July 19, 2020

The Disblair Bagpipes mystery of 1760

Dr. William Donaldson has been contributing to pipes|drums since 1999 when we started his monumental Set Tunes Series of piobaireachd analysis, which now numbers more than 150 compositions meticulously researched and investigated.

Donaldson is perhaps the world’s foremost scholar on Highland piping. His seminal work, The Highland Pipe & Scottish Society: 1750-1950, builds a compelling case that piobaireachd as an artform was thriving and growing before The Piobaireachd Society asserted control of the music in 1901.

Always on the lookout for fresh material, our historian came across an intriguing piece in his files”

Specs for what appears to be a Highland bagpipe from the files of William Forbes of Disblair (1661-1740). Click to enlarge.

Willie Donaldson writes:

I found this in a pile of photocopied papers reflecting the life and works of William Forbes of Disblair (1661-1740), better known to fiddle aficionados as an arranger (quite distinguished) of Scottish songs and airs during the first half of the eighteenth century. He was a musical fellow, and there were several bag and bellows pipes amongst his effects when he died, along with numerous other musical instruments. Clearly, it is a specification for a pipe. Still, one wonders what sort: the chanter length comfortably exceeds the length of a modern bagpipe chanter, although the bass drone seems of approximately similar length. It’s a curiosity. Maybe something could be done with it in these barren times; perhaps an appeal to readers for information, i.e., what kind of pipe is this? All I know is that it is from the “William Forbes MSS c.1760” [watch, though, 1760 seems about a generation later than the probable actual date] at the National Library of Scotland, ADV.MS.5.2.25.

It’s a mystery on which a few of our keen readers might be able to shed some light.

Are these the specs for a Highland bagpipe of the time, or an entirely different instrument? If any of our local historians and bagpipe makers have any ideas, feel free to comment or get in touch.



Richness, Depth, and a Call for the Music of Old
September 30, 2000





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