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A Pig of Dumfries

A Pig of Dumfries - Tom Hughes

In early 2018 I moved from Cheshire to Dumfries in south west Scotland. One of the first things I did was to try to find references to bagpipes in the town. I work in the museum but we had very little piping relating material there. However, I found historical records of medieval pipers entertaining King James V on his visits to the town and mentions of various border pipers with bellows blown pipes, including a visit of the Wandering Piper who I have written about in Chanter a couple of times. But I thought I would be disappointed and not find an old carving of a piper. I had found eight examples in my native Cheshire but knew that the differences in church style and history would make this less likely in Scotland.

In September 2018 I became involved in running the Dumfries Stonecarving Project, exploring the amazing stone heritage of the town. Along with running workshops to introduce young people to this historic craft and curating exhibitions, we undertook a photographic survey of the town and this brought up a gem. High above a chip shop was a piece of medieval sandstone which had come from a medieval castle nearby known as the New Wark. After the demolition of the castle in the late 18th century, the stone was left in a pile for people to use on other buildings. The piper carving seems to have moved a couple of times to adjacent properties before finding its new home, just across the road from the site of the New Wark. No-one really knew it was there, but with a late 14th century date, it is a contender for oldest depiction of bagpipes in Scotland. It is a carving of a pig playing a bagpipe, again a theme I’ve explored in Chanter in the past.

With my work on the project, I led several tours around Dumfries’ sandstone heritage. One of the groups I took around was the Crichton Writers, who choose themes for their work, much of which is poetry. Last year, because of the tour, they took stonecarving as their theme and presented their work in a performance on National Poetry Day, 3rd October. Two of the poems related to the bagpiper carving, and their writers were delighted to have the opportunity to share them with the wider world.

Little Piggy by Joanne Mackay

This little piggy was a seabed, This little piggy turned to stone, This little piggy got carved out, This little piggy moved home. Yet this little piggy keeps piping, piping, piping with his single, Lowland drone.

Ballad of a Piping Pig by Linda Powell

Up above your head I sit, unseen by passers-by. You pause to get your money, but never raise an eye.

Picking the finest sandstone, the man who fashioned me peered beneath the surface to see what he could see.

Carefully he cut the block, a frontispiece to make, pausing then to scratch his chin and think what path to take.

“My fine fat pig, where’s your head? Where do your trotters stand? How do you hold your bagpipes without benefit of hand?

Are your tunes merry or sad? Do you weep, or are you glad?”

Slowly he coaxed the sandstone to bring my head to birth, placed the pipe into my mouth, heard music full of mirth.

Body, pipe-bag, trotters freed, placed high on castle wall, my mediaeval music was a rallying call.

I watched long years of battle; men fighting to stay free, women mourning empty lives, where love used to be.

Sacked by heartless hordes, at last the crumbling castle fell; I came crashing down to earth, playing a sad death knell.

Face down on the dusty ground, unseen, unheard, unwanted, for years my pipes were silent; only the birds chanted.

Then came a rumble of carts, shifting and scooping of stones. Trundled into town, the load’s decanted mid ringing tones.

Ears deafened, I strain to see what new world’s surrounding me.

Eagerly sought for building, Tumbled and jumbled all day, our number dwindles fast, yet I seem destined to stay.

Then an honest burgher seeks stone for a smart new house, flips me over, stubs his toe, utters a frightful curse.

Stone though I am, I tremble seeing his angry face, but, house built, he lifts me high the top of it to grace.

So, above your head I sit, piping my ancient tunes. Cock your ear, hear me play, dance by the light of the moon.

By Hughes, Tom Various

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