Karen McCrindle Warren on her Highland Bagpipe Composition for the Accused

“The Burning of the Nine Women on the Sands of Dumfries, April 13th, 1659.
By J. Copland, Dundrennan

I spoke to Karen McCrindle Warren about her Piobaireachd, composed for the Highland Bagpipes.

You can hear Karen play her Piobaireachd  here.

The tune is one of memorial and witness for women executed in Dumfries in 1659, but also stands in as a memorial for all those executed for whom there is no physical memorial.  The tune was commissioned by Steve Rooklidge of the Shasta Piping Society of California. Asked for a remembrance piece for the “devastating witch trials that took place during the 16th and 17th centurires. A “Lament for the Accused”, if you will.” He included a link to the Interactive Witchcraft Map published by the University of Edinburgh. 

Questions in bold are mine. Here is what she told me: 

“This tune commemorates the events of 13th April 1659, when nine Galloway women were executed on Dumfries Whitesands.  Agnes Commes, Janet McGowane, Jean Tomson, Margaret Clerk, Janet McKendrig, Agnes Clerk, Janet Corsane, Helen Moorhead and Janet Callon, were “stranglit at stakes till they be dead, and thereafter their bodies to be burnt to ashes”.  This began a third peak in Galloway – more and more witch finders came forward, demanding their fees for rounding up suspects and torturing confessions from them.

“The tune is written in pentatonic G – the key that gives the most dissonance against the drones, symbolising the pain, fear and anxiety of these times, and the high G’s symbolising the screams of the ‘witches’ who were tortured for confession and put to such horrific public execution.  Not enough to kill them by strangling them at the stake, they had to be sure they were dead by also burning their bodies to ashes.”

Can you tell me more about how the Piobaireachd was commissioned? 

…I started looking through the map and searching for more information about witchcraft in Scotland, and particularly relating to Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway which is my area of interest.  I wrote music that was dark and desperate, but it took a while to find the story behind the title, and find the right title that suited the tune.  In the end, I felt the tune, title and story were a perfect fit.

Piobaireachd has a way of pulling at the heart strings, as the variations grow in intensity, it is like waves of grief coursing through the body and soul, returning to the calm of the ground as you try to compose yourself and move forward in life.

Karen McCrindle Warren

Your Piobaireachd is moving and intense, demanding time and space for witness. Traditionally, how has this style of composition been used in memorials?  

Piobaireachds have been used in memorials for centuries.  It is the traditional, ancient music of the bagpipe, and is often used to lament or salute those we have lost.  For example “Lament for Mary MacLeod”, “Lament for the Duke of Hamilton”, or “Lament for the Children” – this last one was written by Patrick Mor MacCrimmon who lost seven of his eight sons to small pox within a year.  This year the piping world lost a talented and lovely young man Alex Duncan at the age of 26.  A close family friend wrote a piobaireachd to commemorate him “Lament for Alex Duncan” and it was performed at the Glenfiddich Championship at Blair Castle where Alex used to spend a lot of time piping.  For one tune, our whole world came together and remembered this wonderful young man and mourned such a great loss to our community.  Piobaireachd has a way of pulling at the heart strings, as the variations grow in intensity, it is like waves of grief coursing through the body and soul, returning to the calm of the ground as you try to compose yourself and move forward in life.

What aspects of the history of the witch hunts informed your composition? 

I really didn’t know anything about witches in Scotland before Steve brought it up – we all learnt about Anne Boleyn having her head chopped off for being a witch, but I had never really considered witchcraft in Scotland.  What an eye opener that map was!  As I read into some of the cases, the things these poor people were being accused of was just crazy.  Anyone could fall out with you and accuse you of being a witch and your life would be over. Suspicion was enough to accuse, repute was enough to convict.  It must have been a terrifying time, and it was this state of distress I tried to bring out in the music. 

There is growing momentum for a national memorial to those killed during the witch hunts in Scotland. How do you see your composition playing a role in this work for a national monument? 

This isn’t something I’m familiar with but my music is freely available to anyone who wishes to listen, use it in memorials or learn to play it, and I hope it helps to evoke the desperation of the times and the memory of all these poor people who had their lives taken in such a cruel and violent way for nothing.

Karen can be found online at: 




Dispatches from Fantasycon 2014

The York Minster. Taken with my iphone using Snapseed editing.
The York Minster. Taken with my iphone using Snapseed editing.

This year Fantasycon was in York, convenient for me as I live behind the rail station so the con was essentially in my back yard.  The popular joke at the con was that York was indeed Winterfell.  I confess I went simply because it was close to me– but fantasy is the genre I have always loved and with the embrace of the New Weird, it has become even closer to my heart.

The first con I ever attended was GenCon back in 1984. I was a dorky kid who played D&D. I remember trying to disguise my budding womanhood by wearing a man’s shirt and a fedora.  I ended up wandering around pretty lonely, not knowing how how to approach the myriad boys and men around me.  (I don’t remember any other girls, though there must have been some.) I was shy then, and not much has changed though I no longer wear men’s shirts and fedoras– maybe I should.

I still found the social aspect of this recent con daunting. Everyone was chatting in groups– presumably they’d known each other for years, or so it seemed.  There was no way to enter into conversations as a lone woman.  Or at least i should say I found it daunting.

And yet, things have changed. This was my first Fantasycon– since moving to the UK I have regularly attended Eastercon, the BSFA con– and in the last few years I have sold my hand made jewellery in the dealers room under the Feral Strumpet banner, which has helped me fund my trip to the con.

What I noticed was that feminism was alive and well in almost all the panels I attended.  Challenging questions of inclusion and the purpose of violence against women in fiction where electric, bristling with new ideas.  Men and women were voicing complex arguments; inclusion and nixing the misogynist cliches in the genre simply makes for richer stories.

Still the statistics are sobering– 50% of fantasy readers are women, yet we make up only 25% of published fantasy writers.  These numbers, voiced by Abbadon Editor David Moore in his panel on Grimdark, were repeated in other panels I attended that weekend.  There was an urgency to change this, something I had not felt before at any con.

It gave me hope. I would like to go back in time to that little girl hiding in plain sight and say “Hang in there– 30 years from now things will start changing and when they do, it’s going to happen fast.”