Further Adventures of the Wandering Piper

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A few years back, I wrote a long article in Chanter about a sensation reported across Britain between 1829 and 1839. This was the case of a wandering piper, a mystery gentleman of means who was travelling the land playing bellows blown pipes to collect money for charitable cases. There was much speculation about who he was and his motivation, both of which were eventually revealed, but it also gave us plenty of clues about some bagpipes of that time. Perhaps you still have your old copy of Chanter, but if you missed it, you can find it in the Summer 2014 edition on the Bagpipe Society’s online archive.

Recently I moved to live in Dumfries and I thought I would revisit this tale to see if our gentleman piper friend had performed in the town. I found that he did, which spurred me on to find other examples of his travels which I didn’t report on the earlier occasion, so here they now.

Of his visit to Dumfries on 19 July 1830, the Morning Post recorded the following; “The Wandering Minstrel known by the name of the Gentleman Piper, who is believed to be serving a certain noviciate, and “playing for a wager”, visited Dumfries a few days ago. Whether travelling incog. or in his real character, the stranger appears to have youth on his side, is well dressed, well favoured, handles his instrument with tolerable skill, and attracts crowds of listeners wherever he goes. On one of the days of his sojourn here – the anniversary of Boyne Water – he struck up a cheerful lilt on the White Sands and was applauded by all and sundry. Whilst thus occupied, an Orangeman who was near offered the piper a retaining fee, and desired him play a certain party tune. This proposition was loudly denounced by a sturdy Irish Catholic, who clenched his fist, gnashed his teeth and swore he would beat the minstrel black and blue if he attempted to obey an injunction so scandalous. Not contented with this, he followed the piper, repeated his threats, kept the crowd on the qui vive, and, in one word, annoyed him so much, that he at last told the fellow plainly that “it would take a much better man to break his head or his pipes either.” This bat lead to an angry parley, and, to cut the matter short, the minstrel laid aside his instrument, called for a ring, and gave the assailant a splendid spice of his quality. According to report, he fought like a first rate pugilist, floored his man more than once, and in the course of a very few minutes placed him so completely hors de combat that in place of the ring he became a fit subject for the Dumfries Infirmary. Laughter gave way to pity; such as knew Pat washed his face and helped him to bed, while the piper quietly resumed his music, and, amid the plaudits of the crowd, went on his way rejoicing.

But from another account of the visit, this episode seems to have been a partisan invention on the part of the journalist, it seems fake news is nothing new and our wandering piper was not keen on this post-truth era he was living through. In a letter published in the Reading Mercury in July 1830 he wrote of a sojourn in Ireland; “I had never been called on to play a single party tune, and although the Lyceum Hall was crowded every night with Catholics and Protestants, yet the greatest harmony prevailed; and still the London papers will tell you that scarcely a mixed meeting of Protestants and Catholics takes place without ending in the most awful scenes of riot, turbulence and insubordination. I wish there were an act passed, to compel the editors of newspapers to publish the names of those who send them the accounts of such infamous falsehoods, that the world may know, and be able to punish, (by stoning to death, or otherwise), those vile libellers of their country.” He went on to discuss how impressed he was with the Irish national pride for St Patrick’s Day and also his own feelings for Scottish cultural identity. It seems that one of the tunes he would often play was “Scots Wha Hae”.

Our piper was certainly a keen devotee of Robert Burns and in discussing the poet’s final years in Dumfries In another of his letters, from May 1830, the story reminded him of his meeting with a blind piper, who made reeds during the gathering; “I met with a blind man in Landregee, whom several gentlemen of respectability, with whom I had the honor to share the evening, had invited to share the party. There is scarcely any one thing in the mechanical way but what he can execute with the greatest exactness, and has been known to repair and regulate some highly finished time pieces, after they had defied the art of some of the first professional men in the country; he has likewise brought the Union Pipe to a perfection as yet unprecedented: I saw him make a pipe reed, which I consider a very nice piece of mechanism, in a very few minutes, and finished in such a manner as I have never seen its equal; and yet for all this, I believe he has difficulty in keeping body and soul together; such an unpardonable neglect in the rich and great is enough to make any one apply the reproof to them, which Burns did in the case of poor Ferguson; My curse upon your whinston hearts, Ye Enbro’ gentry, The half o’ what ye waste at carts, would stow his pantry.”

His letters give us a small insight into his performances, in June 1830 he wrote “Lord pardon all my sins, but I got so much in love with the Irish Ladies, that I had completely forgotten that I am at Coleraine with my pipes. After having played for an hour and three quarters exactly, (for I like to be particular), I was requested to strike up “God Save The King” which met with all its honours of hats off &c. My loving subjects then took their departure to their respective homes, but not without leaving me, by way of remembrance, the sum of £2 16s 8d; and before I had closed my eyes for the night I received £1 from Mr. Young of Glendaff, for playing three tunes, which made the whole receipts at Coleraine £3 16 8d besides a blacksmith’s half penny.” He went on to describe how he had played all of Sunday and Monday at an inn in Ballymena, a mix of jigs, hornpipes, strathspeys and reels and so earned the sum of £1 2 6d.

Further letters from the Wandering Piper reveal that in Antrim he was unable to play some of the tunes called for as they were “not within the compass of my instrument” but on other occasions in his letters he mentions playing tunes including Blue Bonnets O’er the Border, Tullochgorum, Drums Beat Bonny, and Go To Bed, Tom.

Though the wandering piper played what we often call border pipes today, the fact that some of his clothing was tartan seems to have suggested to people that he was representing the Highland tradition as the detail at the end of this extract from the Windsor and Eton Express of 16th December 1837 shows; “The Wandering Piper will perform on the ancient instruments of Caledonia and Hibernia &c on Monday evening next December 18th, from seven to nine o’clock at the Town Hall. The piper has, in his wanderings in the United Kingdom and the States of North America, appropriated 3,183l to Charity. He still wishes to continue the same system, when the receipts of the performance will admit of it, but he wishes the public to understand that such donations must be entirely voluntary. When the audience is such to enable the Piper to bestow his gains on Charitable Institutions, the appropriation will be at their disposal, or that of the Chief Magistrate, as the case may be. Printed addresses explanatory of the arduous undertaking, containing a list of the sums already applied to benevolent purposes may be seen at the Booksellers, and also at the Town Hall, from 12 to 2 p.m. on Monday. The Piper always performs in the splendid dress of a Highland Chieftain. Admittance one shilling each, Children under ten years of age, half price when accompanied by their parents.”

On 16th January 1839 the Kerry Evening Post reported that he was in Dublin, “The Wandering Piper has agreed to perform at the Rotundo every day during the present week, for the benefit of the lying-in charity. A friend of ours, who has inspected the vouchers for the piper’s disbursements to charitable institutions in Great Britain and America, says that “a series of documents more ample luminous, and satisfactory, cannot by any possibility be conceived.” We shall only notice one item of the money. He gave 27l 10s 6d to the Lying-in hospital in Norwich alone. Charities under the management of ladies seem to have been the special object of his benevolence all over England. For this reason, he always received the patronage of the ladies in every town which he visited. Ireland has never yet stood behind any nation in munificence, charity and benevolence; and we trust that, before the close of this week, the amount of the piper’s receipts in aid of our valuable Lying-in institution will be second to no town in the sister kingdom.”

Sadly, only a week or so later the wandering piper was to fall ill and, after three weeks in Mercer’s Hospital, Dublin, died on Sunday 17th February 1839, but left several countries hugely grateful for his charitable efforts through bagpiping over the previous decade.

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