The Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan

The text here is basically that of a facsimile broadside available online, which seems to me marginally preferable to the text in Watson. Nouns are capitalized, proper names italicized. A word like “ask’d” is a monosyllable, “asked” a dissyllable.

I have looked at texts of the poem in the following books and made use of such notes and glosses as I found there:

James Watson, ed., A Choice of Comic and Serious Scots Poems both Ancient and Modern (Edinburgh 1706), online.
James Paterson, The Poems of the Semphills of Beltran (1849), online
W.M. Dixon, ed., The Edinburgh Book of Scottish Verse 1300–1900 (London, 1910) online
G. Ross Roy, ed., The Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan , Scottish Poetry Reprints, number 1 (Edinburgh, Tragara Press, 1970)
John McQueen and Tom Scott, eds., The Oxford Book of Scottish Verse (1966)
Tom Scott, ed., The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (1970)
R.D.S. Jack, A Choice of Scottish Verse (1978)
Paul Keegan, ed., The New Penguin Book of English Verse (2000)

Apart from the penultimate stanza, the sequence of stanzas is the same in all of them, and the variations within stanzas small.

I have delved a lot in the great online Dictionary of the Scots Language.

Cobbling together a glossary for this particular poem has been a frustrating experience. A number of terms and phrases obviously refer to historical doings that haven’t been retrieved by antiquarians or social historians. Variations in spelling complicate matters further.

(P) stands for Paterson, (D) for Dixon, (R) for Roy, (M) for McQueen and Scott, (S) for Scott, (J) for Jack, (K) for Keegan. (Dict) for Dictionary. When there is approximate agreement about a glossing, I haven’t attributed it. Occasionally I’ve made a guess of my own.

The Epitaph …
dron> bagpipes; drone of a bagpipe (S)
flags>A meaning in Webster’s New World College Dictionary is, “long feathers or quills, as on a hawk.”
babbed> bobbed, danced

Kilbarchan now …
Kilbarchan>a weaving village on the west coast, near Paisley
game> sport (D)
grace> favour, honour (D)
Trixie> “’Hey trix, trim go trix, under the greenwood tree’ and “The Maiden tT” were popular tunres.” (P)
Maiden Trace> Maidens’ Dance
remeed> remedy

Now who shall play…
the Day it daws> “The Day is Dawning” (tune)
“Hunt’s up”> In an online source that I’ve mislaid, a commentator explains “Hunt’s up,” according to a couple of scholars, “actually refers to
a genre of tunes, the earliest of which stem from the early 16th century, around 1534; [and] that any song intended to arouse in the morning, even a love song, was at one time called a ‘hunt’s-up.’ These tunes originated with the town waites or musicians, whose duties included playing for church rites, processionals, banquets, royal visits, etc., but who could also be hired by individuals to play early morning wake-up calls.
 In Romeo and Juliet (III,v), Juliet complains to Romeo of the lark’s ‘Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day.’” In a current online dictionary, the term is defined as “a rousing tune played on a hunting horn to get the hunters out.”
for our Kirk-towns cause/ Stand us in stead> represent us? be our champion in contests?
sen>since (M)

Or who shall…
shearers> “It was customary, in former times, for the piper to play in the field while the reapers were at work, with a view to stimulating them in their labours.”(P)
bend up> begin to play
brags of Weir> defiant notes of war, war tunes; “embolden morale with military tunes” (S), “play the war-tunes” (K)
Bells>”Mr Millar states that ‘at Paisley Saint-James-day Rase, the horses run for silver bells, and the horse which is so fortunate as to win the race is led to the town in triumph, with the bells he has so meritoriously gained, hung round his neck; afterwards the bells are sold back again, for a fixed value which was set on them. It is very probable that something similar was the case here: that Habby, proudly playing on his pipes, would usher the victorious horse with the bells into the town.” (P)
play Meir>-If the explanation for “bells” is correct, then maybe “good play Meir [mare]” also refers in some way (hobby-horse?) to horses. However, “in time of need” suggests something more dramatic. “Meir” isn’t capitalized in Watson, but neither is “need.” Something in the Scots dictionary suggested that “Bells” might mean “bellman>town-crier.Keegan offers play-meir>play more
speer> ask

So kindly …
neist> nearest
Beltan and Saint Barchan’s feast>”Beltane was the ancient Celtic festival held at the start of May. St. Barchan was an Irish bishop, who worked near Stirling” (J)
held up>puffed out?
weid>mad (M)
arreist> make him stop

At Fairs he…
spear-men> “Spear–men, the ancient guard of the authorities, or city officers, as they were latterly styled.” (P)
graithed> attired (M)
gear-men> In Watson, both “Gear” and “Men” are capitalized. Is the implied syntax “Men all gaily attired in their outfits”?
bonnets> helmets
jacks>padded jerkins, breast-plates
so clear like any Bead>as clean as a glass bead?; In “The Poor Client’s Complaint” there is a reference to “burnisht gold, both beautiful and clear.”
weir-men >men-of-war, warriors
If I may introduce a personal note, my father, a judge of sorts, was for many years a member of the Pikemen of the Honourable Artillery Company, veterans who in the actual gear of seventeenth-century pikemen, with long pikes, steel helmets, and breastplates, served as guards for the Lord Mayor of London on ceremonial occasions, such as banquets and processions, and on at least one occasion gave a demonstration in the grounds of Armoury House, along with the H.A.C. Musketeers, of “period” drill and combat formations.
For a photo of a German body of pikemen, see

At Clark-plays…
clark-plays> “Clerk, or stage-plays, were performances upon platforms in the open air. Simson is said to have played at these exhibitions in Edinburgh when the author was present.” (P)
bikes > hives
bum> hum, buzz

And at Horse races…
skirl and screed>”shrill and screech” (M). Are these both the same kind of bagpipe sound?

He counted was…
wail’d>chosen; “meaning that he was the wale, or choice, of strong men.” (P)
wight-man> stalwart (M)
gree> prize

And than beside…
placks>small coins; farthings (J)
babbed>bobbed around
want> miss, lack
cracks>anecdotes; capers

He was Convoyer…
“It was the custom at Kilbarchan in former times, says Mr. Millar, for the bride and her maids to walk three ties found the church before the marriage was celebrated, led on by the piper, who played some peculiar tune for the occasion, which got the name of the Maiden-trace.” (P)
convoyer> escort
Kittock [Kittok]>Kitty [S], diminutive of Katherine, a wench, “used of women or girls of low rank or character” (Dict). Alternatively, “”’Kittock’ refers to Habbie’s dirk named after Colla Ciotach” (J), “after a great robber in the Highlands named /coll Kittoch” (P)
lead the Ring about the Kirk> see above.
a pride> an honour
gae but > go without

So well’s he keeped…
The reference, according to Paterson, is to an episode reported by Semphill’s grandson Robert in which a young drunk stabbed the bag of Habbie’s pipes while he was playing a popular new tune at a wedding, Whoop-meg-morum, whereupon Habbie stabbed him and, thinking he’d killed him, skipped town for the night, only to learn that the man hadn’t been seriously injured.
decorum> dignity
stots> ”stot, a quick motion in dancing” (P), beats of a tune (J), hops (K)
fead> feud (W); Watson has “bure”(“bear,” “bure”> “bore”) ; “put up with the fiend” (K)???

Ay when he play’d…
leugh> laugh
teugh> tough
Barcleugh>For Paterson the fact that that Habbie as a boy earned the money for his first pair of pipes by herding at a place called the Barr, “where there was a heugh, or coal-pit,” sufficiently explains this line. But is the implication of “Withoutten dread” that he wasn’t afraid of the pit? Apparently heugh also used to mean precipice.
gear>goods, possessions, wealth.

Ay, when he play’d …
This stanza may, it appears, have been an interpolation by another hand. It does read a little oddly. What is meant by “whan he spake, the carl bledder’d”?
gaitlings geddered>children gathered (J), “urchins gathered” (K)
carl>churl? rustic? old man?
bledder’d>stammered, talked foolishly, bragged; old men boasted (K). But why not the plural for “carl”?

Alas! For him…
springs> qualities
skair> share
But Guile or Greed> except cunning and greed

My thanks to Professor Kenneth A. Mackinnon for making the online text of Paterson’s book available to me, along with other items, and for his sympathetic interest in this undertaking.