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Issue 44 - Where to discover Bagpipes

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 44
April 2009


This article is 9 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Where to discover Bagpipes

In the latest in our series we look at the bagpipes – where to buy them, where to learn them, and where to hear them.

There are not many countries that have their own sound, but thanks to the bagpipes, Scotland does. It is not the only country where they are played, of course. Musicians across the world play them, and over the centuries they have featured dominantly in many different cultures. Just across the water from Scotland, the Irish have a long and proud tradition of pipe playing, and it is even possible that they came to Scotland from there in the first place, though this is up for debate, and other theories include the fact that the Romans brought them.

But Scotland owns the sound of the pipes.

Hear the drone and skirl of the bagpipes and you are immediately transported to the Highlands. The sound has been compared to that of a screeching cat in pain, and the pipes themselves as an instrument of torture, but at their best, no instrument can match them for raw drama, and the sight and sound of a pipe band at its peak sends waves of emotion through the body like electricity, making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Indeed, so powerful is the sound that it is accompanied Highland Scots through all of their historical battles, so much so that after the Rebellion of 1745, the bagpipes were outlawed as a weapon of war.

Like all of life’s great challenges, the bagpipes are hard to master and sound dreadful in the hands of amateurs. But is there any more powerful symbol of patriotic pride than an accomplished piper in full ceremonial costume performing a stirring Scottish tune?

The bagpipes consist of a bag, traditionally made of sheepskin, with five pipes: a bass drone, two treble drones, a mouthpiece and a chanter, which is a short pipe punctured by eight holes and played with the fingers.

The bagpipes have the reputation of being very difficult to play, and, indeed, they require a great deal of dedication and commitment. But speak to anyone familiar with them and they will tell you that if you do make the effort and work hard at it, they are like any other instrument. However, they do have one major advantage over many other instruments – you do not need to own a set of pipes to start learning. The investment in your own pipes need not be made until you are well and truly sure they are for you.

The perfect starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the bagpipes, playing them or hearing them, is the National Piping Centre in Glasgow.

There is a shop and museum, plotting the entire history of the bagpipes. The National Piping Centre offers rehearsal rooms, stages events and exhibitions, and provides lessons at £19 each for individuals, or £16 for under 16s. There are also discounted lesson packages and a range of group evening and day class options.

PLAYING THE BAGPIPES The good news for would-be students of the bagpipes is that the initial outlay to start learning is relatively low. Unlike most other instruments, you do not start learning the bagpipes on the actual instrument. It is normal to start with a practice chanter and this can be done on your own and at your own pace, though most pipe experts suggest that after a while at least some input from a teacher or pipe player is advisable.

You can buy a practice chanter and tutorial book, often including a compact disc or DVD, from about £20 ($30), but a good course, and the ones most often recommended, will cost you about £45 ($68). Courses include Learn2Pipe’s two DVD and tutorial set and a two volume DVD set from acclaimed piper Jim McGillivray called Pipes Up and Pipes Ready.

The College of Piping also produces a highly respected and trusted tutorial called The Green Book, which is accompanied by a compact disc.

BUYING BAGPIPES Bagpipes, like any wood instrument, do not come cheap and, if they do, chances are that they will not be very good. The key advice points are: Before buying bagpipes, seek as much advice as you can. It is available on-line and although much of it is contradictory, you can get a sense of what you are doing if you spend time at it.

Decide what you want to learn the bagpipes for. Your own entertainment as a private hobby? To play in a band? To play publicly as a solo artist?

Seek out professional advice from a reputable bagpipe specialist. Start by contacting the National Piping Centre Be aware of cheap imitations. Almost certainly you will get what you pay for.

You will come across bagpipes made using plastic (polypenco). Take proper advice if you go down this route. Try and seek out pipes made of African blackwood and avoid woods such as rosewood and boxwood.

Make sure your bagpipe set includes everything you need to play, including drone reeds and pipe chanter reeds, a pipe case and maintenance kit to keep your pipes in top condition.

HEARING BAGPIPES You do not have to look very far in Scotland to find bagpipes, particularly this year with the Homecoming Scotland festivities taking place. Go to the VisitScotland website (see box) to check events. Two particularly special events are the Edinburgh International Festival and particularly the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, both of which take place during August.

These are followed by the Glenfiddich Piping Championships which takes place at Blair Castle in Perthshire on 31st October.

A very small number of tickets for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo were still available at the time of going to press. Tickets for the Glenfiddich Piping Championships are still available.

The National Piping Centre
30-34 McPhater Street, Cowcaddens, Glasgow G4
0HW. Tel: +44 (0)141 353 0220
McCallum Bagpipes
Moorfield Industrial Estate, Troon Road, Kilmarnock,
North Ayrshire KA2 0BA. Tel: +44 (0)1563 527 002
Edinburgh Bagpipe Company
The Gael, 21-23 Sea Rd, Bexhill-on-sea, East
Sussex, TN40 1EE. Tel: +44 (0)1424 211 331
Henderson’s Bagpipes
2584 Garfield Rd. North Suite #43, Traverse City, MI
49686, USA . Tel (toll free): 1 800 931 5010
Highland Reeds
(Achiltibuie Bagpipe Specialists), Achiltibuie, By
Ullapool, Ross-Shire, IV26 2YL
Tel: +44 (0)1854 622 385
Kilberry Bagpipes
93 Causewayside, Edinburgh, EH9 1QG
Tel: +44 (0)131 668 3303
The Edinburgh Military Tattoo
7-29 August 2009, Edinburgh Castle
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 8616
The Glenfiddich Piping Championships
31 October 2009, Blair Castle, Blair Atholl
Tel: +44 (0)1796 481 207

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