Bagpipes in the British Isles

Bagpipes in the British Isles

The bagpipe is a traditional musical instrument in England and Ireland and the most popular in Scotland. Bagpipes were common all over Britain from at least the 13th century – accounts referring to them being historically present in literature – but they may have been in use in Britain and Ireland prior to that time. The beautiful sound of bagpipe music derives from a display of reed pipes attached to a leather bag inflated with air and a set of finger-holes to determine the tune.

Composition of the pipes

The pipes are traditionally made from oak, but certain other kinds of good-quality wood are also used. The pipe that descends from the bag is known as the chanter; it is a fingerboard with a display of holes that the piper holds, covering and uncovering these with movement of the fingers, similar as with a flute, in order to give the notes. The chanter, as its name tunefully describes, plays the melody.

The pipes protruding from the upper part of the bag are called drones, and are usually three in number. A drone, contrary to the chanter, does not play many notes, but, as its name implies, gives a continuous sound, each drone having its own specific pitch. A more sophisticated drone can be regulated to two or more pitches.

The simultaneous hum coming from a drone accompanying the melody given by the chanter is a distinctive characteristic of bagpipe music. The drones attached to the same bagpipe vary in length and rest on the shoulder and upper arm of the piper.

Bag, stocks and reeds

The bag is traditionally made from air-tight sheep or goat skin with a number of holes as openings. A cylindrical wooden socket, known as a stock, protrudes from each hole, and serves as the base for a pipe. The Scottish bagpipe has one stock for each drone, most other models have one stock for all the drones. Each pipe, or set of pipes, is firmly placed onto the corresponding stock.

The chanter and the drones each have a small reed protruding from the end and entering the stock. The passage of air from the bag causes the reeds to vibrate, thus determining the sound effect of the chanter and drones.

Obtaining the music

The piper who plays the instrument has to maintain a constant reserve of air within the bag, exert pressure on the bag to convey air into the chanter and drones, play the melody while holding the chanter and operate the drones.