History: ‘Scotch Piper and the Dancing Girl’ – Part 2

We continue with the second part of Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew’s interview with an unnamed itinerant piper of the 1850s and a veteran of the 93rd regiment. Here our hero tells us of the money he can make in various parts of the kingdom, how it is cheaper to live in Scotland than London (some things never change), how he has kept poor health since leaving the Army, how best to cure cold fingers on a frosty day – and that he owns the oldest pipe chanter in the country…. ….

I do pretty well in London, taking my 4s [four shillings] a day, but out of that I must pay 1s. 9d. a week lodging-money, for I can’t go into apartments, for if I did it would be but poorly furnished, for I’ve no beds, or furniture, or linen.

I can live in Scotland much cheaper than here. I can give the children a good breakfast of oatmeal porridge every morning, and that will, in seven weeks make them as fat as seven years of tea and coffee will do here.

Besides, in Scotland, I can buy a very pretty little stand-up bedstead for 2s, which here would come to 4s. I’m thinking of sending my family down [sic] to Scotland, and sending them the money I earn in London. They’ll have to walk to Hull and then take the boat. They can get to Aberdeen from there. We shall have to work the money on the road.

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When I go out working with the little girl, I get out about nine in the summer and ten in the winter. I can’t work much more than four hours a day on the pipes, for the blowing knocks me up and leaves me very weak. No, it don’t hurt my chest, but I’ll be just quite weak. That’s from my bad health. I’ve never had a day’s health ever since I left the regiment. I have pains in my back and stitches in the side.

My girl can’t dance without my playing, so that when I give over she must give over too. I sometimes go out with two of my daughters. Lizzy don’t dance, only Maria. I never ask anybody for money. Anybody that don’t like to give we never ask them.

I can’t eat meat, for it won’t rest on my stomach, and there’s nothing I take that goes so well with me as soup. I live principally on bread, for coffee or tea won’t do for me at all. If I could get a bit of meat that I like, such as a small fowl, or the like of that, it would do with me very well; but either bacon or beef, or the like of that, is too strong for me. I’m obliged to be very careful entirely with what I eat, for I’m sick. A lady gave me a bottle of good old foreign port about three months ago, and I thought it did me more good than all the meat in the world.

When I’m in London I make about 4s a-day, and when I”m in the country about 15s a-week. My old lady couldn’t live when I travel if it wasn’t for my boy, who goes out and gets about 1s. a-day. Lord Panmure is very good to him, and gives him something whenever he meets him. I wouldn’t get such good health if I stopped in London. Now there’s Barnet, only eleven miles from St. Giles’s, and yet I can get better health in London than I can there, on account of its being on rising ground and fresh air coming into it every minute.

‘…when my hands are so cold I can’t play on my pipes, I go to a pump and wash them in the frosty water…’

The cold never makes me bad. I’ve been in Canada with the 93rd in the winter. The year ’43 was a very fearful winter indeed, and we were there, and the men didn’t seem to suffer anything from the cold, but were just as well as in any other climate or in England. They wore the kilt and the same dress as in summer. Some of them wore the tartan trowsers when they were not on duty or parade, but the most of them didn’t—not one in a dozen, for they looked upon it as like a woman.

There’s nothing so good for the cold as cold water. The men used to bathe their knees and legs in the cold water, and it would make them ache for the time, but a minute or two afterwards they were all right and sweating. I’ve many a time gone into the water up to my neck in the coldest days of the year, and then when I came out and dried myself, and put on my clothes, I’d be sweating afterwards. There can’t be a better thing for keeping away the rheumatism. It’s a fine thing for rheumatism and aches to rub the part with cold frosty water or snow. It makes it leave him and knocks the pains out of his limbs.

Now, in London, when my hands are so cold I can’t play on my pipes, I go to a pump and wash them in the frosty water, and then dry them and rub them together, and then they’re as warm as ever. The more a man leans to the fire the worse he is after. It was leaning to a fire that gave me my illness.

‘The chanter has holes as big as sixpences…’

The chanter of the pipes I play on has been in my family very near 450 years. It’s the oldest in Scotland, and is a heirloom in our family, and they wouldn’t part with it for any money. Many’s a time the Museum in Edinburgh has wanted me to give it to them, but I won’t give it to any one till I find myself near death, and then I’ll obligate them to keep it.

Most likely my youngest son will have it, for he’s as steady as a man. You see, the holes for the fingers is worn as big round as sixpences, and they’re quite sharp at the edges. The ivory at the end is the same original piece as when the pipe was made. It’s breaking and splitting with age, and so is the stick. I’ll have my name and the age of the stick engraved on the sole of the ivory, and then, if my boy seems neglectful of the chanter, I’ll give it to the Museum at Edinburgh. I’ll have German silver rings put round the stick, to keep it together, and then, with nice waxed thread bound round it, it will last for centuries yet.

  • To be concluded. Read Part 1 here.

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