Bagpipe Lore

This is the page to read for interesting history and information on the Great Highland Bagpipe. Soon we will have stories and intersting historical facts to follow the brief description below.

About the Great Highland Bagpipe

The Great Highland Bagpipe is a reed musical instrument not very different from other bagpipes played in many parts of Europe in the past and even now. But the Great Highland Bagpipe is very closely identified in the minds of all with the ancient land of Scotland, the northern part of the island of Britain. Wherever Scottish folk have gone, they have carried the bagpipe with them and now people all over the world revel in its thrilling sound and emotional impact.

Bagpipes have been known and played for thousands of years. It is noted in history that he Roman emperor Nero played the bagpipe, although at that time the instrument was probably considerably simpler than it is now. Various medieval manuscripts and carvings in churches show bagpipers. Some of the best of these are from the 1400's and 1500's. The Great Highland Bagpipe reached something like its present form in the 1700's, and the modern pipe and drum band developed in the 1800's.

The bagpipe is a wind instrument. The piper inflates a leather (or now, often a synthetic) bag - by means of a blowstick pipe -with his breath, and other pipes are attached to the bag so that from the air supply in the bag the piper is actually playing four reed instruments at a time, the chanter and three drones. A valve on the blowstick allows the piper to breathe and still keep up the air pressure in the bag with his left arm, which holds the bag.

The tune is played on the pipe called the chanter. This has a two-bladed, or double, reed made of cane, like that of a modern oboe or bassoon. The chanter has seven finger holes on the front, a thumb hole on the back for the left thumb, and two tuning holes at the lower end. The range of the chanter is low G to high A, although the low G is a bass leading note and most tunes are in the major keys of A or D. Te chanter is considered to be in the key of A, but this is not modern concert pitch - A 440. The bagpipe A is around 466 to 476 Hz - around or above concert B-flat. The chanter is also modal - meaning it has a fixed key, rather than having the chromatic twelve-note scale of most modern instruments. This limits the Great Highland Bagpipe to just nine notes, but those notes are capable of great intricacy of technique and depth of expression.

The hollowed-out inside of the chanter, called the "bore," is shaped like a long cone, that is, it is wider at the bottom than at the top. The type of reed and bore of the Great Highland Bagpipe produces a large volume of sound. There are accounts of bagpipes being heard from a distance of seven miles, although most modern bagpipes probably don't carry that far!

The three pipes which stick up over the left shoulder of the piper are called drones. (Earlier bagpipes sometimes had no drones, and bagpipes in some other countries have from one to five drones). Each drone pipe has a single reed, somewhat like a clarinet reed, and one or two sliding joints so that it can be tuned with the chanter. The Great Highland Bagpipe has two tenor drones which sound an A an octave below the chanter A, and one bass drone which sounds an octave below the tenor drones. Some people think they are hearing more drone notes than just the A's, but that is part of the mystery of the pipes, as the overtones of the drones give the effect of additional notes.

The piper inflates the bag through the blowstick and then "strikes in" by squeezing the bag so that the drones and the chanter begin to play. Once the music begins, it is always at the same volume level. Expressive music is made on the pipes with melodies, timing, and the art of "gracing," by which the piper uses intricate, quick finger movements to play very short notes and groups of notes to make the music lively and interesting. Once the piper strikes in, the music does not stop until the tune is finished, that is, there are no rests in pipe music as the reed pipes come directly from the inflated bag and the piper cannot stop their sound without stopping altogether. As there are no rests the gracings are used to separate many of the notes of the tune. This creates a type of articulation which in some way ssimulates what is done by most other wind players with tonguing and breath control.

Pipers have their own forms of music ranging from marches to reels, jigs, strathspeys, laments and airs. (However, most of these are adapted for the pipes from elsewhere.) Many advanced pipers practice the ancient art of piobaireachd (pronounced Pea-brock), the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe, which consists of a theme and increasingly complex sets of variations. This is the music which was originally written just for the Great Highland Bagpipe.

Stephen D. Cook, Former Pipe Sergeant, The Father of Waters Pipes and Drums (with minor editing by Virginia R. Smith)


© 2003 Father of Waters Pipes and Drums