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Scottish highland bagpipe

The Highland Bagpipe by Gary West

The progress of any musical tradition seldom runs smoothly, for the health and popularity of particular instruments or styles often comes and goes through the decades and centuries. The Highland bagpipe has actually fared rather well in this respect, for despite culture, politics and war causing difficulties along the way, the instrument has seldom been in a state of decline for long before finding good health once more.

That cannot be said of some of the other iconic instruments of Scotland: the clarsach, or small Celtic harp, for instance, disappeared from the musical scene for nearly three hundred years before its sudden reappearance in the final years of the 19th century. Nor, indeed, can it be said of the other main bagpipe forms in Scotland: the bellows-driven lowland pipe and smallpipe, which became virtually extinct just as the clarsach was coming back to life. Revived by a small group of enthusiasts in the early 1980s, these "cauld wind pipes" (so called because the air from the bellows is cool and dry, unlike that supplied by the human lungs) have now firmly established themselves back within the musical mainstream of Scotland. But what is the story of these pipes? And how do they differ from that of their larger cousin which dominated in the north and west and which became famed the world over?

The first point to remember is that, as with the rest of Europe, all manner of sizes and forms of bagpipes existed in Scotland by the early modern period. The loud and strident great pipe became favoured in the war-torn Highlands, and its form became standardized as both competitions and military use became more and more important in the early 19th century. But in the Lowland and Border areas, variety was maintained and, perhaps, celebrated, with some players adopting the bellows, which probably arrived from France, while others continued to supply the air by mouth. Size, pitch, melodic range and the number of drones also varied, providing a very rich and vibrant soundscape to the towns, villages and hills of the south.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2013 issue of Scottish Life.

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