Like any big city Edinburgh has its fair share of homeless people, unfortunate souls who have hit rock bottom, destitute and beaten down by life, beggars, sat on concrete, hoping for a miracle. Unlike most other cities however, Edinburgh also has a strong contingent of bagpipe players – ‘bagpipers’, to use the correct noun. Without wanting to generalise, I’d suggest it would be fair to say the vast majority live prosperously, able to afford a decent set of traditional bagged pipes and accompanying kilted attire. They look comfortable, although not facially.
The dichotomy of the beggar and the bagpiper has been a constant source of interest to me since arriving in Edinburgh two years ago – for both receive money from passing strangers – although one with considerably more success than the other. It’s actually more of a bugbear than a simple interest, and my grievance is aimed at the general public or to be a tad more specific, tourists. They do love a bagpipe, those coin heavy, culture-seeking sightseers.
Obviously I am aware of the value to a culturally rich city of a good ‘street performer’ and again, especially during the Fringe, Edinburgh has more than most. Throughout August in Edinburgh street performers are everywhere; official licensed ones, many of them quite brilliant, given allocated slots in allocated spaces, and unofficial ones who win the attention of those coin heavy tourists by their oddball behaviour – ticket touts, most of them. I love a good street performer, me, and whilst I admire the skill of any talented instrumentalist, it still bugs the shit out of me the number of coins lobbed the way of a bagpiper compared to a beggar.
Sure, stand and admire the skills of the bagpiper, get your picture taken with him (I have seen one female bagpiper during my two years in Edinburgh) too if you must, but if you have a spare pound coin or two, please share the spoils with the person who really needs it. Unlike the outdoor acrobat, juggler, contortionist or escape artist who earn a living performing their individual art to an appreciative crowd, it is my guess that the average bagpiper does not stand on the corner of Princes Street Gardens for an hour a day for a living. I may be wrong, but I’d suggest it might be a supplementary income. A homeless person may have similar skills; they may even be a multi-instrumentalist with the acrobatic agility of a Russian gymnast. But that’s not what you see, if you look at all.
I have nothing against the bagpiper. My beef is with those who feel it is wiser to throw their spare coins into a rich man’s case than place them into the palms of a poor person. That said, larger chunks of beef are of course aimed towards the powers that be. Homelessness, which had been on the decline for over 15 years, is once again rising, and coalition policies on housing and welfare are making the situation worse. Demand for food banks has tripled in the last year, more social housing tenants in rent arrears due to the bedroom tax, more households in fuel poverty… ah, I’m digressing, I’ll stop there. Residents and tourists of Edinburgh, have a heart, bagpipers can do without, show the Government the way and feed the homeless.