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 was greatly influenced by Northumbrian pipes. Modern Scottish Smallpipes, in terms of bore and reed construction, are essentially evolved from Northumbrian pipes. Another aspect of the pipes that was “modified” in the revival was the key of the instrument-- most historical SSP were smaller, higher pitched instruments, pitching in C, D, Eb, or E. In modern times the vast majority of SSP are pitched in A or Bb, although some traditionalists prefer C or D. A is most suitable to playing with other folk instruments, Bb is suitable for playing with concert instruments or brass band instruments, and C and D are preferred for singing. Bb is also the same pitch as most concert Highland pipes and the size of the chanter is most similar to the Highland chanter, so some pipers who started on the Highland pipes prefer this key. Note that when discussing the nominal key of a Scottish bagpipe, we are referring to the tonic note of A, not C which is the note used to find the nominal key of most other instruments.



Today, as well as being a popular instrument in the Scottish folk music scene in their own right, SSP are becoming extremely popular as a quiet practice and jamming instrument for highland pipers, since both instruments share the same fingering. Highland pipers usually opt for their SSP to be made with a blowpipe, rather than inflating the pipes with bellows. (bellows are expensive and it’s just another skill to learn.) This necessitates plastic reeds which are less likely to be degraded by moisture from the piper’s breath, resulting in a noticeable sacrifice in tone. Highland pipers also often choose SSP made from African Blackwood or other dense exotic hardwoods, based on their tonal expectations from the highland pipes, while smallpipers who are on the folk scene and who only play smallpipes, usually choose from a more diverse range of hardwoods, including many native to Britain or the piper’s own locality.


More Smallpipe Info & Music

For more information on the historic and modern development of the SSP, please see The Piper’s Gathering, and the work done by Hamish Moore and Julian Goodacre. Here are some good examples of smallpipe music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbuciyyVS1s Barnaby Brown playing Julian Goodacre’s reproduction of the Montgomery pipes in D.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7e357Qc4oK0 Fred Morisson playing his more modern style of smallpipes in A.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9ni8xH9AQg&t=138s Alexander Anistrov playing pipes of his own make, again in A.


Great Highland Bagpipe

Last, but certainly not least, we have the more familiar Great Highland bagpipe (GHB). Unlike the Scottish bellows pipes, the Highland pipes have an illustrious continual piping tradition stretching back to possibly the 15th century. As with many aspects of Highland history, record-keeping was sketchy, so we don’t know much for specifics, but it would appear that the pipes reached more or less their modern form (two tenor drones, a bass drone, and a loud conical chanter) by the early 1700s. Evidently they were sometimes played with only one tenor and not two, we know this from some engravings as well as the rules requiring all three drones in some early piping competitions. Pipers playing with only two drones were considered to have an unfair advantage!


Early pipes were generally made of alpine Laburnum, a beautiful local hardwood, or Lignum Vitae, with mounts of bone, horn, or pewter. They had a distinctive turning style, perhaps more similar to the simpler turning we usually see on borderpipes these days. However, as the economy improved and as the increasingly powerful British Empire opened up international trade, superior exotic materials such as ebony and elephant ivory became available. These materials, with greater tonal qualities and workability to the pipemaker, quickly overtook traditional local materials and have set the standard for the appearance of the instrument since about 1800. It was about this time that the modern “military” style of complicated beading and combing turning became standard.


During the 16th, 17th, and into the 18th century, it seems that the primary (if not sole) purpose of the Highland pipes was as a martial and ceremonial instrument in the Clan system of the Highlands. Pipe music was used to direct troops in battle as well as commemorate births, weddings, funerals, and other important events, like waking up the chief each morning!-- similar to some modern piping in many ways. The exclusive music of the GHB in those days was Piobaireachd (pronounced peeb rock) or Ceol Mor, the “Big Music”. Ceol Mor is the strictly regimented classical music of the pipes, consisting of a slow, often mournful and evocative base melody, called the Urlar or Ground, followed by a series of increasingly elaborate stereotyped variations, culminating in the Crunluath or Crunluath a Mach, and returning to the Urlar once more to complete the cycle. A full Piobaireachd can last up to 20 minutes, and is a true test of the abilities of a piper. The Piobaireachd tradition, and indeed much of Highland piping as a whole, was cultivated primarily by the MacCrimmons of Boreraig on Skye, who ran the MacCrimmon College of Piping from approximately the late 1500s to the early 1700s. Perhaps the greatest of the MacCrimmons, and possibly the most important piper to the Piobaireachd tradition, was Patrick og MacCrimmon, son of Patrick Mor, who lived from about 1645 to about 1730.


Being banned during the Proscription in the mid 1700s, after the failure of the Jacobite Rising in 1745, Highland piping suffered greatly, although it was not altogether lost, and was revived via a campaign of competitions rising to prominence in the 1780s and continuing to the modern day. Simultaneously, piping began to be adopted and promoted within the Highland regiments of the British Army-- although this was a bit of a mixed blessing. The requirements of the Army did not include much Piobaireachd playing, and instead promoted the playing of marching music, and later dancing music (thereby encroaching on the traditional role of border and smallpipes, potentially engendering the decline of those instruments). The Army style of piping, even within those genres, was (and still is!) very strict and well, regimented, often sacrificing musicality for military correctness. Eventually, the Army moved away from the system of lone pipers being personally employed by wealthy officers, and towards having pipe bands on the regimental payroll. Thus, pipe bands were born, and civilian pipers soon followed suit!


Piping in the modern day, is in many ways still based on this model-- Piobaireachd playing is often relegated to backrooms of enthusiasts, obscure compared to the widely appealing music of band piping. Civilian pipe bands, particularly in the past 30 years, continue to push the envelope with new creative music, and army piping is still the vanguard of regimented traditional “light music” (ie not Big Music).


More Highland Piping Info & Music

Here is some good Highland piping music for you to enjoy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wj_Q0DVkGsA&t=23s Lament for Patrick og MacCrimmon, a classic Piobaireachd composed by Iain Dall MacKay in the early 1700s.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUdzaKAz9Fk A great Light Music competition MSR (March, Strathspey, Reel) played by Jack Lee.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNrY-lPRubc a very modern full pipe bad medley played by the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band





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