Piob Mhor - The Great Highland Bagpipe
Greg Dawson Allen
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE PIOB MHOR
"In its origin the bagpipe was never the property of one people
or one nation but was a universal musical instrument. This powerful
instrument has a long pedigree and derives from earlier and prehistoric
reeded pipes such as "shawms" and "hornpipes",
known and played in Near Eastern and Egyptian civilisations from
before 2,500 BC." From The Book of the Bagpipe, Hugh Cheape,
A theory of the ancient world alleges that Japheth, the eldest
son of Noah, fathered a son, Gomar and that from his seed all Celtic
peoples are descended. To further the claim, it is also believed
that Gillidh Callum was the piper to Noah and that he danced to
the pipe music over two vine plants crossed, in celebration of the
first making of wine from the newly planted vineyard. (MANSON 2)
A theory of the ancient world alleges that Japheth, the eldest
son of Noah, fathered a son, Gomar and that from his seed
all Celtic peoples are descended. To further the claim, it
is also believed that Gillidh Callum was the piper to Noah
and that he danced to the pipe music over two vine plants
crossed, in celebration of the first making of wine from the
newly planted vineyard. (MANSON 2)
The Greek poet Aristophanes, around 425 BC, spoke of the
pipers from Thebes as "blowing on a pipe with a dog skin
with a chanter of bone." (CHEAPE 3)
The Angelic Bagpiper, from a carving in Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian,
The 'shawms' and 'horn pipes' of Egypt before 2500 BC originating
in Asia Minor were known by the Greek name of Aulds. (CHEAPE 4)
There is anecdotal evidence that the Roman Emperor Nero played on
a 'Flute with a bladder' (MANSON / CANNON 5)
The bag-pipes seemingly having no distinction of the higher classes,
let alone in the halls of the court, but commonly referred to as
being an instrument of the street musician. (CHEAPE 6)
Nero, on the eve of the destruction of Rome, pleaded to the Gods
that if they would exercise their gifts and turn the tide of fate
he would play the bag-pipes in public for all to see. The Archbishop
of Novogorad was described by the Czar of Russia in 1569 as 'Fitter
for a bag-piper leading dancing bears than for a Prelate.' (MANSON
Pipers in Greece used circular breathing, in the same way that
Australian Aborigines do when playing the didgeridoo, keeping air
in the inflated cheeks whilst inhaling through the nose, thereby
maintaining a continuous cycle of breath. A cheek strap relieved
the stress on the facial muscles avoiding the unfortunate 'Disfigurement
of Athene'. (CANNON 8)
In the 1st century AD Roman Catholic tradition states that the
shepherds who witnessed the baby Jesus in Bethlehem celebrated his
birth by playing on bag-pipes. In furthering this story both the
German artist Albrecht Durer in the 16th century and an unaccredited
Dutch illuminator both, amongst others, represented the nativity;
the former by a shepherd playing on a set of bag-pipes, and by the
latter depicting an angel clearly playing on a pipe and bag.
Each country had its own specific designs for the pipe and bag.
Some did not use drone pipes, others used drones which varried in
number from one to four. In some cases a double chanter was employed.
Animal skin pipe bags also came in a variety of shapes and sizes.
As pipes developed in each region in design and construction
so the air bag was carefully chosen, and not, as it may seem,
adapted from a random carcass. The shape of the bladder, as
were most bags fashioned from before an effectual method of
stitching could be employed, needed to replicate an easy flow
of air as near to human breathing could allow. Goat or kid's
bladders were widely used as were dogs and to a lesser extent,
Calf and sheep bladders have a worthy place in history and
were still in use by the 19th century, usually hanging beneath
a woman's long skirt as a mode of transportation for the usigue-bathe
or whiskey safely hidden from the gaze of the excise men.
A drop of the water of life is synonymous with the piper and
in those days of the illicit stills and the making of music
the bladder served two valuable purposes.
The Sackpfeiff, a 16th century German bagpipe.
Names given to the bag-pipes were localised. European bag-pipes
in the 17th century were known as, Bignou in Lower Brittany, Cornamusa
in Italy, in Rome Tibia Utricularis and as Sackpfeiff in Germany.
Other names appeared such as Tiva, Ciarmella, Samponia and Zampugna.
Whilst the bag-pipe retained a basic configuration, the number
of notes, mechanisms and drones etc varied from country to country.
For example, a selection of bag-pipes played on the continent in
the 17th century;
1) The Cornemuse had an eight aperture chanter but without
drones, inflated only by the mouth.
2) The Chalemise (Shepherd's Pipe) also inflated by the
mouth, had two drones and a chanter with ten holes.
3) The Mussette was fed by air from a bellows, played with
a chanter of twelve notes. It also possessed other apertures with
valves controlled by mechanical keys with four reeds for drones,
all enclosed inside a barrel. The construction and ornamentation
of the mussette removed the bag-pipe from the sole use of the itinerant
street player into the Royal court with distinguished patrons. Players
of the Mussette wore the title of 'Royal Piper'.
4) The Surdelina of Naples - a bag-pipe consisting of a
pair of drones matched with a pair of chanters. It also had an unspecified
amount, but numerous keys.
5) The common bag-pipe of the Italian peasant with two chanters
each with a single key and paired to one single drone. (MANSON 10)
Although continental Europe enjoyed the tones of the bag-pipe
it was not until the 12th century that the English first included
the instrument in any of their historical records. It was
to be into the following century before Scotland could make
any claim to the bag-pipe.
Documents, mostly accountancy books noting payment to musicians
for work done, tend to list the pipe as 'the drone', 'the
flute' or simply 'the pipes', making no distinction to the
bag-pipe as it was and therefore it may have been introduced
even earlier than supposed. Alexander III of Scotland employed
musicians, as did David II, when in 1362 a payment of 40 shillings
was made to the pipes. During James III's reign (1452-1488)
English pipers were paid, ' 8 pounds 8 shillings for playing
at the castle.' (CHEAPE 11)
An inventory of Henry VIII's musical collection made after
his death in 1547 lists five sets of pipes including, 'A baggepipe
with pipes of ivorie, the bagge covered with purple vellat.'
An early 17th century German bagpipe with ornate
single bass drone and hornpipe chanter.
Whatever the style, country of origin, or number of drones, the
defining part of any set of pipes is the melody carrying pie - the
"chanter". There are two basic types: The cylindrical
chanter is as straight and simetrical as the raw material -
wood or bone - will allow. An extension of horn is often added to
the end. The reed is of a simple, single piece of cane with a vibrating
tongue cut in it. (CANNON 14)
The conical chanter is turned on a wood-lathe to create
the 'trumpet flare'. The bore is an expertly crafted narrow cone,
tapering wider from top to bottom. A double reed is usually fitted.
This is the chanter used in the Great Highland Bagpipe.
As would be expected the sounds separate the two styles - the conical
giving a high shrill and nasal sound, whilst the cylindrical chanter
gives a softer sound. The former is the distinctive sound of the
Great Pipe, the latter the quieter Northumbrian or small pipes.
The discovery of the stock and horn so excited Robert Burns during
his collaboration with George Thomson in their collection entitled
'Select Scottish Airs', that he wrote to his colleague on the subject
"I have at last gotten one, but it is a very rude instrument.
It is composed of three parts: the stock, which is the hinder thigh
bone of a sheep, . . . the horn, which is a highland cow's horn,
. . . and lastly an oaten reed exactly cut and notched like that
which you see every shepherd-boy have, when the corn-stems are green
and full-grown. . . The stock has six or seven ventiges in the upper
side and one back ventige, like the common flute. This one of mine
was made by a man from the Braes of Athole, and is exactly what
the shepherds were wont to use in that country." Robert Burns,
from a letter to George Thomson dated 19th November, 1794.
From the distinctive sound to the distinctive look of the Great
Pipe - the Piob Mhor.
From an airtight bag, five hollow pipes branch out - four fitted
with reeds whilst the fifth is a mouthpiece into which air from
the piper's lungs is blown, filling the bag as a reserve supply.
The three drones are each fitted with a reed of split cane set at
the base of the drone, ensuring that the air from the bag vibrates
the 'tongue' of the reed into motion.
A single note is attributable to each drone which is tuned by a
'slider'. The tuning of the Piob Mhor is a necessary evil even to
the trained ear. A few moments of tuning can be a source of annoyance
- the reeds have to allow for the change of the cool air from the
bag inflated by the piper's breath, to the warm breath which follows,
inevitably working as opposites on the sensitive reeds.
The blowpipe has a valve which prevents air from returning up the
pipe, constituting a one-way flow to the bag. The large bass drone
(Aon Chrann mor) which is rested, usually on the left shoulder of
the piper, has two 'sliders', the other two tenor drones (Na Dha
bheaga) having only one.
The skill of playing has to be blended with the art of posture
and stance. The piper's left arm should only squeeze the bag with
enough pressure to feed the drones with air to sound the notes without
disturbance or distortion. The bag is held towards the front of
the piper's body allowing the shorter drone to rest on the shoulder.
Modern pipes, in the early 20th century were made of tropical hard
woods, usually black ebony and black wood from Africa or cocas wood
from the Caribbean with decorative rings or ferrules made of ivory.
Sometimes silver was used for the lower ferrules. Prior to and throughout
the 18th century, local hard woods were used, commonly holly and
laburnum, again horn and bone being added for decoration.
Pipers, particularly teachers, were adept craftsmen in both creators
of music and their instruments. Many used to make their own pipes.
A notable Scottish piper, John Ban MacKenzie, who died in 1864,
thought to be the last of these makers was siad to have killed the
sheep, stitched the bag, turned the drones, chanter and blow-pipe
on his simple foot-peddled lathe, cut the oaten reeds, composed
the tunes and played them, all with his own hands. (DONALDSON 18)
The inside of the drones of the best manufactured pipes were lined
with metal where there is cause for friction in the tuning slides.
This then is the Piob Mhor - the Great Highland Bagpipe, the musical
instrument that has been associated with Scotland, in both war and
peace, for centuries past.