“And they have always been a happy lot who could enjoy themselves to the utmost with pipe and music and song and dance, and also perhaps with some of the national beverage of Scotland, which is still coupled with the tartan and the pipes.”—W.L. Manson, The Highland Bagpipe, 1901
Many folks will say that single-malt whisky is an acquired taste. Many might also say the same thing about Highland bagpipe music. Anyone who has a fondness for both will agree that the two things stand as a testament to mankind’s genius. Both have been around since human beings have been able to record their own history and each share a similar character. Not many things can move people in such a variety of ways. Bagpipe music and whisky both can be awful, welcoming, harsh, invigorating, comforting. Both have been known to stir the emotions in exaggerated ways. Each is associated with celebration, sadness, and ceremony. Each is infused with originality and artistry. A good bagpipe tune stands apart from others just as a good single-malt whisky will stand apart from even the distiller next door. They have also both shared in humanity’s ongoing development through the ages. Perhaps not accidentally, both have also flourished in Scotland. The two things—Highland bagpipes and single-malt whisky—not only share a common heritage, but have influenced each other immeasurably. It’s not hard to imagine pipers of the distant past sharing tunes and “craic” with a bottle of uisge beatha, the water of life, passing around the whole time. Music has always been a special way for a culture to express itself. Whisky has always occupied a special place in Gaelic-speaking culture generally (good and bad) so, it’s no surprise then, that a fair number of whisky-inspired tunes would emerge over the centuries, each one as individual and unique as the tastes of individual single-malts.
Whisky is a distillation of fermented grain. Heat some grain and water, add some yeast, let it sit for a while. It really is quite simple. The process has been around since the time of Babylon and Mesopotamia and there is vague record of the spirit in Ireland as far back as 1170. It is thought to have become common trade practice in Scotland by way of Christian monks. The most well-known record of distilled spirit in Scotland comes from a 1494 Exchequer Roll, the fifteenth-century equivalent of a purchase order, where it is written: “To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aquavitae, VIII bolls of malt.” The King was the beloved Stuart monarch James IV (1488–1513). King James was a man of great learning and high tastes. Naturally he would have a penchant for uisge beatha. Eight bolls would have been about 1,900 pounds of barley, and this quantity of malt would have made around 1,250 bottles of today’s whisky. Far from being an order for a local delicacy, this order was for mass production! Here we have great volumes of malt whisky being produced as a matter of course, nearly 600 years ago.
Naturally, there is a great deal more craft when making the whisky that has been present through 600 years of history. Scottish single-malt whisky begins from barley that has been soaked to germinate (malted) and then dried. This has historically been done in an open air drying kiln with trademark pagoda-style chimneys, and done with a variety of fuels to impart flavor. Peat logs, coal coke, wood, and hot air have all been used to capture a distinct taste. The malt is then ground into meal and mixed with hot water to create the “mash,” beginning the first stage of fermentation. The byproduct of that, the “wort,” is then mixed again with water and sometimes other ingredients. Yeast is then added to the filtered wort and left to ferment. The process up to this point is the same for both beer and whisky. Beer is as old as whisky and can also be thought of as another testament to mankind’s industriousness (and a great many tunes about ale also exist). The craft of making both requires overlapping skills and equipment, as well as the same ingredients. But it’s at this point the two drinks part ways. The wort for whisky is then distilled twice, first in a wash still, and then in a spirit still. The resulting liquid is placed in wooden barrel casks to age until bottling. There is a bit more detail in each stage (particularly today) that gives each whisky its unique flavor but, it’s as simple as that.
Nevertheless, the production of malt whisky in the past was somewhat lengthy and labor intensive when you isolate its supply chain. Luckily, that supply chain overlapped with every other facet of people’s lives. Whisky making was just another thing one did, as normal as growing crops and tending cattle. Barley and other grains were a dietary staple as much as a primary ingredient for whisky. Water was plentiful. The “draff” or left over spent grains after mashing were diverted to feed livestock. Distillation requires many controlled stages to execute effectively. Each stage and ingredient required careful consideration and it is the unique process instilled by each distiller that gave each whisky its individual character. It must have been quite the activity with plenty of personal touches and bragging to be done. George Malcolm Thomson (under the psuedonym Aeneaus MacDonald) was one of the first to write about the history of Higland folk and their whisky making:
“There were thousands of stills in the glens and shielings, and not all of the whisky they made was bad. Much of it, on the contrary, was better than the products of the licensed distilleries, for it was made in parts of the country where the science of distilling, like the art of playing the bagpipes, was an immemorial tradition…”
Making a good whisky back then was probably as noteworthy in the community as making a good pie.
Whisky’s commercial success in Scotland was such that rapid and continuous innovations in the distillation process pushed forward to make it easier and faster to produce a much higher quality product as far back as the early 1500s. The first book on the subject of distillation of spirits, The Vetuose Boke of Distyllacyon, was printed in 1527 by Heironymous Braunschweig. By the time the end of the 1500s arrived, the Scottish monasteries were dissolved and the monks’ trade knowledge of distilling whisky was readily integrated into the local culture and Scottish whisky was being exported to Ireland and France. When you consider the level of commercial activity that existed then with the need for ingredients and labor, you can see how the industry involved whole regions of people at all levels of society and produced a product that had an unmistakable impact on the land and local population.
The very first excise tax on spirits, enacted in 1644, created a black market for illegal distilling and transport of whisky throughout Scotland, particularly in the outer isles. Up to then, whisky was produced in large and small batches by many for personal and commercial use. The tax, which is still in effect today, introduced the boundary of authority to what up to then had been an everyday affair. Distilling came under the patronage of Earls and Lords. In spite of this, Scottish whisky production exploded over the next 100 years, it being the elite domain of a select few distillers with special privileges granted by the British crown such as Duncan Forbes of Culloden and his “Ferintosh.” Illegal distilling and whisky smuggling increased as well and was further complicated by a ban on distillation in 1757 to 1760 because of weak grain harvests and heavier duties on smaller stills, including an outright prohibition in 1774 on spirit stills producing less than 100 gallons. By 1781, private distilling was made completely illegal. The latter years of the eighteenth century are rife with attempts by the crown to further tax and constrain the whisky industry in Scotland and were met with riots and protest. The Highlands at this time were in the midst of a well-documented famine as well, doing its part to put the final nail in the coffin of the Highland clan system after the clearances and Act of Proscription of 1745. Illicit transport and trade was rampant not just for whisky, but for all sorts of goods the British crown taxed in order to stage its war with France. Add to this that it was against the law for the far superior Scottish Highland whisky to be sold south of the Lowlands, and it was a boom time for smugglers. Illegal stills flooded the land with spirits. The British crown responded with progressively higher duties, Excise men (i.e., tax collectors), and other restrictions to no avail. The higher the duties, the more illegal whisky moved through the countryside. Canny Highland smugglers outwitted the Excise Collectors at every turn. Smugglers plied their trade by setting up a “bothy” in hidden glens throughout the countryside. At one point, the Government offered a reward of £5 (about $140 today) to anyone who reported the whereabouts of an illicit still. The most expensive part of the still in those days was the “worm,” or the copper coil that condensed the liquid spirit from the wash still to the spirit still. When the worm was worn out, the smugglers dismantled their still, took what they needed and left the worn out copper worm and other bits to show that the still had been there. Then, one of the smugglers would go to the magistrate and report that he had discovered an illegal still and receive the reward. The smugglers would then use that money to buy copper for a new worm and set up their still and new bothy in another glen. Similar trickery was employed when illegal barrels of spirit were transported throughout Scotland, with much of it done complicit with local authorities and landowners. The whole enterprise existed in a self-fueled, feedback loop for decades.
Illicit distilling during this time was not limited to the Highlands. Edinburgh had eight licensed stills operating in the city in 1777 while at the same time, hundreds of illegal, unlicensed stills were hard at work, whose operators employed the same criminal cleverness as their northern neighbors. In 1815, a large, illegal still was discovered under the arches of the South Bridge. The entrance was a small door behind a fireplace in a room of a house adjoining the arch. Water was swiped from the Edinburgh city main and the smoke was pumped through another chimney in another adjoining house.
Faced with the impossible task of quelling rampant illegal smuggling, a select committee set up by the Crown implemented the Excise Act of 1823 that reduced duties on spirits and lightened or removed many of the regulations that up to then had restrained whisky distillation. The relaxation of laws and taxes allowed illicit distillers to operate in the open, providing more freedom in production, clearing the way for the whisky boom of the late 1800s and laying the foundation for the modern whisky industry.
Whisky and Bagpipes
So, what does all this whisky history have to do with bagpipe tunes? Whisky and bagpipes are two things that moved through history with the rhythm of Scottish life. They have also managed to traverse history relatively unchanged. The form and sound of bagpipes and the distillation of whisky are much the same today as they were 200 to 300 years ago. A Highland distiller from the 1700s would certainly know what is happening if he appeared from the past and saw a modern spirit still. Likewise, a piper of that past, dropped into today’s world, would surely recognize a modern Highland bagpipe, and be able to pick it up and belt out a few tunes! It’s that unchangeability that has given us a deep musical tradition, full of tunes that can be played today just as they were heard three centuries ago, as well as given us a fully developed and complex spirit such as single-malt whisky.
Traditional musicians have always written music about life matters grand and mundane. Whisky and bagpipes both provide something unique whenever they are experienced. As George Thomson puts it, whisky
“…has a potency and a directness in the encounter which proclaims its sublime rank. It does not linger to toy with the senses, it does not seep through the body to the brain; it communicates through no intermediary with the core of a man, with the roots of his conciousness; it speaks from deep to deep.”
Thomson could just as well be talking about bagpipe music and the two things, being so similar in character, were often experienced together.
Accounts of pipers and their overindulgence in whisky is well recorded, even up to the present day, and is the stuff of legend. But whisky and bagpipes were not only a central part of frivolity and fun, but also a feature of the ceremonial aspects of life as well. The Rev. Dean Ramsey, in his 1857 Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character, commented frequently (and disapprovingly) on the place of whisky in various aspects of life:
“These were the notions of a people in whose eyes the power of swallowing whisky conferred distinction, and with whom the inability to take a fitting quantity was a mark of mean and futile character.…Sad to tell, the funeral rites of Highland chieftains were not supposed to have been properly celebrated except that there was immoderate and often fatal consumption of whisky.”
The funerals of Highland nobles and other milestones were also marked by a piper as long ago as such things were documented. More mundane yet formal occassions also involved a dram or two as well as enlisted the duty of a piper as Dr. Samuel Johnson notes in his 1775 work Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland in which he reports much about the customs of drinking whisky and the activities of bagpipers as he was being entertained in the Highlands: “As we sat at Sir Alexander’s table, we were entertained, according to the ancient usage of the North, with the melody of the bagpipe.” If we look back a couple of centuries, we can surmise that whenever there was bagpipe music heard in Scotland, there was likely whisky consumed—and that has changed little.
The late sixteenth- to late seventeenth-century period in the Scottish Highlands and in the north of Ireland is when we have our earliest record of clan pipers, the composition of piobaireachd, and both piper’s and music’s attachment to clan chiefdoms. Good pipers were as prized in the chief’s hall as a good whisky. Every house and farmstead by the time of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had a still making whisky from surplus barley and other grains and used it for personal consumption or as a form of currency. Pipers were often common folk and common folk made and drank whisky.
The major regions of whisky distillation are synonymous with piping and Scottish music: Strathspey, the western Highlands, the outer isles such as Jura, Skye, and Islay. The landholders in these regions feature prominently in many a bagpipe tune. The historical clan names that have featured significantly in the history of Highland bagpiping have all seen their rise and fall along with the whisky trade in the Highlands of Scotland: MacGregor, MacLeod, MacDonald, Campbell, MacKenzie, MacLean.
Early bagpiping lore is intertwined with drink and its consequences. “The Drunken Groat” as the piobaireachd “The Groat” is also known, is titled “The Grant’s March” in the Campbell Canntaireachd, its earliest documented source. The Grant family and its peerage have been associated with the whisky trade for as long as it has existed. The piobaireachd “The Men Went to Drink” is connected to an old gaelic song about a group of men, being men, and drinking heavily at the tavern Tayinloan, in Kintyre. The tune “Too Long in this Condition” has an alternative origin that tells of secret Catholic meetings after the time of the Reformation, meetings that were known to result in long hours of intense drinking and discussion—with the inevitable hangovers to match. One story behind the very old song and piobaireachd “Old Men of the Shells” tells about drinking and the sorry state in which it leaves a man; a scallop shell being the ancient way whisky was shared. The tune “A’ Bhòilich,” which today we know as the piobaireachd “The Vaunting,” is recorded in early piping competitions as “The Rage of Drunkenness.”
The years following the Excise Act of 1823 saw a great many names familiar to pipers set up new distilleries on their estates. Lord Lovat, the Duke of Argyll at Campbelltown, MacKenzie at Seaforth, and Campbell in Islay all had operated illegal stills for decades before the Excise Act and became deeply invested in creating fully licensed distilleries for a newly opened marketplace. Several classic pipe tunes bear homage to these specific names and places. Many bagpipers of that era also worked their living on crofts or farm holdings under these landlords, more often than not growing barley.
The period of the whisky boom of the mid- to late-nineteenth century also saw a great many editors and musicians collecting and compiling the music that had been circulating through the Highlands and the Isles. Solo piping competitions were into their full momentum starting with the first Falkirk Tryst in 1781 and the first Northern Meeting in 1788. Pipemaker Donald MacDonald published his Collection of Quicksteps, Strathspeys, Reels, and Jigs, the first music book purely for the Highland bagpipe, in 1820. Simultaneous with a burgeoning Scottish whisky industry was an expanding interest in, and regard for, Scottish music with the publication of numerous collections, and an elevation of Highland bagpipes in particular.
Some tunes need no introduction. They are either well-known or have titles that are self-explanatory. Others tunes have titles that are a bit more obscure and hint at a lifestyle and tradition that has long since passed. Others still, are printed for the first time and might be completely unfamiliar. All types are mixed here like well-blended Scotch whisky.
Traditional Scottish tunes did not start appearing on staff notation in printed books until the middle to latter part of the eighteenth century. Joseph MacDonald’s Compleat Theory of the Highland Bagpipe was compiled in 1760 but Highland bagpipe music exclusively did not start seeing print until the nineteenth. Many of the tunes up to that time had been bouncing through the folk tradition, and the pipers’ fingers, for some two centuries or more before that. Along the way, “contemporary” compositions made their way into print to eventually become “traditional” from where we sit in the 21st century.
It is a fascinating study in local culture when one examines its musical expressions as they relate to certain shared aspects of life. Pipers, and traditional musicians generally, wrote tunes about things that mattered to them—and whisky certainly mattered a great deal. These tunes capture the spirit and flavor of life as much as the flavor of their favorite spirit.
The tunes collected here, like good whisky, have been aging a long time, some for the better part of three centuries. And, like all single-malt whisky, they each have distinct flavor and character. The tunes paint a historical musical portrait of a people and their customary beverage. The collection begins with the people and places attached to whisky for as long as it has been known. The tunes then move through the whisky-making process, all the way from the growing of barley, to the malting, to the distilling and then, yes, the drinking. The piping styles evoked in some of them might be an acquired taste from a modern piper’s perspective. They echo a musical past when pipers threw down tunes that were fun to hear and play for their own sakes. Many haven’t been heard in a century or more but, each one has its own story to tell. It’s time those stories were heard again. They harken back to a time when it was commonplace, when one finished the day’s labor, to pour a dram from one’s own still and break out an instrument of choice for a tune or two.
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