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Scots Sangs An Tunes Fur Schools

Traditional and new Scots songs and tunes
for use in Scottish schools - and everywhere else

The Bagpipes

Highland and Lowland pipes

Two main kinds of bagpipe are played in Scotland, Highland and Lowland. You will probably be much more familiar with the Great Highland Bagpipe. It is frequently played at open-air ceremonies such as Highland games and weddings. Bagpipes have become popular all over the world - even the Sultan of Oman has his own pipe band, and in Brittany they have created their own regional kind of pipe band - bagad - which combines the Scottish pipes with their own instruments, the oboe-like bombarde.

The drones and the chanter

The piper blows into a pipe to keep a bag full of a reserve of air, then the air escapes through four other pipes. Three of these are 'drones'. The other pipe, called a chanter, is fingered by the piper to play the tune, and plays in the key of B♭. Two tenor drones play B♭ one octave below the chanter, and the bass drone plays B♭an octave lower still.

The chanter of all the different kinds of Scottish bagpipes has a nine note diatonic scale. The Great Highland Bagpipe covers a range written as G below Middle C to A above, although the actual sound of the pitches is a semitone higher.

Other forms of bagpipes sound in different keys, and all the music is written using a stylised form of staff notation. Pipers also traditionally had a vocal method of passing on tunes from one to another, using combinations of sounds to indicate pitch and ornamentation. This was known by the Gaelic name, 'canntaireachd', which means 'chanting'.

Lowland pipes

The Lowland pipes are different. Instead of blowing into a pipe to fill the bag, pipers use their arm to squeeze bellows that blow air into the bag. Also, Lowland pipers usually sit down, while Highland pipers stand and will often march up and down as they play. Lowland pipes are often called the 'cauld wind' pipes, as they receive cold air from the bellows rather than warm air from the mouth. They have a quieter sound than the Highland pipes and are more suited to playing indoors. The most popular form of Lowland pipes are the Border pipes, and there are also other bellows-blown pipes known as the Scottish Smallpipes, which are a modern recreation of an extinct instrument, and which are quieter and sweeter-sounding than the Border pipes. 

Musical styles

Both Lowland and Highland pipes can play all kinds of tunes including strathspeys, reels, jigs, marches, and slow airs. This kind of light music is known as 'Ceòl Beag' in Gaelic - it means ‘little music’.

The 'classical music' of the Highland bagpipes is called 'ceòl mór' (great music) or 'pìobaireachd’ (piping). This word is also written in English as ‘pibroch’. This music includes:

  • salutes, tunes addressed to someone of importance
  • gatherings, tunes used to gather members of a clan
  • laments and elegies, tunes expressing sadness at someone’s death
  • tunes connected with historical events.

Famous pipers - Habbie Simpson

Lowland towns once had their own town pipers, the most famous being Habbie Simpson, town piper of the weavers’ village of Kilbarchan, near Paisley. Residents of Kilbarchan are known to this day as ‘Habbies’ after the piper. In 1661, the poet Robert Sempill wrote ‘The Life and Death of Habbie Simpson'. As you can read in the opening verses, this tells the story of Habbie's role as town piper and some of the tunes he played, such as ‘Trixie’ and ‘Maidin Trace’.

Kilbarchan now may say, alas!
For she hath lost her Game and Grace,
Both Trixie, and the Maiden Trace:
But what remead?
For no man can supply his place,
Hab Simson’s dead.

Now who shall play, the day it daws? 
Or hunt up, when the Cock he craws?
Or who can for our Kirk-town-cause, 
Stand us in stead? 
On Bagpipes now no Body blaws, 
Sen Habbie’s dead.

This poem is also famous as it gave its name to the six-line structure of the verses which became very popular in Scottish poetry, most notably in the poems of Robert Burns. It became known as the ‘Standard Habbie’.

Modern Piping

Nowadays, bagpipes play a major role in many kinds of Scottish and traditional music, including solo playing in competition and more traditional styles; pipe bands and playing for dancing. Scotland’s National Piping Centre is based in Glasgow, and has a close connection with the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and its degree course in Scottish Music.

Electric amplification of live music and sound mixing techniques in recorded music have made it possible for pipers to play in bands alongside acoustic and electronic instruments without drowning the other instruments out. Some well-known bands that include the bagpipes include Ossian, the Whistlebinkies, Dàimh, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers and Breabach.

Pipe Bands

The Highland pipes are often heard in a Scottish Pipe Band. These bands were first formed by Scottish army regiments, but then pipe bands came to be formed in police forces, commercial companies, towns and other communities. Now these bands of pipers and drummers can be found in countries all over the world, especially in countries with strong Scottish links such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Some of the most successful pipe bands in the world come from outside Scotland, such as the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band from British Columbia in Canada.

There is no fixed number of pipers or drummers in a Pipe Band. The military background of the bands can still be seen, even in civilian bands, through the titles of the main performers – the Drum Major, who heads up the band in parade, leading them with a mace; and the overall musical leader of the band, the Pipe Major.

There are three kinds of drums used in the drum corps: snare, tenor and bass. The modern snare drums have loud, high-tension skins and the techniques and rhythms used can be very complex and syncopated. The pipes usually play in unison but an innovation in modern bands has been the creation of harmony parts, or ‘seconds’ for the tunes. The drums play rhythmic accompaniments that complement each individual tune. Band members are usually dressed in a uniform of kilts with jackets and different kinds of headgear.

Pipe bands usually march to the music they play, so it’s not surprising they often play marches. On this website, you can listen to an army band, The Pipes and Drums of the 1st Battalion, The Black Watch, play 'Wha Saw the 42nd', 'Devil in the Kitchen' and 'The Braes of Killiecrankie'. A West Lothian town band, Drambuie Kirkliston Pipe Band, play 'Will Ye No Come Back Again?'

Secret Jacobite Weapon

In 1745 the head of the Jacobite Rebellion, Prince Charles Edward Stuart tried to stake his claim to the British throne. Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite army were heading south from Scotland, having won the Battle of Prestonpans and taken Edinburgh. The first strong castle in England was at Carlisle, just south of the border. But Carlisle Castle had been crumbling for many years - the garrison consisted of 80 pensioners, all of them old and most of them unwell.

A local historian called James Ray, who fought on the English side in the 1745 rising, was very scathing about the Carlisle garrison. He wrote:

'Now, when they heard the Scots were near, they began firing upon cows and sheep and oxen and asses, for they knew not in what form the Scots would come to surprise the city. However, when the Scots came and got their musical batteries into place, the sound silenced the mighty cannon of Carlisle and they surrendered. Now, these were the weapons of the Scottish Army. Backswords and targes and muskets and dirks and bagpipes. Bagpipes, that bloody and inhuman weapon that caused the ancient city of Carlisle to surrender.'

When the rebellion was eventually crushed, the British government banned many things for Scots as punishment, including the wearing of tartan and carrying weapons. There is a popular understanding that this included the bagpipes, and although they were not specifically mentioned in the new laws, this description lets us understand why people might think so!