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Promoting the Bagpipe Revival since 1986

The Bagpipe Society


Dear John

I thought I would write in response to your editorial in the Autumn 2010 edition

of Chanter about the falling membership of the Bagpipe Society.

I joined in about 1998 purely by chance, after the former editor of Chanter

invited me to a ‘Moot’ which was being held not far from my home. The reason he invited me was because he knew me through learning to play the northumbrian smallpipes and he thought I might be interested - an act of thoughtfulness for which I have been eternally grateful. At that Moot, both the music and indeed the key it was played in was outside my comfort zone at the time, so I found the participatory element of the Moot somewhat restricted for me personally. However, the associated chat, lectures and performances were fascinating. Since then, my memberships of other Societies have come and gone, magazine subscriptions have been tried out, web-based chat-rooms experimented with, and in terms of real people, bands and playing associations created and expanded. However, I have retained my membership of BS throughout.

Your comments got me thinking why I had kept it up, since I do not play any of the types of English bagpipes which constitutes the interest of most of your contributors; nor indeed the hurdy-gurdy. I have not even attended any subsequent BS events - we all juggle many engagements during the summer season. The reason I continue with my membership is simply because the Chanter is such an interesting read - informative, frequently scholarly and - importantly - good natured. It has nurtured my developing interest in the history of vernacular music. Indeed, I am now in the early stages of a research degree in Ethnomusicology at Sheffield University (for which I hope to make formal contact with some of your contributors - advance notice!). In preparing for this research, I have come to appreciate the importance of outlets other than what is purely social networking (aka Facebook and other websites - which of course have their benefits); and the other extreme, which is academia. So far I have found – and I’m happy to hear of exceptions - that the academic publications scene is clunky: papers are couched in indecipherable language, restricted to authorship by academics, and unavailable to the wider world. Although rigorously reviewed and therefore by inference eminently authoritative, it is the lack of accessibility that bothers me. In contrast, the contents of Chanter are accessible and interesting, prompt informed discussions, and facilitate the promotion of events and introductions to like-minded people who do what is the crux of the matter - play the music.

To that end, I think that throwing all your PR resources into promoting (forcing?) people to just start playing the bagpipes is mis-judged, and will only frustrate you. From personal experience, what instruments people play is not mirrored by what societies they are in, for a whole host of reasons. However, I think the key to the future is in examining what the BS does very well. If you are worried about the declining membership, I think you should focus on maintaining the production of Chanter, but widen your remit instrumentally. I mean, you already have hurdy-gurdy in there. My tuppence h’penny worth is that I suggest you consider merging / collaborating with other historical associations or organizations, most likely Early Music but perhaps others such as early dance as well?

I reiterate that I really do believe there is a need for moderated fora for articles and discussions which are more thoughtful and ‘in depth’ than the social networking websites could ever provide, but yet are much, much more accessible than academia. In this, Chanter is perfectly pitched (‘scuse the pun). And I do think that it is this type of forum which is critical for promoting both the interest in, and widening the participation of music - after all an aural art form and social activity. Magazines such as Chanter cater for the vast majority of people outside academia who nevertheless have a serious interest in music. If those interested in the topic choose to take up the bagpipes, fine, but there are players of other instruments (again, I speak from experience) or even social historians in general who would be just as interested in the contents of Chanter, and would welcome a lateral expansion of its remit. There exists a niche market for learned, accessible publications on vernacular music (folk, traditional, call it what you will) without (please!) going down the commercial route of ceaseless promotions of current artists. This is my opinion. It is offered in the spirit of your request for a discussion. I realise it may get shot down in flames. Even if it does, and even if Chanter doesn’t evolve in the way I have suggested, I do hope that the Chanter doesn’t disappear – it would be a huge loss.

Best wishes, Celia Pendlebury

Dear John,

The story is fairly well-known and is best told by Roderick Cannon in his

magisterial paper “The bagpipe in Northern England” (1971, Folk Musical Journal, 2, pp. 127-147).

There are a couple of well-known literary references to “Lincolnshire bagpipes”: Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1 speaks of “the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe”, whilst Robert Armin (a fellow actor with Shakespeare in the Lord Chamberlin’s Men) in A Nest of Ninnies (1608) mentions that for a banquet “a noyse of minstrels and a Lincolnshire bagpipe was prepared … the bagpipe for the common dauncing”. Given the general disappearance of the pipes in Southern England scholars ignorant of the instrument had by the nineteenth century begun to doubt whether such an instrument had ever existed. The question was debated in a series of short pieces between 1875 and 1881 in Notes & Queries, that quirkiest of journals on “English language and literature, lexicography, history and scholarly antiquarianism”. As a start, a lady contributor, L. J. Norman, noted that the phrase “Lincolnshire bagpipes” was still used in the area jokingly to refer to the croaking of frogs, but in response to another writer’s question of whether the pipes themselves could still be heard in the county, “R.R.” confidently replied that “no Lincolnshire man has been known to play the bagpipes within the memory of the ‘oldest inhabitant’”. Immediately there was a response from “W.E.H.” who wrote:

I can furnish R.R. with the name of a player on the bagpipes in Lincolnshire, and I am by no means the “oldest inhabitant” in the county. John Hunsley, of Manton, near Kirton-in-Lindsey, was a player on the bagpipe up to a short time before his death, which took place between thirty and forty years ago. The music emitted from John Hunsley’s instrument was certainly most unmelodious, but it pleased him and many of the people amongst whom he lived.

As Cannon notes, since this was written in 1881, it dates Hunsley to some time around the 1850s. Further, since the pipes are referred to as “unmelodious”, he assumes they were unlikely to be Northumbrian or Union pipes; similarly, he thinks, Scottish pipes would be unlikely to cause comment, so that Hunsley may well represent the last player of some kind of indigenous English pipe. Whether this is true or not, it is certainly the case that “any scrap of information [on Hunsley] that could be obtained would be a most welcome addition to our knowledge”. As far as I know, nothing further has been reported in the bagpipe literature on Hunsley since Cannon’s article. It was with some excitement, therefore, that I chanced upon the following item by Peter Binnall in the journal Folklore (1941, Vol. 52, pp. 72-74). Since it is short, I will quote it in full.


A traditional account of a noted local character in north Lincolnshire, which I heard about twenty-five years ago, is of some interest, as it seems to have features in common with the Fenland tale of Hickathrift [a legendary figure of East Anglian folklore said to be possessed of prodigious strength CM]. I was only a boy when I heard the following details, but I think I have recollected them correctly. My informant was the late Dr. C. F. George, of Kirton in Lindsey, who was then about eighty years old, and told the story as it was recounted to him by patients whom he had visited when he was a young man. This means that the narrative (if it can be called such) was current about seventy-five years ago.

It concerns a certain John Hunsley, a farmer at the northern end of the parish of Manton, five miles south-west of Brigg, in the Manley wapentake of Lindsey. He is said to have lived in a two-storey, red brick house, lately used as four farm cottages but now unoccupied, which goes by the name of Middle Manton. Here he held riotous parties at which the guests removed their shoes and always danced “until the brick-dust came through to the soles of their feet,” to the accompaniment of their host’s bagpipes. Incidentally, he is said to have been the last man to play this ancient Lincolnshire instrument, to which Shakespeare twice alludes, and I was told how, once a year, he rode up to Edinburgh on a white pony to have his pipes tuned.

He was a man of great physical strength, and is reputed to have jealously guarded rights over Manton Warren, which he had acquired, somewhat discreditably, by failure to pay his rent to the Dalison family over a long period of years. On one occasion he encountered a trespasser, who was accompanied by a large black dog. Seizing the dog “fore and aft,” Hunsley broke its back across his knee and then turned to the man and announced that he would receive the same treatment if he appeared there again.

As a boxer and wrestler, he only once met his match, and that was when he found a Gypsy encamped on the warren, who refused to be turned off because his wife was lying ill in the tent. After a “right set-to” John Hunsley was “floored,” but when he had scrambled to his feet he shook the Gypsy by the hand, and said, “As you are the only man who has ever knocked me down, you can come and camp here as often as you like.”

The only other detail which I can remember is

that this queer

man had some (I

think two) equally peculiar

daughters, who

used to ride wild ponies bare-back

“with their hair streaming in the wind.”

Though there is probably some foundation of fact in the story of John Hunsley, I fancy that a good deal of some ancient legend has, as is often the case, been fathered on him. The Hunsley family came to Manton from the neighbouring village of Scawby in the middle of the eighteenth century, and a John who had been churchwarden in 1813 was buried at Manton in 1851, aged 85. He had six children baptised there, and I believe that the last of his direct descendants was a Miss Hunsley, who married a solicitor in Boston and died a little over thirty years ago.

A brief search has shown that Hunsley’s name appears in White’s 1842 Directory of Lincolnshire when the village’s population was only 49. A web search has also thrown up the following photograph of the remains of a farm house in Middle Manton (due north of the village of Manton and halfway to Greetwell Hill, easily discernable using the satellite facility on Google maps); since this is the only building in Middle Manton and clearly fits Binnall’s description, it is not unreasonable to assume that this is Hunsley’s house .

It is hoped that with this new information, some more assiduous researcher than I may be able to unearth yet more on this last Lincolnshire piper. It would certainly be interesting to know why he had to ride to Edinburgh to get his pipes tuned each year. Could this mean that, contrary to Cannon’s assumption, he played the Highland pipes? And who knows, Hunsley’s pipes may be laying, forgotten in the attic of a former Boston solicitor just waiting to be discovered!

Best wishes, Clive Matthews

Tuning and Temperaments:

As a Bagsoc member who has kept very quiet for several years, I was interested to see Dave van Doorn’s mention of temperaments in the Winter 2010 Chanter. Of course, his claim that everyone else is out of tune is only partly true, and to some extent depends on the madman’s similar argument that “Everyone except me is crazy.”

When a Bulgarian shepherd drills six holes in a hollow sheep-bone to suit his fingers, neither the resulting notes nor the actual pitch are likely to fit any known pattern. With an audience only of himself plus the sheep, he would not be upsetting anyone, so it doesn’t matter much. As soon as pipes are played with other instruments, conformity of tuning is indispensable, and these days, organ-builders and organists (and now pipers) are practically the only musicians who know that there ever was a problem.

Although equal temperament was known to the Ancient Greeks, they were as sniffy about it as everyone else was for two thousand years after them. After 1850, the piano-makers took a hold and it quickly spread to other instruments. This could not have happened without the backing of the musicians, who traditionally took no notice of theorists, as they already had enough problems of their own. Wind instruments go sharper as the ambient air warms up and gut strings go flat in damp weather. The earlier lutes, viols, and guitars had gut frets that could be slid up and down or bent to improve a note. Not the least of the problems were the enthusiastic inventors tinkering with the instruments; pianos were built with keys split into back and front with different versions of the same note. It is recorded that a harmonium was built with 84 keys to the octave and a special layered keyboard to play it. Not surprisingly, musicians did not embrace these improvements with joy.

We pipers can, of course, have it both ways with our instruments of limited range and negligible means of modulating between keys. We can play our solo pieces in full strident for-sheep-only Bulgarian style and then plug in the standard-pitch equally- tempered chanter when the mandolins and the concertinas arrive. Not better, just different!

George Swallow

Dear John,

John Henry in his letter suggested a lot of good ideas about the way to increase

The Bagpipe Society membership. I always include Society website and contact address with all the pipes I supply. However I think a far more effective way of getting new pipers interested would be to actually send them a free copy of Chanter. As John says it is an excellent magazine and worth the sub alone. Sending out copies would let new pipers actually see what they would be missing by not being a member!

Do we have adequate supplies of back issues to use this way, or could the committee agree to increase the print run of next Chanter? I would be happy to post out 25 or so…. is any other maker prepared to send some out to their customers or to pipers they know who are not in the Society? How do we get pipers partners interested in subscribing for Christmas / birthday present??

I have been talking to Pete Stewart about the Bagpipe Societies seemingly dwindling membership. He is currently building an impressive new interactive website for The Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society (membership 300+). One of his observations is that he never sees any mention of The Bag Soc or of Chanter on the Bob Dunsire Forum or any of the other bagpipe forums on the net. I don’t visit any of these forums, but Pete keeps an eye on them and never misses any opportunity to make a posting when any subject under discussion has been written up in Common Stock. The Bob Dunsire Forum is mainly for Highland pipers, but many of these may be also interested in the broader picture and may never have even heard of Chanter! The Bag Soc needs someone to regularly keep an eye on these Forums and to keep posting references to relevant articles in Chanter. For example this current edition of Chanter will have my article on the Iain Dall Chanter, which certainly will be of interest to many highland pipers; how will they know about it if no one posts a reference to it? This is free world wide publicity!

On a completely different subject you wrote enthusiastically in your ‘Starting Drone’ about the prospect of using horn on your pipes. I wonder how you are getting on? You had read that you had to soak the horn for ‘at least two months’. I am happy to tell you that this is not necessary at all. All horn needs to become flexible is heat. I boil Ox horn for about 10 minutes and then it is ready and pliable and you can alter its shape (within reason!) and it is ready to use once cool. It stinks something horrid, so clear your loved one out of the kitchen first! I know one maker who boils his in Neatsfoot oil, but I don’t see the need. I have seen (and smelled) Scottish shepherd crook makers using an electric paint stripper gun to supply the heat.

On we go… Julian Goodacre

Dear John,

I thought fellow BagSoc members might be interested in these pipes I spotted

recently in St Bridget’s Church, West Kirby, on the Wirral. I had seen them a while back but without a camera with me, so I’ve been back earlier today and looking properly at them I realise that these particular bagpipes would be fairly easy to play, if a little dull to listen to. They have two drones in separate stocks, but no chanter! They belong to a shepherd at the Nativity and the same pipes appear in two of the windows designed by Charles Kempe in the 1880s.

All best wishes, Tom Hughes