Pipers and flute players in 18th-century Scotland

Published on: Author: Eva Moreda Rodriguez 1 Comment

Elizabeth Ford is a PhD student in the Music subject area. Her thesis explores the flute in the musical life of eighteenth-century Scotland.

In my research into the repertoire for the flute in Scotland in the eighteenth century I have uncovered many things, some expected and some unexpected. Possibly the most unexpected is the evidence of overlap between pipers and flute players.

When considered, though, it isn’t all that surprising: the pipe chanter closely resembles the flute, and the finger technique (though possibly not the fingerings themselves for the notes; I don’t know enough at this point to say) is similar, as is the breath technique. Possibly, pipe makers also made flutes and vice versa. While there is very scanty evidence of this having been the case, it makes sense from an economic perspective. Indeed, an enterprising instrument maker would want to turn as many instruments as possible, and, although he would likely sell more flutes than pipes, having both as options would make him very competitive.

As for the evidence in the repertoire, a manuscript held at the National Library of Scotland, GB-En Adv. MS. 5.2.20, has clear indications that it was used for flute as well as pipe. This manuscript, primarily for the flute, has a few indications of use by a variety of wind instruments.   The writing is very shaky, the music has many passages marked out, and the page numbers are not sequential, so it is unlikely to have been the work of a professional copyist. The contents range from Scottish tunes, song transcriptions, arrangements of Handel and Blavet, and a flute concerto by Locatelli.[1] David Johnson gave the manuscript a date of 1760,[2] though there is no date indication on the volume itself.[3]

The first tune in the book is marked for ‘hautboy,’ implying that there may have been some usage by an oboe player. The reference does not appear again. At least two of the tunes come from Munro’s 1732 Recueil des meilleurs airs ecossois … avec plusieurs divisions et variations; this publication was for the transverse flute. These tunes, which are not attributed to Munro in the manuscript, as well as the pieces by Blavet and Locatelli, suggest use by and creation for a flute player, but there is also one indication for use by a piper: ‘Miss McDonald’s Reel’ on page 12 of the book has a note saying to play ‘a note lower for Great Pipe’. This reel is in D major, so a note lower would be C major. While there are hints that pipers and flute players shared repertoire, this is the only noted indication that pipers may have played flute, and vice versa. ‘Flauto,’ which usually meant recorder, is used twice in the manuscript, and must be taken to mean transverse flute, based on the key signatures and represented composers.

This manuscript shows a range of repertoire not unusual for Scottish eighteenth-century flute manuscripts, except for the inclusion of Blavet and the indication for pipes. French music is practically unknown in surviving eighteenth-century Scottish libraries and manuscripts, and a work by Blavet, who only wrote for flute, indicates that the player who made this manuscript was familiar with a variety of flute literature. The lone mention of pipe is a tantalizing hint that not only did flute players and pipers share some repertoire – some flute players may have also played pipes. In any case, more research is needed to better demonstrate the overlap between flute players and pipers.[4]

The other evidence of shared repertoire between flute players and pipers relates to pìobaireachd,[5] the classical music of the pipes. Daniel Dow’s most interesting contribution to flute repertoire is A Collection of Ancient Scots Music for the Violin, Harpsichord or German-flute never before printed consisting of Ports, Salutations, Marches or Pibrachs.[6] On the title page he remarks that ‘[w]here the Notes are below the Compass of the German Flute the Octave above may be Played.’ Dow’s suggestion was undoubtedly a marketing ploy to flute players; in most instances playing an occasional out- of- range note up an octave would destroy the sense of the music.[7] This was one of the earliest collections of Gaelic music, before the work of Donald[8] and Patrick MacDonald.[9] The authenticity of the pibroch is open to debate,[10] but the music is in the form of pibroch, with unfigured basslines, which could be interpreted as a drone, especially if played on the cello.[11] The collection shows that pibroch, or pieces in the style of pibroch, formed a part of the flute repertoire.

There is little evidence aside from Dow that Scottish flute players in the eighteenth century played pibroch, but the possibility that pibroch was part of the repertoire must be considered. Although little is known about Highland piping in the eighteenth century, the presence of transcriptions of pibroch in eighteenth-century fiddle manuscripts shows that the music was passed to other instruments.[12] While no pibroch transcriptions have yet been identified in any Scottish flute manuscripts, it is reasonable to suppose that if pibroch was played on violin it was also played on flute.[13] Pipe music is easily within the range of the flute,[14] and the intricate ornaments that form an integral part of pibroch are simple to manage on the one-keyed flute,[15] especially for a player accustomed to eighteenth-century ornamentation.

Transcribing pibroch is difficult, and transcriptions of pibroch made by non-pipers are usually inaccurate, though they may be playable on flute. In writing of early attempts at transcribing pibroch, Peter Cooke observed that the first people to attempt to do so ‘…transcribed a small number of pibrochs in a form that would enable them to be played on the piano, flute or violin; accordingly they did little more than suggest impressionistically the complicated cuttings and graces that the pipers played.’[16] Much of Elizabeth Ross’s 1812 manuscript of pibroch is playable on the flute but lacks the ornamentation of pibroch; it is indeed only a vague impression of what it would sound like on bagpipes.[17] This, however, may miss the point: musicians other than pipers may not have desired for the music to sound exactly the way it sounds on pipes.

Donald MacDonald’s stated intention in the preface to A Collection of the Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia was to ‘facilitate the attempts of Students upon the Great Highland Bag-Pipe, and to accommodate its Music to almost all other instruments, such as the Organ, Piano-Forte, Violin, and Flute.’[18] MacDonald’s attempt is successful: his edition preserves the format and ornamentation of pibroch, particularly the binary form and sense of balanced oppositions in the ùrlar,[19] and the basslines he provides give an impression of the drone of the pipes:[20]


While technically challenging, this is by no means unplayable on either the one-keyed or multi-keyed flute.[21] MacDonald’s work indicates an interest and demand among flute players for pibroch, presented and arranged in a way more suited to the instrument than Dow’s collection.

These are but hints of the overlap between flute playing and piping in Scotland in the eighteenth century, but they provide a small and intriguing piece of evidence in the examination of the overall picture of the musical landscape. As ever, further research is needed to complete the picture.

[1] Pietro Antonio Locatelli (1695-1764) is not credited with having composed any flute concertos, though this may be one of his violin concertos or flute sonatas, mislabeled. Albert Dunning. “Locatelli, Pietro Antonio.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 10, 2015, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/16840

[2] David Johnson, Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century, Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 2003, 210.

[3] Adam Matthew’s description of the manuscripts that accompanies the microfilms describes the volume as ‘Flute, early 18th century. Music Book containing minuets, Scottish tunes, pieces by Handel and Italian composers, early 19th century.’ The obvious typographical error aside, early eighteenth-century is more likely than 1760 based on the contents. Early Music Part 2: Music Manuscripts, 1500-1793, in the National Library of Scotland, Marlborough: Adam Matthews Publications, 2004, 24.

[4] If some flute players played pipes, it would follow that some pipers played flute, but the evidence is lacking.

[5] Anglicized as pibroch.

[6] Daniel Dow, A Collection of Ancient Scots Music for the Violin, Harpsichord or German-flute never before printed consisting of Ports, Salutations, Marches or Pibrachs, Edinburgh, 1776.

[7] Clearly Dow did not give much consideration to how suitable this would be musically to flute players, but it may have sold more copies.

[8] See discussion of Donald MacDonald’s Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia below.

[9] David Johnson. “Dow, Daniel.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 16, 2014,http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/08099.; Patrick MacDonald, A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs, Edinburgh: Corri and Sutherland, 1784.

[10] Some of the pibrochs in Dow’s collection have Gaelic sources, other do not, which does not imply that he wrote him. James Beaton speculates that they originated in Gaelic song. Dow’s source is a curious mystery: if he was not a Gaelic speaker, he would have had a very difficult time in gathering his sources or even having access to pibroch, especially following the post-1745 ban on Highland culture, and before Donald MacDonald’s publication. James Beaton, private communication.

[11] Dow may have had exposure to some Gaelic culture in his native Perthshire. Keith Sanger to Barnaby Brown, email 10 September 2008.

[12] Johnson contradicts himself more than usual on the question of pibroch. He writes first that it was only ever played on the Highland pipe, and then goes on to give examples of pibroch from the oral tradition transcribed in manuscripts. Johnson, 2005, 122-126.

[13] The history of shared repertoire between the two instruments makes this very likely, as does the shared context and society in which violin players and flute players lived and made music.

[14] Pipe music is almost always in D major, b minor, or A mixolydian, although the range is not nearly as wide as the flute’s.

[15] Additionally, the pipe chanter closely resembles the body of the flute, but for the key.

[16] Cooke also notes that these early transcriptions are essentially useless to anyone actually trying to play pibroch. Peter Cooke, ‘Problems of Notating Pibroch: A Study of ‘Maol Donn’’ in The Highland Bagpipe: Music, History, Tradition ed. Joshua Dickson, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, 5-24.

[17] The final two pages of Ross’s manuscript is the flute part of Joseph Mazzinghi’s ‘Huntsman Rest.’ Cooke writes in his introduction to the manuscript that there is no evidence for a flute at Raasay House. The Elizabeth Ross Manuscript: Original Highland Airs Collected at Raasay in 1812, ed. Peter Cooke, Morag MacLeod, and Colm Ó Baioll, Edinburgh: School of Scottish Studies Online Publication Series, 2011, 79. http://www.ed.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.100544!/fileManager/RossMS.pdf ; Elizabeth Jane Ross, Original Highland Airs, MS. 3, School of Scottish Studies. Facsimile edition: http://www.ed.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.100545!/fileManager/ERossfacsimilesm.pdf

[18] Donald MacDonald, A Collection of the Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia, called Pìobaireachd, 3rd edition. Edinburgh: Robertson, 1825, 3.

[19] Pibroch consists of an ùrlar, or ground, with variations.

[20] MacDonald, ‘Failte Phronsa: The Prince’s Saltue, Composed by John McIntyre son of Donald McIntyre,’1.

[21] Keys could make some of the ornaments slightly easier to manage, but considering that the pipe chanter has no keys, are not necessary for accurate performance of the ornaments.




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