What is the Oldest Bagpipe Tune?

One of the most searched-for questions that lead folks to our website is a question that is nearly unanswerable: What is the oldest bagpipe tune?

Why “nearly unanswerable”?

  • For one: What do we mean by bagpipe? Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe?  What about all the other bagpipes that have existed and exist now?
  • For another: Why “bag”-pipe?  Pipe music has been around for 40,000 years.  Pipes are our earliest human instrument for which we have evidence.
  • For yet another: What is mean by “music”? Staff notation, only?  What about canntaireachd?
  • And one more: What if our earliest sources are written for another instrument, say, for example piano? violin?
  • And then: What if we don’t have a score, but we have evidence of a tune by references made in written archives citing it?
  • And what about: harp music or vocal music that was translated to the pipe?

So, for those of you looking for a simple answer:  there is none.

Probably not what you wanted to hear.

So…let’s make some assumptions.  Let’s assume you are familiar Scottish music.  Let’s assume you play the Great Highland Bagpipe; or, at least, a familiar cousin.  Let’s assume you are trying to find:

  1. Citations of tunes by name in early archival records (out of historical interest and curiosity)
  2. Scores of any sort you could read (but not necessarily play)
  3. Scores you need to learn to play (canntaireachd)
  4. Scores you can play, though you’d have to put up with handwritten notation that is a bit hard to read

Let’s see what we can do to help.

1. The oldest known pipe tune name cited by a contemporary:  ‘Tobacco or the Laird tint his guantlet

According to our historian and archivist, Keith Sanger, this comes from the Dundee archives.  The piper was certainly not a Gaelic speaking highlander, but the Lowland town (or Common ) piper. (Keith goes on to mention, “[It is a] fact that until well into the 18th C there were far more Lowland pipers around than there were Gaelic speaking ‘highland’ pipers.”)

 Anthony Court, Dundee 1604, Common piper having playit some springs throw the burgh to the miscontent of honest neighbours, irritating and provoking some of the inhabitants to grite anger, and apparently likely to breed griter sedition, supersedit and dischairgit fra using of his common office throw the burgh evenings and mornings ay and quhill he should get ane new warrant fra the Council. Further was ordained not to play that spring callit ‘Tobacco or the Laird tint his gauntlet’ under quhatsovever uther name, aither privily in men’s houses or publickly upon the streets, at ony time, under the pain of banishment.

Another contender to be considered is The Battle of the Birds, whose Gaelic title Cath Gairbheach, refers to  The Battle of Harlaw (1411). Melodies related to this event go back as far as c. 1620, which bore the title Battle of Garlan. Check out Simon Chadwick’s page on this battle and its associated tunes.

2. The oldest score of any sort: 1747 – David Young’s A Collection of Scottish Airs with the latest Variations.

Y3.176: 138  PS 295 Sherriffmuir / Index: Sherriff Muir
Y3.270: 250  PS 145 Failte mhic-Gilleoin / Index: Failte mhic Gilleoin
Y3.284: 262  PS 200 Cumh’ Mhic-o-Arrisaig O Hara’s Lament / Index: Cumh’ Mhic O Arrisaig

One needs to be especially careful about these.  While these tunes made it into the bagpipe repertoire, the tradition from which Young is drawing is Scottish fiddle tradition.  As Barnaby Brown’s introductory preface states:

Chasing the question of whether these particular ‘Airs with the latest Variations’ flow from a bagpipe, fiddle, harp or song source is futile – Scotland’s musicians intermingled and their patrons regularly employed artists from abroad. Influences surely flowed in multiple directions, stimulated by international interactions in every generation. Rather than transcribing what a piper played, Young is presenting music for fellow fiddlers, taking something old and without hesitation making it new. His title page suggests that his settings reflect the latest fashion in Edinburgh – a cosmopolitan tradition – more strongly than anything archaic.

2a. The oldest complete score written by a piper:  1760 – Joseph MacDonald’s A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe

J:27r PS 001 March for a Beginner

3. The earliest collection of piping scores by a piper, but you’d need to learn canntaireachd:  1797 – Colin Campbell, Colin Campbell’s Instrumental Book 1797

4. The earliest collection of staff notation scores by a piper: 1815 – Anonymous, Hannay-MacAuslan Collection.

Now, keep in mind:  James Oswald’s The Caledonian Pocket Companion came out before Joseph MacDonald’s manuscript, so there is at least one more source earlier than those produced by pipers.

And, it is worth reflecting: these sources are incredibly young.  When we hear of tunes being played at battles in the 15th century (Park Piobaireachd, Piper’s Warning), the late 18th century is an incredibly long interval during which much had taken place.  Our music is like “looking through a glass darkly,” one pointed only at the very end of a tradition history that was being quickly obliterated (the living tradition was being forced into an orthodox standard).  And, frankly: very little of what we do with “highland bagpipe music” today (marching bands, competitions, MSR, “highland attire”) has much to do with the culture of its origins. The idea that we are “maintaining tradition” begs the question: whose tradition?

In sum, the oldest “highland” “bagpipe” “music” we have isn’t very old at all.


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