Scotland’s oldest piper?
Pete Stewart meets the Piper of Skirling – an ancient carving and, he reckons, ‘one of the best kept secrets in Scotland’
ON THE south side of the road entering the small Peebleshire village of Skirling is a collection of cottages around a green that contains amongst the stones of its walls one of the best kept secrets in Scotland. In his ground-breaking original publication, O’er the Border, Gordon Mooney wrote: “Carvings of pipers decorate the abbey at Melrose and, at Skirling, a relief carving of a piper is to be seen, dated 1415. At Jedburgh, there is a carving of a piper in the gable at the house known as the Piper’s House. It seems likely that both the Skirling and Jedburgh carvings have come from churches or abbeys.”
It is clear that all these remarks need revisiting. In my volume, The Day it Daws, I published pictures of the one surviving bagpiper at Melrose (the famous “piping pig”) and Dalyell’s 1849 drawing of another piper said to have once been at Melrose. I also described the piper at Jedburgh as being clearly part of the original fabric of the building, with the date 1604 carved on a lintel of the house. I did not, however, include the piper of Skirling. This was because this carving actually bears the date ‘1810’ (see illustration); the figures 14 and 15 have been painted either side of the piper’s legs but this seemed little real reason at the time to take them as an authentic date for the carving.
The cottage into which the carved stone is built was erected as part of the village renewal, probably after “improvements” had moved the old cottars from their lands. So 1810 seems a reasonable date for the building of the cottage itself. Whilst researching the history of Peebleshire for my second volume of Lowland piping history I encountered, in a copy of Buchan’s History of Peebleshire, a photo of the piper in Skirling with this explanation:
“On the wall of one of the cottages in the village is a stone with the figure of a piper carved on it. It bears the date 1810. It is supposed that the stone came from the original castle and was used when the second castle was built [in fact, this was a large house in the village]. It was removed to its present position in 1810.”
Buchan goes on to say: “The Castle is said to have been built in 1315; it was demolished by Regent Moray in 1568 because of the adherence to the cause of Queen Mary by its owner Sir James Cockburn.”
I have learnt to be rather mistrustful of these remarks of the “said to have been” type, and consequently have tried to establish more firmly the dates of the castle, without much success. No sign survives on the ground of the castle, though its site can be made out from the air.
Tracking down what is known of the history of the castle has proved a struggle. A web search throws up an odd assemblage of sources, none of which I have been able to check but which I summarize here:
1 The website of the Gazetteer for Scotland says that the barony of Skirling was possessed by the Cockburns from about 1370 till 1621.
2 According to The New Statistical Account, published in 1854: “The earliest period to which any known record refers is the reign of King Robert Bruce, who granted to John Monfode the barony of Scrawline, with the advowson of the church; and in this family it seems to have continued a considerable time, for we find that a Margaret Monfode, granted an annuity of two merks, out of the lands of Scrawline, to a chaplain in the church of Dunmanyn, which grant was, confirmed by David II in 1362.”
3 A correspondent to the Rootsweb genealogy site said that “I believe the name of Henry as a given name for Cockburn's originated with the marriage in about 1396 when Sir Alexander Cockburn of Skirling Castle in Peebleshire, married one of the many daughters of Lord Henry Sinclair.”
4 The web site for Skirling House adds: “The church was founded in the village many centuries ago the first recorded mention of the village (then called Scraevlyn) was in 1275 in the records of Glasgow Cathedral, the Archdeacon of the Cathedral being the Priest at Skirling.”
5 An excavation of a small part of the site was carried out in 1962-3 by J G Dunbar, in which the only conclusion regarding dating was “Documentary evidence associates this site with a residence of the Cockburns, proprietors of the barony of Skirling from the late 14th to the early 17th century. (presumably this evidence is that at 2 and 3 above) “The earthwork represents the last remains of a late medieval castle associated with the Cockburns of Skirling. The finds indicate a continuous occupation of the site from the second half of the 15th century to about the end of the 16th century, and this accords reasonably well with the documentary evidence already cited to the effect that the castle was slighted in 1568 and not thereafter reoccupied”
What this all means is that I have been unable to find any evidence that would explain Buchan’s recorded date of 1315, although the existence of a church in 1275 implies some kind of settlement by that date. The most reliable date however, would be that from 3 above, 1396. This would put the carving, if it is contemporary with the original castle – which is by no means certain since such buildings were regularly extended, especially when new lords inherited – around the earliest likely date for those at Melrose.
What, then, are we to make of the “date” of 1415 which now is visible on the carving? As far as I can perceive, this date, which now appears to be painted on, does not appear on the photo that Buchan printed; however, the stonework is freshly white in that photo and may have just been renewed. Whether this “date” was original with the installation of the stone in its current position, or has been added in more recent times, it seems a reasonable estimate for the date of the carving, always assuming, of course, that tradition is right in claiming that the stone came form the original castle.
So what about the piper himself? Firstly, Buchan’s photo shows a good deal more of the drone than is now present, sufficient to say that this bagpipe is remarkably similar to that in Dalyell’s drawing of the missing piper from Melrose. The bagpipe is of the standard form for the period across Europe, a short chanter and a long drone, best displayed in the pipers in Rosslyn Chapel (c. 1450-80) and in the carved panel from Threave Castle (c.1600). Perhaps someone with a more thorough knowledge of medieval costume could draw some conclusions form the piper’s clothing, but failing that, I am now prepared to say that this is the earliest depiction of a bagpiper in Scotland, and pushes the history of the pipes in Scotland back perhaps a hundred years. I am told that the villagers of Skirling are very proud of their piper; they have every right to be.
 In fact, Collinson had noted this carving, describing it as “Piper's Stone, Skirling, Peebleshire (? from Skirling Castle, built c. 1315)”; presumably his date is from Buchan.
 For what it’s worth, I now wonder if the bagpipe played by the Jedburgh piper might be a “musette” with a shuttle drone, of the sort shown in paintings from the court of Henry II on France around 1598, but that is, without doubt, another story.
 "The fair of Skirling was long one of the largest markets in Scotland for horses and cattle . The fair itself was a scene of great animation. Cattle dealers, Horse coupers, ballad singers, pick-pockets, prick the garters, hawkers of curry combs [for grooming horses] recruiting parties with fifes and drums, merchants with their stands and gingerbread Neds with their baskets, were all pursuing their respective vocations with intense assiduity and clamour" Buchan, p. 209, fn 1