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Encyclopedia > Bagpipe
A bagpipe performer in Amsterdam.

Bagpipes are a class of musical instrument. The term is equally correct in the singular or plural, although pipers most commonly talk of "pipes" and "the bagpipe".



The bagpipes consist of an airtight bag, which can supply a continuous stream of air. Air is supplied either by a set of bellows or by a blowpipe; the inlet to the bag has a one-way valve which prevents air from returning via the supply. Every bagpipe has a chanter, upon which the melody is played, and most have at least one drone, although there are a few (relatively) important exceptions to this rule. All these pipes are attached to the bag by a stock, a small, usually wooden, cylinder which is tied into the bag and which the pipe itself plugs into. The bag usually consists of leather, but in more recent times many other materials, such as rubber and Gore-Tex have become popular amongst many pipers, particularly Highland pipers.

A set of bagpipes

This list of parts refers to the picture opposite:

  1. Chanter
  2. Bag
  3. Stock
  4. Blowstick or blowpipe
  5. Tenor drones
  6. Bass drone
  7. Tuning Slide
  8. Cords


The history of the bagpipe is very unclear, and worse, many of the secondary sources from the nineteenth and early twentieth sources are misleading or verging on fantasy (the works of Grattan Flood are particularly bad in this respect, but continue to be quoted and referenced to the present day). For example, an oft-repeated claim is that the Great Highland Bagpipe was banned after the '45 Rising. This claim is untrue; there is no mention of the bagpipe in the Act of Proscription, and the entire myth seems to stem from the letterpress of Donald MacDonald's Martial Music of Caledonia, written by an unknown Romantic. However, it seems likely they were first invented in pre-Christian times. Nero is generally accepted to have been a player; there are Greek depictions of pipers, and the Roman legions are thought to have marched to bagpipes.

Where they were first introduced to Britain and Ireland is debatable, though Ireland has references going back to the Dark Ages. An explosion of popularity seems to have occurred from around the year 1000; the tune used by Robert Burns for "Scots Wha Hae", "Hey Tutti Taiti", is traditionally said to have been the tune played as Robert the Bruce's troops marched to Bannockburn in 1314.


There are many kinds of bagpipes; the following is an overview of some of the most common:

The Great Highland Bagpipe

Probably the most well known are the pìob mhòr, Great Irish Warpipes or Ireland and Scotland. The picture above shows a set of Great Highland Bagpipes. A set has two tenor drones (an octave below the fundamental of the chanter), one bass drone (an octave below the tenor), a blowpipe and a chanter pitched in B flat with a mixolydian scale (usually referred to and always written as A). This type of bagpipe is widely used by both soloists and Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Additionally, Pollig Monjarret introduced the GHB to Brittany to revive the moribund Breton folk music scene, inventing the bagad, a pipe band incorporating the GHB, the Scottish pipe band drum section, the bombarde and latterly almost any instruments, from model elephants,to small jazz orchestras. Well known bagads include Bagad Brieg, Bagad Kemper, and Bagad Cap Caval. In Brittany, the GHB is known as the Biniou Brahz, meaning Great Biniou, referring to the biniou, the small traditional Breton bagpipe.

As with other types of bagpipe, the fact that the air flow is kept continuous means that two notes cannot be separated by simply stopping blowing or tonguing or the like. The gracenote is therefore used for this purpose. A number of other more complicated ornaments are used, such as doublings, taorluaths, grips and burls, and these are used for emphasis on, say, the first beat of a bar, or just as a more musical way to get from one note to the next.

The Irish Bagpipe

The next most common type is the Irish or Uilleann (pronounced illin) bagpipe; this vies with the Northumbrian smallpipe for the title of most developed bagpipe in existence. This bellows-blown pipe plays a two octave diatonic scale in D major and a cross_fingered C natural is used to play a huge number of G major tunes (indeed, tunes in G major probably outnumber those in D in the Irish traditional music canon). The second octave is produced by overblowing, and extra keys and/or cross-fingering can be used to produce other tones than those in a diatonic D major scale. The most commonly added keys are a C natural, a G sharp, and an F natural key. Although the chanter does not have a completely closed end, like the Northumbrian smallpipes, the player can press the end of the chanter against a leather pad on his/her knee while closing all fingerholes, producing complete silence. This is used to play short staccato passages. The leather pad is sometimes replaced by an air-tight key at the end of the chanter bore, which supposedly makes it easier to close the pipe completely with the knee. The Uilleann pipes also have three drones (although there are a few examples of sets with four drones, these are non-standard), set in a common stock, all tuned to three different octaves of D, and up to three (or in rare cases four) regulators which are effectively a kind of chanter with keys, designed to be played by the wrist. Accomplished players can use these to provide a limited but powerfully impressive chordal accompaniment. Often Uillean pipes are found without any drones or regulators; these sets are called somewhat misleadingly "practice sets". In fact, many pipers use these sets for their entire piping careers. Another common choice is to have only the drones, without regulators. This is known as a half-set. A final occasional variant, the three-quarter set, omits the bass regulator, which is rarely used.

The Northumbrian Smallpipe

The Northumbrian smallpipe is a bellows-blown pipe which, as noted above, shares the unusual characteristic with the Uilleann pipes of being able to stop the sound of the chanter. This is done by giving the chanter a completely closed end. This combined with the unusually tight fingering (each note is played by lifting only one finger) means that much Northumbrian piping tends to be very staccato in style. The chanter has a number of keys, most commonly seven, but chanters with a two and a half octave range can be made which require twenty keys, all played with the right hand thumb and left hand pinkie. In practice, few players find they require anything more complex than an eleven key chanter. Traditionally, the chanter is pitched in what Northumbrian pipers refer to as F+, a pitch approximately twenty cents sharp of F natural. The music, however, is always written in G. Nowadays, chanters are available anywhere from D to G, G and true F natural being the most popular for playing ensemble. There are usually four drones on the Northumbrian pipes, which can be tuned to several different combinations of pitch for playing in different keys.

The Scottish Smallpipe

The Scottish smallpipe is a bellows-blown bagpipe developed from the Northumbrian smallpipe by Colin Ross to be playable according to the Great Highland Bagpipe fingering system. Historical antecedents do exist, but modern designs are not based on these and there is no unbroken line of traditional playing. Most modern players use any comfortable open fingering or are trained GHB players. It has a parallel bored chanter, most commonly pitched in A, although any key is feasible; D, C, and B flat are the next most common keys. They are most commonly unkeyed, but occasionally G sharp, F natural, and C natural keys are added. It is possible to add enough keys to produce a two-octave chromatic scale, but this is rarely done. The present writer cannot think of any prominent piper using such a set, and the most keys witnessed on a chanter is 6, giving an range of low G to high C in G major on an A chanter. The drones are set in a common stock and are tuned an octave below the tonic, either the fifth or an octave below the fifth (a few players choose to tune this to the fourth instead), and two octaves below the tonic. It is perhaps the youngest bagpipe with any popularity, having only existed since its invention in the early 1980s. It is however extremely popular, particularly with Highland pipers, many of whom keep it or a Border pipe as a second instrument. Mouth-blown versions are available, but it is difficult to produce quality tone from these instruments due to the reed's delicate construction.

The Biniou

The Biniou is a mouth blown bagpipe from France. It has a two octave scale, and is very high pitched; its lowest note is the same pitch as the highest on the Great Highland Bagpipe. It has a single drone two octaves below the tonic. Traditionally it was played as a duet with the bombarde, for Breton folk dancing. It is the most famous bagpipe of France, but not the most played.

Center-France bagpipe

The Center-France bagpipe is another bagpipe rebuilt in the 1970s from older specimens. It is identical to the modern Flemish bagpipe, apart from the positioning of the drones. It has been successfully revived in France, where there are a number of schools, and is played for Bal folk, traditional French set dancing.

The Border Pipe

The Border pipe is a close cousin of the Highland bagpipe, and commonly confused with the Scottish smallpipe, although it is a quite different and much older instrument. With a conical chanter, three drones in a common stock, tuned as per Highland pipes or Scottish smallpipes, this bagpipe combines the Highland pipe tone with the more manageable key of A, and lower volume, suitable for playing in folk bands and at informal folk sessions.

The Gaita

Gaita is the Spanish name for the bagpipe used in Galicia and Italian bagpipe, with an unusual arrangements of multiple chanters that act as drones when not being played.

  • Säckpipa : Also the Swedish word for 'bagpipe' in general, this instrument was on the brink of extinction in the first half of the 20th century. It has a cylindrical bore and a single reed, as well as a single drone at the same pitch as the bottom note of the chanter.
  • Pieces with bagpipes

    • Ur Og and Aji, for 4 bagpipes, bass clarinet & tabla by Canadian composer Michael O'Neill.
    • "Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise" by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
    • On an interesting note, nu-metal band KoRn often uses bagpipes in their songs (played by vocalist Jonathan Davis).
    • Orchestra Macaroon - Breakfast In Balquhidder (http://www.theshipbuilders.com/catalogue/breakfast_in_balquhidder.php) -Scottish Latin-American jazz folk-rock with the apposite "Warning: This product may contain traces of bagpipes".

    External links

    • The Universe of Bagpipes (http://www.hotpipes.com/main.html)
    • Bagpipe iconography (http://www.prydein.com/pipes/)

      Results from FactBites:
    McCallum Bagpipes - Bagpipes, smallpipes, pipe chanters and piping & drumming supplies (190 words)
    McCallum Bagpipes is one of the best known and most advanced bagpipe manufacturers in the world today.
    From pipes and drums to full highland regalia, we cater for both the individual and the full pipe band ensemble.
    McCallum Bagpipes is proud to present the brand new McCallum Solo Chanter, developed by us alongside Willie McCallum.
    Bagpipes (523 words)
    Kintail bagpipes, based on the 1888 Henderson model, are known as the backbone of pipe bands across the world.
    They are a truly beautiful bagpipe, with a hand-rubbed finish, and posess magnificent tone.
    He remained active as an instrument maker until his death in the 1920s, when his sons moved the firm back to England, where they continued to make excellent bagpipes until their demise in the 1940s; the name was taken over by Boosey and Hawkes, and pipe manufacture was discontinued.
      More results at FactBites »



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