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Matt Seattle’s regular contribution this time focuses (appropriately enough) on the style and repertoire of Border piping.

For the past seven months I have been immersed in a large collection of Border Bagpipe music made in 1733 by one William Dixon of Fenwick, near Morpeth, Northumberland. This collection is the basis of the book which I am at present getting ready for publication and which was advertised in the last COMMON STOCK. It should be on sale in your High Street by the time you read this. Jock has asked me to say something about it for this issue as it is directly relevant to the topic of Border Pipes. Rather than attempt to summarise   everything I have to say, I will give an edited extract from my text which deals with the   relationship between the Border Pipes and the other pipes played in these islands. It may help you to know whether or not you are interested in finding out more. all three surviving traditions (Highland, Irish, Northumbrian) a point came when an aural culture became a literate culture. This happened from about 1760 to 1800. With this step something is lost and something is gained. Wherever bagpipes are played in the world the music was formerly learnt by ear and by imitating a teacher, and this is still the case in many places. A literate culture can operate in different ways and over greater distances of time and space, but there must still be a link of transmission between players. The situation in Pibroch playing is especially relevant here: to quote Roderick Cannon, “even today the only fully accepted method of learning is to memorise the tune from the book and then to relearn it from an established player, who will demonstrate each phrase on the chanter and in canntaireachd”. (The Highland Bagpipe and its Music, Edinburgh 1988).

With Border piping we have the unusual position that there are no surviving practitioners to show how the music was played, but as of now we have a literate source of great integrity, and that source considerably pre-dates the literate sources of the three surviving traditions. It is also at least equal in quality to anything from these traditions. This puts us in a particular predicament. Firstly, we are either interested or not: at one extreme, we can simply     ignore William Dixon’s document if it lies outside our own interests or does not fit in with what we are doing. A middle position is to accept it as a historical record of one person’s repertoire at a point in the past, perhaps interesting as something for scholars to study, but not relevant to today’s circumstances. Thirdly, we can take it as a challenge.

Dixon's tunes are not an alien idiom. Put simply, it is the idiom of variations as found in John Peacock’s and Robert Bewick's collections, but applied to a nine-note chanter rather than an eight-note chanter. It is surprising how much difference the one note makes. Tunes which need nine notes had to be modified to be played on the old small pipes, and many of them are here recorded in their original condition, in some cases adding a completely new dimension to what had previously been known. Evidence tells us that the people who played one type of pipe were the same people who played the other (north and south of the Border), and though the techniques are different it now seems to me that there was a largely overlapping repertoire between the two, but with some necessary compromises, and also, I believe, a similar style of playing, even allowing for the difference of technique between closed and covered fingering. In the Borders, and probably the Lowlands as a whole, the style was one of variation by melodic embellishment and substitution. This style was of course not limited to bagpipe music but was a significant component of all 17th and 18th century traditional instrumental music. Irish pipers were writing variations into the 19th century, and variation writing still goes on to some extent in the Highland and Northumbrian piping of today. 18th century Highland pipers had a different slant on the matter.     Pibroch is a unique example of creating variations by changing the ornaments rather than the tune.

Anyone trying to recapture the old style of Border piping will find that though some mysteries may remain, in a way the old style has never really left us: there has always been a small but significant number of Northumbrian pipers playing the old variation sets on smallpipes, and we now know that some of these same sets go back to 1733, and who knows how much earlier than that? However tenuous it may seem there is, in fact, a continuity of tradition and transmission, and it has taken place south of the Border.

There may be a distinction to be drawn between Lowland and Border piping. I have called Dixon's book a record of Border piping, to which some may object that it is in fact the     music of the Northumbrian half-long pipes, and therefore ‘Northumbrian’ rather than ‘Border’. It cannot at present be proved one way or the other, but my strong feeling,       supported by the reams of Scottish fiddle variations I have studied, is that the same style of music was played on both sides of the Border, and the word ‘Border’ as an adjective usefully acknowledges this. It also enables us to dispense with the ugly and near meaningless expression ‘half-long’ (half as long as what?), which has as little to recommend it as ‘cauldwind’.

The only known comparable records of Lowland piping from the same era as Dixon’s book are in fiddle rather than pipe collections. One of them, the George Skene manuscript, is   particularly relevant to our enquiry. Skene was active in Aberdeen but also travelled widely, and was a fiddler and a piper. If we may assume until proven otherwise that the pipe tunes he records are from his own locality, the north-east Lowlands, what do they tell us about his music in relation to Dixon's music? For a start, none of the tunes overlap, so a direct tuneto-tune comparison of style is not possible. Skene has four tunes actually labelled as pipe tunes (or in “Bagpipe humour”), and they are all tunes with variations - two have eight strains, two have ten. Time signatures are absent as with Dixon, but the note values correspond to modern notation rather than to Dixon's old-fashioned double values. The style of the music, however, is essentially the same as Dixon's, but with one reservation: in three of the tunes, all reels, there are passages of what Skene calls ‘gatherings’, which are clusters of repeated notes of the same pitch. These are clearly what we would describe today as ‘birls’, and are a common feature of Highland piping as well as of many fiddle styles. It may very well be that the piping round Aberdeen at this time was essentially in the same musical language as in the Borders, but with this different northern ‘accent’ and some differences of vocabulary, just as in the spoken language. Whether one is a dialect of the other or not depends on your point of view. It is safer to say that they are closely related, with many points in common and some differences.

The fact that Dixon’s and Skene’s tunes are far more similar to than different from each other in style (if not quality) would suggest to me that the Lowland and Border styles in the early 18th century were fairly homogeneous over a large geographical area, but that there were differences, and the differences can possibly be understood in the light of their relative proximity to Highland styles of playing. Do not forget, we are talking about adjacent parts of a stylistic spectrum, rather than the origin of the styles and their influence on each other, on which it is not safe to speculate without adopting a partisan stance.

If we can agree that Dixon’s tunes are actually representative of piping in the Borders and possibly also the Lowlands to a greater or lesser extent, it is still possible to object to their relevance today on the grounds that this is an antiquated style, interesting as ‘early music’ but divorced from the conditions of its arising. This may be a tempting argument, but anyone who does feel that way will also have to discard much of the repertoire of the Highland Pipes, including all of Pibroch, not to mention Bach, Beethoven, Burns, Bartok, the Beatles and anything else written before this week. If it was any good then it is still good now and will be good in the future.

I commend to members of this Society the repertoire which was written down by William Dixon. It is at present the earliest known substantial record of bagpipe music from         anywhere in the British Isles (we have to admit that the French got there earlier), and it is Border bagpipe music. We should, without being arrogant, take pride in the fact that a   Border piper, one of our musical ancestors, was far-sighted enough to preserve for us some of the treasures of the tradition when it was in its first flowering. It is my hope that this   repertoire will feed a second flowering of this tradition, and that this Society will be the fertile ground in which it will bloom.