably the shake or trill and the turn. The basic shake consisted of repeated beatings of the finger above the melody note and was usually represented on the stave by the symbol tr. The turn is the same figure as the modern Irish roll, performed by playing the first note above and then below the melody note, and was usually represented by the symbol ~ . There is evidence that in piping the shake may have often combined both these movements i.e. the shake was often resolved in a turn. In art music this was known as the turned shake.
  • There were some decorations which seem to have been particular to popular music, and some that may have been popular to piping - these include the figure modern Highland pipers call the ‘A’ birl.
  • The aforementioned birl and the double ‘F’ (which is just a short shake) are the only modern Highland decorations that were definitely also used on bellows pipes. However, though the Highland line was probably the most important cultural border in Britain at the time, no border is absolute. It would be surprising if all the Highland techniques were abso- lutely exclusive to the area, indeed it would be surprising if they all originated in the If bagpipes could enter the region from the south in the first place, then clearly bagpipe techniques could also travel in both directions. Personally I feel that the “rolling” doublings (e.g. double ‘E’, double ‘A’) work well on bellows pipes with their music, but that the “grunting” grips and throws (taorluath, lemluath etc) are best avoided. Ultimately this has to be an issue of personal taste.
  • Border pipes, smallpipes and Union pipes were played throughout northern England and lowland Scotland often by the same people. It surely follows that Northumbrian and Union piping should hold more clues to Border pipe technique than does Highland I would certainly recommend a good perusal of the Pastoral/Union pipe tutors produced by Geoghegan, O’Farrell and Colclough between about 1745 and 1840 and recently


republished by Pat Sky (but beware: his source edition of Geoghegan appears to have most of the section on decoration missing).

There are many clues to decoration in the structure of the music. For example it is clear Border pipers must have used something like the Highland ‘G”D”E’ movement or Union and Northumbrian pipe tipping.


On the odd occasions I’ve heard Border piping recently the use of the vibrato trill seems to have become popular. I have to take some credit/blame for pioneering this back in the early 1980s! In fact there is no direct evidence that 18th century English and Scots pipers ever used vibrato, though there is circumstantial and comparative evidence (e.g. from French and Irish tradition and from baroque fiddle technique) that makes it likely. Incidentally, Dixon used the tr symbol on high ‘A’ where a conventional shake is not possible. There are several possible decorations he could have meant and one serious possibility is the vibrato trill.

Anyone familiar with Peacock and other old pipe/fiddle collections will be well aware of the use of elaborate runs as a form of decoration. This was common to all “folk” instru- ments back then and is absolutely fundamental to recreating a period bellows piping style. It can be heard in the playing of some 20th century traditional musicians - try Tom Clough, Billy Ballantyne and Johnny Doran to get a feel for this crucial technique.

Even if we were able to outline in detail every decoration applied by period bellows pipers it would not form a body of “correct” decorations to be rigidly applied by every piper in every situation - this much is obvious from modem traditional music. The rigidity of the Highland pipe tradition, and its restriction of personal expression, is exceptional. Play what feels right and to your own capabilities. And yes, there are references to period pipers using decorations of their own invention.

Make no mistake, decoration will have been very important in 18th century bellows piping as it was in all other music of the period. The connotations of the term “gracing” give some indication of how far decoration and embellishment were valued.

I hope to extend and elaborate on all this properly in the future. In the meantime, I gave a talk on 18th century English fiddle style at the Sidmouth festival last year, much of which is equally relevant to English and lowland Scots piping in this period. If anyone is interested I will send them a copy of the talk plus some detailed and thoroughly mind-blowing informa- tion on baroque decorations from Nieck’s Dictionary of Musical Terms (1884). £2 (cash, cheque or stamps) or $3 (cash) to cover my photocopying and postal expenses would be appreciated!

Paul Roberts, 14 Campden Road, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire HX7 6BZ