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The Scottish Whistle - History


This is really the start of a project, to explore the whistle's involvement in Scotland. This page will be expanded in time, and I'd love to hear your suggestions, stories, etc (email me).

2nd draft, 2nd Feb 2002

tusc.jpg - 2219 bytesThe whistle is a simple member of the flute family which has been played for centuries. There are bone whistle-like instruments that have been found from 180,000 years ago; more recent bone flutes have been found in Dublin from the 12th century, and the Tusculum whistle in the Museum of Scotland made of brass or bronze, found with pottery dating from the 14th and 15th centuries (the Tusculum whistle, excavated in North Berwick in 1907, is 14cm long and has six finger holes). Other whistles have been made from clay, wood and reeds, but the principal for making the whistle sound is always the same: a narrow gap is created in a mouthpiece through which air is blown, and holes in the barrel are stopped or opened to vary the pitch.

Principally seen as a rustic toy associated with shepherds and bucolic idylls, the whistle was generally not taken seriously in Scotland by dance masters, music teachers, publishers, etc. In 18th and 19th century tune collections, a great many of which advertised their suitability for the german flute, there are few references to whistle. Exceptions are The Caledonian Museum of c.1810, which contains tunes "adapted for the Flageolet" (a whistle-like instrument with various designs), and the 1800 Broderick & Wilkinson Selection, in which the tunes are adapted for the Harp, Pianoforte, Violin, or Tabor & Pipe (the tabor pipe is a three-hole whistle mainly used in English Morris music).

19cw.jpg - 4KbHowever, there is little doubt that the whistle was used by folk musicians. One such was Wee Willie White who busked the streets of Glasgow in the first half of the 19th century. A little later Carl Volti (born Archie Milligan in 1849), who became well known as a composer of classical music and fiddle tunes originally started with the whistle and formed a whistle band in his youth.

clarke.jpg - 1303 bytesIn the 1840s Englishman Robert Clarke invented the Clarke Pennywhistle, made from bending tin into a tube shape, and its mass production in the years to follow ensured its spread and popularity. Photographs of Aberdeenshire bothy bands from the late 19th century show whistle players posing along with melodeons, fiddles, pipes, chanters and so on. Clarke‘s whistle have been available to the present day, as well as the slightly more recent Generation whistles, and a plethora of modern makes which have appeared with the huge upsurge of people learning the whistle over the past twenty to thirty years. This coincided with the rise in popularity of Irish music in the 1960s and 70s, leading to an international thirst for Irish folk music. Indeed the tin whistle is mostly associated with Irish music, and because of this, many people taking up the whistle in Scotland are aiming to play Irish music in Irish styles.

Apart from the obvious repertoire differences, what is the difference between Irish and Scottish whistle styles ? In direct relation to the different styles of tunes, where Irish tunes are more smooth and flowing, Scottish tunes more angular, irregular and dramatic in terms of intervals, a Scottish whistle style reflects this: Scottish players will tend to tongue more, Irish to slur more. To listen to one prominent Scottish player - Alex Green (1) - these stylistic differences are noticable. Green plays very much with a staccato sound, whereas Irish players will use tonguing sparingly. Other Scottish players (who would have started playing before the Irish influence) who echo this style include the late Jimmy Greenan, and Jimmy Carruthers for example.

By the 1970s you can hear the influence of Irish groups such as The Chieftains (e.g. in Arthur Watson of the Aberdeenshire group The Gaugers) and Planxty (e.g. George and Billy Jackson of Ossian, or Phil Cunningham of Silly Wizard). The influence of the bagpipe cannot be ignored in Scottish whistle styles, and some pipers have also played whistle in Scottish folk groups: Allan MacLeod (Alba, Tannahill Weavers), Iain MacDonald (Ossian) and Dougie Pincock (Battlefield Band), to name but three. Other notable Scottish whistle players include the late Tony Cuffe (Alba, Jock Tamson‘s Bairns, Ossian), Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band), Rory Campbell (Old Blind Dogs), Roy Williamson (The Corries) and the piper Gordon Duncan.

1 = Alex Green has released one of the few recordings dedicated to Scottish whistle playing: Whistle O‘er the Lave O‘t (Ross Records 2001)