The Cornish Bagpipes Project
The Cornish Bagpipes project was launched in October 1988 at Lowender Peran by Will Coleman and Merv Davey with the aim of: identifying and collating historical records of bagpipes in Cornwall; commissioning a reconstruction of the Cornish Double Chanter Pipes; encouraging the use of bagpipes for Cornish music and traditions.
Images of Bagpipes in Cornwall
Bagpipes and the Gwari Meur
The Gwari Meur , the Cornish Mystery Plays were performed in outdoor theatres or rounds called the Plen an Gwary, literally “playing place”. The surviving texts give us a glimpse of the cultural life in Cornwall during this period and the examples below, illustrate the piper’s role in playing for dancing.
Origo Mundi : Part one of the Cornish Ordinalia, a three part play written in the late 14th Century
Abarth an Tas, Menstral a ras, ebough ware
In the name of the father, Minstrels of grace, Pipe at once
Beunans Meryasek : The” Life of St Meriasek”, patron Saint of Camborne, 1504
Pybough Menstrels volonnekMay hyllyn donsia dyson
Pipe you hearty minstrels,That we might dance without delay
(Later in same play)
Pyboryon wethugh in scon Ny a vyn ketep map bron Moys thi dons
Pipers, blow quickly We will, every son of a breast Go to dance
Gwreans an Bys: The “Creation of the World”. This is a version of the miracle play signed by William Jordan 12th August 1611
Mynstrells Grewgh theny peba, May Hallan warbarthe downssya, Del ew an vaner ha’n geys
Minstrels pipe for us, That we may together dance, As is the manner and the custom (or guise)
Gwreans an Bys: The “Creation of the World”, a later version signed by John Keigwin, 1698
Gwrewth an menstrells oll tha pyba ,Mollen ny warbarth daunsya Kepare yw an for yn gwary
Minstrels all pipe, That we may dance together, As is the way in the play.
Bagpipes and Cornish Vocabularies
References to pipes are also to be found in the early Cornish vocabularies. Over the 600 year period between the Cornish / Latin of the Vocabularium Cornicum and the 18th Century vocabularies, meanings and vernacular use are likely to have changed over time and later vocabularies are often sourced from earlier ones. Mention in relatively small compilations is nevertheless unwitting testimony to their cultural significance. We do not, of course, know whether “piper” necessary means “bagpiper” or indeed if the difference was perceived as important during the time of the mystery plays. It is interesting to note, however, that other Celtic languages often do not include “bag” when referring to pipes or pipers.
Vocabularium Cornicum 12th C, Cottonian Library
- Fellores Fidecina Female fiddler
- Harfellor Fidicen Male fiddler
- Kerniat Cornicen Hornpipe player
- Pib Musa Musical Pipe
- Piphit Tibicen Piper
- Pibounal Fistula A Pipe, a flute
Archaeologia Britannica Edward Lluyd , 1707
- Pib pipe of what sort so ever, a water spout a flute
- Piban shank, shinebone, a pipe a flute, a flaggellet
- Pibidh a piper, a fiddler, a minstrel
- Kernias a piper
Antiquities of Cornwall, William Borlase 1754,
- Harfel She Piper, a viol, a harp
- Harfellor a player on the pipe
- Kernat a pipe, a blower of a clarion
- Piban a pipe
- Pipidh a maker of pipes; a piper
- Pip a song
- Piphit a songster, a player on the pipe.
Archeologica Cornu-Britannicum , William Pryce 1790
- Kerrin a pipe or tune
- Pebough tune you, pipe you
- Peban a flute, a flagellet, a little pipe
- Pib a pipe of any sort , a flute
References to Bagpipers in early accounts
1297 Earldom Of Cornwall Accounts
“Trigg – Et De 2/6 de Iohanna vxore Henrici le pipere et socio pro trans”. Henrici the piper of Trigg had committed such offences that his wife, Iohanna had to pay a fine for him of 2 shillings and sixpence. .[i]
1417 Exeter City Accounts
“pipers of Lord Botreaux of Boscastle paid 4d.” [ii]
1404 – 1576 Launceston Borough accounts
There are a number of reference to the Minstrels of St Marys who are depicted as including a piper on the carvings on the east wall of the Church.[iii] On 25th November 1465 for example there is an entry “on bread used about the mayor and his fellows and the minstrels on St Mary Magdalene’s Eve, 1 ½ d. On three gallons and one quart of wine used about the mayor and his fellows and also the minstrels at the same time 18 ½ d.” The minstrels are also mentioned in the register of Bishop Edmund Lacy 16th June 1449: “on the sixteenth day of the aforesaid month, in the year of the Lord above said, the same Lord (bishop) granted forty days indulgence to all who were truly penitent and had confessed who gave, bequeathed, or in any way assigned any of the goods given them by God as free alms to the support of the confraternity of minstrels of St Mary Magdalene at Launceston.” [iv]
1536 / 7 Lostwithiel Guild Riding Accounts 1536/7
piper employed for the Riding. [v]
1550 Camborne Churchwardens accounts
Paid to the piper in the play – 4d”[vi]
1575 St Ives Borough accounts
Item – paid to the piper[vii]
1683 West Penwith Landowner records
Wealthy landowners often hired a piper to provide entertainment in the evening for everyone involved in the clipping. [viii]
- 1966 The Gorsedh Kernow bardic procession was led by David Derrington playing the Binou (Breton bagpipes). He led the procession again in 1968 when the Gorsedh ceremony was held in his home town of St Just and also 1978. The post of “pibyor” honorary piper was created in 1983 and a piper has lead the bardic procession for Gorsedh Kernow Ceremonies since then. Merv Davey was the first Honorary piper and Robin Holmes took over the role in 2015.
- 1970s Tony Snell of Cornish folk group “Tremenysy” wrote an article in the Cornish language magazine An Gannas published in 1977 mooting the possibility of reconstructing the Cornish Bagpipes. In 1978 Clive Palmer of “The Incredible String Band” was inspired by the carving at Davidstow to construct a set of small parallel bore pipes.
- 1980s Pipe Major Bill McColl arranged Cornish music for the Great Highland Bagpipes and included this in the repertoire of the Bodmin Celtic Pipe Band. In 1983 Gorsedh Kernow formally created the office of “Pybyor”, honorary piper and bardic processions have been led by a piper since then. In 1986 Will Coleman arranged Cornish tunes for the Gaita. In 1988 Will Coleman and Merv Davey set up the “Cornish Bagpipes Project”. The aim was to trawl and collate historic references to bagpipes in Cornwall with a view to commissioning a modern reconstruction.
- 1988 The Cornish Bagpipe Project.
- 1990s: Two bagpipe makers expressed an interest in reconstructing these bagpipes, Chris Bayley and Julian Goodacre. Both use the detailed carving at Altarnun Church as their inspiration; the Bayley pipes retained the drone and used a conical bore to create a larger more robust sounding instrument; the Goodacre pipes did away with the drone to focus on the tonal and harmonic opportunities of a double chanters with a parallel bore. The Great Highland Pipes and Gaita became increasingly popular for leading processional events such as the St Piran’s day pilgrimage across Perran Sands. During the commemoration of the 1499 rebellion in 1997 Piper Rob Strike lead the Cornish host across the Tamar at Polson Bridge. 1993 Christopher Bayley’s pipes were launched at a concert in Altarnon Church and joined by “crowd” a bowed instrument depicted on the bench end opposite the piper. In 1998 the Tribal Pipe Band formed which featured a combination of gaita, bombardes and afro-celtic percussion.
- 21st Century – The Cornish Bagpipes Project Legacy: The Cornish double chanter bagpipes have become a recognised instrument for bagpipe enthusiasts and medieval music re-enactors with several hundred sets distributed around the world. The 21st century has seen a return to the use of pipers for traditional customs such as guize dancing, ridings and the parades of St Piran’s tide. The demand for a more robust instrument and a greater range of notes has encouraged the use of a variety of different bagpipes such as the Great Highland Pipes, The Breton Veuze, the Border Pipes and the Gaita. From the perspective of the project in 1988 it is disappointing that the Cornish Double Chanter pipes are not used so widely but this reflects increased communications and wider availability of bagpipes generally. Even long-established bagpipe cultures such as those of Brittany and Scotland utilise a much wider variety of bagpipe types than they might have done in the past. A number of folk bands have featured bagpipes in presenting a largely Cornish repertoire for example Pyba, Radgel, Dalla, Bagas Degol, Bagas Porthia and Ilow Splann.
Merv Davey – Double Chanter Pipes with drone made by Chris Bayley
Merv Davey – Double Chanter Pipes without drone made by Julian Goodacre
Merv Davey playing for serpent dance with “Bucca Pipes” adapted from the Breton Veuze
See Mike O’Connor “Altarnun Revisited”
[i] L. Margaret Midgeley, Ministers accounts for the Earldom of Cornwall, 1296 -1297, (London, Royal Historical Society, 1945) p.263
[ii] Wasson, J. M., ed., Devon, Records of Early English Drama (Toronto, Buffalo and London: U of Toronto P, 1986) pp. 85-94.
[iii] Cornish Record Office / Kresen Kernow B/Laus 135
[iv] Sally L. Joyce and Evelyn S. Newlyn, Record of Early English Drama: Cornwall (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1999) p491.
[v] Joanna Mattingly, Royal Institution of Cornwall Journal 2005, p92.
[vi] Camborne Churchwarden Accounts 1550, Cornwall Record Office / Kresen Kernow, Redruth
[vii] St Ives Borough Accounts, Cornwall Record Office / Kresen Kernow Redruth
[viii] Penwith Local History Group “West Penwith at the time of Charles II” 1998 p 33