Bagpipes of the British Isles

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Bagpipes are woodwind instruments. Their most obvious feature is that, unlike oboes or clarinets, their air supply is not blown directly through a reed. Instead, the air is held in a bag, which is gently squeezed, thus supplying air to a reed which is inserted in a chanter, on which the melody is played. Most forms of bagpipe also have one or more drones, also containing reeds vibrated by air from the bag. These drones produce a constant sound to accompany the melody of the chanter, rather like the pipes of an organ.

Most people in the English-speaking world associate bagpipes with the Scottish Highland military pipe bands that became familiar throughout the British Empire in the 19th century. In fact, the earliest evidence of this instrument comes from the part of what is now Turkey that was occupied by the ancient Hittites. These people spoke the oldest-known form of the Indo-European language group. A carving on a Hittite slab dated to around 1,000 BCE is accepted by musicologists as representing an early bagpipe. 

Starting in Anatolia, or perhaps some other centre of our ancestral culture, bagpipes spread throughout the Indo-European diaspora. There are local versions of bagpipes in all the parts of the world in which our ancestors settled – from Ireland to Norway, from Turkey to India, from northern Africa to central Asia. The ancient Greek version of the instrument was called the askaulos, while the historian Suetonius says that the Roman Emperor Nero played the tibia utricularis, which seems to refer to a pipe that could be both blown into directly and also supplied with air by a bag held under the arm.

Naturally, then, the bagpipes would probably have been brought to the British Isles by its earliest Indo-European settlers. Unfortunately, we don’t have much evidence of this. Writing was not common until the Roman invasions, and old instruments made of wood and leather tend not to survive. However, they are explicitly mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (written around 1387-1400):

A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, 

And therwithal he broghte us out of towne.


The Scottish Highland pipes are first recorded as having been used at the battle of Pinkie in 1547. Bagpipes are first attested in Ireland in an illustration from 1581 by John Derricke, reproduced below: 

bagpipes 1.png

William Shakespeare, in The Merchant of Venice and elsewhere, refers to bagpipes. For instance:


Some men there are love not a gaping pig;

Some that are mad if they behold a cat;

And others, when the bagpipe sings i’ th’ nose,

Cannot contain their urine; for affection,

Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood

Of what it likes or loathes.


Furthermore, there are many carvings of bagpipers in British medieval churches.


As in many other parts of the world, British Isles bagpipes vary greatly from region to region. Since the form of the instrument that is best known to the general public is the type used by regimental bands, we will start with the Great Highland Pipes of Scotland (in Gaelic, piob mor), seen below:


At the far right of this image is the chanter, on which the melody is played. It produces only nine notes, ranging from G in the treble clef up to A above G. The spacing between the notes is not that of the classical western scale, which seems to irritate some listeners. The hole down the centre of the chanter, or bore, is conical rather than parallel. This type of bore gives a stronger, harsher sound, while parallel bores are more mellow and more suited for indoor playing. The reed that produces the actual sound is made of two pieces of cane pressed almost together. When air is forced through the reed the canes vibrate. The top end of the Highland chanter is open, which means that any two sequential notes are slurred. The only way to separate them is to interpolate very short “grace notes”.


To the left of the chanter is a blowpipe. At its base there is a non-returning valve made of leather, often called a “clack valve”.


Then there are the three drones, tuned to the low A on the chanter. The two short drones, known as “tenor” drones, are an octave below low A on the chanter. The long or “bass” drone is a further octave deeper. 


Although we are most familiar with Highland pipes playing military tunes suitable for marching, like “Scotland the Brave”, there is also a native Scottish classical tradition known variously as piobaireachd or Ceol Mor. This style of music is very formal, very complicated in structure, and requires far more skill than the average piper can aspire to. It also requires the listener to be familiar with the tradition – rather like a Bach fugue or an Indian raga. To many people unfamiliar with the tradition it sounds convincing but unappealing.


We have used the Great Highland Pipe as an introduction to the world of British Bagpipes. All that remains is to list some of the other pipes from different regions in the British Isles. We will do this in alphabetical order.



  • England



The Northumbrian Small Pipes are probably the most sophisticated bagpipes in the world. Have a look at Kathryn Tickell playing them in the image below:


As you can see, she is not blowing into them. Instead, air is supplied to the bag by a bellows strapped under her right arm. The chanter is parallel-bored, which makes the instrument sweet and mellow. It is also end-stopped, so the notes can be separated in “staccato” style. It also contains several brass keys, which means it can have a fully chromatic range over two octaves. There are four drones, which have tuning beads that allow them to be tuned to different keys. Unlike the Great Highland Pipes, any traditional Western music can be played on this instrument. 


The Northumbrian War Pipes are attested to in the historical record, but are now extinct. 


The Northumbrian Half-Longs are in almost all respects the same as those which Scottish enthusiasts call the Scottish Lowland pipes. They differ in the tuning of their drones. The Lowland pipes have a Bass A and two Tenor As, while the Half-Longs usually have either Bass A, Baritone E and Tenor A; or else Bass A, Tenor A and Treble A. The bores of the drones and chanter are narrower than the Highland pipes, which makes them more compatible with other instruments.


Cornish bagpipes are well-attested in medieval art. Sometimes they appear to have had double chanters. They became extinct in practice, but modern attempts have been made to revive them, based on traditional images such as this image of a Cornish piper from Davidstow Church:



  • Ireland



There are two types of bagpipe associated with Ireland: 


The Uillean pipes are bellows-blown. They can achieve two octaves by a process called “over-blowing” (similar to a penny whistle), and they can be played staccato by stopping the open end of the chanter against the player’s thigh. Most historians accept that these pipes originated from the Northumbrian small-pipes and Scottish Lowland pipes, and spread to Ireland with the Protestant Anglo-Irish community that could afford such expensive and high-maintenance instruments.


The image above shows that the Uillean pipes are very similar to the Northumbrian pipes. The chanter lacks keys, but there are also regulators that allow the piper to play simple chords. 


The Irish war-pipes. At the time of the John Derricke illustration (above), both the Irish war-pipes and (probably) their Scottish equivalents had only two drones. It is likely that they were essentially the same instrument. Sadly, no early instruments seem to have survived, so we may never know. A 19th-century reconstructed form of the Irish war-pipe, with two drones, was used in some Irish regiments until the 1960s. It has now been replaced by the Great Highland Pipe. 



  • Scotland



In addition to the two pipes mentioned above, mention should be given to the Scottish Pastoral Pipe, which was designed in the early 1700s and is now effectively extinct. It looked like this:



  • Wales



Welsh bagpipes are attested to as early as 1376, by the poet Iolo Goch. The Welsh pipe later became almost extinct. It may have still been made by a few local craftsmen in recent centuries, but it was scarcely heard until the revival of interest in Celtic culture in the 1970s. Here is a modern Welsh instrument pitched in G Major:



The bagpipes are still immensely popular in all those parts of the world settled by Indo-Europeans. In the British Isles, and the general Anglosphere, the Great Highland Pipes are best known. But reconstructions of medieval instruments such as the Welsh pipes are becoming more popular, and so are the more modern and more sophisticated versions of this instrument, such as the Northumbrian and Uillean pipes.



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