Border Pipes and Half-Longs

Border Pipes and Half-Longs.


An Introduction to Border Pipes and piping


A Short Introduction To Border Piping

(originally written for the 2002 Pipers’ Gathering Program Booklet)


by Matt Seattle


In the wake of the explosion of interest in Scottish smallpipes, Border Pipes are now gradually gaining popularity as the new ‘alternative’ bagpipes. They have a satisfying volume for group playing, for which Scottish smallpipes are too quiet and too low-pitched; and they are usually made to play in concert A, blending well with fiddles, guitars and so on. It is possible to become a virtuoso on Border pipes in a few weeks - provided you are already a virtuoso on Highland pipes, all you have to do is master the bellows - but herein lies the crux of the matter: playing Border pipes is NOT the same thing as Border piping.


There are some superb players of Border pipes who draw almost exclusively on the repertoire, style and technique of the Highland tradition, and fair play to them. I know that many of them use a ‘lighter’ approach to ornamentation than competition pipers, and that some are heavily influenced by Cape Breton piping, but this is still Highland piping with bellows, and not Border piping.


OK then, so what is Border piping? This is where the fun begins. If I mean, what is the tradition of playing Border pipes in the Borders (which I do), then I have to concede that Border piping is an interrupted tradition. We know that it flourished in the 18th century, but there is no obvious unbroken link with the past in the way that there is with Highland piping, Irish piping, or Northumbrian smallpiping. So, where to begin?


We begin where we are - in the Borders, if we are looking for Border piping. Today there are plenty of Highland pipers in the Borders, but their tradition - and they would not claim otherwise - is orthodox pipeband piping, pretty much the same the world over. Look a little further though, and there is the Northumbrian smallpipe tradition on the doorstep, and look a little closer at the Northumbrian tradition, and some very interesting things emerge.


The earliest musical record of this tradition is Peacock’s collection (published c. 1800), consisting of fifty tunes, twenty-five of them with variations. These tunes are a mixture of Northumbrian and Scottish, as one would expect from a Border tradition. The title of one tune even refers directly to the Border (Over The Border). The variations are characterised by frequent melodic runs and arpeggios, each set consisting of multiple strains built on a particular harmonic foundation or chord sequence.


The more I delved into Peacock, the more I was struck by the ‘wrongness’ of a few of the tunes. Without getting too technical, a few of them stood out as being botched in that they had the ‘wrong’ 7th note of the scale, as though they had been adapted from another instrument. The cover of Peacock’s book states clearly that the music is, in fact, ‘adapted’, and it looks very likely that some of it is adapted from the Border pipes, which can play the ‘right’ 7th in these tunes. The evidence is circumstantial, but it seems to me that at least some of the variations would have been composed on an instrument which played them ‘correctly’, and then later ‘adapted’, rather than on an instrument which did not. This conclusion, coupled with the visionary work already done by Gordon Mooney, led me to attempt a ‘reconstruction’ of Border piping, which I published as The Border Bagpipe Book in 1993.


So far, so good, but wouldn’t it be nice to be a bit more certain, to actually get it ‘from the horse’s mouth’? As many of you already know, my conclusions, based on musical analysis and obvious geography, were startlingly confirmed in 1995 when I was fortunate enough to be alerted to the existence of a mysterious manuscript, the William Dixon collection of 1733, housed in Perth Public Library.


Factually described, this little book contains forty tunes written within a nine-note range for an unspecified instrument. All but one of the tunes have variations. Some are previously unknown, but the known tunes can be identified from elsewhere as being Northumbrian or Lowland Scottish - Border music, and from both sides! Otherwise described, the collection had a life-changing effect on this piper, which I won’t try to convey here. I edited and published the collection as The Master Piper. In my text I pinpointed its origin to a tiny village in west Northumberland, and argued the case for it being a collection specifically for Border pipes, though with many overlaps with the (Northumbrian) smallpipe repertoire of the same era.


It is important to realise, if you are coming to Dixon from ‘outside’, that the music has a cultural context, and that this context is best approached by having a background in Northumbrian smallpipe music, whether or not you play NSP (which I don’t, by the way). It doesn’t exist in a vacuum: get to know the music of Peacock, Bewick, and the Cloughs, who are important visible links in the chain; look at Riddell’s more wide-ranging but still relevant collection; compare tune versions, see the consistency of some settings and the variety of others, and observe the evolution of variation sets over three centuries. I have heard virtuoso Highland players give entirely inappropriate renditions of Dixon because they didn’t have the necessary background. This is the ‘Star Trek’ approach - whatever music you play, it all has Highland ornamentation, just as wherever you go in the galaxy, the locals all speak English. No less than any tradition, this music commands respect and should be approached on its own terms.


Despite the obvious differences between Border pipes and Northumbrian smallpipes, they are both heir to the musical traditions of the Borders, and in the same way that the dinosaurs are all around us as the birds and reptiles of today, so Border piping is still with us in the Northumbrian smallpiping tradition. But since 1995, we also enjoy privileged access to the musical DNA preserved for us by the conscious labours of William Dixon, may his soul be blessed: forget Star Trek - welcome to the Jurassic Park of piping!



Postscript 2011

Previous page: The Pipes
Next page: Pipemaking