IT MAY have escaped your notice, but this Saturday is International Bagpipe Day.
Expect no massed pipe bands carousing in the streets, however: this inaugural celebration of the universal bag and chanter is the brainchild of the Bagpipe Society, which promotes the revival of England’s largely forgotten bagpipe heritage.
Let’s dispel a few clichés: while it’s true that the word “bagpipe” frequently evokes a stock image of a tartan-clad figure serenading misty bens’n’glens, there’s nothing exclusively Scottish, or even Celtic (to use the much-abused C-word) about bagpipes. It may be the case that some highly sophisticated pipes or pipe music have evolved in Scotland and Ireland – not to mention Northumberland next door, but right across Europe and into North Africa and Asia, the bagpipe is or was ubiquitous. There remains an elemental alchemy about the instrument, from the genius of the ancient herds who first cut a reed pipe and played it, added a drone then later tied them into a bag to act as an air reservoir.
England was no exception, and it may shatter a few preconceptions to learn that the earliest evidence of bagpipes in the British Isles comes from English 13th-century records, while the first bagpipe reference in English literature is of the Miller in The Canterbury Tales, of whom Chaucer tells: “A baggepype well coude he blowe and sowne. / And therewith he brought us out of town.”
Shakespeare referred to “the drone of the Lincolnshire bagpipe”, and Lincolnshire parish records tell of local clergy clamping down on pipers in a manner very familiar to anyone acquainted with Scottish piping lore. Lancashire, too, was a piping stronghold, a newspaper report of 1732 describing “a very merry wedding at Preston, Lancashire, with seven bagpipers”.
And what of the deer herders one English chronicler encountered in the mid 17th century? “Travelling some years since, I met on the road near Royston [Hertfordshire] a herd of about 20 bucks following a bagpipe and violin… and in this manner they were brought out of Yorkshire to Hampton Court.”
Apart from the distinct continuing Northumbrian strain, the old English bagpipe had fallen silent by the 19th century, but, as in other areas of Europe, is now experiencing a happy renaissance. Hence the formation in 1986 of the Bagpipe Society, which has organised Saturday’s Bagpipe Day, “to celebrate the world’s bagpipes and piping traditions”. Its flagship event is a one-day conference in Chancellor’s Hall in Mallet Street, London, hosted by the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Institute of Musical Research.
Delegates include the Belgian musician and bagpipe scholar Jean-Pierre Van Hees as keynote speaker, as well as pipers, scholars and topics from as far apart as Portugal, Sweden and Rajasthan. A Scots presence will include Barnaby Brown of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Peebles-based English bagpipe maker Julian Goodacre talking about their project to recreate “Highland piping’s most precious relic”, the Iain Dall chanter, while from the National Piping Centre in Glasgow, James Beaton will give a paper on collecting the oral history of the Highland bagpipe. The conference is followed by a concert featuring Van Hees on the Baroque musette and the English contemporary bagpipe orchestra Zephyrus.
Back at Glasgow’s College of Piping, mind you, it’s business as usual on Saturday when it hosts the first professional event of the year on the solo piping circuit, the Uist and Barra competition.
However, to return to that Old World bagpipe universality, a decade ago – amid heated deliberations on a suitable emblem for the New Europe’s cultural aspirations – some quarters were prompted to suggest The Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a sort of pan-European anthem. I was moved to suggest in this newspaper that the ideal icon, which was timeless and transcended national boundaries while rooting itself deep in the European folk psyche – whatever that might be – was the bagpipe.
To back up this impious suggestion, I merely quoted the eminent organologist (yes, that’s the word) Anthony Baines in his classic 1960 study Bagpipes. The bagpipe, he declared, “is the sole property of no one nation but the common property of the European peasantry, present or past, and indeed of others besides.”
I still can’t argue with that.