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Issue 23 - The pipes, the pipes are calling

Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005


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The pipes, the pipes are calling

The bagpipes act as a strange ambassador for Scotland. Ronald M. James looks at their chequered history

After the 1745 Jacobite Rising in Scotland, anyone caught with a set of bagpipes could be executed.

English forces regarded the instrument as a weapon of war because they recognised that the pipes had power to stir the soul of a nation. With the prohibition lifted after a few decades, the bagpipe became essential to Highland regiments as they travelled the world to fight in Britain’s wars.

Perhaps no other instrument inspires more contradictory responses than the beloved and despised pipes. With a single, forceful volume, the bagpipe demands attention, and for those with no appetite for the sound, it can be torture. In contrast, others find the traditional pipe music of Scotland close to the divine.

The bagpipe is peculiar in a number of ways. It appears to be the only musical instrument with its own verb in the English language: only a bagpipe can ‘skirl.’ Because it has four sets of reeds, the pipes are obnoxiously easy to play out of tune. In general, wind instruments, even when poorly played, are at least in tune with themselves. A solo piper with a tin ear, however, can produce a hideous sound, with the ability to raise the dead and make them angry at the same time.

The bagpipe is also one of the few surviving European folk instruments without a place in the symphonic orchestra.

Unlike the fiddle, the flute, and various horns, for example, the bagpipe followed its own evolutionary path, leaving it with the likes of the concertina and its descendant, the accordion.

It would be difficult to find an instrument as maligned with jokes as the bagpipe, although the accordion is a close rival. For example, critics question the difference between a bagpipe and a lawnmower, or a bagpipe and an onion. The answer for the first is that a lawnmower can be tuned. And for the second comes the unwarranted observation that no one cries when cutting up bagpipes. Shockingly unfair for those devoted to pipe music, jokes like these underscore the fact that this unusual instrument cannot be ignored, even by those who find it unappealing.

Ironically, the bagpipe, this most Scottish of things, was imported from elsewhere and is played practically everywhere. Until recently, musicians in nearly every country from Ireland to Iran mastered various close cousins of Scotland’s bagpipe, and now with the diffusion of Scottish pipers, it has an international following.

The bagpipe uses a double reed, meaning that two pieces of cane, tied together, vibrate against one another as air passes between the blades. The invention of a double reed pipe apparently occurred in the Middle East thousands of years ago. At least by the time of Christ, pipers began putting a bag between the mouthpiece and the pipe. This allowed musicians to play continuously even while breathing in.

Roman soldiers occupying the Middle East adopted the bagpipe and exported it throughout the Empire. There is evidence that Nero, the hated first-century Caesar, played the instrument.

Bagpipes probably first travelled to Britain during the Roman occupation of the island, which ended in the fifth century.

Throughout most of its historic distribution, the soft, sweet sound of the bagpipe was suited for dancing and festivals, to be played alone or in the company of other instruments. Only in Scotland and Ireland did the bagpipe mutate into a weapon of war. The Great Highland bagpipe and its cousin the Irish war pipes developed the volume to signal warriors and intimidate the enemy over the din of battle. Roman authors describe warring Celts using loud horns in the same way, so it is not surprising their descendents saw this potential in the bagpipe.

Regardless of the specific form or use, all bagpipes share some basic structural similarities, which from the start required unique approaches to music. Wind instruments normally separate notes by ‘tonguing,’ that is, by stopping the air for a split second with the tongue. This divides two notes of the same pitch or provides accent for different notes. Tonguing is not possible on the bagpipe with its continuous airflow. To solve this problem, pipers developed an extensive repertoire of grace notes. These short chirps give piping one of its most distinctive sounds.

For all that is traditional about tradition, things can change quickly. Some claim there are now more Great Highland pipers in Ireland than in Scotland. Ireland never produced its war pipes with the industrial precision of Scotland’s bagpipe manufacturers, and when a group plays instruments as temperamental as this, beginning with similar pipes is a critical first step to tuning.

The Irish war pipes are nearly extinct, out competed by Caledonia’s export.

Similarly, Scottish pipes are the instrument of choice in Pakistani and Jordanian military bands.

While the various bagpipes of Europe and the Middle East fade away, Highland pipes gather an international following.

Even as the Highland pipes grow in popularity, Ireland’s Uilleann pipes have diffused into the Scottish pantheon of music. These are a different species of bagpipe removed from both the Irish war pipes and the Great Highland pipes. Taking its name from the Gaelic word for elbow, the Uilleann pipes use a bellows under the right arm to inflate a bag under the left. A different shaped chanter allows Uilleann pipers to play two octaves – a 16 note range – whereas Highland pipers can only play nine notes.

Braveheart, the recent quintessential expression of Scottish history in cinema, uses Uilleann pipes to carry the musical score. The Highland bagpipe sounds in the film, but Uilleann pipes dominate, leaving the audience to assume the score’s music is from a Scottish instrument.

While continuing an ancient tradition of music, the modern piping world is a place of dynamic creativity. Until recently Scottish bagpipe music consisted of a range of conventional marches and dance tunes that relied heavily on patterns of long and short notes, giving the instrument its special lilt. Beginning in the 1960s composers began offering alternatives.

Astraight series of equal notes, called Canadian or ‘round,’offer another refreshing opportunity to play a different style. Critics within the piping world claim the music sounds like machine guns.

Still, the technique is increasingly popular and with a snare drum accompaniment, the innovation provides an answer to rock and roll.

In the last decade, Great Highland pipers have adopted techniques from the Uilleann pipes.

Numerous new tunes call for slides between notes and for a finger-shaking vibrato, once the exclusive domain of Ireland’s bellows pipes.

Again, detractors listen in disbelief, while others embrace the innovations.

Invention has also mutated the pipes themselves. By the 1960s, plastic accent mounts began replacing ivory with the growing prohibitions against hunting elephants. Gortex and other synthetic products have eroded the popularity of the traditional leather bag.

Preformed rubber joints that quickly accept the stocks of the pipes have replaced the skill to cut and tie in a hide bag. Seasoning the leather with a smelly ooze that only a cat could love is becoming a thing of the past. The Gortex bag is immediately ready to play.

It once took hours of blowing to make a set of short-lived cane drone reeds function properly.

New synthetic reeds are less temperamental and can last for years. Purists shunned early non-cane products because of a sterile sound, but invention has produced synthetic drone reeds with a richness equal to the original cane. Attempts to find an acceptable alternative to the cane chanter reed have failed, but it is only a matter of time.

Even the ebony wood of the pipes is subject to substitution. Ahard black plastic performs nearly as well as the traditional wood, thus avoiding the exploitation of endangered rain forests. Some of the best pipe bands use matched black plastic chanters, easing problems with tuning and enhancing the unison sound of the ensemble. As traditional ebony pipes increase in price, black plastic grows in status.

Innovation may change the Great Highland bagpipe and its music, but the tradition lives on.

While other nations have lost their pipes, the place of Scotland’s instrument is secure.

Critics will continue with their jokes, but it is all in good humour, and a modern piper performs knowing there is a strong demand for this exceptional sound. While piping assumes its place on an international stage, it keeps a clear connection to Scotland, truly making it one of the nation’s most noteworthy if not peculiar ambassadors.