Scottish Bagpipes


Although Scottish bagpipes are probably the most common bagpipes in the world, bagpipes did not originate in Scotland. Actually, the origin of bagpipes is unclear, as bagpipes have been found in countries throughout the world for thousands of years. There are ancient Roman coins that date back to the 60s AD which it's claimed depict Nero playing the bagpipes.

Played while standing, sound is generated by blowing air through a blowpipe, into a bag and into a wooden chanter. Like uilleann pipes, the chanter has seven finger holes to the front and one at the back, whereas unlike uilleann pipes, Highland pipes/Scottish bagpipes have an open-ended chanter which is never 'stopped'. This means that there is always a sound coming from the chanter and that the music is essentially continuous and, like uilleann pipes, without gradation in volume. The chanter range is limited to just over an octave and produces a characteristic flattened 7th.

Scottish pipes have three drones in all: one bass and two tenor. The bass is an octave lower than the tenor and twice its length. Drones are made in sections and are tuned by altering their length. All the drones are tuned to the fundamental note on the chanter which is an octave higher than the tenor drones. This is called 'A' on the pipes but is in fact just slightly sharper than B flat on the piano.

While uilleann pipes have seven reeds, the Scottish bagpipes have four reeds. The chanter reed is a double reed, like that of an oboe, whereas drone reeds are single reeds, more like those of a clarinet. Because reeds are sensitive to changes in climate, plastic drone reeds have been introduced in recent years. However, chanter reeds are still made from cane. Pipers learn their melodies on a practice chanter without drones or airbag, and in time they progress to the full set of pipes.

Once under threat, the Scottish bagpipe has been preserved in its present form by a type of solo music known as piobaireachd (pronounced ‘pibrock’ and simply meaning ‘pipe playing’) or Ceol Mór (literally ‘big music’) that dates back to the 15th Century. Piobaireachd’s origin is obscure, though it may have descended from harping. It is associated with the McCrimmons, a legendary piping family who are said to have run a piping school at Boreraig on the island of Skye until 1773.

The McCrimmon tradition disapproved of the playing of reels and jigs (known as Ceol Beag or 'little/light music'), and it was forbidden in their school, probably because it could be played on other instruments and therefore was not, strictly speaking, pipe music. Nevertheless, by the mid 18th century, reels and jigs had become an integral part of pipe playing (as had marching tunes or 'quicksteps').

Until the late 18th or early 19th Century and the advent of staff notation, pipe music had been transmitted orally from player to player by canntaireachd, which is a form of singing where each note is represented by a different vowel and embellishments are represented by consonants. This form of teaching is regarded, even today, as the proper way to teach and learn piobaireachd, but the move towards staff notation was probably necessitated by the inevitable acceptance of Ceol Beag as a legitimate form of piping. Like lilting, canntaireachd serves as a very useful learning tool.

Bagpipes are perhaps best known through pipe bands that developed in the 18th century as an off-shoot of army bands. Then, the British Army boasted 22 pipe bands across its 11 Highland Regiments. Two centuries later and the number of pipe bands in the British Army remains almost unchanged. The debt owed to the army for the development of light music, particularly marches (which provide the repertoire for pipe bands), is widely acknowledged, as is its support for the preservation of piobaireachd – a form of music not usually associated with band performances. One of the best known and most successful of all pipe bands is the Lisburn-based Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band.

Because most pipers are attracted to competition-type tunes like reels, jigs and marches (all light music), popular interest in piobaireachd has lessened. However there has been a recent resurgence of interest in both piobaireachd and canntaireachd.


Gordon Duncan, Richard Parkes, Robert Watt, Lynsey McNicholl and Laura Jane Lawson


  • Gordon Duncan

    Lorient Mornings

  • Robert Watt

    Mrs Macleod's Set

  • The Harmonic Piobaireachd

    Hector Roy MacLean's Lament, an example of canntaireachd with Andrew Wright on vocals

  • The Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band

    A selection of reels