Alan Bush wrote Compass Points as a commission from the Pipers' Guild in 1976. That year was the 50th anniversary of the first bamboo pipes made by Margaret James, and to celebrate this the Guild commissioned works by three composers: Alan Bush, Edwin Roxburgh and Geoffrey Winters. The Pipers' Guild is a group of amateur musicians who make their own instruments, which are of the recorder family.
Compass Points is a substantial work with a great deal of musical complexity and interest. It is in four movements, each based on one or two traditional melodies from different north, south, east and west of Great Britain, excluding Ireland. Alan Bush, writing in April 1976, explained that he thought he would leave Ireland out because "The Irish Republic is not a part of Great Britain any longer, and the People of Ulster don't all want to be". The four movements are as follows:
1. North (Scotland) - based on two Hebridean melodies, "Dance to your Shadow" and "The Islay Reaper's Song".
2. West (Wales) - based on "Watching the Wheat" and "Syr Harri Ddu" (Black Sir Harry).
3. East - based on "The Cruel Sea-Captain".
4. South - based on "Bedlam City" and "The Scolding Wife".
The score was completed in April 1976 and was first performed at the annual summer school of the Pipers' Guild, which was held in Canterbury in August 1976. Alan Bush came with his wife, Nancy, to Canterbury at the end of the week. He conducted and coached the players and they both attended the first performance. Since 1976, the Guild has played the piece regularly at summer schools and in quartets, and regard it as one of the most satisfying and successful of works written for the pipes.