Monday, 21 September 2015

Of Pigs and Pipes

After “Are those Northumbrian pipes?”, probably the next most common question I get asked when playing in front of the general public is “That’s made from a pig’s bladder isn’t it?”. I’m sure many other bagpipers have experienced the same.

It seems there is quite a strong link between pigs and bagpipes in many people’s minds, even those who may not have much occasion to think of the instrument and I often wonder why this should be. To give an example, a few years ago I was at a fancy dress barbeque – and although I happily spend most of my working days in some historic costume or other I still cringe a little at this type of party – and a session was just starting. Someone arrived who happened to be dressed as a giant pink pig and spotting my smallpipes he immediately ran over to me and grabbed the bag wailing, “My brother, what have you done to my brother?!”

And it’s not just something that people think these days, the connection has been around for centuries. I’m sure many pipers will be aware of the medieval carving of the pig with the bagpipes at Melrose Abbey, one of the earliest images of bagpipes in Scotland. It is an iconic image, featuring on the abbey’s postcards and publicity. I even have a fridge magnet with a sculpted miniature of this carving.

There are plenty of bagpiping pigs to be found across England on misericords from the 14th and 15th century, often providing the music for piglets to dance to. These can be seen in churches in Richmond and Ripon in Yorkshire, Boston in Lincolnshire and Braddock in Cornwall, as well as Beverley Minster and Manchester Cathedral. These are fairly well known examples; I have a resin cast copy of the Ripon carving hanging on my living room wall. It is possible that some of these could be the work of one craftsman, but there are enough differences in the style and skill of the carvings to show that they are not all the work of the same individual. I’d suggest that this shows a general connection between pigs and bagpipes, rather than just being a favourite theme of a single woodcarver.

We can find other medieval woodcarvings of piping pigs. For example, a pulpit in St Leonard’s, Ribbesford, in Worcestershire has a pig playing a double chanter bagpipe which is very similar in design to the misericord at Ripon, though this version is a flatter relief as it was formerly part of the rood screen.

And it’s not just in England that we find this association. There is an example of Danish bagpiping bacon on a wall painting in Vestervig church as well as Dutch 15th century pewter badges of piping pigs that have been found in Utrecht and Amsterdam and in illuminated manuscript form in the exquisite Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry from early 15th century France.

It’s worth remembering that pigs are not the only members of the animal kingdom that play bagpipes in the imaginative work of medieval artists, there are also several examples of piping apes and a couple of asses too, though not so many in number as pigs. Similarly, pigs can be found playing other instruments on occasion, including organs and harps, though they seem to favour the bagpipes most of all.

If we look to other animals and other instruments, there is also quite an association between cats and fiddles. This is most commonly known through a nursery rhyme, but also through misericords and medieval manuscripts, as we find with our pigs and bagpipes. Perhaps here we have a connection with common misconceptions about how these particular instruments are constructed, so whilst people may think the bag is made from a pig’s bladder, then they may also believe the fiddle has strings made from cat gut. So the depictions could represent the animals playing the instruments made from parts of themselves, a visual pun.

However, there is perhaps more of a connection to the sound of these instruments when played badly. So we could imagine the scratching of the strings of a fiddle being reminiscent of a cat’s night-time wailing, or a bagpipe resembling the squealing of a pig. I could believe that there was once a well known folk tale or joke that ran along these lines, but that it is lost to us today.

I realise this Alfred Hitchcock quote has appeared in Chanter, (the journal of the Bagpipe Society), more than a couple of times, but may be worth repeating to illustrate this particular point. “I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equalled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig.”

A couple of years ago in Chanter, James Merryweather revealed the results of playing bagpipes to sheep, and I am well aware of the effects of bagpipes on cats – my playing had a laxative effect on our last cat and sets our present cat whining and heading out of the house. I wonder whether anyone has carried out an experiment playing bagpipes to pigs?

As to why pigs should be associated with bagpipes, there seem to be many opinions, often contradictory. For example in reading around the subject I have found people suggesting that it is because pigs are most like humans, they are intelligent and jolly and content with their life, whilst elsewhere there are those who say that pigs play bagpipes because they are symbols of greed, lust and idleness and so they should play such a base instrument so commonly linked with devils. I’m sure that fellow bagpipers would agree with the former – the pigs are clever and cheerful.

So, let’s celebrate these porky pipers, and next time we’re asked about the pigs’ bladders we can explain the long heritage our instrument has with our animal friends.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Piper in the Mill

As followers of the blog will know, I do love bagpipes and storytelling, (it's Tom writing this post), and there is no shortage of traditional tales featuring pipers.  Having just discovered that demons in mills in the night are common in Serbian folklore just as they are in Britain, I'm prompted to share my version of fairies and a piper in a watermill at night.  This is my retelling of a tale found along the Wales/England border and which I always enjoyed telling at Stretton Watermill in Cheshire.  The picture is myself and Joan Rogers of FayrePlay, piping there to start our Cheshire events for the first ever International Bagpipe Day a few years back.

Well, if you don’t like, don’t listen, but there was this miller see, and he would be sitting in his cottage, just across the lane from his watermill, and when it got to the edge o’night he would hear the wheel turning and the gears rumbling inside the mill. But he weren’t afeart, he’d known it all his life and same had happened in his father’s time and his grandfer’s afore that. He was wiser than to go inside the mill, mind, he knew it was the little folk who were about their milling during the night. And each morning all would be clean and tidy, they’d caused none trouble.

This one evening the miller was sat at the corner table in the alehouse with the blacksmith and a bagpiper and he chanced to tell about the little folk in the mill. “Well now,” says the piper, “you shunner let them grind their meal without paying as others mun do.” But the smith and the miller insisted it was foolish to interfere with the ways of the little folk. “Fairies be beggared!” says the piper, “I’m not so tickle-stomached as you. I’ll bet you tha new green weskit I can spend the night playing my pipes to them, I’ll get them dancing to my tune, I will, thump!”

Now the miller and smith were about telling the piper not to be such a maggot-pate, that he never knew what would happen if he went in the mill that night. But after another tankard of ale, their minds had altered, see, and were for letting him get agate his piping. So, here’s all three setting off down the pad-road across the field to the mill. The wheel was turning and there was a dim light at the window. And here’s the piper striking up his bagpipes and making his way into the mill. Well, the miller and the smith, they listened a while, then off they went back to the alehouse. After some more beer they were thinking on how the piper had been away a pretty tidy time and was most likely he’d returned home.

The next morning the miller made his way into the watermill. It was the same as ever, not a thing out of place, but no sign of the piper. He set off to the piper’s tumbledown cot, but he wasn’t there, and the hearth was cold. And the smith and the miller never did see the piper again, but if they ever walked past the tump at the end of the lane as it was fetching dark, both of them reckoned on how they could hear the sound of pipes under the ground.

So it’s a queer thing isn’t it, but that’s as I heard it, so take from it what you wish and give the rest back to me.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Witches' Piper

Bagpipes and storytelling are both a big part of what we do.  I've been collecting folk tales of pipers for several years now, it seems that there are more stories connected to the pipes than any other instrument though, as bagpipes in their various forms have a very wide geographic spread, that's probably not too surprising.  I sometimes perform a whole set of bagpipe tales, and other times just find an excuse to squeeze in a little piper story.  This is one of those short ones.  I found it in Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, where it's a Bulgarian story.  I told it a few times like that but didn't quite feel right, so I tweaked it a bit and moved it to my native Cheshire, along with a bit of dialect. 

You’ve heard how my elder brother plays the bagpipes?  Well, he was called to play for a party at Carden Hall, it must’ve been the day before Ash Wednesday.  And another feller from aback o’ Malpas was called to play his pipes for the children, Uncle Diccen his name is, he still lives in that village.

Now, at around eleven o’clock, Uncle Diccen was paid for his troubles and set off home.  But he was only betwixt Barton and Stretton when he was met by three women, all dressed in grey they were, and they said “Uncle Diccen, Uncle Diccen, come to play for us!” and dragged him away to a house at the end of the lane and set him on a bench there to play.  Well, other folk kept coming in and soon enough the place was thrunk and coins came crashing at Uncle Diccen’s feet until he thought it was as if he had the rent of the Dee Mills, until it turned midnight. 

Then, with a crash, Uncle Diccen found himself at the top of the poplar by Tilston stocks, and the night as black as a bag.  “Odd rot it! How did I get here?” thought Uncle Diccen.  On the lane below there was a chap coming from Shocklach way, and Uncle Diccen called to him to fetch him down, but this feller took boggart at some devil atop a tree at midnight and rushed off.  Soon enough though, there was a horse and cart coming from the Leche’s place and in it was Thomas Hulme.  “Is that you Uncle Diccen?” says Thomas.  “Damn it, of course it’s me! Now help me down.”

As soon as he was on the ground, Uncle Diccen began to look in the hem of his cloak where he’d hidden the coins he’d gathered, but it was full of nothing but broken crockery and chips of glass.  Such strange things sometimes still happen.

There are a couple of bagpipers in this 17th century picture of a Witches' Sabbath.  I've never been asked to perform at a gig like this by the way.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Tiles and Tales

We're just returned from a few days away in Shropshire, where we were able to explore many of the beautiful medieval churches of the county.  There are many more parish churches than you might imagine and, unusually these days, many of them are always open to the public. 
One of the most striking details of these churches are the pavement of medieval tiles.  Perhaps it's an accident of survival, or perhaps this type of decoration took hold well in this area, but Shropshire certainly seems to have more than its fair share of two-colour tiled floors. 
In St Bartholomew's Church, Benthall
On the wall of the porch of St Giles' Church, Barrow
Beside the Norman font in All Saints Church, Claverley
In St James' Church, Shipton
At the Jackfield Tile Museum there were loads of Victorian tiles which had taken inspiration from their medieval predecessors...
But the real reason for heading to Shropshire was to go to the wonderful Festival at the Edge.  As well as being the best organised and friendliest festival going, they also have some of the very best performers.  We enjoyed some of the world's greatest tale tellers who shared stories to make you think, laugh, cry, shiver and then laugh much more.  It really is an amazing experience.  Well worth making a diary date for next year's one, (15th-17th July 2016), which will be the 25th and so is going to be an extra special celebration.
We didn't get around to taking pictures at FatE, so to conclude, here are some 19th century tiles depicting folk tales which can be found in the museum at Jackfield...

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Approaching the Minstrels' Court

It's not long until this year's Minstrels' Court event, which will be held on Saturday 27th June.  As always it takes place in St John's Church, Chester, next to the amphitheatre ruins.  It is one of only a couple of re-enactment or living history events that takes place in its original and authentic location.

For those who haven't come across the event before, it's the recreation of the annual gathering of all minstrels in Cheshire, which had taken place in the city each midsummer from 1204 to 1756. Entertainers would obtain their licence to perform, without which they risked arrest.  The tradition began when the minstrels helped to save the Earl of Chester from the castle where he was besieged by the Welsh.  You can read more about it elsewhere on this blog.

We're so pleased to have the ongoing support of dozens of musicians, who kindly give up their time to be part of this event.  There will be some of the country's top historical musicians performing through the day in the church, with more informal music sessions in the large porch and outside too.

Around the church there will be fascinating living history displays, recreating some of the bustling scenes which were always part of life in St John's in medieval times.  Far from a place of quiet prayer, the church had business dealings and legal contracts made within its walls.  So if you're visiting the Minstrels' Court, expect to meet scribes, weavers, pilgrims, traders and even soldiers.

In the chancel of the church there will be performances of medieval and Renaissance music, along with legends and folk tales from storytellers, a medieval puppet show and even the demonstration of the arming of a knight.

At 1pm the gathered minstrels leave the church to process through the city's busy streets, causing quite a stir with playing and dancing.  At around 1.30pm they arrive back at St John's to gain their licences in a recreation of the original ceremony.  This is one of the most atmospheric moments of the day.  And then it's back to more music and living history.

The daytime event runs from 10.30am-5pm, everyone is welcome and it's free.

In the evening there is a special concert in the church, starting at 7.30pm and featuring Piva, one of world's best Renaissance bands.  Tickets are just £5 on the door.  Well worth catching their fantastic music in this amazing setting.

Hopefully we'll see some of you at the Minstrels' Court for the usual mayhem and merriment!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Exploring in Exeter

Back at the start of May we were down in Devon and took a chance to explore Exeter Cathedral, a place we'd wanted to see for quite some time.  It was a fascinating place, with much more variety of curiosities and hidden details to discover than in most of Britain's cathedrals.
For this post, we'll go sparingly with the words and allow the pictures to tell the tale.
The 'Minstrels Gallery' second from left is a bagpiper.  The cathedral didn't know what the sixth from left is playing but my guess, (from far beneath), is that it's a jew's harp.
One of very many canopied tombs with effigies.
Some roof bosses in the chapel of St John the Baptist.  St John is in the centre, in long hair and rags.
St Laurence being roasted on the grid iron.
There just had to be a green man...
15th century painted panels with the Annunciation.
Another bagpiper, this time on a canopied tomb.
Memorial Brass
The tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacey, this was the closest Exeter got to a shrine for pilgrims.   The cathedral was damaged in an air raid in 1942.  When the damage was cleared up, several votive wax offerings from pilgrims were found.  These are the only examples known in Britain.
20th century replicas of medieval tiles.
And some relaid medieval tiles.
Misericord of an elephant, one of the most realistic medieval depictions I've seen.
And another elephant, this one a Victorian bench end in the quire.
Medieval misericord with pipe and tabor player.
Curious detail of a cherub blowing bubbles above a tomb.
St Apollonia, patron saint of dentists, with her tooth pulling pliers.
Medieval wall painting of the Blessed Virgin alongside the entrance to the Lady Chapel.
The stone allows crisp, deep detailing.  You wouldn't get this with Cheshire sandstone!
An anonymous cadaver.
A striking word at eye-level on a memorial plaque.
Shepherds at the nativity, one with a recorder.
The original clock movement for the cathedral.
Door to a tower with hole for cathedral cat.  The cat was paid a penny a week for his duties in catching mice.

There was even more to see, so you'll have to make a trip to discover the rest for yourself.