Notes on...

In defence of bagpipes

6 November 2021

9:00 AM

6 November 2021

9:00 AM

Many people love to hate bagpipes. Everyone from William Shakespeare to Alfred Hitchcock has held them in contempt. For some, they are almost a form of punishment. Last week, a frustrated motorist blasted bagpipe music in the faces of Insulate Britain protestors on the M25 before he was stopped by police.

Most pipers will tell you they are sick of hearing that the definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes and doesn’t. Equally, someone once told me the joke that the bagpipes are an ingenious breathalyser test: you blow into the bag and if the noise that comes out doesn’t want to make you kill yourself, you aren’t drunk enough.

Despite bagpipes’ supposed unpopularity, though, bagpiping is in its ascendancy in Britain. The Great Highland bagpipes are pre-eminent, but the Irish uilleann pipes perhaps come a close second; and then there are the Northumbrian pipes, the Scottish smallpipes, the Border pipes and the Cornish pipes, to name a few.


I play the Scottish smallpipes, which, although they have the same tunes and fingering as the Great Highland bagpipe, are reminiscent of the uilleann pipes because you ‘blow’ the bag with a bellows strapped to an arm rather than with a mouthpiece. Until you become sufficiently competent, this makes you look a bit like a chicken desperately trying to take off as you negotiate the bellows and bag with alternate elbows.

The repertoire that can be played on the smallpipes is vast. The usual marches, strathspeys and reels beloved of Great Highland bagpipers can be attempted, as can piobaireachd (known to Sassenachs as ‘Scottish laments’), although many piobaireachd players would argue that it can only properly be played on the Great Highland bagpipe (a contention with which I disagree).

Much of the Irish uilleann piping repertoire can be adapted to the smallpipes with a little ingenuity. For instance, the beautiful slow air ‘Fanny Power’, by the 18th-centuryblind Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan, rises to the second octave in the second part with the uilleann pipes, but a smallpipes arrangement can be devised whereby the melody modulates down to G with a satisfactory effect.

It’s relatively impossible to capture the beauty of all those evocative Irish laments on the smallpipes, which is a great shame; but then the uilleann pipers do not have the beauty of the piobaireachd canon to fall back on.

The bagpipes have encouraged me to travel to exotic places around the globe. I’ve played the mysterious piobaireachd ‘The Glen is Mine’ at Concordia in Pakistan surrounded by vast peaks at the foot of K2, and ‘Fanny Power’ on my penny whistle as I walked in the African bush with a baby black rhino.

My ultimate piping experience was when I bungee-jumped off the Victoria Falls bridge in Zimbabwe with my pipes strapped round me as I played ‘Scotland the Brave’ and plummeted into the dense spray from the river below. It was good for my mental health, less so for the reeds.

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