Carsphairn Archive

A Piping Girl called Mary Murray

A hundred years ago in Lowland Scotland, hidden away up in the Galloway hills, by the Water of Ken, was the most amazing little house. It was amazing because the people there did things which we today would think was very strange.

  • Washing clothes in the stream (the burn)
  • Digging peat and building a peat stack for fuel for the fire
  • Working in the hay field with fows and rakes
  • Killing a pig and hanging the meat on the ceiling to feed the family
  • Cooking in a pot on the fire
  • Going to school in a pony and trap

And most amazing of all – walking fourteen miles for a music lesson! This is the story of how Mary, the eldest of the six girls and one boy, puffed her cheeks out for fun when she was a little girl, and ended up playing bagpipes till she was ninety three and a half years old!


After the First World War, there were many people, mainly men, roaming round the roads and glens in Galloway. Because of the war, they had lost their place in life, their sense of purpose and often, their home. So they went from place to place, knocked on the cottage doors and asked for a shelter for the night or for something to eat. Occasionally a man and a woman could be seen walking, the wife with her belongings in a big sheet, carried over her shoulder. The tramps, as they were called, got to know which cottages would give them a place for the night and would sometimes become regular callers. Mary’s mother and father got to know the tramps, and while Mary’s mother filled the tramps ‘billy can’ with tea, and spread a scone and jam for him to eat, Mary’s father would show him to the hay barn where he would sleep for the night. Father would always ask the tramp if he had any matches, and if so, father would take them from him till the morning so that there were no accidents with a fire in the hay.

When Mary’s mother took the tea and scone out to the tramp, she would often get talking to him, and hear about his views on life. Mary’s mother often thought how intelligent the tramps were, and if only they could have had an education, could have done very well for themselves.

Often, when the tramp came to the door, he would be carrying a bag, which he would lay down and open out. In the bag would be needles (preens) thread, trinkets, and most important for our story – tin whistles.

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Mary playing at Kellkend, 1977

Mary’s mother had noticed that when Mary was a little girl, a thing she liked to do, was puff out her cheeks holding the wind in them, and them with both hands, she would slap her cheeks making the wind escape. She did this over and over. Mary’s mother was fascinated by this, and had the idea that maybe Mary would like to play bagpipes because then she would get to fill her cheeks with air and use that air to play music!! So when mother saw the tin whistles in the tramps bag, she bought three – one for Mary and one each for Mary’s sisters Isa and Nellie. It wasn’t a set of bagpipes, but at least it was a wind instrument and would do for now.

The girls liked their tin whistles, and soon Mary could play simple tunes, and mother was pleased that Mary had something to blow the air from her cheeks into. But Mary’s mother and father still had an idea about bagpipes in their minds.

In 1919, their was a big General Coal Miners Strike, and the miners had no work or pay. Many of them came over the hills to the shepherds cottages, looking for bits of work in exchange for a little of something, maybe some eggs to take home to their families, or a girdle of scones to take home. They would help the shepherds family with bringing in the peats or maybe help in the hay field, or with the animals. They would carry their fishing rods with them, and often fish in the wee burns. They were great fishers and took home many a fish tea for their families! Some of the miners, like the tramps, got to know the shepherd and his family very well, and become regular visitors. They would come again and again to help out in whatever way they could, and take home in return, whatever was on offer, eggs, scones or panscones, or maybe some piece of clothing somebody had grown out of. This arrangement suited both the shepherd and the miner when times were hard and both struggled to make ends meet.

One of the regular miners who came to Moorbrock, was Jimmy Thomson of Connel Bank, New Cumnock. In the conversation one day, he talked about his friend, a Pipe Major who was a great bagpipe player. Mother’s eyes lit up. The next bit of the plan was about to be put to the test! She shared her idea about Mary and the pipes with Jimmy, and he offered to bring the Pipe Major some day to introduce him to the shepherd’s family. And even better, the Pipe Major would hopefully bring his pipes!

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Mary playing on her 90th birthday

The Pipe Major duly came and was introduced by Jimmy, and best of all, he had brought a practice chanter with him! And even better, he said he could leave the chanter for Mary to try out and practice on herself. And if she liked it, and if she thought she would like to have lessons on the chanter, she could come to his house for lessons! Mary was delighted, and whenever there was a quiet time, and the work was all done, she would disappear away up the stair to where it was quiet, and practice the things the Pipe Major had shown her. Because Mary liked the chanter very much, and because her parents were very pleased with her progress and encouraged her, she did very well with her playing and was soon asking if she could go to the Pipe Major for lessons.

The problem was that the Pipe Major lived miles away across the hills, and in those days there were no buses, trains, cars, and the family had no bikes, only a horse and trap but it couldn’t take them over the hills to the Pipe Major. The only thing would be to walk there. Mother and father started to wonder how they could get Mary to her piping lesson. One idea was that maybe in the school holidays when there was more time, Mary could walk with one or other of her sisters for company. They decided to try. Either sister Isa, or sister Nellie, would set off with Mary and the chanter, and a bottle of milk and some scones for the journey.

First, they walked the mile to Glenhead where they knew the people living there. Then they went over the high hill, on through part of the Holm o’ Dalquairn hill. Then they went onto Monthraw Hill, by now they had walked about five miles. They would take a drink and a bite of scone and keep walking because they had a long way to go yet to the Pipe Major’s house. Next landmark would be Craigdarroch, the Head of Afton and a shepherd’s house and this would take them to the public road, and another six mile walk to New Cumnock. Just as well they were walking in their sturdy clogs!

Eventually they met up with the Pipe Major and his family, and having made such a heroic effort to get there, they would stay for about a week, before making the return trip, taking the same route back. This meant that Mary could have a few lessons, not just one, while she was there. And so this continued every school holiday when the weather permitted. In time, mother and father could get bikes for the girls and this made things easier. A village was built at Kelloholm, and Pipe Major Campbell and his family moved there. This meant that Mary and whichever sister was accompanying her, could cycle through Moniaive, Penpont, Thornhill, and New Cumnock to Kelloholm. And so the lessons continued, and Mary learned more and more tunes.

Things went so well, that even before Mary left the school at the age of twelve, mother and father managed to kit her out in full Highland Dress, and buy a second hand set of bagpipes. This meant that the family had to save and make do even more than usual, but somehow they managed. People in other shepherds houses round about heard about Mary and how good she was getting at playing the pipes, and news even spread to the little villages some miles away.

Once a year, the bigger villages would have a ‘Show Day’ and Mary was very pleased to be asked to play at St John’s Town of Dalry ‘Show Day’. Mother got the pony and trap ready, and she drove it, with Isa and Nellie as passengers, and Mary in her full Highland Dress and her bagpipes. They drove to Dalry where Mary played several tunes walking up and down the street. Sisters Isa and Nellie followed the piper, holding out little cans for the village people to make donations. The money gathered went to ‘Highland Distress’.

At Christmas time, in another village, Carsphairn, there was always a lovely Christmas tree, and an afternoon of entertainments for the children from the village and the outlying parts of the Parish. The celebration took place in the village hall, and the local schools would be invited to attend, including Stroanfreggan where Mary had been a pupil. Mary played her bagpipes on the stage, and the by now elderly Minister sat back and listened proudly to the young girl from away up in the hills, playing the old tunes he loved. He appreciated Mary’s playing even more, because when she was a baby he had christened her in the village church, and Mary’s father had joined his church many years before. Also at the Christmas party, sisters Isa and Nellie and a friend Katie from school, took to the stage to perform, acting and singing an arrangement of ‘The Three Old Maids of Lea’.

Playing in front of other people at such events helped Mary to become confident in her bagpipe playing, and when people told her they had enjoyed her playing, this made her practice and play her pipes all the more. Pipe Major Campbell was pleased to have a pupil who loved the instrument so much. Because his friend Jimmy Thomson had introduced him to the shepherd’s family, and because over the years Pipe Major Campbell became a good friend of the family too, he never charged the family for Mary’s lessons.

Two of the Pipe Major’s own daughters came to Moorbrock for a holiday even years after Mary had stopped going to lessons. And Pipe Major Campbell’s son Jimmy became a Pipe Major himself, and his brother Hughie a drummer in Cumnock Pipe Band. As the years wore on, Mary became busier and busier at home, helping out with all the work of the house, inside and out. By now there were other children to clothe and feed – Jimmy, Bessie, Gracie, Bunty. But Mary was always on hand if a tune on the pipes was called for, and she looked after both her pipes and her Highland outfit meticulously.

Mary’s family, her proud parents and her sisters and brother learned a great lesson from watching her grow from a girl who puffed out her cheeks to a fine bagpipe player in full Highland Dress. They saw that even if you have no money, and life is a struggle – if you are determined to do something – and you have some encouragement and support – you can achieve your goal. And they saw that even though they had only basic fare and a simple hard working life, the pleasure that her piping gave to Mary and to all who met her, was worth more than anything else in the whole world.

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Mary kept her bagpipes by her for her whole life. As a grand old lady of ninety three, even though Registered Blind, she would play her pipes every day. From their earliest days, her sisters and brother, and later her nieces and nephews would hear ‘Kenmure’s Up an’ Awa’’ ‘The Lovat Scouts’ ‘My Home’ and all the other favourites played by Mary on the chanter and pipes. She felt that her bagpipe playing was good for her heart and lungs and kept her fit and healthy. She must have been right, because she only needed a doctor a handful of times in her entire life!

In latter years when people visited, she would happily play for as long as they were willing to listen! When the visitors eventually politely said they would have to go, she said she would play one last tune ‘Bundle and Go’ after which she would tell them that was their recital over and she would have to get on with her work!

Her first tunes which she learned on the chanter were ‘ The Barren Rocks of Aden’ and ‘Highland Laddie’. Mary was born on 22nd October 1909, and didn’t waste much time before she puffed out her cheeks letting her mother know that she needed first a tin whistle, then a chanter, then a set of pipes. Throughout most of the twentieth century, her pipes and her practice chanter were her constant and trusted companions, and she played them right up to the day when it was time for Mary herself to ‘bundle and go’ on 3rd March 2003.


You can read more about Mary in "A Fireside Conversation" in Newsletter 50.