In the Scottish Lowlands, pipers were part of the traveling minstrel class, performing at weddings, feasts and fairs throughout the Border country, playing song and dance music. Highland pipers on the other hand, appear to have been more strongly influenced by their Celtic background and occupied a high and honored position. It is considered that by the 1700s the piper had started to replace the harpist as the prime Celtic musician of choice within the Clan system.
How bagpipes arrived in Scotland is somewhat of a mystery. Some historians believe that bagpipes originate from ancient Egypt and were brought to Scotland by invading Roman Legions. Others maintain that the instrument was brought over the water by the colonizing Scots tribes from Ireland.
Ancient Egypt does appear to have prior claim to the instrument however; from as early as 400 BC the ‘pipers of Thebes’ are reported to have been blowing pipes made from dog skin with chanters of bone. And several hundred years later, one of the most famous exponents of the pipes is said to have been the great Roman Emperor Nero, who may well have been piping rather than fiddling whilst Rome burned. What is certain however is that bagpipes have existed in various forms in many places around the world. In each country the construction of the basic instrument comprises the same component parts; an air supply, a bag with a chanter and one or more drones.
By far the most common method of supplying air to the bag is by blowing with the mouth, although some early innovations included the use of bellows. The bag, commonly made from animal skin, is simply an airtight reservoir to hold the air and regulate its flow, thus allowing the piper to breathe and maintain a continuous sound, both at the same time. The chanter is the melody pipe, usually played by one or two hands. Generally comprising two or more sliding parts, the drone allows the pitch of the pipes to be altered.
While historians can only speculate on the actual origins of the Piob Mhor, or great Highland bagpipe, it was the Scottish highlanders themselves that developed the instrument to its current form, establishing it as their national musical instrument both in times of war and peace. The original Highland pipes probably comprised a single drone with the second drone being added in the mid to late 1500’s. The third, or the great drone, came into use sometime in the early 1700s.
As a musical instrument of war, the first mention of the bagpipes appears to date from 1549 at the Battle of Pinkie, when the pipes replaced trumpets to help inspire the Highlanders into battle. It is said that the shrill and penetrating sound worked well in the roar of battle and that the pipes could be heard at distances of up to 10 miles away.
Due to their inspirational influence, bagpipes were classified as instruments of war during the Highland uprisings of the early 1700s, and following the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the government in London attempted to crush the rebellious clan system. An Act of Parliament was passed which made the carrying of weapons, such as those vicious bagpipes, and the wearing of kilts a penal offense. Although the Act was eventually repealed in 1785, it was the expansion of the British Empire that spread the fame of the great Highland bagpipes world-wide. Often spearheading the various campaigns of the British Army would be one of the famous Highland regiments, the ‘Devils in Skirts’, and at the head of each regiment would be the unarmed solitary piper leading the troops into and beyond the ‘jaws of death’.
What do pipers wear? It depends on a lot of different things. Are they playing in a pipe band? If so, they all try to wear conforming clothing. Matching kilts, shirts, ties. Or they may go for a more military look, with spats, colored or white hose, honor guard jackets, doublets, cross belts, horsehair sporrans, the list is endless. For competition or performing as a solo piper, many go the simpler route and wear Ghillies, piper hose, shirt & tie, Glengarry or Balmoral hats, and the list could go on and on. Bottom line is this: no matter what the piper is wearing, it has absolutely no effect on the sound of the pipes. That is under the control of the musician, which leads to the next topic...
Scottish pipes have three drones, two tenors which play exactly the same note and the bass which plays an octave below. They are powered by drone reeds, which is a cylinder of wood split into two pieces for tuning purposes. The piper moves the reed when playing to adjust the tuning.
Traditionally, the drone reed would have been made from a piece of cane. However, synthetic drone reeds made of a plastic, or carbon fiber compound are now common. In the body of the reed, is the tongue which sits at the top and vibrates against the body of the reed when air passes over it. On its own it doesn’t sound like much, but when placed inside the drone the distinctive sound of the pipes is awakened.
Inside the chanter is a small reed which is made of cane or increasingly a synthetic plastic material. The smaller the reed the louder the sound it creates by vibrating then projecting a sound. This is also why you need a bag to push enough air through to get the stiff reed vibrating. The finger holes share a familiarity with a recorder. The chanter makes nine notes from low G, low A, B, C, D, E, F, high G, and high A. These notes don't exactly correspond to modern tuning, the A most pipers play to is closer to a B flat.
There are several things to look for, but to make it simple, the pipes must work together and be in tune. A poor piper that is in tune sounds better than a good piper who is out of tune. The drones reeds must be adjusted for equal volume, and the playing on the chanter must be precise, with the correct fingerings and embellishments.
The pipes can be used for many different occasions. So there are several different types of pipe music. Marches, can be 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8 time signature. Strathspeys, Jigs, Reels, Hornpipes, Lilts, Competition marches, Slow Airs, are some of the more popular. These are all called Ceolbeg, or light music.
Playing Piobaireachd is my specialty, and one of the best explanations comes from P/M Donald Macleod, MBE...
"Piobaireachd is the Gaelic word for "bagpiping". In the days before 1745, it is likely that most of the music played on the bagpipe was not of the march, strathspey, reel, hornpipe, or jig styles that we are familiar with today. Piobaireachd is an ancient style of theme and variation in which a thematic melody (called the "urlar" in Gaelic where it means "ground" as in most basic part) is played followed by variations of increasing difficulty. It is the classical music of the bagpipe.
After composing the urlar, a simplified series of notes are selected to represent the musical theme. Structured variations are played upon these theme notes. The first variations may involve single gracenotes on the theme notes, but later variations can incorporate extremely ornate embellishments with more than ten gracenotes per theme note. Eventually the melody is repeated to complete the cycle.
The timing or pulse of the music is of the rubato form where a strict rhythm is not kept. A bit of a beat is added here and taken away there - much as in jazz today. To further complicate matters, there are cadence and connecting notes that "don't count" in the timing and which are interpreted differently by different masters of the form.
The timing aspects are sometimes known as "scansion", which refers to the "shape" of the piece. The development of a piobaireachd player may be likened to the maturation process of a student reading the words of William Shakespeare aloud in high school and then bringing more to those words through timing, phasing and emphasis as the student continues to grow and study with masters in live theatrical performances.
While sometimes considered an acquired taste, when well played, piobaireachd will induce a rhythmic swaying in the attentive listener. It speaks to the listener in a deeper and more contemplative manner than most light music.
Piobaireachds were often written to commemorate an event (e.g., Laments for death are very common as are Salutes for various occasions) or had practical uses in Highland society (e.g., Gathering of the Clans). These tunes are generally 8 to 15 minutes in length and, when well played, are some of the most inspiring music of the bagpipe. The music may be described as insistent and persistent - demanding to be heard and creating a need to be heard in order to satisfy the listener. Like many classical music forms, it may not have instant appeal to the uneducated listener.
The study of piobaireachd has two real advantages for the player who wishes to improve.
One of my favorite quotations is from an incredible piper, teacher and judge who said, "If it wasn't for how I feel about piobaireachd, I would have given up piping long ago."
A question I'm often asked is, "How hard is it to learn to play bagpipes?" It's a tough question - below is a list of things that set bagpipes apart from other instruments and that will perhaps give those considering the instrument some help.
Overall, bagpipes are far from easy instruments to play, let alone master. However, the complex components of decent piping can be more or less learned one by one, and there is no single overwhelming demand made or genius required. Thus most bagpipes respond well to diligence and patience, and if these are applied the rewards can be great, regardless of talent.
I do give lessons, in your home, almost any day of the week, depending on my, and your schedule. Adults only. Not to be picky, but my experience over many years is that children tend to want instant gratification, which does not happen, and practice is essential. It wastes my time, your time, and your money if you do not practice at least 30 min every day.
Pipers do not start on the bagpipes. Most learning is done on a practice chanter. They are relatively inexpensive and is the method to learn all of the fingerings, embellishments, and tunes one needs to advance. Pipers use the PC their entire piping career. It normally takes 4-6 months to move up to a set of pipes, with all the issues they create. I'm always happy to discuss learning, and what is required. The bottom line is that, with practice, almost anyone can learn to play. The ability to read music is not a requirement to get started.
How much do bagpipes cost? That question has so many variables, but as a general rule, plan to spend at least $1,000 for a basic set new, and $500+ on a used set. Some items to consider are the material the pipes are made of. There is African Blackwood, Cocobolo Wood, and Delrin, also known as Polypenco. The wood pipes are susceptible to weather conditions, and require regular maintenance to keep them in good condition. Delrin is a very dense plastic that will work great under all kinds of weather, require little maintenance other than cleaning, and will last a lifetime. Other things to consider are the "mounts & ferrules". They can be wood, plastic, metal, engraved or plain. There are also reeds to consider, but any teacher can recommend what would work best. Avoid ebay ripoff's. Pipes made of rosewood, crocuswood or ebony are some of the cheap ripoff pipes from Pakistan, and are not worth the wood they are made of. If the price seems to good to be true, it is! Feel free to contact me for advice.