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Saturday, 6 February 2010


There’s a wonderful short novel called “The Stone Book Quartet” by Alan Garner (incidentally the greatest English story teller since the Second World War). He paints the picture of four generations of an artisan family and the craft trades they pursue. As times change they change too, working first as weavers, then stone masons, then quarrymen, then blacksmiths. What remains constant is their connection with nature, with the materials it provides, and with the craftsmanship of their hands and minds.

An invoice from Thomas Piper Bicycles issued in 1926

It popped into my mind last week when I was thinking about my great uncle Thomas Piper. He was a bicycle agent, and in the 1920s he opened a shop in Churchill in Edinburgh which was still there when I was a student in 1981 – in fact I ended up with a room in a flat right over the shop for a few weeks one summer. Of course the shop had long since lost any contact with the Piper family, but it was nice that the name carried on. (In fact there are still internet references to it, at an address in South Clerk Street in the city – but if you go there, it’s a burger joint, a reminder not to believe everything you read on the internet, especially in the field of family history research!)

What brought Alan Garner to mind was the fact that Thomas’ father John, and John’s father William before him, had been blacksmiths, in the tiny Ayrshire village of Sorn. The smithy was at a bridge by a bend of a tributary of the river Ayr, on a croft called Wealth o’ Waters. There’s such an image of generosity of spirit there, in that wonderful placename and the thought of a strong, hearty blacksmith working there, quenching his irons and his thirst there since the late 18th century.

The Sorn Smiddy in the early 20th century,
after it had passed from the Pipers to the Alston family

I like the transition from blacksmith to bicycle man too. Forwards in industry and modernisation! But there’s a nice line in change going backwards too. The family, originally peasant farmers, came to Ayrshire from a croft at Miln Ness, high on the watershed between Strathglass and Glen Urquhart. In 1773 the first wave of clearances took place in Strathglass in the form of a mass emigration to Nova Scotia.

If the Pipers weren’t actually part of this relocation, they certainly saw the writing on the wall clearly enough to get out before the next round of evictions in 1803-1831. By 1782, when Thomas Piper’s grandfather William was born, the family were living in Sorn. Nineteen years later, William married an Ayr girl, Janet Mitchell, and she was a sock-knitter. We don’t know if William had yet found his calling as a blacksmith; and it may well be that Janet, not William, was the family’s first industrial craft artisan.

And what of Miln Ness now? I don’t know if there are any remains of the Piper’s old homes. There is only one old house there now and three modern holiday cottages, but there are many more traces of those who preceded the Pipers in this beautiful place: the landscape is peppered with 4000 year old chambered cairns, stone circles and other prehistoric boundary markers. And who knows how long the Pipers were in Miln Ness before 1773?

Miln Ness, from Corrimony Chambered Cairn

1 comment:

  1. Some great detective work by a Piper cousin has found that there was a Mill of Ness near Woodhead, the family's early home in Ayrshire. This may be the Miln Ness I was referring to, in which case we'll have to look elsewhere for our highland roots!


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