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About Bagpipes


Introducing: The Great Highland Bagpipe (and the Music).

The bagpipe is one of the oldest of all musical instruments, only the drum and the harp taking precedence so far as age is concerned. Unlike these others, it has a fairly complicated design and so is obviously the result of many centuries of experimentation and development. It is mentioned in the Book of Daniel, which was written in the third century BC, but only the Romans of ancient times adopted it enthusiastically. It was described then as "the instrument of war of the Roman infantry," and the emperor Nero was an enthusiastic piper.

Almost certainly bagpipes developed in different places quite independently, but the Roman legions in their conquests were probably responsible for its popularity in every country of the civilised world. After the collapse of the empire it remained for at least a 1,000 years the most popular musical instrument in almost every country of Europe. It played a useful and welcome part in communal life, its vigorous tone being well suited to activities in forest and field, and equally appropriate for revelry or solemn occasion in village green or baronial hall. The evidence of illuminated manuscripts and ecclesiastical carvings, the references of poets from Dante to Shakespeare, all show that the cult of the bagpipe was widespread, both geographically and socially.

With the end of the Middle Ages however the popularity of the bagpipe began to decline. Music, dancing and other entertainment's were moving indoors, and the bagpipes were not suited to indoor performance. Loudness, which had been essential in the open air, was now a decided disadvantage. The bagpipe, supreme in the fields, was a noisy embarrassment in the drawing rooms, and in such surroundings suffered badly by comparison with the harp and other delicate instruments. The pipers did not give up without a struggle. In country districts its appeal and usefulness diminished slowly, so that even today a few pipers, playing their own traditional instruments, can be found in England, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, Poland and Russia.

That might have been the end of the bagpipe story except that one nation alone kept its bagpipe unchanged - unconcerned with sweetness, delicacy and drawing rooms. The Highlanders of Scotland, isolated to some degree from the rest of Europe, maintained longer than any other place the older form of life, where the houses other than the castles were simply shelters from the elements, and all activities took place in the open air.

In this way the Highland bagpipe is today the one which everyone thinks of when they hear of piping, and this is the one which has spread throughout the world and superseded all other possible forms of the instrument. The importance of the Highland pipes to the Scottish Gael was such that after the defeat of Prince Charles at Culloden in 1746 the instrument was banned for 36 year. Its revival and dissemination throughout the world is due largely to the influence of the British Army, which late in the 18th century began to enrol Highland regiments, and as an inducement allowed these soldiers to wear the kilt and to play their beloved instrument. Highlanders on active service took their pipes with them and so in all the far flung outposts of the empire their traditional music was heard, and in most cases enjoyed by the native populations. Today there are hundreds of thousands of pipers spread all over the world, and the great Highland bagpipe is played not only in every English speaking country, but also by French, Germans, Italians, Danes, Norwegians, Swiss, Arabs, Japanese, Indians and Pakistanis.

The music of the Highland bagpipe, until this spreading throughout the world, was almost entirely what is called piobaireachd. This is a classical type of music, consisting of a theme with variations which was developed in Skye during the 15th and 16th centuries. The great masters and originators were all members of a family called MacCrimmon who were hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of MacLeod, in unbroken succession from the late 16th to the early 19th century.

When piping was taken into the Army however, although piobaireachd was still encouraged and even today is played regularly in the Officers' Mess, a new type of music was needed. Principally the pipers were required to play simple tunes to which the infantry could march, so the piobaireachd players had to seek for some form of music which could be adapted to their instruments. To begin with they borrowed their own Gaelic airs and then they adapted some of the popular songs of the day, putting these into a suitable marching rhythm. Even the occasional piobaireachd was simplified and jazzed up into a regular tempo, as for example the still popular "Piobaireachd of Donald Dubh". Later, when they became used to the idea, the pipers composed suitable original tunes and then in the 19th century two of them, Angus MacKay and Hugh S MacKay (not related) developed independently what we now call the "competition march". This is a tune in march time which has a good melody, subtly presented and with some fairly intricate gracenoting, and although not so suitable for playing to marchers on the road, gives the top pipers a great deal more satisfaction in playing. When competitions for pipers began in 1781 at first only piobaireachd tunes were heard, but by the middle of the 19th century these new marches had become so popular that there were special events for them also.

Having made these two fairly large advances, the pipers then began to look for other kinds of music which could be played suitably on their instruments. They found a veritable gold mine in the music of the Scottish fiddler, with that marvellous array of strathspeys and reels. So these too were added to the piper's repertoire and even today most of the fine dance tunes which are played in competitions were originally composed for the fiddle.

Jigs for the bagpipe have been popular also for over 100 years, and in recent time hornpipes have begun to attract attention, so that now we have hornpipe and jig competitions, and most of the recently published collections of pipe music are heavily loaded with these finger flashing tunes.

Although the pipe band is the usual medium by which most people hear the music of the bagpipe, this combination of pipers and drummers is a comparatively recent invention in the long history of piping. The combination is an invention of the British Army, dating from about the middle of the 19th Century, when somebody thinking of the fifes and drums in English regiments, proposed having pipes and drums in the Highland regiments. (To this day there are no pipe bands in the British Army - the official designation is "Pipes and Drums"). Although pipe bands are extremely popular everywhere, the world's greatest pipers have always concentrated on their own solo performances. Few of them play in pipe bands, except for the very fine pipers in the Army, who find that there are considerable advantages in so doing.

None of the great pipers - until this century - chose the Army as a career. They preferred rather to accept personal employment with Highland chiefs or other landed gentry. Not until Pipe Majors George S MacLennan and William Ross appeared on the scene was the Army well represented in the top echelons of piping. In the 19th century the great solo pipers were Angus MacKay (piper to Queen Victoria), John BanMacKenzie, Donald Cameron and Angus MacPherson. Their piping all stemmed from John MacKay of Rassay (1767-1848) who had been taught by the last pupils of the MacCrimmons. It is our great regret that recording techniques were not invented at the time so we can never really know exactly how these masters played. Most of the top pipers in the early half of this century, including John MacDonald of Inverness, Robert U. Brown, Robert B. Nicol, and Robert Reid, made several recordings of their music but high fidelity recording had not been developed at that time and so what we can hear, although useful, can not give a true picture of their peerless piping.

Now however what is recorded can come over to us almost exactly as it sounded in the actual playing, for us to hear the music as if we were in the very room where it is being played.

SEUMAS MacNEILL (Deceased)
(Founder & Principal, The College of Piping).

Click 'Bagpipes', 'Pipes & Drums' or 'Regimerntal Band' for the whole range of Bagpipe music. The pipes are also heavily featured in folk groups, as are all of the 'family relations' - Small Pipes, Lowland, Borders or Northumbrian Pipes, Chanters, 'The Duck' and 'near relatives' - the Uilleann Pipes, Gaita

� 1996 Lismor Recordings Limited

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