Where would you look if you wanted to start researching the Scottish bagpipes? In recent decades, academic research into Highland piping has been gathering apace, and new research has been substantially revising the traditional narrative that puts the Highland Great Pipe and the ceòl mòr repertoire as the stereotypical Scottish “national instrument”. We suggest here a starting point for those new to this area, and some further sources of current and historic writing.
Dr Hugh Cheape has been a leading researcher into the Highland bagpipe and its players, and also writes more widely on Highland cultural life. His PhD was awarded in 2008 by the University of Edinburgh based on a portfolio of important publications reflecting many years of research into bagpipes and piping culture. He was on the curatorial staff of the National Museums of Scotland and now leads a postgraduate Masters programme on Gaelic language and heritage in the University of the Highlands and Islands (at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Skye). While in the NMS, he was tasked with creating a national collection to represent the more nuanced past of the bagpipe and in 1996 created the Museum of Piping in the National Piping Centre where he was lecturing. Published work includes books on piping and Highland and Hebridean life and culture, and articles on the variety of types of bagpipe evident in Scotland’s musical past. If you wanted to buy one initial book to start your research into bagpipes, we’d suggest Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Instrument.
In a recent article published by Musica Scotica, ‘Raising the Tone: the Bagpipe and the Baroque’, Dr Cheape builds on his knowledge of the material evidence base about this instrument to challenge the conventional narrative of Highland bagpiping as an ancient, continuous tradition of an ‘instrument of war’. He suggests instead that Scottish bagpiping in the 17th and 18th centuries changed in response to influences from continental Europe. The article also looks at the surviving material evidence for two variants of instrument: the bellows-blown ‘pastoral’ and ‘union’ pipes.
The claim for the Great Highland bagpipe and its repertoire constituting a ‘national instrument’, Cheape suggests, emerges in the 19th century partly in response to Highland regimental engagement in the Napoleonic wars and earlier wars of empire and partly as a romantic rehabilitation of Highland culture in the aftermath of the defeat of Jacobitism. Victorian pipers such as Angus Mackay helped to create and perpetuate a narrative of the Great Highland Pipe as an ancient “national instrument”, repositioning a tradition of hereditary service to Clan Chiefs as a new kind of civic service to the fiscal-military British state. This narrative profoundly affected patterns of historiography as well as collecting and curation into the 20th century.
Scrutiny of the material and ‘organological’ evidence – in which the Highland bagpipe is conspicuously lacking – suggests that the ancient instrument of the Highland Clan Chief was the harp rather than the bagpipe, and that the rise in fame of the Great Highland Bagpipe in the early modern era was associated with the labour and undoubted skill of particular piping dynasties such as the MacCrimmons and MacArthurs of Skye, the Mackays of Gairloch and Raasay and the MacGregors of Glenlyon. However, this only represents part of the truth.
The later 17th century and 18th century, it is suggested, show a gradual loosening of Calvinist strictures against music, and an interest in curating an indigenous ‘neo-baroque’ style of music. The bagpipe created was part of a mainstream European organology in this period, in various forms in different regions. Bellow-blown pipes – seen as ‘pastoral’ – feature in French (‘muzette’) and Italian (‘zampogna’) music written for courtly contexts. This was the ancestor of the ‘union pipe’ of the 19th century (in Ireland coming to be known as the ‘Uilleann’ pipe). The repertoire of these instruments is sociable: songs, dancing, and entertainment. ‘Pastoral’ pipe chanters from the 17th and 18th century are not dissimilar in design to Baroque woodwind oboes. This is, says Cheape, an instrument designed for chamber music performance, not for the battlefield. 18th century books about the pastoral pipe describe an instrument designed for gentlemen players and widespread playing of ‘light’ music.
The development of the ‘union’ pipe from this ‘pastoral’ instrument involved a shorter chanter with a wider range of notes achieved with keys, which could (to some extent) imitate the fast dance music of the baroque fiddle. This is an instrument associated not so much with Highland culture, but with urban environments such as London, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dublin, whose denizens had a taste for local versions of new, fashionable European, neo-baroque dance music.
Selected publications by Hugh Cheape
- ‘Raising the Tone: The Bagpipe and the Baroque’, in M J Grant (ed.), Hearing Heritage: Selected Essays on Scotland’s Music from Musica Scotica Conferences (Musica Scotica Trust, 2020), 3-18
- ‘Traditional Origins of the Piping Dynasties’ in J Dickson (ed.), The Highland Bagpipe: Music, History, Tradition (Ashgate. 2013)
- The History of the Bagpipes (Appletree Pocket Guide) (Appletree Press, 2009)
- Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Instrument (NMS Enterprises Publishing, 2008, 2nd2011) – gorgeously illustrated using the collections of the National Museums Scotland, but also a distillation of many years of academic research. This book places the ‘great Highland Bagpipe’ within wider European piping traditions, exploring how it became closely identified with Gaelic Highland culture.
- The Book of the Bagpipe (Appletree Press, 2004)
- The Bagpipe: perceptions of a national instrument (PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2008)
Roderick Cannon, The Highland Bagpipe and its Music (Birlinn, 1988; reprinted John Donald, 2001)
Joshua Dickson, When Piping was Strong; Tradition, Change and the Bagpipe in South Uist (John Donald, 2006)
Joshua Dickson, The Highland Bagpipe: Music, History, Tradition (Ashgate. 2013) – a rich collection of essays on topics such as notation (issues and challenges), piping history in the Highlands and Islands, historical studies of dynasties and individual pipers,
William Donaldson, The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society, 1750-1950 (John Donald, illustrated ed.2008) combining written sources with an insider knowledge of the piping community.
John Geoghegan, The Compleat Tutor for the Pastoral or New Bagpipe (Robert Bremner, ?1743-6), the earliest book of pipe music printed in the British isles, describes a light piping repertoire that reflects contemporary chamber music tastes.
John G Gibson, Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping, 1745-1945 (McGill-Queens University Press, 2001) – demonstrates that Highland piping did not disappear after 1745 because, clearly, Highland traditions persisted that were able to be carried by emigration to Gaelic-speaking North American communities.
Donald MacDonald, A Collection of the Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia called Pìobaireachd (Edinburgh: Donald MacDonald, 1819) NLS Glen Collection digitised – an early claim for the bagpipe being a ‘national instrument’ based on its military associations
Angus MacKay, A Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd or Highland Pipe Music (1838) reprinted by the Piobaireachd Society. An early, and possibly rather brave, transcription of ceòl mòr repertoire in staff notation, alongside a highly speculative romantic “history” for the instruments that contributed to the stereotypical narrative of pipes as a ‘national’ instrument. Popularity assisted by the author’s own skill in playing the instrument.
Seamas MacNeill, Piobaireachd: Classical Music of the Highland Bagpipe (BBC, 1968) reprinted by the Piobaireachd Society. MacNeill was both a player and a physicist, and his interest in the physics of music informs his investigation of the unique sound and scales of the Highland pipe.
Simon McKerrell, Scottish Competition Bagpipe Performance: Sound, Mode and Aesthetics (PhD dissertation, Royal Scottish Conservatoire / University of St Andrews, 2005)
Simon McKerrell, ‘The Concept of Mode in Scottish Bagpipe Music’ in J Dickson (ed.) The Highland Bagpipe: Music, History, Tradition (Ashgate, 2009), 279-300
Journals and Specialist Periodicals
Chanter – the quarterly magazine of the Bagpipe Society. Practical tips, history, music and event reviews. Most recent years restricted to members, but historic editions available on open access.
The Piping Times and Piping Today – produced by the National Piping Centre. Briefly disrupted by COVID in 2020-21. Relaunched, with a website of back editions, as The Piping Times Annual. The website aims to incorporate the archives of International Piper and Piper and Dancer.