Back in the summer of last year, we were in Shropshire for a few days exploring before going to Festival at the Edge, the wonderful storytelling and music gathering there. In museums and little towns, we found mentions of Mary Webb, a writer and novelist of the early 20th century who lived in the area and evoked the landscape, traditions and folklore of her native Shropshire in her writings. I confess that neither of us had heard of her before, though her writings are widely known amongst people living in the local area. Sue bought several of her novels in a second hand shop, and has read all of her published writings since then, and now has ended up as a committee member of the Mary Webb Society!
We met with a few friends at Festival at the Edge, and one of the highlights of the festival was a performance at the music tent – ‘The Lives and Loves of Mary Webb’ by Beguildy, a duo comprising Anne Marie Summers and Janie Mitchell. Their singing was beautiful and, though they played a good variety of instruments, Anne Marie didn’t play any of her bagpipes for this performance. The songs were actually poems by Mary Webb which they had collected and set to music, it really was a moving and memorable experience and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who left with tears in my eyes.
But how does any of this relate to bagpipes? Well, in reading her novels, poems and essays, we came across a few mentions of bagpipes. They come from works published in 1917, when we might expect references to reflect the strident sound of Highland pipes or a military aspect, but instead two of the references remark upon the enchanting and hypnotic nature of the bagpipe.
Firstly though, a more usual, slightly disparaging view of a bagpipe’s tone, from her novel Gone to Earth.
“The one-eyed cat was beside her, blue-ribboned, purring her best, which was like a broken bagpipe on account of her stormy youth.”
But later in the same work, she relates a softer, humming tone of a pipe when relating a visit of some of the characters to the bees in a walled garden.
“she could hear the queen in one hive ‘zeep-zeeping’ – that strange music which, like the maddeningly soft skirl of bagpipes, or the fiddling of Ned Pugh, has power to lure living creatures away from comfort and full hives into the unknown – so darkly sweet”
A similar reference appears in Mary Webb’s collection of nature essays published as ‘The Spring of Joy’ in the same year, 1917.
“There the queen bee with her strange, low piping – a mere breath of sound, but stirring the same frenzy as bagpipes played softly before a battle – wakens madness in her followers, and lures them through the gates of adventure as Ned Puw's fiddle inveigled folk through the gates of Faery.”
The Ned Pugh, or Ned Puw, she refers to is the character in folk tale of the Shropshire/Wales border, usually a fiddler, though on rare occasion called a piper, who boldly or foolishly, ventures into a cave which leads to the land of the fairies and is never seen again, though his music is often heard under the ground.
So, there are only a few references, but I thought them worth sharing as they are some evidence that people were aware of the sweet sound of bagpipes in early 20th century Shropshire, and that I do like the description ‘That strange music – so darkly sweet’.