Comparing the Three Unique Scottish Bagpipes

by Eric McCracken


We’ve all heard The Pipes, the lone piper’s chanter skirling above the husky humming of the drones, to cut through the misty air.


This image of the Scottish Highland piper is almost universally what people visualize when they think of bagpipes. But, there are hundreds of different types of bagpipes, from all around the world— in fact, almost every country and region in Europe has or has had a local variant of bagpipe at some time in history.


Scotland in particular, actually makes a claim to three unique types of bagpipe— the most well known: the Great Highland Bagpipe, then the Scottish Smallpipe and the Border Pipes (also known as the Lowland pipes.) These three instruments all have in common their chanter with nine toneholes and with similar or identical fingering schemes, their pipe bag, and the most usual arrangement of three drones, one being an octave lower than the others.


But, there are various aspects to their construction, sound, repertoire, and native region which I will detail subsequently.


Border Pipe

Firstly, the least common Scottish bagpipe in modern times: the Border pipe.


The borderpipes actually may have the longest continuous recorded place in Scottish history, being played as early as the 16th century, if not earlier. As well as throughout Scotland, they were commonly played in the Border regions between Scotland and England, and in Northumbria in northern England.


The instrument is similar in appearance to the Scottish Smallpipes, usually having three drones in a common stock which stick out across the player’s chest, as well as a chanter and bellows. The bellows are similar to fireplace bellows, and are used to inflate the bag instead of blowing into it using lung power. This is done primarily to prevent moisture from the piper’s breath having an adverse effect on the sensitive reeds, but also allows the piper to have greater endurance in playing long sets without tiring out his lips or lungs.

The drones are best described as a cross between the Highland drones and smallpipe drones-- although they technically outdate both. They fit into a common stock (IE all three drones fit into the same bag via the same fitting), like smallpipes, but they are somewhat louder than smallpipes. That being said, they’re definitely not as loud or powerful as the Highland pipes!


The turning style (in other words, the external adornment, formed by turning on a lathe) is generally a simplified design inspired by the style of Highland pipes, although this varies greatly between makers. The Highland influence is sometimes attributed to a relative dearth in the early 19th century of Border pipemakers who were not also Highland pipemakers. Highland pipemaking at this time was a more lucrative business as the Army boosted demand for Highland pipes and as Border piping began its decline. Therefore, many of the Border pipes made in that time were made by turners who primarily dealt in Highland piping, and the few borderpipes they made, reflected this stylistic tradition. Some borderpipes even have cord guides copied off of Highland pipes, even though they have never been played with drone cords!


The chanter of the borderpipes is what gives them their characteristic “edgy” sound. The chanter has a conical bore, like the Highland pipes, and uses the same fingering arrangement (however, a few extra accidentals can be reached by crossfingering, and the use of keys or overblowing to reach notes outside of the usual range, is more common on borderpipes than in Highland piping). The main difference is that the borderpipes have a smaller bore, and use reeds that sometimes differ in construction, as well as requiring lower pressure.


The borderpipes were essentially extinct by the mid to late 1800s, and despite a mostly failed attempt to revive them in the 1920s, they were not really played until the Smallpipe Revolution in the 1980s. Even so, they have been fairly obscure compared to Scotish Smallpipes, until the last ten years or so, being promoted by pipers like Fred Morrison, Seth Hamon, and Nate Banton. They’re still not quite as popular as smallpipes but they are certainly rising in popularity. We will discuss the Smallpipe Revolution in more detail in the section on Scottish Smallpipes.


More Borderpipe Info & Music

For more information on the borderpipes, please visit the Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society at https://lbps.net/j3site/index.php .

Here are a few links to some great borderpiping music featuring Fred Morisson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXMCbJzZU94

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YRXFc7ptLI


Scottish Smallpipes, or SSP

The second most common of the Scottish pipes are the Scottish Smallpipes, or SSP. These are a quiet pipe suited for playing indoors and with other instruments, and have a soft tone perhaps similar to a clarinet. The drones are traditionally arranged in a common stock to emanate across the piper’s chest, as with the border pipes, and again as with the borderpipes, they are traditionally a bellows-blown pipe, allowing the piper to play at a

steady pressure for very long periods of time, as well as allowing simultaneous singing! The chanter has a cylindrical bore, distinguishing it from the conical bored chanters of the Highland and Border piping traditions. That is to say, the bore of the chanter is the same diameter (about 3/16”) all the way through the pipe, whereas Highland and Border chanters are shaped like a cone, tapering from a wide bore at the base of the chanter to a very small bore at the top. This difference accounts for the difference in tone between the three instruments, and also the fact that the SSP chanter sounds about one octave lower than its counterparts.


Not that much is known about the history of the SSP prior to the 19th Century. Most of the knowledge that we have comes from the earliest extant historical example, being the Mongomery Smallpipes. These pipes are a set that was presumably made for a piper in the employ of Colonel Montgomery of the British Army, and they are dated 1757. You can read more about them here:

Montgomery Smallpipes


It seems that the SSP died out sometime in the late 1700s or early 1800s, their niche for a quiet indoor pipe being mostly filled by the Borderpipes, as well as the Irish Uillean and Pastoral pipes, and the English Northumbrian smallpipes. However, with inspiration from historical instruments like the Montgomery smallpipes and others, the SSP were revived in the Smallpipe Revolution sparked by Colin Ross in 1983. This was an important time for Scottish and Celtic folk music in general, and during this time, great advancements were

made in reviving and promoting the building and playing of the various types of British bellows blown bagpipes. However, when they were revived, most SSP were built by established Northumbrian Smallpipe makers, and the internal design and functionality wa