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.