Just who was the Wandering Piper?

A recent purchase of an unrecorded broadside, printed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1833, provides a few tantalising clues as to the identity of the ‘Wandering Piper‘, who roamed throughout Britain and Ireland in the 1820 and 1830s.

wandering piper 01There are several contemporary accounts of the piper in provincial newspapers, one of which, from the Bury & Norwich Post, for November 21, 1832, describes him as follows: “He is a tall figure, and his air and carriage evidently indicate a rank superior to his occupation, in spite of the disguise of a carroty wig, a pair of green spectacles, and a shabby Highland costume. He has now piped in every market-town in the three kingdoms, except a few in Suffolk, Lincoln, York, Durham and Northumberland, all of which he must visit before next February. During his ramble he has given upwards of 700 l. [£] to different charities.”

Other accounts speak of him as a former Scottish army officer who served in the Napoleonic Wars, who in 1825 accepted a bet to see how much money he could raise through busking in every town in Britain and Ireland. As the Newcastle broadside states, “when playing in the streets he endeavours to observe the strictest disguise; he never stands nor solicits money, but receives any sum that is given him.” All the money he received was distributed to local charities once he covered his own board and lodgings. The piper’s travels only began in earnest in 1828, with the intention being that he would travel for three years and total up how much money he had raised. However, a stage coach accident in Ireland left him incapacitated for over 15 months, which meant that by early 1833 he still had not finished his epic journey. The broadside reports his arrival in Newcastle on January 21, 1833 and notes that he only has six more towns to play in, with Glasgow being his final destination.

Along with the broadside a handwritten note from the piper himself, dated January 3, 1833, was also acquired. Addressed to the mayor of Durham, the piper requests permission to play his pipes through the streets of Durham, and stresses that he does not solicit money and that any money he receives goes to charity. The note is signed ‘The Wandering Piper/Address Captain Stuart‘:

wandering piper 02

Just who ‘Captain Stuart’ was, and why he went to the lengths of wearing a forerunner of a Jimmy wig and tinted spectacles to disguise his identity, remains a mystery to this day. He may have worn Highland costume but in the illustration on the broadside he appears to be playing Lowland, bellows-blown, pipes rather than the Highland pipes traditionally played by pipe bands in Scotland and throughout the world today.

Although the broadside states that the piper was “heartily tired of his frolic”, no sooner was he finished his British and Irish odyssey than he was off to the USA and Canada, where he continued to travel and raise money. He returned to Britain and is last recorded as dying in Dublin in February, 1839, worn out by his travels.

You can find out more about the National Library’s recent rare book acquisitions on our website. Nearly 1,800 of the National Library’s Scottish broadsides have been digitised and are available through our Digital Gallery.