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The Great Highland Bagpipes

The Scottish Highland bagpipes being held at rest

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.

Drawing of a Scottish piper

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.

Closeup of the underside of the Scottish bagpipes

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 the use of grace notes, doublings, and other ornamentations in between the main notes of the melody. In some cases, there are several notes played in such quick succession that the average listener can’t discern them all.

A piper playing on the bagpipe chanter

Of course, learning to play intricate tunes precisely at the proper tempo (speed) takes a lot of practice. Fortunately, there is a practice instrument, called a practice chanter (no bag, no drones, just a chanter which is blown into directly, with a small double reed inside) which makes it possible for a piper to practice, even indoors, without much disturbance to the neighbors. These practice chanters are much quieter than the regular pipe chanter. You may see pipers practicing on practice chanters, either alone or in groups, before a competition, such as at a Highland Games. Practice chanters also allow beginners to start learning the bagpipes without investing in a full set of pipes right away.

Pipe band playing in a town

Bagpipes can either be made from wood (African Blackwood being the top choice), or a synthetic material (such as polypenco), with bags of either natural hide or synthetic material. To add visual appeal, the bags are covered in decorative bag covers, and the drones are tied together with cords (black or a variety of colors). The pipes themselves can have imitation ivory or natural ivory (usually only on antique pipes) mounts, and simple or intricately carved metal bands called ferrules, with the metal parts ranging from aluminum (budget) to silver (fancy). Bagpipes can be exquisite, hand-made pieces of art. Unfortunately, there are also terribly cheap pipes coming out of the Middle East that are hardly fit to be played without significant reconditioning.

Young girl playing the bagpipe

For individuals looking to learn how to play the bagpipes, it is highly recommended that they contact their local pipe band, who will often offer free beginner lessons to prospective members. It’s much easier to learn when taught by someone who is experienced, and you’ll get great advice on what instrument to eventually purchase (or maybe even a chance to borrow or purchase a set of used pipes). Being a member of a pipe band, especially at competition level, is a really fun experience and a great way to make lasting friendships, while also having the opportunity to travel. Children can begin learning around the age of eight on a practice chanter. But many pipers begin as adults!