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Keltfacts: Bagpipes

We'd love to get you acquainted with the Celtic culture in our new series Keltfacts. In this blog post, we are looking into bagpipes. Our guest blogger Yentl Schattevoet, also known as the Dreadlock Piper, tells you all about this instrument, and how it is related to the Celts.

What are bagpipes?

When talking about bagpipes, we usually think of the Scottish bagpipes, played by a kilt-wearing highland piper. Maybe the Irish Uilleann pipes that we see in Celtic folk bands come to mind, or we imagine a travelling medieval music group.

It will not have escaped the attention of the observant Keltfest visitor that bagpipes exist in many different shapes and sizes. Well-known is the medieval Lowland pijpzak, the Swedish säckpipa, the French have their cornemuse, in Spain and Portugal there are regional variations of the gaita, the national instrument of Bulgaria is the гайда (gaida), and so on and so forth. Nowadays, there are even electronic bagpipes. In this blog, the emphasis will be on the Scottish bagpipes: the Great Highland Bagpipes, or, in Gaelic, piob mhòr. This one is easily recognizable, and not only because it is the loudest of them all with its 90 to 110 decibels.

What parts does the Great Highland Bagpipes consist of?

Let’s have a look at the various parts of the Scottish bagpipes in order to be able to unravel the mysterious mechanism. A bagpipe player or piper blows air into the blowpipe, which is collected in the bag. Around the bag is a cover. The piper makes sure that the bag is fully inflated and holds it under the left arm so there is constant pressure. There are four ways for the air to escape which results in the characteristic sound: through the chanter, the long bass drone, and the two smaller tenor drones. These often wooden (African Blackwood) or occasionally polypenco parts of a good quality set are made with craftmanship by a skilled bagpipe maker. The piper plays the melody (the tune) on the chanter by lifting and putting back their fingers on the eight holes. A reed is placed in the chanter. The three drones contain different reeds, and these produce the constant harmonic tone that is so distinct for the bagpipes. The drones are held in place by the cord and lie over the left shoulder of the piper. Almost all parts (joints) are to a greater or lesser extent fixed with a few layers of hemp thread.

Tuning the bagpipes takes some experience and mastery, but most of all patience. The chanter notes can be tuned by raising the reed or placing it deeper into the reed seat. In addition, individual notes can be tuned by means of tape that is placed over the upper part of the hole or even by carving the hole with a carving tool. Needless to say, it takes precision and prudence. Reed is usually made of actual cane, and this natural material is quite sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. These changes can lead to bagpipes going out of tune quickly. To leave nothing to chance, many sophisticated and convenient innovations have taken place. Whereas traditional bags were usually made of hide or sheepskin, nowadays there are also synthetic bags. Moreover, there are moister control systems that can be placed inside the bag, and some pipers even use plastic reeds instead of cane reeds to avoid being affected by moist. The drones can be tuned by sliding the upper joint up or down. Prolonging the drone lowers the tone, and shortening it makes it higher. Ideally, the bagpipe player starts performing only after warming up and fine-tuning the instrument.

What characterizes Scottish bagpipe music?

The Scottish bagpipes differ from other musical instruments in quite some regards. Its characteristic technique, music and culture is unique. The fingering to play a melody differs from other bagpipes or flutes. The fingers should be straight but relaxed to enable swift movement. The holes are closed not with the fingertips, but with the phalanx. The chanter of the highland pipes can produce nine notes in total – one octave plus one – from a Low G to a High A. The Low A is in D Major. However, the C and F notes deviate and are called natural. The Scottish bagpipes have a Mixolydian scale. If all this is not complex enough, the frequency (pitch) of the Great Highland Bagpipes is also higher than the conventional 440 Hz of other instruments. This has been a long-term development, as we know from old recordings that bagpipes used to be tuned to a much lower pitch back in the days. The drones produce the warm constant humming sound, whereby the two tenor drones are tuned one octave below the Low A of the chanter, and the bass drone even two octaves.

The playing technique stands out because it is imperative to distinguish notes even though there a continuous stream of air and sound. This is why bagpipe music has a lot of tiny notes called gracenotes, and various ornaments (embellishments), such as doublings, slur, grip of lemluath, taorluath, throw on D and the ‘pinky breaker’: the birl, which is so distinctive and recognizable for this kind of music. Due to the never-ending sound, the bagpipe player has to make sure that all notes and embellishments are played with technical precision and care, otherwise it will lead to crossing noises. By now it must be clear that it takes a lot of perseverance and discipline to learn to play the highland pipes.

There are two kinds of traditional Scottish bagpipe music: ceòl mòr or piobaireachd (also known as pibroch), and ceòl beag. Piobaireachd is considered to be the classical music of the bagpipe tradition, and therefore for the true connoisseur. Such a musical piece was originally orally transmitted in a ‘bagpipe language’, canntaireachd. The piper starts with the ground (or ùrlar in Gaelic) to which more and more variations with challenging embellishments are added along the way. A piobaireachd tune can last for about half an hour. The Scottish bagpipe music most familiar to us is called ceòl beag (light music). These are the beloved marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs, slow airs and hornpipes: from Scotland the Brave to Shake that Bagpipe. This is the bagpipe music that we all enjoy at Keltfest.

Pipe bands

One of the most well-known solo bagpipe players is the lone piper who plays during the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Many solo pipers are also part of a pipe band. Contrary to what one would think of a pipe band, drummers play an equally important role. A pipe band consists not only of pipers, but also of snare drummers, tenor drummers and a bass drummer: the drum corps. The kilt-wearing pipe band is led by the pipe major, who is supported by the pipe sergeant. The leading drummer is at the helm of the drum corps. All musicians keep a close eye on the pipe major and in some cases the drum major as they give the orders and determine the tempo. That’s because pipe bands function in an almost military disciplined way. When the pipe major commands “By the right – quick – MARCH”, the band knows that a tune is about to start and the drummers initiate their intro rolls. Next, the pipers strike in their drones and usually begin with the E note before they play the tune. A badly timed E is known as an ‘early E’, which is highly frowned upon.

Most pipe bands offer prospective pipers a curriculum to learn playing the pipes or drums. The apprentice plays on the practice chanter, a wooden or polypenco flute, which will be their best friend for the rest of their piping careers. The prospective piper begins with learning the basics and only when they master a few tunes by heart on the practice chanter they are allowed begin their journey on the actual bagpipes. It can take a year or even years before the pupil may join the band for performances and competitions. We know of course of the bagpipe competition at Keltfest, but perhaps also of the prestigious World Pipe Band Championships (commonly known as ‘the Worlds’) at Glasgow Green in Scotland. To distinguish between levels, soloists and pipe bands are divided into grades: from the fifth entry-level grade to the absolute champions of grade one. There is a vibrant pipe band scene in the Netherlands and Belgium with successful bands and pipers, and even a Nederlandse Organisatie van Doedelzakbands (NOvDB). This is great news for brave souls eager to play the Scottish pipes or drums. Perhaps one day it is you who is rocking at the Keltfest pipe band competition.

What is the history of the bagpipes? 

We read earlier that the bagpipes are not an exclusively Scottish instrument. It is generally accepted that a primitive form of the bagpipes was invented some three thousand years ago in the Middle East. The first actual proof however, is an image of bagpipes on a Hittite slab from Alacahöyük in present-day Turkey which has been dated to 1000 BCE. The instrument spread throughout Asia, Africa and Europe – first among the Greeks and Romans. In medieval Europe, the wandering piping minstrel was a welcome guest. The popularity of the bagpipes decreased only with the introduction of new instruments such as the piano. The regions in which the bagpipes never lost their charm, are those areas that we associate with this instrument to this very day: the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and of course the Celtic countries. 

The first proof of the existence of the bagpipes in Scotland can be found in the fifteenth century Melrose Abbey and Rosslyn Chapel. If you look closely, you can find carvings of a piping gargoyle pig and a bagpipe playing angel respectively. 

Why do we associate the bagpipes with the Celts? 

This has everything to do with eighteenth century Romantic nationalism. In order to better understand what happened, we need to go back in time even further. Before 1500, the bagpipes only had one drone. A second one was added, and two centuries later even a third one, the bass drone. This is the typical Scottish bagpipes as we know it today. The highland pipes are closely connected to the Scottish clan system. Elite pipers took the noble art of bagpipe playing very serious. Piobaireachd (the classical bagpipe music mentioned earlier) was taught in local piping schools, and the tradition was often transmitted from father to son. It was traditionally an important role of the piper to musically support his comrades on the battlefield. Along the way, the army has had a lasting influence, and present-day pipe bands still have quite some military elements. 

Piping culture suddenly changed when the English prohibited everything that they associated with the Scottish clan system in response to the Jacobite rising of 1745. Wearing the kilt was even punishable by death. During the Romantic Era, the brave ancient Celt was rediscovered and this positive image was used as an inspiration for the emerging Scottish national identity. Inspired by James Macpherson’s collection of poems attributed to the third century Celtic bard Ossian (published in 1760, 1762 and 1763, and compiled in 1765 as The Works of Ossian), there was a true Celtomania: enthusiasm for the ancient Celts. Macpherson was convinced that the ‘noble Celts’, as he perceived them, were the ancestors of the Scottish highlanders. This was contrary to their previous portrayal as ‘wild and uncivilised’. Even though the question has risen as to whether or not Ossian’s poems are authentic or forged by Macpherson, what is striking is that the work contains no references to the bagpipes. The idea of ancient Celtic highlanders playing pipes seems to be a projection on the past. 

King George IV visited Scotland in 1822. The famous Scottish writer and poet Walter Scott took the lead to give the king a spectacular and lasting impression of ‘the Scotsman’. It was requested of every prominent participant to wear “the ancient highland costume” with their own clan tartan. The bagpipes couldn’t be left out, even though Scott and his eighteenth-century contemporaries didn’t mention any possible ancient Celtic roots of the instrument. They believed them to be northern bagpipes originating from northern Europe and used for “sack-doudling”, as Scott called it. In the Romantic portrayal of the Scottish clan system, the ancient Celts and bagpipes came to be associated with each other more and more until it was all perceived as ‘typically Scottish’. The image of the Scotsman as a Celtic, kilt-wearing bagpipe player was spread with verve, for instance in paintings. The tourist industry also knew how to cleverly use it to their advantage. The emerging Highland Societies played an important role in the popularisation of Scottish culture as a whole, and they were the first to organise piping competitions. 

On the European continent, the Scottish bagpipe playing soldier has left an impression, especially for the generation of World War II. They saw how their cities were being liberated, accompanied by the sound of the Scottish bagpipes. This is why pipe bands march through the streets during Airborne Remembrance, and why there is a statue of a bagpiper in Tilburg. The fascination for Celtic and Scottish culture is still going strong today, and not only because of that amazing national instrument: the Great Highland Bagpipes. It goes hand in hand with the brave, kilt-wearing Celt which never ceases to appeal to our imagination.

Article written by Yentl Schattevoet (more of her work can be found on Kult ov Yentl)
Main image by Keshia van Rossum
Image of the pipe band competition by Ellen La Faille

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