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Bagpipers in a young woman's diary

I recently started working at Norton Priory, a historic site in Runcorn, Cheshire, which is Europe’s most excavated monastery. One of the first things I did was to investigate if there was any bagpipe connection with the place. At first I thought I would be disappointed, no carvings of bagpipers in the monastic ruins, or documents of pipers visiting the site. But then I came across the diary of Mary Brooke…

The Brooke family had bought the land of Norton Priory after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and built a country house on the site in 1545, which had been replaced by a Classical mansion by 1757, fortunately preserving some of the medieval remains along the way.

Mary Brooke was born in 1810, the fifth of eight children. Her diaries span the years 1829-31 and are great insight into the interests and pursuits of a young woman of leisure at that time. Much of the content is of attending balls, visits to town, gossip about other wealthy families in the area and, eventually, meeting the man she will marry – very Jane Austen! Within the diary are a couple of mentions of bagpipes and bagpipers. The first is in the summer of 1829 when the sisters spent time travelling through Scotland.

“As we approached Blair Athol we met a great many Highlanders all in kilts and soon came to a field by the road side where the sports were going on. We got out of the carriage and went into the field but soon found that all the sports were over and that there was nothing left except a horse race and a trial of skill amongst the Pipers. We stayed some time and heard a good deal of blowing and squeaking, and a horse race with saddles which was very good fun, one horse ran on to the middle of the ground and over threw two or three people.

When all this was over we walked to the Inn and had some dinner. We accounted ourselves very lucky in able to get any on so grand a day as this, as there was to be a grand dinner and ball in the evening. The prize was a handsome choir of Pipes and someone made a long speech to the crowd out of the window, not a word of which we understood but I am sure there was some joke as they all laughed amazingly. They then all went away except the lucky Piper who continued marching backwards and forwards before the windows making the most horrible noise upon his new pipes.”

So far, it seems she’s not particularly taken by the sound of bagpipes. It’s worth noting though that she calls them pipers and pipes several times, not bagpipes, just as most people tend to do these days.

At the end of that year I was delighted to find a mention of piping underground in Cheshire!

Entry for “Sunday after Xmas Day” which would have been Sunday 27th

December 1829. Calculating by the other mentions in this passage about the death of Sir of Sir Philip Egerton, this trip to the salt pit would have been during the week commencing Monday 7th December 1829, and the only salt mines operating in Cheshire at that time were around the town of Northwich, about 8 miles from the Brooke family home at Norton Priory.

“ I have not time to enlarge upon our expedition to the Salt Pits only to say we have excellent fun. Lord Cole had it all lighted up with candles and we had luncheon and after that danced to the harmony of two Pipers. Our party consisted of nearly 40 persons.”

It’s satisfying to hear the pipers dance tunes being described as a harmony. But these were the only mentions of bagpipes which I uncovered in Mary’s diary. I’m continuing to work on developing the displays and events for our new museum at Norton Priory, opening in summer 2016. I’ve already managed to find occasion to play bagpipes in our Georgian walled garden at the site, but I guarantee there will be pipes played when we re-open fully. Do please come to visit – and bring your pipes!

By Hughes, Tom

Countries and Places