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The bagpipe is a wind instrument with a number of pipes and a bag. The melody pipe, or chanter, has finger holes that are played to produce the tune. Three other pipes, called drones, have bass and tenor pitches (with one bass and two tenor drones). They are called drones because they produce single notes only that are tuned to the chanter. The piper puffs air by mouth into a blowpipe that fills the bag. The bag is made of animal skin and is held by the player between the side of the chest and arm. The piper’s lungs and diaphragm provide air and air pressure to make the reeds vibrate in the chanter and drones to produce one melody and three harmonies with one instrument. When the piper needs to take a breath, squeezing on the bag provides the supplemental air supply to keep the bagpipe playing its continuous sound. The five pipes join the bag at wooden sockets called stocks. In the stock where the mouthpiece is attached to the bag, a leather non-return valve keeps air from escaping back up the pipe. Some bagpipes are heavily ornamented with sterling silver fittings, a velvet or tartan bag cover, and braided silk cords. The colors match those of the Scottish clan (family), military regiment, or other organization to which the piper belongs.
The sound that a bagpipe produces is continuous as the bag is constantly filled by the piper and rhythmically squeezed to feed air to the chanter and drones. To give the effect of detached notes, bagpipe music is written with grace notes that the piper plays rapidly. The range of a set of pipes is limited, so music must be arranged specifically for the bagpipe.
Although the familiar bagpipe of the parade band is the Scottish Great Highland bagpipe, bagpipes in many different forms are folk instruments in many cultures around the world. Reputedly, the bagpipe arose in Sumeria or China in about 5,000 b.c., but this has never been substantiated. The oldest references to bagpipes appear in Alexandria, Egypt, in about 100 b.c. The bagpipe may have traveled west through Europe along with spreading populations and the development of individual cultures. Both Roman and Greek writings mention bagpipes in about A.D. 100, and they were known over most of Europe by about the ninth century. The bag-pipe probably evolved from a double pipe made of two canes; both were single-reed pipes but one played the tune and the other was the drone. The bags were made of whole skins of goats or sheep (without the hindquarters). More sophisticated instruments had bags that were made of pieces cut from animal skins and stitched together. These types of simple bagpipes are still found on the Arabian and Greek Peninsulas and in North Africa and Eastern Europe.
Illustrations from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales show that several of the pilgrims were pipers; Shakespeare also mentions the bagpipe in his play The Merchant of Venice. From about the thirteenth through to the sixteenth century, England had many forms of bagpipes with versions for the common folk and more elaborate forms for the royal courts. The popularity of the pipes at court died out around 1560, and the more common forms also lost followers in the south and east.
In Western Europe, the cornemuse of France and the zampogna of Italy are folk bagpipes with character. The comemuse has a chanter and a tenor drone and is blown with an annpumped bellows instead of a bag. It is still played today in folk bands or accompanied by a hurdy-gurdy (a three-stringed instrument). The musette is also a well-known French bagpipe that became popular while Louis XIV was king. The musette had two chanters and four drones, but all the drones were in a single pipe. The Italian zampogna is played with two hands with a chanter for each hand. The two chanters play melody and harmony, and the instrument also has two drones. All four pipes emerge from a single stock. All of these instruments became popular before 1700.
Although many other varieties of bag-and bellows-blown pipes are part of European musical history, the bagpipe found its real home in the British Isles—primarily in Scotland, Ireland, and northern England—achieving cultural popularity after about 1700 (although bagpipes were known long before this time). The French musette may have been the parent of a class of small pipes known as British small pipes, of which the best known is the Northumbrian small pipe that is still played today. The Northumbrian pipe has a cylindrical chanter like a clarinet (rather than a conical one like many other pipes and other wind instruments like the oboe), only seven keys, four single-reed drones that are held in one stock, and a closed bottom end on the chanter. When all the finger holes are covered, the chanter makes no sound, so this fingering is used for staccato (short, rapid) notes and closed phrasing; that is, grace notes are not needed to suggest separate notes. Like the musette, the Northumbrian small pipe dates from about 1700; the chanters for the comemuse, musette, Northumbrian small pipes, and zampogna all use double reeds.
Another product of about 1700 is the Irish uilleann or union pipe, one of the most complicated bagpipes and a bellows-blown instrument. The Irish union pipe has a chanter, three drones, and three companion pipes called regulators. The regulators look like chanters, but they are closed at the bottom and have only four or five keys. The piper plays them like chords with the wrist of the right hand. The chanter itself is articulated by stopping it against the piper’s knee. This also pushes the reed to a higher octave, so the Irish pipe has a broader melodic range than other pipes.
The Scottish versions of the bagpipe are the Highland small pipe, the “hydrid union pipe” (also called the Pastoral pipe), the Lowland pipe, the Scottish Border pipe, and the Scottish Great Highland bagpipe. The Highland small pipe was rare early in the twentieth century but is experiencing a rebirth in interest; its small size and soft sound makes it suitable for indoor use. It may be blown by mouth or bellows and has three drones, although they can be tuned differently than drones on other pipes. The hybrid union pipe is also small, has a conical bore, is used in doors, and is able to play two octaves (like the union pipe). The Lowland pipe is bellows-blown, has a cylindrical bore and reeds related to the Northumbrian small pipe, and carries three drones in one stock. It is about half the size of the Scottish Great Highland bagpipe, and, although it went out of fashion in the nineteenth century, it has been revived by makers of antique-type instruments. Finally, the Scottish Border pipe, which is closely related to the Great Highland bagpipe, has a conical bore, is bellows blown, has the drones tied in a common stock, and has toned-down reeds that produce a quieter sound.
The Scottish Great Highland bagpipe is called the piob mh6r in Scottish Gaelic. It was used as a martial instrument to inspire troops to battle since the sixteenth century, but, when warring against the English, the Highland clans were accompanied by solo pipers, not bands. Solo pipers also played laments at funerals and folk music for other occasions. The rise of the pipe band did not occur until the rebellious clans were solidly put down, and Scottish regiments were raised under Queen Victoria. Pipe bands quickly became symbols of their regiments and have remained highly visible representatives of Scottish culture to this day.
The Highland bagpipe is a large instrument. Five stocks for the three drones (two tenor and one bass), the chanter, and the blowpipe are tied into the bag. The blowpipe is long, so the piper can both play and march with his head erect; the other types of smaller Scottish pipes are often clutched against the chest and require the piper to bend over them slightly to blow into the blowpipe and play the chanter. The drones spread apart like a fan from the piper’s left shoulder and out and are held apart by decorative silk cords; the bass drone is the one resting on the piper’s shoulder. The two tenor drones are about 16 in (40 cm) long and are tuned to one octave below the chanter. The bass drone is 31.5 in (80 cm) long and is tuned to two octaves below the chanter. The drones are cylindrical bores (like oboes).
Scots enjoy large “gatherings of the clan,” which celebrate their heritage and offer opportunities to meet others who share membership in the clan. Most states with a large Scottish and Scotch-Irish population (such as New York and Michigan) have “Highland Games,” which feature sports such as “tossing the caber,” in which men compete to toss a heavy pole the farthest distance. Bagpipe music is a very important part of this celebration, as it is at any celebration of clan identity. North Carolina, which has one of largest concentrations of people of Scottish descent, hosts the biggest gathering at Grandfather Mountain each July. Campbells mingle with MacGregors and Andersons, while enjoying Scotch whisky and traditional cuisine.
The chanter has nine holes including one double-vent hole and eight fingered holes. It is a wide conical bore (like a clarinet) that produces a penetrating, loud sound. Whether this sound is loved or hated, it has migrated with British imperialism, settlement and immigration, and Scottish regiments in wars from the American Revolution through World War II to almost every part of the world. In some places, it has become so popular that it has pushed aside native folk instruments. Piping schools, Scottish Highland Games including pipe band contests, and highly trained manufacturers of Great Highland bagpipes can be found in many countries outside the former British Commonwealth.
Scottish Great Highland bagpipes dating from the 1700s had pipes made of bog oak. With imperialism and the rise of the “three corner trade” among Africa, America, and Britain, tropical hardwoods became available and have become the woods of choice for constructing pipes. African Blackwood and Brazilian rosewood are ideal for pipes. A brown hardwood called cocus wood is mentioned as a wood for pipes; this was true until the 1920s, but cocus wood is not used now. Many of raw materials used in the manufacture of bagpipes are dictated by the humidity of the region where the bagpipe is to be played. Some tropical hardwoods used to make the chanter and drones, particularly ebony, are ideal for the dampness of the climate in the British Isles but don’t work well in the drier parts of the United States. Plastics, particularly acetyl homopolymers, are used by some makers for pipes to avoid the complications of climate.
Bags also require consideration for climate. They must be air-tight and water absorbent. Sheepskin is used in Great Britain, but it is not as durable in drier regions. In the United States elk or cow hide is used, and Australian pipe makers use kangaroo hide. Gortex is a modern material that is sometimes substituted for native hide.
Reeds are the constant in pipe production since the earliest known bagpipes. The water-reed was originally used for pipes as well as the reeds. Today, it is used to make both single and double reeds. Plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), metals, and brass are source materials for reeds for some manufacturers. Ornamentation on bag-pipes may have experienced the greatest changes because of concern for preservation of endangered species. In the 1700s, ivory from elephants, walruses, and narwhals (an Arctic-dwelling whale species) was the most common material for ornamentation because it can be worked and turned into beautiful artwork. Animal horn was also a source. Today, antlers from elk and moose are commonly used as is imitation ivory. Celluloid was an early manmade material to be carved for decoration, but plastics are generally worked now.
The bagpipe maker purchases wood and antler in log form. Plastic is supplied in sheets or rods, and metal for ferrules (bands that are put around the shafts of the pipes to support and strengthen them and caps that protect the pipe ends) is received as metal tubing or castings and may consist of aluminum, brass, nickel, or sterling silver.
The basic design of the Scottish Great High-land bagpipe was established in the 1700s, and its straight, simple lines have been the standard since then. In Victorian times, more combing and beading on the wood came into fashion, and this ornamentation has also become traditional. The pipe maker does have some leeway in the design of the bores of the chanter and drones, but the range of internal dimensions is still limited to maintain the traditional sound. Because each bagpipe is hand-crafted, there are certainly subtle differences among manufacturers. Perhaps the greatest changes in design have been in other families of pipes in which everything old is new again; many pipe makers are reviving antique styles and early forms of bagpipes.
1 The pipe maker imports African Blackwood for the chanter and drones in the form of logs. These are sliced into planks and then into squares and are stockpiled for air-drying for a period of three to seven years. Some manufacturers have begun reducing drying times because of the related expense, and there are methods for kiln-drying the wood.
2 When the moisture content of the wood makes it suitable for working, the pipe maker can use a single-flute drill, twist drill, reamer, or gun drill to bore out the cylindrical drones. The single-flute drill makes the cleanest bore, although the carbide-tipped gun drill is a state-of-the-art tool because it uses a coolant hole to blow air or fluid in the bore to clean out chips.
3 The completed bore becomes the center for turning the outside shape of each drone on a lathe. The ferrules (protective metal bands and tips) are press-fit and glued in place, and projecting mounts are threaded on. The drones are finished with applications of wax, oil, lacquer, or varnish. The surface finish depends on the type of wood used, considerations such as humidity, and the pipe maker’s style and preferences.
4 The chanter is made like the drones with two major exceptions. First, the bore of the chanter is conical, so it is step-drilled with twist drills then reamed with a singleflute tapered reamer that is 13 in (33 cm) long. The narrow end of the reamer is about 0.13 in (0.32 cm) in diameter and the wide end is approximately 0.87 in (2.22 cm) in diameter. Proper boring of the cone inside the chanter is critical to the tone it will produce. The second process exclusive to the chanter is the drilling or milling of finger holes into the turned bore. After the finger holes are complete, the chanter is surface-finished to match the drones.
5 The stocks are made along with the wood pipes. They are simply straight holes with tie-in grooves at the bottoms. The stocks have to be long enough to accommodate the reeds for the drones. Each stock is equipped with a ferrule at the top to prevent it from splitting.
6 The bagpipe bags are cut from elk or cow hide; typically, four or five bags can be cut from a single side of a cow hide. The hide is folded, and the bag sides are cut out as a mirror image. The seam is glued with contact adhesive to hold it temporarily until a leather welt can be put in place and the welt and seam are stitched together. The seam and welt are hand stitched with double needles; stitching a single bag takes approximately two hours.
7 The 14 pieces comprising a Great Highland bagpipe are assembled by tying. The five stocks are tied into the bag using waxed linen, hemp, or nylon. Some makers use corked joints much like those in clarinets, but they are generally not as popular in pipe manufacture. The chanter and drones are connected to the stocks; only the reeds have to be added to complete the pipes.
8 The final finish is applied to the wood pipes by smoothing them with 80-to 120-grit sandpaper and working up to 400-grit wet sandpaper. Heated oil or wax is then applied by hand using a fine cloth.
If the maker chooses to finish the pipes with lacquer or varnish instead of oil or wax, 220-grit sandpaper is used to smooth the wood before the lacquer or varnish is applied with camel-hair brushes. The lacquer or vamish may be sprayed on in a spray-paint booth.
9 The reeds are hand-made from metal tubing and water reed. The chanter takes a double reed that is begun with a brass of copper tube. The tubes may be cylindrical or conical. Two slices of reed are placed against the tube and wrapped in place. Reeds for the drones use tubular lengths of cane or reed instead of slices. On the cane, nodes mark the places where leaves sprouted when the reed was growing. Above a node on the cane, the pipe maker cross-cuts a slice and then makes two parallel cuts perpendicular to the slice. The small tongue made by the three cuts is raised up with the node as a kind of brace at its base. The tongue is about one-quarter to one-half of the diameter of the reed. As air passes through it, this tongue will vibrate to produce its tone. The opposite end of the cane length is tapered and attached to the drone. If modern materials are used, a plastic tube is used for the drone reed with a separate piece of plastic for the tongue. Insertion of the reeds in the pipes completes the bagpipes.
Dust from the wood used to manufacture bagpipes is highly toxic, and the pipe maker must wear a respirator, not a dust mask, to keep from inhaling the wood dust. Most of the natural products used in making bag-pipes are biodegradable. Plastic waste results in very small amounts and is disposed in a landfill. Thinners and other organic compounds are used with lacquer or varnish finishes; but these are usually stored in small quantities with little waste. The primary hazard in bagpipe manufacture is to the pipe maker who must protect himself from the dust hazard and must also wear hearing protection because he works closely with noisy machinery.
Quality control is a constant issue in the production of bagpipes. The pipe maker crafts each bagpipe individually and so is monitoring his own work until the product is complete. Tolerances in boring and turning the pipes are tiny; the sound will suffer if these are not strictly observed. The internal dimension is critical and can only err by plus or minus 0.0005 in (0.013 mm). The exterior diameter can only err by plus or minus 0.1 in (0.25 mm). These tolerances are perhaps the greatest single issue in the quality manufacture of bagpipes. The pipe maker’s reputation rests on his ability to create uniformly excellent bagpipes in appearance and more importantly in sound quality.
Interest in the bagpipe is growing steadily especially in the United States and Canada, which are the two largest markets in the world. The demand for well-made instruments has been steady for a number of years, but the number of bagpipers is growing now. Master pipe-maker Mark Cushing credits the interest in the pipes to two factors. Ethnic interest is prompting people to study pipe-playing because of its connection to their family history. Still more players are attracted by the sound of the pipes and the strong feelings they stir. No matter what the basis for their interest might be, these pipers are encouraged by the many pipe band associations throughout the United States and Canada that provide lessons, encouragement, and a ready audience. Thanks to the swirl of the kilt and the skirl of the bagpipe, pipe makers anticipate a lasting and loving future for their artistry.
Where to Learn More
Baines, Anthony. Bagpipes. University of Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Baines, Anthony. The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Cannon, Roderick D. The Highland Bagpipe & Its Music. New York: John Donald, 2000.
Collinson, Francis. The Bagpipe: The History of a Musical Instrument. Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.
Dearling, Robert, ed. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments. New York: Schirmer Books, 1996.
Sadie, Stanley, ed. New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. London: Macmillan Press, 1984.