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The Great Highland Bagpipe[/caption]
A recent BBC two documentary series, "Phil Cunningham's Pipe Dream
" combined with a wonderful conversation with a customer looking for the perfect tartan fabric
to re-cover his beloved pipes inspires our latest blog. Phil Cunningham's Pipe Dream was a surprisingly informative and entertaining series in which Phil (Scottish folk musician and composer) follows his dream to compose a brand new piece of music for the bagpipes reflecting his exploration of the history of piping both in Scotland further afield.
So are the pipes integral to Scottish Culture?
The Great Highland Bagpipe is synonymous with Scotland and has become a globally recognised icon of Scottish Culture. This recognition is largely due to the Highland Bagpipe's use within the British military as well as pipe bands throughout the world.
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Massed Military Pipe Band[/caption]
There is the well known cliché of the piper on the shortbread tin, but as soon as you experience the breath-taking power of hundreds of pipers playing in harmony, I defy anyone who doesn't then fall in love with the bagpipe.
I didn't realise just how much of a symbol for Scotland the bagpipe was until I ventured on a four month trip to India. I would begin introducing myself and explaining where I came from but it soon became apparent that Scotland was somewhat of an unknown. Two questions I was often asked in broken English were, "Is that England?" and "The Country with the Bagpipes?". As soon I could confirm no and yes within an instant people knew exactly where I was from.
There are dozens of different pipes in use around the world with many more lost in history, but the Great Highland bagpipe is undoubtedly the most visible and somewhat overshadows the variety of pipes still in use today due to it's popularity.
Bagpipes got political this week. What is the future of Bagpipe busking?
Within the heart of Edinburgh and London it's not uncommon to find many bagpiping buskers at popular tourist attractions bringing much joy to locals and tourists alike. Personally I find it hard to describe the emotions that the sound of the pipes evokes, linked to so many special occasions, my favourite being my newly wed sister and her husband walking from the church to the reception with our friend Pete piping her all the way. This week Boris Johnson the Mayor of London has effectively banned bagpipes from the streets of London unsurprisingly causing much uproar within the piping community. Having described the pipes as a “repetitive loud sound” the new rules may mean that once lucrative spots will now be out of bounds due to the volume of the pipes. Alastair Campbell however is very supportive of the bagpipe and told the Daily Record
“Having been a bagpiping busker myself in my student days I am a great supporter of buskers in our towns and cities.
They add a lot to life. Inevitably there are good and bad – that goes for any instrument – but the dismissive attitudes expressed in this advice reveal an unjustified bias against the pipes.
I would certainly support any pipers who sought to have it changed."
[caption id="attachment_3339" align="alignleft" width="536"] Will piping in Piccadilly Circus become a thing of the past?[/caption]
The uproar caused by this story shows just how passionate pipers are about their instrument and I feel the links to Scottish culture make this bond between player and instrument even stronger.
Now we know why the bagpipe is so important to Scotland, but how does it work?
How Bagpipes Work
All pipes are all based around the simple principal of a bag, chanter and drone. When combined these elements together to make what we know as the sound of the pipes. Although based upon simple principals the Great Highland Bagpipe is a complex instrument to learn and takes a lot of dedication and perseverance to develop the skills the required to play the pipes well. Although I imagine there must be an immense sense of accomplishment having mastered such an intricate instrument.
The making of the bag is mysterious process, and is a closely guarded secret of all bagpipe makers mainly due to the special seasoning mixture that treats the leather and seals any sections that might not be completely airtight. The bag is traditionally cut out of fine quality sheepskin which is perfect due to its porous skin which lets moisture out but also keeps the air in. There are many guesses as to what ingredients are included in the perfect seasoning mixture including honey, molasses, egg whites, glycerin, oil soap and pine cleaning fluid. Finlay MacDonald, one of the country's finest contemporary pipers shared his knowledge with the BBC.
Scottish pipes have three drones, two tenors which play the same note and the bass which plays an octave below. The drones are powered by drone reeds, a cylinder of wood split into two pieces for tuning purposes. Traditionally made from a piece of cane, it is now more common for synthetic drone reeds to be made using a plastic compound. Inside of the reed is the tongue which vibrated against the body of the reed once air passes over it, which doesn't sound impressive on it's own, but as soon as this is placed within the drone, the pipes are awakened.
The chanter is the starting point for anyone wishing to learn how to play the bagpipe, spending many hours practising before even considering moving on to the bagpipes them self . The finger holes share a familiarity with a recorder, so maybe those days of learning recorder at primary school will come in handy if you are planning to learn the bagpipe in the near future. Inside the chanter is a small reed made of cane but like the drones this is increasingly being made in a synthetic plastic material.
The future of Piping
Without the bagpipe Scotland would lose it's infamous sound. The pipe is linked to so many other aspects of Scotland's culture that without it we would lost much more than an instrument. Pipe bands across the world are doing a fantastic job of keeping these traditions alive, with many enthusiastic young pipers prepared to pass these skills on to future generations. We would love to hear your thoughts on the future of piping and what emotions or special events come into your head when you hear that amazing sound.
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The next generation of piping[/caption]