Giving bellows pipes a name – an unresolved problem

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By Jock Agnew

Although the renaissance of Scottish bellows-blown pipes has been taking place for some 20 years [40 now! – Editor], there remain some matters that are, as yet, unresolved. For instance how should we identify these various pipes emerging from the past when there are references to smallpipes, Lowland pipes, Half-longs, Border pipes, Reel pipes, Union pipes, and Pastoral pipes?

In Northumberland, for instance, the smallpipe (quite rightly) would be the Northumbrian smallpipe. Put ‘Scottish’ as a prefix, and we are talking about a different instrument. The debate will no doubt continue over how, some say if, these two types of small pipe are interrelated. The fundamental difference between Northumbrian and — Scottish smallpipes is that the first has a stopped chanter with seven finger holes, while the second has an open chanter with eight. True that in today’s world the Northumbrian smallpipe chanter is usually covered in keys, giving it an extra range in scale and accidentals. But Scottish smallpipes can also — and some do — have keys. The Northumbrian smallpipe has closed fingering where only one hole on the chanter is uncovered at any one time), but the same can be made to work with Scottish smallpipe chanters — especially those pitched in ‘D’ and ‘C’, Similarly — and this might help those who have a Northumbrian smallpipe but wish to play with Highland style fingering — if the lower keys of the Northumbrian chanter are taped down, then it becomes, in effect, an open chanter and Highland fingering can usually be used.

A final word on the subject of smallpipes: the name is sometimes. given to what are often called ‘chamber’ or ‘miniature’ pipes. The are usually mouth-blown, but more importantly the drones do not issue from a common stock, but are individually fitted into the bag — in effect miniature Highland pipes.

Bellows pipes: Northumbrian (check cover), Scottish smallpipes in A (centre), Scottish smallpipes in D (top) and Border/Reel pipes in Bb.

Now the knotty problem of the Border pipes, which some call Lowland pipes. In Northumberland they are half-longs — though even this is surrounded by question marks: “’Half longs’ are a mythical bagpipe existing only in the minds of Robertson (a Highland pipe-maker of the 1930s) and his misguided advisers in Northumberland.” (Colin Ross in Common Stock Vol 12 No 1 June 1997).

The tendency has been growing to use the name Lowland pipes as a generic term for all Scottish bellows-blown, some might say ‘cauld-wind’, pipes, and the name ‘Border’ to describe what are, essentially the same as the Northumbrian half-longs i.e. bellows-blown pipes with a conical bore chanter. From time to time a debate has arisen, and not been resolved, as to the difference, if any, between the Scottish and Northumbrian version of this bagpipe. Some have suggested that one has three drones pitched (as with Highland pipes) ‘A’, ‘a’, ‘a’; while the other has a baritone drone arrangement — pitched ‘A’, ‘E’, ‘a’, which was the arrangement made by Robertson in the 1930s.

I have also heard it argued that the half-long must have had a sharpened low and high G, while others have suggested that the only difference was in its appearance — one having combing on the drones, the other smooth wood. Be that as it may, the modern versions of this bagpipe are to all intents and purposes one and the same, and it is left to the individual pipe-maker (or rather his customer) to decide on the drone arrangements.

Angus Nicolson playing a set of Border pipes. Or is it Reel pipes? Or Pastoral pipes? Half-longs? Lowland pipes?

The third type of bagpipe mentioned in my previous PT article, the Pastoral or New bagpipe, might also have been called the Hybrid or the Union pipe. And it is argued that this bagpipe, developed in Scotland either in tandem with, or as a progression from, the Border pipe, formed the basis of the Uillean bagpipe, now fiercely claimed by the Irish.

In this modern age of pigeonholing, we tend to stumble when trying to allocate ancient instruments to ethnic origins, with standard pitches and design, regulated fingering and a common playing technique. In all probability there were wide variations and individual modifications to these different pipes that transcended any language or geographical restraints.

• From the September 2000 Piping Times.