Highland bagpipe

Also:       pìob mhór      phìob mhór      Scottish Highland bagpipe      great highland bagpipe      great pipe      

Title: Donegal Piper, Volume II--Comin' through the Rye/Loch Lomond; Neil A. Duddy, highland bagpipe. Format: CD. Label: Folkways Records. Catalogue #: F-3553. Track: 9.

Contextual Associations

The Highland bagpipe is a composite aerophone, a combination of single- and double-reed melodic and drone components. There is no stronger musical emblem of Gaelic-speaking Scottish identity than the Highland bagpipe. Throughout the ages, the instrument has been associated with warfare and funerals. For many centuries, the dissemination of playing technique and repertory was an oral tradition structured in student-teacher relationships, which lead to the development of regional styles in various parts of Scotland. Whole families evolved traditions of teaching and composition, by use of mnemonic syllables that still influence pipers today. Bagpipe and clan associations flourish throughout the Anglophone world, an index of the massive emigration of the 1700 and 1800s and an imagined Highlander culture. Development of printed music for the bagpipe in the 19th century led the way to a more homogenized bagpipe repertory consisting of song, march and dance tunes, and these form the basis of modern bagpipe competitions. The bagpipe has become synonymous with Scotland and has been marketed extensively to cultural tourists. Its robust sound has also made it an ideal military instrument inextricably associated with Scottish military units (detail #4). In many colonies throughout the British empire where such units and their pipers were stationed, native military units were formed with their own pipers (detail #5 [India], detail #6 [Pakistan], detail #7 [Burma], detail #8 [Dubai], and detail #9 [Papua New Guinea]).


The synthetic bladder (bag) has five African blackwood [Dalbergia melanoxylon] stocks: one accepting the blowpipe, another the chanter, and three for the drones. A rubber one-way valve at the base of the blowpipe (detail #1) extends into the bag and stops air from escaping back through the blowpipe. The double-reed melodic chanter has a conical bore and eight fingerholes, seven outward facing and one on the underside for the player's thumb. Two blades of cane [Arundo donax] molded around a copper staple comprise the chanter reed, which is concealed where the chanter sleeves into its stock (see detail #2 for a view of the double-reed mounted on the end of the chanter, which has been removed from its stock). The drones are made up of separate pieces that interlock with nickel tuning slides (pins) and are housed in stocks that are sealed to the bag. The drone reeds are single, plastic reeds that slide into and are concealed by their stocks (see detail #3 for a view of the single-reed mounted on the end of one of the chanters, which has been removed from its stock). The uppermost sections of each drone are kept connected to one another via synthetic chords (cards). In all, seventeen different pieces (including reeds) comprise the instrument.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The Highland bagpipe is held, couched under the piper's left arm with both hands holding the outward facing chanter. The left hand fingers close the top four fingerholes while the bottom four holes are covered by the second most distal joint of the right hand fingers. This position is said to allow for faster playing. A player inflates the bag by blowing through the blowpipe, which in the case of the Highland pipe is quite long to facilitate a marching position. The blowpipe, equipped with a one-way valve, traps the air inside the bladder/bag, accumulating pressure. As the musician puts pressure on the bag from the left arm it forces to activate the chanter and drone reeds. The piper then manually alters the length of the melodic reedpipe by opening and closing the finger holes on the chanter. The stream of air through chanter and drones must remain constant and results in a continuous sound as long as a piper is playing. In lieu of airstream control, pipers will separate and accentuate notes by the use of fast grace notes. A nine note non-tempered diatonic scale--G4 - A4 - B4 - C-sharp5 - D5 - E5 - F-sharp5 - G5 - A5--can be produced on the chanter. On account of this limited range and the above mentioned 'gracing,' pipers have developed intricate systems of embellishment. In addition, the drones and chanter are always at a steady, relatively loud dynamic because the instrument will quickly go out of tune with lessened pressure. The two tenor drones are tuned to A3 and the bass drone to A2.


A lack of historical evidence makes it impossible to determine with any accuracy when bagpipes first arrived in the British Isles. While now universally a symbol of Scotland, the bagpipe did not originate there. The great pipes were embraced and refined by Gaels as early as the 14th century CE. The oldest extant instrument dates from 1409, and is housed in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, Edinburgh. 18th century forced migrations sent Gaels, and with them the bagpipe, to the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. The British Army saw it efficacious to adopt Highlander regiments for political reasons and by the mid-19th century, pipers were well established in the military. It was there that the combinations of pipers and drummers led to the first pipe band in 1854. Dispersal of Scottish pipers throughout the British Empire via the military spread the bagpipe into countries who had piping traditions of their own, from continental Europe and South Asia (the second gallery image is of a Highland bagpipe with two, instead of three, drone pipes made in Pakistan). There are especially conspicuous communities of the Highland bagpipe in Brittany, France, and Nova Scotia, Canada.

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Anthony. 1960. Bagpipes. London: Oxford University Press.

Cocks, William A., et al. "Bagpipe." 1984. NGDMI v.1: 98-111.

Porter, James. 2000. "Scotland." In Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.8. ed. Timothy Rice, James Porter, and Chris Goertzen. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 360-377.

Shears, Barry W. 2008. Dance to the Piper: The Highland Bagpipe in Nova Scotia. Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Northern Europe

Nation: United Kingdom

Formation: Scot

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

422.112.2-62--422.221.1-62 aerophone--composite instrument with two varieties of reedpipes supplied with airflow from a common flexible air reservoir: 1) a single conical-bore reedpipe with double (or quadruple) reed, the pipe has a reed (usually a flattened stem) of paired lamellae which periodically open and close to generate a sound wave in the pipe; with fingerholes--2) a set of cylindrical-bore reedpipes with single reeds, each pipe has a single reed consisting of a lamella which periodically opens and closes an aperture to generate sound waves in the pipe; without fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: multiple tubular shapes: cylindrical with open distal end; conical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: airstream from squeezed sack reservoir of pressurized air channeled into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: multiple mechanisms: encased percussion (single) reed; encased concussion (multiple) reed

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: both none for some components, and opening fingerholes for other components

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: multiple pitches - both one or more single-pitch tubes, and changing length/shape of standing wave within a single tube with fingerholes

Primary Materials

reed - cane
reed - plastic
membrane - synthetic


R. G. Hardie & Co. Ltd.; Cranmore Pipe Bags Ltd.



Entry Author

Gaelyn Hutchinson, Roger Vetter