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Mountain Thyme Blog

  • The Great Highland Bagpipes

    You either love them or hate them, but there’s no denying the bagpipes are one of the most memorable instruments played today. There are actually many kinds of bagpipes (and not all from Scotland), but the instrument most people associate with the general name of “bagpipes” is the Great Highland Bagpipe (in Gaelic, “piob mhòr”, “great pipe”). While the bagpipe as an instrument is ancient indeed, with its roots tracing back to the Middle East, and variations being used all over Europe for centuries (no, the bagpipe did not originate in Scotland!), the “modern” Great Highland Bagpipe came into being in the late 18th century. There was a need for uniformity, both for military regimental purposes (the bagpipes have a long history as a martial instrument in Scotland) as well as for competition and judging, and so the Great Highland Bagpipe as we know it today was developed.

    The two universal features of bagpipes are a bag (which holds the air needed to play the instrument) and the pipes (which contain internal reeds which produce sound). In the case of the Great Highland Bagpipe, the bag (made either of hide or a synthetic material) is held under the piper’s arm,  filled with a blowpipe (blown into by the piper at regular intervals) and pressure maintained by the piper’s arm when the piper takes a breath. In this way, the sound of the bagpipes remains constant, unlike other wind instruments which have pauses for taking a breath. The other pipes (in addition to the blowpipe) are the three drones, which rest on the piper’s shoulder, each producing a single, constant note, and the chanter, which is held by, and played with, both hands, and it is this smaller pipe that the melody comes from. Both the drones and the chanter have internal double reeds, which vibrate (once sufficient, and significant, air pressure is applied from the bag) and produce sound. The chanter can only play nine notes in one key, but even so, the repertoire of music for the Great Highland Bagpipe is vast and varied.

    One may think that with only nine notes, learning to play tunes on the pipes must not be very difficult. However, one only needs to listen to an accomplished piper and watch their flying fingers to realize just how complex pipe tunes can be. One feature of pipe music is...