Bagpipes, Botanicals, & Borderlands?


Finally, the long belated bagpipe blog, a flower-filled fling at the Glasgow Botanical Gardens, and a quick class commute to the Scotland-England borders. Ya I know the last one’s a stretch, but enough with the alliterations and let me hear that bloated sheep carcass…

Now I’m sure you’ve all heard of just how the bagpipes were born: “500 years before Christ, a blue-painted pict walking across the Highlands of Scotland, stepped on a bloated sheep carcass, and thus the pipes were born.” Or at least so the Scottish Rogues would have you believe…

It actually turns out that the bagpipe is not like the piano, to which you can trace an origin of place and time, and more like the drum, a very simple instrument that has different versions independently invented all across the world. There are bagpipes in Northern Spain, Eastern Europe, and even a set of silver bagpipes was discovered in the tomb of an Egyptian mummy. It turns out the bagpipes are much older and diverse than many of us would guess.

Today in class, Finlay brought a few pieces of the bagpipe collection of his Father’s to show us the wide array of pipes from across the world. You can see him playing a rather primitive set in the video above.

I have found learning to play very interesting and suprisingly complex. When you start learning bagpipes, you can’t play on the full set lest you like learning to swim by being tossed into the deep end of the pool. Pipers begin lessons on a chanter, the reeded, holed instrument portion of the pipes where the fingers play. The chanter is actually continually used by experienced pipers to learn new songs and practice on before trying them out on the pipes. With the limitation of having only 9 notes and constant stream of air, Pipers add rhythm by the use of gracenotes, quick note switches to a higher note, and strikes, to a lower note, between the notes of the song. Additionally, these gracenotes and strikes are combined into movements of varying complexity such as the Strike on D, Grips, Taorluaths, Doublings, and Birls.

After the basic skillset is mastered, you can move on to playing the bagpipes without the drones (other pipes sticking out the top of the instrument that play a constant note) sounding and then finally with the drones sounding.

While Finlay MacDonald is the group teacher, my private lesson instructor at the National Piping Centre is Chris Armstrong, seen here:

In addition to learning to play in our private lessons, the group lessons focus on bagpiping as a whole: history, music appreciation, types of music, group playing, and exposure to the repetoire of bagpipe music. Bagpiping music is divided into two main categories Ceol Beg and Ceol Mor meaning small music and big music respectively. Big music, suprisingly the more popular genre, is piobaireachd (pronounced piob-air-echd or simplified pee-brook) whereas Little music is what I have been used to hearing and is comprised of Jigs, Reels, Hornpipes, Marches, Strathspeys, etc. Here is a good example of the difference as illustrated by my own teacher, Chris Armstrong (Starting with piobaireachd and moving on to a jig at 3:52):

Because bagpipe music predates the 5-line traditional music writing we use today, songs used to be passed down from piper to piper and actually sung using canterach. Canterach is very much a language of words which sound like the music they represent. Although formerly actually written down with concrete words, modern pipers often improvise canterach words but preserve the sound and can actually speak music to other familiar pipers. We tried out some canterach singing in class and it was quite amazing, the best way I can describe it is as sounding like the death song of the Native American Crow in Jeremiah Johnson, for those familiar with the scene. It sounds like a completely strange and beautifully melodic language.

If you have any questions about the bagpiping class or my experiences with it, leave a comment…

Now for a complete break in continuity in all but alliterative parallel: the Botanical Gardens of Glasgow.

Sarah and I checked out Glasgow’s Botanical Gardens on one of the last days of here visit and I was quite impressed–it is much larger and more impressive than Belfast’s. I will return to see how the outdoors sections look once it warms up but there’s a few pictures from some of the greenhouses.

On the weekend, my Scottish Enlightenment class had a fieldtrip to the Borderlands where we saw castles, Abbotsford House the home of Scottish Enlightenment figure Sir Walter Scott, the countryside of the land bordering England from Scott’s View, and Smailholm Tower.  Check out some pictures from each of the venues, including the quite luxurious home of Sir Walter Scott.


Posted: March 21, 2011

Author: jahjr1989

Category: Blog

  1. Lisa Huston says:

    Glad you’re liking the bagpiping class! Sounds awesome. How long do you have to play on the chanter before you can add the bagpipes in?

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