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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