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.

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.