Hum Bug Pipers

December 15, 2008 on 8:24 pm by Michael Grey | In Music, Stories | 12 Comments

Of the thousands of tunes made for playing on the Great Highland Bagpipe, there’s hardly a Christmas tune in the lot.  Pipers write tunes for their pals, mums, dads, bands, teachers, to commemorate “in” jokes and happenings, birthdays, retirements, battles won and lost and places.  But not much for Christmas – or Hogmanay or New Years for that matter! 

The “Christmas” tune I am most familiar with is the ordinaryish traditional reel, “The Christmas Carousal” (sometimes misprinted as “The Christmas Carousel” and that’s something completely different - fun, maybe, for the kiddies).   There’s also, “Christmas Eve”, by Angus Cameron found in David Glen’s number 13 and “The Christmas March”, by Donald Varella found in his U.S. Bicentennial Collection.  I’m sure there’s a few others but its definitley slim pickings on the jolly old tune front.  The Noël is fairly dry, I’d say.

For Christians and a lot of fun-loving secular-cum-druid types Christmas is one of the biggest celebrations of the year.  I have to think most of today’s (and history’s) pipers fall in to the category of Christmas-celebrators. 

Merry Christmas with a rare bagpipe

I wonder why it is that there is so little music composed by pipers to mark Christmas?

Surely Burns wasn’t right when he named his typical piper in his, “Tam O’Shanter“:

There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He scre’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.–  

I’ll have to make my first Christmas-named tune this year!



  1. You’re right.

    “Tam Bain’s Lum” . . . chimney, Santa?
    “Cill Chriosd” . . . Jesus etc.
    Um, “Lament for the Child”?

    No tunes about kitty-cats, either.

    The Nick in “Tam” is the devil, no?

    Comment by aberthoff — December 16, 2008 #

  2. Hmmm…a bit of stretch with your suggestions, Andrew! “Sprig of Ivy”? Mistletoe? “Lord Alexander Kennedy” Jesus?

    Yeah, Old Nick in Tam O’Shanter is the devil … my weak point was that Burns maybe thought all pipers were the devil and if he was right we’d, of course, naturally have no tunes written for Christmas!

    As the little drummer boy said, “badum-dum”.


    Comment by mike — December 16, 2008 #

  3. Having spent a Christmas in Scotland in my 20s, it was my impression that Christmas was not as big a deal as Hogmanay. Here is a link that may shed some light.

    Another way to ask the question: “Why do pipers commemorate epic drinking, romantic [or purely physical] encounters, and band hijinks more than religious holidays?” Uh…..

    Comment by iainmacd — December 17, 2008 #

  4. Yes, Iain true re: Hogmanay… but, as I suggested, even Hogmanay and New Years tunes are poorly represented in the repertoire.

    Pipers are heathens. What else might be the answer? M.

    Comment by mike — December 17, 2008 #

  5. That the tone of a GHB is intrinsically bellicose and agonistic (“more like a warpipe and less like a tin whistle,” according to Angus MacDonald) and thus does not lend itself well to a genre whose theme or mood is one of peace and reconciliation? One doesn’t hear much of competition choirs.

    *On a semi-related note, Wall Street’s Duncan Bell once remarked, of a band we were in whose numbers were short (minimal) for a certain contest: “We could go out there playin’ like JESUS but still wouldn’t have a chance.”

    So there you go. 😉

    Comment by ChrisZ — December 17, 2008 #

  6. Chris – But what about “Amazing Grace”? The archetypal “bagpipe tune”?

    Leave it to Wall Street’s Duncan Bell!! 😉


    Comment by mike — December 18, 2008 #

  7. Ohh yeah…”Amazing Grace.” Forgot about that one. That shoots my theory all to Heaven. 😉

    Comment by ChrisZ — December 18, 2008 #

  8. I think it is difficult to write a Christmas tune. How will it relate to Christmas in the future if it’s recognized by only it’s name? Most Christmas stuff has words to to it.

    In Ireland they have a three parted reel called “The Christmas Eve”. That is a real insider joke when played in December and in reality you have to know the name to relate it to anything.

    Comment by Stig Bang-Mortensen — December 20, 2008 #

  9. I’m not sure, Stig. From my own experience I can say I haven’t been too precious about naming most of my compositions – the tune is written and a name is plopped on it! M.

    Comment by mike — December 20, 2008 #

  10. OK, but will it relate to Christmas if you don´t know the name?
    Tunes like Jingle Bell’s are in my opinion only known as Christmas tunes because the text relates to the season.

    Dancing round the tree to the tune of “The Christmas Carousal” will only work in dedicated environments.

    Comment by Stig Bang-Mortensen — December 21, 2008 #

  11. Well, Stig, I supposed it’s an artistic thing so a matter of opinion. I know Handel’s “Messiah” (with or without the Hallelujah chorus) and Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” both say ‘Christmas’ to me! M.

    Comment by mike — December 23, 2008 #

  12. Maybe it’s just a matter of the size of the dedicated environment. I was merely reflecting over “what makes a tune a Christmas tune” for me.

    Comment by Stig Bang-Mortensen — December 27, 2008 #

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