Book Festival: Hugh Cheape on Scottish Culture

Edinburgh Festival review
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Hugh Cheape, Donnie O' Rourke (chair)
Running time

It's been said (at least by this reviewer) that Scotland was gifted both bagpipes and haggis by the folk of the steppes of Asia, and has never seen the joke. It's certain that how Scotland came by "the national instrument" is at least as mysterious as some of its subsequent history.

A great unraveller of the mystery has been Hugh Cheape, multi-faceted chronicler and curator of a number of aspects of Scotland's material culture and history. Cheape's book Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Instrument represents thirty years work in this field, although he has never actually been a curator of bagpipes.

He began with more questions than possible answers and the book itself is in part the telling of how some of these came to be addressed. Cheape is no ivory-tower ensconced academic, however, and never less so than with his clearly loved pipes, offering examples on the chanter to illustrate various aspects of his argument. One of these was the quick march from "Oscar and Maevola," a neo-baroque hit of the early eighteenth century, and it's to the neo-baroque that Cheape points as a significant element in the development of pipes and piping.

In the seventeenth century, the clarsach, the highland form of the harp, dominated the music scene, whereas by the mid-eighteenth, the bagpipe comes to predominate. When Cheape first began to interest himself in the history of the instrument, at the prompting of a senior colleague at the national Museum of Scotland who knew Cheape played with Bilston Glen Colliery Pipe Band, he found much myth but little light, and no coherent assemblage of material in Scotland, the most significant collection at that point being in England. There is likewise no clear account of the origins of the great highland bagpipe, and the supposed oldest instrument, dated "1409" is almost certainly a nineteenth century reproduction.

Interest in piping for non-martial and non-ceremonial purposes can be traced to the Music Society established in Niddry's Wynd, Edinburgh in the eighteenth century. Subscriptions were a guinea, cutting out the riff-raff, and Italian music-masters composed and published tunes suitable for the instrument.

The upsurge of interest in Scottish song at this time, and the publication of collections by David Herd among others contributed to the liveliness of the scene. Few names of bagpipe makers have come down to us, however, and fewer instruments till the nineteenth century. Hugh Cheape has to be hugely thanked for a splendid book which does justice to a large and complex subject in an engaging style.

Time: Aug 25 at 16:30

Copyright Bill Dunlop August 2008