The Wandering Piper

The Georgian era was nearing its end, and regional newspapers were well established in many towns and cities across Britain, alive with discussion and gossip of the day. In the spring of 1829 a new mystery would intrigue the nation with the appearance of a mystery piper travelling through the land. Who was he, and why had he undertaken this perambulation?

At the end of May the Berkshire Chronicle and Bucks and Windsor Herald printed accounts of a mysterious piper in Cheltenham, and by the 2nd June 1829 he was in Gloucester providing a distracting anecdote for the papers there.

On 9th June 1829 the London Morning Post gave a report that this character had been in Bath on the 5th June; “THE SPORTING PIPER – This character whose wanderings through the country have excited great curiosity, made his appearance in this city yesterday evening, dressed in his suit of coarse grey, with Scotch cap and green spectacles, and escorted by two attendants, who kept close behind him to afford protection against the crowd of people that pushed forward to have a peep at the gentleman beggar. The terms of the wager for which he has undertaken this extraordinary enterprise are not known, but it is generally agreed that he has backed himself against a friend, who is travelling through France as a fiddler, to collect more money in one year in the United Kingdom, than his competitor in France with his violin. Opinions differ respecting the identity of the Scottish piper as much as to the nature of the wager, but rumour entitles him Captain BARCLAY. He commenced this itinerant occupation on the 12th June last year; since which period he has traversed nearly the whole of Ireland and Scotland. We understand that in Ireland his contributions amounted to upwards of 127 l and in Scotland he received about 144 l.”
Captain Barclay, the noted pedestrian
who was at first confused with our piper.

The identification of this mystery piper with Captain Barclay was persistent in the reports, but incorrect. Robert Barclay Allardice was a well known 'Sporting Pedestrian' and made the idea of wagers for walking feats popular in early 19
th century Britain. His most famous walk was undertaken in 1809 when he walked 1000 miles in 1000 hours for 1000 guineas. That Captain Barclay was Scottish by birth no doubt fuelled the (mis-)identification as the wandering piper. However Barclay's popularisation of such activities may have encouraged our mystery piper.

A few days after his appearance in Bath, the mystery bagpiper was in Exeter, described by the Western Times as “the incognito gentleman bagpipe player”. By the 20th June the Westmorland Gazette was printing a short item in its miscellany columns about “The Sham Bagpiper” currently perambulating through Somerset, and how he contradicted the claims that he was Captain Barclay and he was tired of hearing this. This account also claimed that he was nearing the end of his travels.

By Friday 14th August 1829 more details were appearing, or at least the story was becoming more elaborate, when the Chester Chronicle related the following; “THE GENTLEMAN PIPER – Our brother editors are very much divided in opinion as to the identity, and rank in society, of this wandering minstrel. Some will have it that he is a sporting Captain, who is bent on winning a wager, by maintaining himself, with something to spare, by the gratuitous rewards of his minstrelsy, while others, and amongst them the Scotsman Edinburgh paper, denounce him as “a puir carle” to whom the fare at an English inn is a luxury far beyond what he ever enjoyed in his “ain kintry”. Be this as it may, a tall gaunt figure, dressed in gray linsey wolsey, with flaxen wig and “spectacles on nose” has been sojourning amongst us for two or three days past. He walks through the streets every day playing a lilt on an instrument something between the Irish and Scotch bagpipe. It has all the shrillness and “singing i'the nose” of the latter, but the airbag is supplied by a pair of bellows as in the former. The minstrel is but an indifferent performer and does not excite much attention, nor apparently seems to care if he does or not. We understand that his papers come to Mr Kearsley's, the Nag's Head, where he puts up, addressed “Capt Gordon” and that he has numerous receipts from the parish officers in the various districts through which he has passed, for the sums he has paid into their hands, the surplus from his receipts after defraying his expenses. We guess the burden of the poors' rates in this city will not be materially lessened by the minstrel's donations at his departure.”

As well as a new possible identity of the mystery piper, this account gives a rare description of what the instrument was, and from this we learn that it was a bellows blown pipe, though the journalist was not really knowledgeable enough to leave us a full detail. From other reports it is clear that he can walk along whilst playing, so these were not a set of uilleann pipes.

The reporter in the Chester Chronicle continues the article by showing how the mystery piper has inspired imitators; “We find the following in the Paisley Advertiser of last week:-'The flattering accounts of the supposed gentleman who is now vagabondising it through the country, has, in the present dulness of trade in this town, induced an individual of sporting celebrity, for some large bets, to undertake a similar trip of profit and pleasure. He has engaged to beg for three weeks in England, and at the end of that time to return with £20 as the fruits of his mendicity. His first attempt, we understand, will be made, as we have heard, on the sympathies of the good folks of Liverpool. Our Paisley gaberlunzie does not intend “with cauk and keel to win his bread,” but rests his hopes on the music of a hand organ and the grimaces of a large monkey, with both of which he has, as we understand, already provided himself.”

The travels continued, on September 2nd 1829 he was seen in Oxford, recorded by the Berkshire Chronicle “...a person in disguise, with bagpipes, paraded the principal streets in Oxford, dressed in a blue cap, a coarse grey short coat, and trowsers, with a dark handkerchief around his neck, collecting money. - He put up at the Three Goats Inn, and stated he had been recognised but once during his journey, and that was at Portsmouth. Various conjectures are afloat as to who this singular character could be.”

Then, in October the wandering piper's appearance was reported in the Derby Mercury, still full of mystery; “On Monday, a bag-piper of singular appearance passed through the town, and attracted considerable notice. His dress was of coarse frieze, his cap of the same material, and was tied under his chin by a black ribbon. His figure was good, and he appeared between fifty and sixty years of age. He played on his instrument as he went along, but he did not solicit alms. Indeed, his countenance indicated he was travelling more for fun than for money. He returned the salutation of the writer of this account, whose curiosity led him to follow the stranger into a small room in the Old White Hart, in the Bridge Gate, with a mingled grace and archness which seemed to say I am not what I appear to be. His hands also were those of a gentleman.”

In November the wandering piper was making his way through Leicestershire and by early December 1829 had arrived at Stamford in Lincolnshire, where an old woman, giving him a penny, curtsied and said “I know you my lord.” The wandering piper denied this, saying he was “no laird” but it all kept up the intrigue. By late January 1830 he was in Winchester still playing his bagpipes long after the date when the newspapers said he would have concluded his wager. His arrival in Brighton soon after was not met with the success he was accustomed to, as he tried to play 'O'er the hills and far away' he was followed by local boys questioning his identity and challenging his wig and costume, so that he left rather sooner than he might have planned.

The attention from regional newspapers seems to lessen from 1830, though the wandering piper continued his travels. Reports from this point on suggest that he had won the wager and this was how he was able to continue in this lifestyle. In 1830 he appeared in Devizes, Portsmouth, Sherborne and Southampton. Then in October 1832 he was playing in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, still in his Scottish dress and wearing the green spectacles. Though it seems not to have been widely published, J. M. Johnson printed a lithograph in 1832 of a drawing by Thomas Charles Wageman of 'The Wandering Piper' which clearly shows his clothing including the cap, black cravat and green spectacles by which he was recognised. It also shows the bagpipes to be border pipes, in the bellows-blown, one bass and two tenor drone form we are familiar with. As has often been discussed in Chanter, the print is likely to be reversed as it shows the bag, bellows and fingering to be on the opposite side to that we are familiar with today.

By January 1833 he was recorded as being in Durham, heading for Berwick but intending to stop at Newcastle, and North Shields en route. The Newcastle Journal reported that there had been an extension on the period of the wager, following an injury obtained by the piper whilst at Carlow in Ireland requiring fifteen months rest at the mansion of Sir Thomas Butler. The paper hoped that the wandering piper would be successful in beating his fiddler rival, so that the hospitality of Great Britain would be clearly demonstrated.

But the mystery didn't end there. Through 1833 the wandering piper was also seen in Hereford, then disappears from newspaper accounts for a couple of years. Surviving letters in the Library and Archive of Canada reveal he was in Montreal in July of1834, asking the Mayor for permission to play in public buildings, (the Mayor was ashamed to say he was only in charge of markets and the piper would have to ask the Justices of the Peace instead!) In 1837 though he re-appeared once more in British newspapers, again at Chester, playing at a fundraising concert at the 'Town Hall' (more correctly 'The Old Exchange' a lovely building which sadly burnt down in 1862), also at Tiverton in Devon, and also even made a trip to New York. But there was a major development in the story that year. The wandering piper himself wrote a letter addressed to “the British Public” explaining his story, and this was published in many newspapers. The following is how it appeared in the Oxford Journal;

“The unprecedented civility which I have met with from all grades of society in Great Britain and Ireland, during my rambles as the 'Wandering Piper' has induced me to lay before them the following accurate statement of an undertaking, which, as yet, stands unrivalled in the annals of sporting. This much-talked-of campaign originated in the London Coffee-house on the 4th of Nov. 1824 among fourteen worthies who had retired there to put the copestone on a dinner given by an American gentleman, who was then making the tour of Europe. In the course of the conversation, politics, religion, and the internal affairs in general of Great Britain and America were freely discussed and among other topics, the laws affecting the poor of both nations were not forgotten. Much was said by the American party of their charitable institutions, their warlike prowess, magnanimity, independence and unexampled hospitality. These arguments were so vigorously replied to by those representing the British Isles; the swindling and thieving propensities of the Yankees, their delph china ware, mahogany cucumber seeds, and wooden nutmegs were dealt out without mercy or remorse. In the course of this lengthened discussion, it was remarked by one of the members as a lift to his own side of the question, that beggars and itinerant musicians had been known to make a competency for life in England in a very short period: whereas in America they might pipe like Orpheus, or like Tommy Puck in Aster Fair and 'draw iron tears down Pluto's cheek' without being able to coax a copper out of the grasp of a Yankee. A good deal of disquisition ensued pro and con, which terminated in my finally and firmly agreeing to travel through Great Britain, Ireland and the United States of America, disguised as a piper. Large wagers were offered and accepted on both sides, his Majesty's lieges still contending, that, for one shilling the piper would receive in America, he would clear double that sum in Britain and Ireland. I accordingly commenced my piping in the summer of 1825 at Morpeth, a borough in Northumberland, reached London in the course of a few weeks, visited several towns in the county of Kent, and was driving a tolerably fair business, when my drone was silenced all at once, by the interference of a relation whom I durst not contend with. This gentleman died in the beginning of 1827, in consequence of which hostilities were again renewed in July of the following year, in connection with a young man who, like myself, had more money than judgement, and who had bound himself to travel with a fiddle on the continent of Europe. To this gentleman some of the journals gave the name Count Bender, but peace to his manes, he died at Rome in the end of 1831.

“The public have already been made acquainted, through the columns of the different journals, with my perambulations in the United Kingdom, and the unprecedented kindness shown to me by some of the first families in Ireland, during a confinement of many months, occasioned by the overturning of a stage coach in the county of Carlow. To Sir Thomas Butler and family, and the Rev. Mr Roberts, &c., I lie under such obligations, that a whole life, devoted to their service would be but an inadequate recompense. Various attempts had been made to put an end to this arduous frolic, and, at the time above-mentioned, a northern nobleman used great exertions to accomplish the wished for consummation, but without effect. I continued me wanderings for upwards of twelve months after my recovery, and then sailed for America, in March 1832, where I succeeded far beyond my own expectations, or those of the other parties concerned; and had I been at liberty or disposed to give the present explanation while in that country, there is little doubt by my earnings would have amounted to double the sum. As it is, I collected 27,600 dollars, every cent of which I expended or bestowed on charitable institutions. It is my intention to wind up the whole of this complicated freak by performing once more, in all the principal cities and towns in Great Britain and Ireland, after the same manner that I did in the United States – that is, to solicit permission from the Chief Magistrate of every place that I visit, and also the use of some public building to perform in. In America, the state-houses, court-rooms, theatres, city halls, and in many instances churches, were freely tendered. Should the same immunity be granted to me in this country, I have no doubt but I shall leave the field with honour to myself, and the heartfelt good wishes of thousands, both rich and poor. I certainly anticipate much pleasure from my second tour through the Great Nation, as I expect to see many of the cheerful faces with which I was so much pleases on former occasions, and to shake many a friendly hand.

“Although my gains have been invariably applied to the use of the poor on both sides of the Atlantic, still I wish the world to know, that I am under no obligation whatever to give them to private individuals or charitable establishments; nor do I publish the amount of my former donations as a lure to bring people forward to my future exhibitions. I consider the money which I receive for piping entirely my own property, and shall in all cases use it accordingly. Public opinion has been much at variance concerning me, and all descriptions of titles, from a Prince of the Royal Blood to a common mendicant, have been conferred on me. I merely announce myself as Mr Stuart, the Wandering Piper – by which appellation I wish only to be known for the present – and although I allow that large bets are pending on the favourable termination of this extraordinary feat, yet, I never told any one how far I am personally implicated. Every one who has heard of me is aware, that my principal aim has all along been to preserve my incognito, and to those busy bodies who try to unmask me while out of my piping garb, I feel under no very particular obligation, and consequently shall treat them with the contempt they merit.

“My present tour will be concluded in much less time that the former, as I intend to travel with a horse and carriage; and I bind myself, that all secrets will be disclosed without reserve at the conclusion. To the gentlemen of the press who have at all times spoken well of me, I feel grateful for a good opinion from so high a quarter; to a very few editors and private individuals who have represented me in a different light, I shall only say, I trust that they will never change their opinion of THE WANDERING PIPER. Liverpool, September 9 1837.”

Our wandering piper did indeed continue his travels,appearing in places as far afield as Gravesend, Paisley, Norfolk and Sligo in 1838, but sadly he never completed his planned itinerary. On Saturday 23rd February 1839 the following notice from a Dublin newspaper was reprinted in the London Standard; “Death of the Wandering Piper'. This singular individual died on Sunday night, in Mercer's Hospital, in this city, where he had been for three weeks previously. It is stated in an advertisement in the papers that 'Graham Stuart, commonly called the wandering piper, died in the hospital, having previously made his will, and thereby bequeathed all his property for the uses and purposes of the said hospital.”

A few more short comments appeared in other papers and allusions to endeavours being like that of 'the wandering piper' can be found in newspapers over the following few years, after which his story seems to have vanished into obscurity. I was pleased to dig it out from these newspapers and journals after much time spent trawling through the British Library's online digitised collections. I think it was an admirable, if eccentric, endeavour well worth celebrating.

The Dragon of Moston

I can't believe it has taken me so long to get back here on the blog, but what a lot of distractions in the meantime, all the more to write about though, so expect some more updates very soon!  Anyway, as I type it is the Thursday of National Storytelling Week so I thought I would share a tale from Cheshire which is one of the most popular ones with visitors and tale listeners at our events...

Well, if you were to go looking for Moston, you'd find it betwixt Sandbach and Middlewich.  It is only a little place now with a few folk living there, and when you hear this you'll see why that may be.  Now, the people of Moston were a happy and jolly lot who made most of their living from the fine apple trees in their orchard.  They bore the largest and juiciest apples in all of Cheshire, and in truth the rest of the county were more than a little jealous of this.  The apples of Moston were bigger than even your head.  And a fine head it is you have sir.  The people of the village didn't know why it was that their apples grew so large, but I do, and I'll tell you. 

The apples grew in an orchard which was beside a boggy marsh, full of dark, dank swamp water.  The trees reached out their roots through the soil and into that marsh and drew the water up along the roots, rising through the trunk, along the branches and caused those apples to swell. 

The people of Moston looked forward to those days at the end of summer with autumn beginning to make itself felt in the air, the days when the apples would be ripening and ready for the harvest and they eagerly awaited the day to go picking, dreaming of the juice trickling down chins, or the warm smell of the apples baking.  And now the day was here!  Each of the Moston folk headed out to whichever tree in the orchard which was their own, carrying baskets and buckets ready to be filled.  There was laughter and singing as the apples were gathered in.  And then someone shouted out, "Look, up there!"  And the crowd looked up through the leaves to see something flying high in the sky.  It was higher than any bird they knew, it didn't move like a bird and wasn't shaped like anything they'd seen before.  The excitement grew until it turned to horror when the people of Moston realised it was a dragon flying above them.

This dragon had flown out from Wales, you could tell because it was red, and was looking for a new home.  Now, you may have heard that dragons like to live in caves.  Well, that is true, but it's not their first choice.  Or perhaps you've heard that dragons like to live in burial mounds of an ancient king surrounded by treasure?  Well, that's true as well, but still not their preference.  Where dragons like to live, if they can really find it, is in a slimy, smelly swamp.  And the boggy marsh beside the orchard at Moston was the perfect place.  The dragon circled around for a while, then settled down in the middle of the swamp beside the orchard.

The people of Moston weren't fools.  They knew that if they ventured close to the dragon they would likely be eaten.  But then they looked at the trees, and saw their finest apples beside the marsh.  So one brave chap came up with a plan.  He would make his way to the apple trees, keeping his eye on the dragon all the while and should the dragon make the slightest move, he would be off!  He walked through the trees and set down his basket beside the apple tree closest to the boggy field, making sure to keep his eyes fixed on the dragon.  He took one apple from the tree, then another, but then the next apples were higher, he looked up to the branches for a moment and then... The dragon was upon him.  It opened its mouth and breathed upon the brave fellow.  Not fire as you might think, but the foulest, stinkiest breath you'd probably rather not imagine.  The poor chap was overcome and fell to the ground.  The dragon pulled him by the feet into the swamp where he lay asleep until the evening, when he awoke.  Just in time for dragon supper time and being eaten in one gulp! 

This happened again, and again.  And again.  Until half of the people of Moston had been eaten by the dragon.  As you'd imagine, those that were left went from being a happy and jolly bunch to being a sad and miserable lot.  Then one day, the local lord of the manor, Sir Thomas Venables was making his way around all of his lands to inspect them and came to the village of Moston.  "What's happened here?" said Sir Thomas, "Has there been a war?  For there are less of you than before, and you look miserable, and your fine trees have been left to wither."  The people of Moston explained how the dragon had come and, one by one, taken many of the folk from the village.  And what was worse, just this morning a young boy had been taken by the dragon, his poor mother had already lost her husband and was grieving for her son now sleeping in the swamp awaiting his fate at the dragon's supper time. 

Well, Sir Thomas, being a bold and brave knight, swore he would slay the dragon and save the boy.  Thinking to catch the dragon whilst it slept, he quickly put on his finest armour, took up his sword and dashed off through the orchard toward the marsh.  But the clanking and clattering of his armour awoke the dragon which began to make its way towards the knight. 

Sir Thomas fled.  But you must not think him a coward.  No, Sir Thomas had a plan.  In the days before he was a knight in his armour, he had been an archer, and being from Cheshire that made him one of the famed and feared Cheshire Archers, the finest bowmen in the land, better even than Robin Hood himself.  In fact, because of their skills with the bow, people round here say "Robin Hood? More like Robin No-Good!"  Sir Thomas made his way back to the orchard where he could just see the dragon in the marsh, snoring once more, and with the young boy asleep next to him.  Sir Thomas drew back his bowstring, then let loose his arrow which whistled through the air and found its target - right in the dragon's eye! 

The dragon roared and flew at Sir Thomas before he could ready another arrow.  But the arrow in its eye had so wounded and winded the dragon that it could not muster up its foul breath.  Sir Thomas did not waste a moment and struck the beast over the head a dozen times.  Just to be sure he cut off the head.  With the young boy under one arm and a dragon's head under the other, Sir Thomas returned to the village of Moston.

The people of the village were thrilled.  They insisted that this brave deed should be remembered for ever more, and that the Venables family should change their coat of arms to depict a dragon, with an arrow in its eye, about to eat a boy.  And so that is just what was done.  They even carved the scene in oak and set it on show in the church of St Michael and All Angels in Middlewich, where you can still see it today.

And that is the tale of the Dragon of Moston, the last dragon to be seen in England, so folks say, and here it was in our own fair county of Cheshire.

The Minstrels' Court

The wonderful medieval midsummer festival in Chester is fast approaching.  The Minstrels' Court will be taking place once again at St John's Church on Saturday 11th June, from 10.30am-4.30pm, a great celebration of the city's heritage, one of the world's largest medieval music festivals and one of only a handful of re-enactments to take place in its original and authentic location.

The tradition of the Minstrels' Court began back in 1204 when a ragged band of musicians and entertainers from Chester marched into Wales to save Earl Ranulf from a siege and thereafter gained his blessing and protection. There is a great legend around this.  This tradition continued with their gathering at the church of St John the Baptist each midsummer for over 500 years until it died out in 1756.  The tradition was revived back in 2008 by a group of musicians, re-enactors and community groups and has taken place each year since.

There are lots of living history displays in the church, recreating something of the bustling atmosphere of the medieval church where business transactions and meetings took place each day.  Scribes sit beside weavers and traders, soldiers and knights mingle with pilgrims and gamblers.  All the while music is performed by some of the finest medieval musicians in the land.

The church of St John the Baptist is surrounded by history, with the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre on one side, Grosvenor park on another, where a excavation is current in progress shedding light on lost buildings, and the river Dee to its rear.  St John's is the oldest church in Cheshire and the city's original cathedral.  Visitors can wander between huge Romanesque pillars and discover Saxon carvings alongside medieval effigies and even Civil War history.    It's a very atmospheric place and the perfect setting for the Minstrels' Court.

As well as the eye-catching medieval characters, storytelling and puppet shows provide lots of interest for families.  It's a free event too, making it a great day out for families.

At 1pm the minstrels leave St John's for a procession through the streets of the city, arriving back at the church at 1.30pm to collect their licences to perform in a recreation of the ancient ceremony.  

Living history displays and demonstrations take place through the day in the church, along with informal music sessions in the porch.  At the front of the church there are performances through the day.  The approximate timings are below.

10.30 - Maranella - Cheshire based medieval music ensemble
11.00 - Storytelling - medieval tales from Cheshire and North Wales
11.30 - Medieval Puppet theatre
12.00 - Trouvere - one of the finest medieval music groups in Britain
12.30 - Dressing a Knight demonstration
13.00 - Procession of Minstrels through the city
13.30 - Licensing of Minstrels
13.45 - The Time Bandits - Chester based group mixing music from 15th-18th centuries.
14.30 - Doucette - Renaissance recorder group
15.00 -Trouvere
15.30 - The Mulberry Tree - new music inspired by the Shakespeare 400 anniversary
16.00 - Maranella

There's so much to see, and it's all free.  Hope to see some of you there!

The Piper's Tale

As regular followers of this blog will know, we love traditional folk tales and we love bagpipes.  This year Tom will be out and about with his storytelling show - The Piper's Tale.  Here's the essence of the performance.  Do let us know if you'd like to see it near you...

Plucking a Noodle

Trawling through mentions of 19th century pipers in Chester and found this from the Chester Chronicle 26 April 1833, admittedly there's only a brief mention of bagpipes and the music, but the story is a familiar one from folk songs. And the epilogue shows a firm belief in witchcraft even at this date.
PLUCKING A NOODLE - A countryman named Francis Hanmer who said he came from Bryngwylla near Oswestry, charged Ruth Jones, a female of common repute, with stealing his watch. The complainant said he came to Chester on 27th February last, to sell a horse for his master, Mr. Lewis, of the Brook House, near Oswestry. In the evening he strolled out into Eastgate-street, where he met with Miss Jones, who invited her to accompany her to the Three Tuns in Frodsham-street. He, not liking to refuse Jones's request, went with her to the Tuns, where he found a number of Cyprians, engaged in a mazy dance. Aroused by the discordant squeakings of the Irish bag-pipes, on which a fellow was discoursing a most exhilarating music, he rose up from his seat and, as he expressed it, "had a bit of a hop - a three-handed reel with four females and during this time I lost my watch". He could not swear that she took it from him, but she was the nearest to him while engaged in the dance.
Alderman Morris (addressing Hanmer) asked him if he were married. Hanmer with a sheepish look replied "Oh yes Sir, I have a wife and five children". - Ald. Morris, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself for being in such company. What will your wife say when she hears of this transaction?" Hanmer, "I'll not tell her anything about it" - As there was no evidence to prove that Jones stole the watch, she was discharged.
Hanmer visited the police office on Sunday evening, and while there he told one of the officers, that if the magistrates did not commit Ruth Jones, there was a "cunning fellow" (a sorcerer) that lived in his neighbourhood, and that he would engage him to bewitch Ruth: and that he would bring her, watch and all, across hedge and ditch, flying from Chester to Bryngwylla. One thing is quite clear, poor Hanmer is no conjuror!  

The Wedding Dance

Now here was a time to celebrate! A wedding to join two of the bonniest young people you would ever know. And all the village was there, and folk from further off too, all come for the festivities. And there had to be music for the dancing, so they called for a piper. He played such merry tunes that even the old aunts hopped to their feet to dance together with sober cousins.
All evening, one dance followed another, but then it drew close to midnight and the next day being the Sabbath, the piper told them he must stop. But the bride, she had gotten in a whirl with dancing see, finding such joy she’d never known before and didn’t want it to stop. She begged the piper keep playing saying he was the finest in the land.
Some warned her against this, how it was wrong to dance on the Sabbath, and others drifted off to their beds. But such is the folly of the young and such was the vanity of the piper at her flattery that there were many who continued in their dancing to the sound of the bagpipe.
And as it passed midnight, a cloud drew over the moon and the tune fell silent. When next the light shone, there were the dancers in a circle but standing still. They had been turned to stone, and the piper also.
And there they are today, as a reminder to all. So if you hear the hum of a drone, or a sweet melody as the wind whistles through the stones, you shall know why.
There are several stone circles which have this legendary origin, amongst them The Merry Maidens in Cornwall, The Pipers Stones in County Wicklow and Stanton Drew Stone Circle in Somerset.  This is my retelling of the tale.   


Of Pigs and Pipes

After “Are those Northumbrian pipes?”, probably the next most common question I get asked when playing in front of the general public is “That’s made from a pig’s bladder isn’t it?”. I’m sure many other bagpipers have experienced the same.

It seems there is quite a strong link between pigs and bagpipes in many people’s minds, even those who may not have much occasion to think of the instrument and I often wonder why this should be. To give an example, a few years ago I was at a fancy dress barbeque – and although I happily spend most of my working days in some historic costume or other I still cringe a little at this type of party – and a session was just starting. Someone arrived who happened to be dressed as a giant pink pig and spotting my smallpipes he immediately ran over to me and grabbed the bag wailing, “My brother, what have you done to my brother?!”

And it’s not just something that people think these days, the connection has been around for centuries. I’m sure many pipers will be aware of the medieval carving of the pig with the bagpipes at Melrose Abbey, one of the earliest images of bagpipes in Scotland. It is an iconic image, featuring on the abbey’s postcards and publicity. I even have a fridge magnet with a sculpted miniature of this carving.

There are plenty of bagpiping pigs to be found across England on misericords from the 14th and 15th century, often providing the music for piglets to dance to. These can be seen in churches in Richmond and Ripon in Yorkshire, Boston in Lincolnshire and Braddock in Cornwall, as well as Beverley Minster and Manchester Cathedral. These are fairly well known examples; I have a resin cast copy of the Ripon carving hanging on my living room wall. It is possible that some of these could be the work of one craftsman, but there are enough differences in the style and skill of the carvings to show that they are not all the work of the same individual. I’d suggest that this shows a general connection between pigs and bagpipes, rather than just being a favourite theme of a single woodcarver.

We can find other medieval woodcarvings of piping pigs. For example, a pulpit in St Leonard’s, Ribbesford, in Worcestershire has a pig playing a double chanter bagpipe which is very similar in design to the misericord at Ripon, though this version is a flatter relief as it was formerly part of the rood screen.

And it’s not just in England that we find this association. There is an example of Danish bagpiping bacon on a wall painting in Vestervig church as well as Dutch 15th century pewter badges of piping pigs that have been found in Utrecht and Amsterdam and in illuminated manuscript form in the exquisite Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry from early 15th century France.

It’s worth remembering that pigs are not the only members of the animal kingdom that play bagpipes in the imaginative work of medieval artists, there are also several examples of piping apes and a couple of asses too, though not so many in number as pigs. Similarly, pigs can be found playing other instruments on occasion, including organs and harps, though they seem to favour the bagpipes most of all.

If we look to other animals and other instruments, there is also quite an association between cats and fiddles. This is most commonly known through a nursery rhyme, but also through misericords and medieval manuscripts, as we find with our pigs and bagpipes. Perhaps here we have a connection with common misconceptions about how these particular instruments are constructed, so whilst people may think the bag is made from a pig’s bladder, then they may also believe the fiddle has strings made from cat gut. So the depictions could represent the animals playing the instruments made from parts of themselves, a visual pun.

However, there is perhaps more of a connection to the sound of these instruments when played badly. So we could imagine the scratching of the strings of a fiddle being reminiscent of a cat’s night-time wailing, or a bagpipe resembling the squealing of a pig. I could believe that there was once a well known folk tale or joke that ran along these lines, but that it is lost to us today.

I realise this Alfred Hitchcock quote has appeared in Chanter, (the journal of the Bagpipe Society), more than a couple of times, but may be worth repeating to illustrate this particular point. “I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equalled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig.”

A couple of years ago in Chanter, James Merryweather revealed the results of playing bagpipes to sheep, and I am well aware of the effects of bagpipes on cats – my playing had a laxative effect on our last cat and sets our present cat whining and heading out of the house. I wonder whether anyone has carried out an experiment playing bagpipes to pigs?

As to why pigs should be associated with bagpipes, there seem to be many opinions, often contradictory. For example in reading around the subject I have found people suggesting that it is because pigs are most like humans, they are intelligent and jolly and content with their life, whilst elsewhere there are those who say that pigs play bagpipes because they are symbols of greed, lust and idleness and so they should play such a base instrument so commonly linked with devils. I’m sure that fellow bagpipers would agree with the former – the pigs are clever and cheerful.

So, let’s celebrate these porky pipers, and next time we’re asked about the pigs’ bladders we can explain the long heritage our instrument has with our animal friends.