John Murdoch Henderson (1902-1972)
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Piob Mhor - The Great Highland Bagpipe
Greg Dawson Allen


"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, 1999.

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, 1440.

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 7)

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.

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. (MANSON 9)

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.' (CHEAPE 12)

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 (CHEAPE 15)

"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.

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