Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan by Robert Sempill (the Younger) with copious notes by flusteredduck

The Epitaph of Habbie Simpson1,
He made his Cheeks as red as Crimson,
Who on his Dron bore bonny Flags,
And babed when he blew the Bags,

Kilbarchan now may say alas!
For she hath lost her game & grace
Both Trixie and the Maiden-trace
But what remeed?
For no Man can supply his place,
Hab Simpson’s dead,

Now who shall play the day it daws
Or hunts up when the Cock he craws
Or who can for our Kirk Town Cause,
stand us in stead?
On Bag-pipes now no body blaws,
For Habbie’s dead,

Or who shall cause our Shearers shear
Who will bend up the Brags of Weir?
Bring in the Bells or good play Meir,
In time of need,
Hab Simpson could what needs you spear
But now he’s dead.

So kindly to his Neighbour neist,
At Beltan and Saint Barchans Feast
He blew and then held up his Breast,
as he were weid,
But now we need not him arrest?
For Habbie’s dead,

At Fairs he play’d before the Spear-men
All gayly graithed in their Geer-men,
Steel Bonners, Jacts and Swords so clear
Like any Bead.
Now who will play before such Weirmen then
Sen Habbie’s dead,

At Clark playes when be wont to come
His Pipe play’d trimly to the Drum:
Like Bikes of bees he gait it bum
And turn his Reed:
Now all our Pipers my sing dum
Sen Habbie’s dead,

And at Horse-races many a day,
Before the Black, the Brown and Gray
He gart his Pipe when he did play,
Both Skirl and Skried:
Now all such pastime’s quite away
Sen Habbie’s dead,

He counted was a wall’d wight Man,
And fiercely at Foot-ball he ran;
At every Game the gree he wan,
For pith and speed
The like of Habbie was not then,
But now he’s dead,

And then beside his valiant Acts,
At Brydels he wan many placks.
He babbed ay behind Folks backs,
And shook his Head,
Now we want many merry Cracks
Sen Habbie’s dead.

He was convoyer of the bride,
With Kittock hanging at his side,
About the Kirk he thought a pride
the Ring to Lead
But now she may go but a Guide
For Habbie’s dead.

So well’s he keeped his Decorum.
And all the steps of Whip-meg morum,
He slew a man and wae’s me for him
And bare the seed.
But yet the man wan Hame before him
and was not dead,

Ay when he play’d the Lasses leugh,
To sea him toothless, old and reuch
He wan his Pipes beside Barcleugh
withoutten dread,
Which after wan him Gear enough
But now he’s dead.

Alas for him my heart is sare,
For of his Springs I got a Share,
At every play, Race, Feast and Fair,
But Guile or Greed
We need not look for piping mair,
Sen Habbie’s dead.

1I started to render this into modern English but swiftly surrendered. I then began to footnote all the archaic or dialect words and gave up that attempt too as I had hit 11 footnotes by the beginning of the fourth verse and was, on occasion, out-and-out guessing which I figured anybody reading this could manage. Finally, I decided on a synopsis followed by an explanation of why I have bothered with posting this poem at all.

Synopsis: This is meant to be a funny depiction of a town bagpiper (a real figure by the way who lived from 1550 to 1620 and has a statue in Kilbarchan). It lists all the occasions when a piper played at this time (which boils down to any public ceremony or occasion, religious or secular) and names many of the tunes/melodies in vogue at the time. It then describes Habbie’s personality – I gather he was what is these days described as a “character” in that he was given to practical jokes, imitations and many other mild eccentricities (and my personal impression is that he may not have been the town’s most sober inhabitant). The “Epitaph” progresses to describing how he was laughed at by the youth of the town as he aged for these personality quirks and ends with the true lament of the person “writing” the epitaph which is that Habbie used to share his earnings with him and he no longer receives any income from Habbie’s piping as Habbie is dead.

The “Epitaph” also describes the various parts of the bagpipes (in the seventeenth century terms): a dron or drone is one of the upstanding pipes (Habbie used to decorate these with flags) and a bell is the flared part of the pipe; the bag is the part generally held by the side. There are also descriptions of what Habbie looked like when he played (crimson cheeked, out of breath, nodding and bobbing, fevered).

Reasons for Posting: (in no specific order)
Firstly: The glimpse into the past this poem shows fascinated me. I keep trying to imagine a time and a place where every occasion in life was marked by ceremonial music from birth to death and everything in between for everyone in the community.

Secondly: This is a generational poem – the two poets before this poet and the next poet are all from an acknowledged dynasty of Scottish poets. I have come across families of poets before but never one that encompasses this many generations. That continuity was too rare to ignore.

Thirdly: This poem is the first known written example of what came to be known as the Burns stanza (also known as the standard Habbie stanza or the Scottish stanza). This stanza consists of six lines in a strict rhyming pattern (aaabab) with the a lines being longer (tetrameter) than the b lines (dimeter). If you’re into Scottish, middle English or medieval poetry, this is an important form to know.

Fourthly: I have said it before and I’ll say it again – I love dialect poems. I love them even when I’m guessing at the exact meaning of the dialect. They are little puzzle gems and mulling over them is one of my ideas of entertainment. This poem is a particularly prime example of a dialect poem because a) it makes you sound Scottish when you read it out loud (no matter your base accent); b) it has a rollicking rhythm; c) it has to be read out loud to be even halfway understood and/or appreciated; and d) you can hear bagpipes when you read it (I swear!).


Date: c1640

By: Robert Sempill (the Younger) (?1595-?1663)


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