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Highland Pipes

History of the Highland Pipe

The bagpipe is not a pure Scottish instrument.

First proof of bagpipes in Europe may be found at Aristophanes (greek author of comedy pieces, 445 - 385 B.C.), Dio Chrysostomus (also greek, ca. 100 AD), Marcus Valerius Martialis (roman poet, 40 - 100 A.D.) and Gaius Suetonius Tronquillus (roman author, 70 - 130 A.D.). The latter mentioned the bagpiping Nero (probably!) in his biographies about roman emperors ("De vita caesarum"). Dio Chrysostomus wrote about a contemporary sovereign, possibly Nero as well, who could play a pipe ("aulein") with his mouth as well as with his "arm pit". Chrysostomus and Martialis both mention the askaules, which literally means "bagpiper". Unfortunately nothing is known about the appearance of these pipes, only their sound is described (by Aristophanes) as somewhat "boozy" or "wasp like".

The earliest medieval proof for bagpipes can be found in the "Hieronymus-letter" to Dardanus from the 9th century:

"chorus quoque simplex pellis cum duabus cicutis aereis: et per primam inspiratur per secundam vocem emittit"

That means:

"...an instrument with a simple bag and two air-tubes; and through the first [tube] it is blown, out of the second comes the voice."

The letter tells of an instrument made out of a bag, a blow pipe and a melody pipe. We can't gather from the text if a drone was fitted to the instrument. There is no evidence that the medieval bagpipe was developed from this early Greek or roman instrument. A connection between the medieval European bagpipe and the Arabian bagpipe also is very unlikely. The Arabian bagpipe did not appear before the 11th century (mentioned by Arabian writers). It's direct ancestor is probably the early bagpipe from ancient Greek and Rome as mentioned above. This European instrument was probably "forgotten" in the first millennium and was "re-invented" in medieval times. Correspondingly primitive the first medieval bagpipes might have appeared.

The Modern History of the Pipe

Courtesy of Seumus MacNeill and Thomas Pearston

The bagpipe has a long and honourable history stretching back to the beginnings civilisation, for it is one of the oldest of instruments played by man from the earliest of times.

It probably had its beginnings in ancient Egypt where a simple chanter and drone were played together. These were later attached to a bag made of skin and fitted with a blowpipe making a primitive form of the instrument we have today. This kind of Bagpipe was played by the Greeks and the Romans, and eventually spread throughout Europe, carried first by the Celts and then by the Romans on their invasions.

It continued to be popular throughout the centuries, and during the Middle Ages, still in its simple form, was one of the most common instruments in the countries of southern, central and Western Europe, being one of the favourite instruments of the wandering minstrels who provided much of the music then played.

In more modern times many forms of the bagpipe, some with a wide range of notes, and blown by a bellows held under the arm, were developed in Europe, and remained popular until the eighteenth century. But when towns and cities grow up and more people ceased to live in villages and make merry in the open air, music became an indoor activity, and the elaborate instruments of modern times were invented. With their coming, the bagpipe died out over most of Europe, though traces of it still survive in Brittany, Southern Italy and the Balkans, where the original simple form has been little changed.

In Britain, its history and fate, except in the Highlands of Scotland, followed the same pattern as on the continent. It came with the Celts and the Romans and flourished for centuries as the instrument of the common people. It was played at fairs, weddings, open air dancing, pageants and all sorts of processions and merry makings. It is mentioned and described in books of all kinds, from the plays of Shakespeare to country ballads, and pictures and carvings of it are numerous. Elaborate forms of it became popular in Northumbria, Ireland and Southern Scotland. In the first two places they are still played though in all other parts of the country it disappeared about the beginning of the eighteenth century.

In the Highlands of Scotland, however, its history was different. Its martial music appealed to the warlike spirit of the people there and at an early date it superseded the harp in their favour. The original form with bag, chanter, blowpipe and one drone remained unaltered till around 1500 when a second drone was added. A third the big drone being added about 200 years later.

It fitted into the clan system then operated in the Highlands, the chiefs of the clan having their own in many cases a hereditary office and colleges, of which there were several, were set up for the teaching of bagpipe playing. In these colleges was developed the "Ceol Mor", or "Piobaireachd", the classical music of the bagpipe, music which stands comparison with the greatest compositions in the world of music.

The most famous of these colleges was that of the MacCrimmons at Borreraig, in Skye. They were the hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan, and flourished for over 200 years, training pipers from all over the Highlands and composing many masterpieces of Ceol Mor, much of which we still have.

After the rising of 1745, the playing of the bagpipe was forbidden in Scotland the law being harshly enforced and the colleges were broken up and the hereditary families of pipers scattered. At the time, and for many years afterwards, there was grave danger that the fate of the bagpipe, here as elsewhere, would be to decline and disappear, but fortunately, its playing was allowed again before the art of doing so had been forgotten. At this time, too, collection was begun of Ceol Mor, which had been handed on orally, and now there are several hundred pieces published.

Highland Societies were set up in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere for the purpose of keeping alive the traditional features of life in the Highlands, and they began bagpipe competitions. The bagpipes also became the favourite music of the Scottish soldier who in increasing numbers, were being enrolled in the British army. All this helped their revival and spread their popularity, so that survival was made certain. They have become more and more popular, and today they are known and played throughout the world wherever men of the Scottish race have travelled.

The young lad who sets out to be a piper should take pride in the fact that his is a noble instrument, with great traditions, and supreme in its own place the open air. It is capable of playing great music, and much great music has been composed for it. It is worthy of his best efforts.

Sovereign Pipers

Courtesy of Ronald Morrison

One of the duties of the sovereign's piper who resides at Buckingham Palace is to play every morning. Monday to Friday, from 09.00am - 10.00am, this a duty which many Londoners and tourists alike will be completely aware.

The history of the piper to sovereign goes back to the start of queen Victoria's reign in 1837. Queen Victoria and Albert paid a visit to the highlands in 1842, where they stayed in Taymouth Castle with the Marquis of Breadalbane. The queen was so taken with the ceremony provided at the castle that she wrote to her mother, the Duchess of Kent: "We have heard nothing but bagpipes since we have been to the beautiful Highlands and I have become so fond of it that I mean to have a piper". She sought the advice of the Marquis of Breadalbane and he recommended that the famous Angus MacKay be appointed to the post with the result that Angus was admitted by the Clerk Marshal as first piper to her Majesty on July 25th 1843.

Of course there was some other influence afoot for the appointment, the Queen's father, the Duke of Kent, and her uncle, the Duke of Sussex, had each employed a piper at Kensington Castle, although it would be seem strange that any of Queen Victoria's predecessors would employ a Highland Piper having regard to the conflict which existed between the Hanoverians and the Jacobites. The Proscription Act of 1746, approved by George II, made it a felony to wear the Highland Garb; there is evidence of one execution of a piper, one James Reid, who was garrisoned in Carlisle when he surrendered to the army of the notorious Cumberland in 1746. He pleaded that he was a piper but in the eyes of the law the bagpipe was classified as an instrument of war, consequently he was condemned and executed.

The destruction created by the army of occupation left the Jacobite Clans in disarray, demoralised and without leadership for a generation. But a change was on the way. In 1778 the renowned London Highland Society was formed and it campaigned vigorously for the repel of the Act and achieved its objective in 1782 when the Act was repealed.

After the death of Prince Charles Edward in 1788, attitudes began to change, there was no longer a direct threat to the succession, several royal princes became members of Highland society, Highland customs and culture once again became fashionable. George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822 when he wore an elaborate form of Highland dress amid a display of colourful tartans and distinct Highland dress and music from its renowned place in the clan system to a hitherto unknown symbol of romantic national feeling. We must never forget that Queen Victoria was familiar with piping from her early days at Kensington Palace, her father and uncle each had a piper. Donald MacKay, brother to the famous Angus, was a piper to the Duke of Sussex while John McGregor, nephew to the John McGregor who was piper to Prince Charles Edward in 1745, was piper to the Duke of Kent. There is no doubt that the Queen enjoyed the sound of the bagpipe and her appointment of Angus MacKay had wide reaching significance in the advancement and development of the music of the Highland Bagpipe.

Angus MacKay was a son of the famous John MacKay who was piper to Macleod of Raasay for many years. Angus at the early age of 13 was awarded a prize by the Highland Society in response to their appeal for pipe music to be produced in scientific form. Given the support of the Highland Society he published a collection of pibrochs in 1838, complete with historical notes which more or less has become an essential for the present day professionals. He came to London at the age of 30 with an established background which commanded the highest respect. Regretfully, Angus MacKays services to the sovereign came to an end in 1854 due to mental illness. He was granted a royal pension and after a period in Bethlehem Hospital he was transferred to the Crichton Mental hospital in Dumfries, he was drowned in the river Nith while trying to escape, he was 46 years of age.

Angus MacKay's contribution to the classical music of the great Highland bagpipe was considerable, together with his development of marches, Strathspeys and reels, he revised "The Tutor for the Highland Bagpipe" by William MacKay, which contained one hundred examples of marches, Strathspeys, reels and jigs. He was Succeeded by Pipe Major William Ross in 1854, William Ross came from the Royal Highland Regiment, The Black Watch, where he had served for 14 years and from that date the office of piper to the sovereign continues to the present time.

It is evident the Queen Victoria's patronage played a prominent role in popularising the music of the Highland bagpipe and this support was maintained by Edward VII on his becoming Monarch in 1901 when he retained the services of James Campbell who was piper to Queen Victoria.

When George V ascended the throne in 1910, he appointed Henry Forsyth who had previously retired from the Scots Guards. George V was particularly interested in the advancement of piping, this is evident when he sent Robert Brown and Robert Nicol - both employees on the Balmoral Estate to Pipe Major John MacDonald, Inverness, who was regarded as the greatest of all pipers, for advanced instruction during the winter.

In 1965, it was decided to remove the post from the Queen's List so that future appointments be made from the experienced Army Majors. The first posting was Andrew Pitkeathley of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who had won the Gold Medal at Inverness in 1949 and held the rank of Pipe Major and Warrant Officer class 1. Since the Second World War the rank of Pipe Major in the army allows progression to Warrant Officer and anyone seconded to the Palace would need to be of that rank and his duties would be equal to his status.

In conclusion it is very clear that Royal patronage conferred a distinct respectability on the prestige of the great Highland bagpipe in Scotland.

The Scottish Small Pipe and Lowland Pipes

The Pipes

 Lowland pipes were popular in Scotland until the middle of the last century. Historians have noted their important contribution to the culture of the South of Scotland and artists have left us a rich legacy of visual material relating to the instrument and its players.

A number of towns in the Scottish Borders had their own Lowland Pipers who were called on to play at the usual civic functions. For a number of reasons, including the advent of chromatic instruments such as the concertina and accordion, and perhaps the absence of a broad enough repertory, interest in the instrument faded, although many fine examples of early instruments survived in public and private collections.

I found it to be the complete answer for a Highland Piper who wished to play with other musicians without the usual problems of tuning or imbalance of volume.

The pipes are similar to Highland pipes but with three man differences:

  1. The drones are in a common stock.
  2. Air is supplied by bellows.
  3. The sound is mellower, allowing for indoor use.

The Lowland Pipes operate on exactly the same principle as the Highland pipes with the same necessity to keep the joints airtight and the bag seasoned. However, because the air used is relatively dry, it is usually only necessary to season the bag once or twice a year unless, of course, a synthetic bag is used. Hemp should always be resined as there is no moisture to swell it.

The reeds are as in the Highland Pipes but slightly smaller and with the great advantage that once set they need not be touched for months or even years. Air is sucked into the bellows through an inlet valve on the outside cheek of the bellows and it is forced into the bag through a valve in the connector piece. Both valves are one-way and require to have their hinge, indicated by a mark on the valve, to the top. The bellows also require to be kept airtight and it is worth checking this at regular intervals by pressing the palm of the hand over the outlet tube and pressing the bellows together.

When properly set up the pipes sound not unlike Highland pipes but with about half the volume thus allowing acoustic compatibility with the playing of a strong fiddler or accordion. The chanter is pitched in either A, Bb, C or D and tuning is as with the Highland pipes; a bass and two tenors tuned to the piper's low A.

Music for the Lowland Pipes

According to Joseph MacDonald* there was not, in the 18th century, any special music written for the Lowland Pipes and as stated earlier, this may explain in part why the instrument died out in the later years. Nor was there, according to MacDonald, any stylised grace noting for the instrument.

The former situation has been partially rectified by the Lowland and Borders Piping Society, which through the good work of it's founder member Gordon Mooney, has compiled and published two collections of tunes for the instrument. It is sufficient, however, for the Lowland piper to play on the instrument any music which is pleasing to his own ear.

Many Lowland tunes require a high B note and the records tell us that the Lowland pipers of old had a method of achieving this. The high A hole was pinched (allowing only a little air to escape) while fingering B with the right hand and blowing a little harder. This technique is very difficult and is seldom done satisfactory.

It is not necessary to play complex fingering of the Highland pipes and the musician can be content playing simple airs or marches with only a few grace notes to good effect. The use of vibrato and slide techniques from the Irish (Uileann) pipe tradition can also sound effective if used sparingly and with good musical taste.

It is perfectly possible to play with other musicians without the pipes dominating completely. Guitarists may have to re-tune or use a capo and fiddlers can tune their strings up and still use traditional fingering techniques.

Courtesy of Robert Wallace June 1988

*"Complete Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe"

Compiled 1760

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I can provide a piping service at weddings and other events just about anywhere in Scotland or Northern England.

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Last Update 17 January 2018

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