Pipes of Pan(demonium)

Great Highland Bagpipes. (photo from the website norse.doonks.com)

Great Highland Bagpipes. (photo from the website norse.doonks.com)

I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equaled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig.
    –  Alfred Hitchcock, English film director and producer, 1899-1980

The Irish gave the bagpipes to the Scots as a joke, but the Scots haven’t seen the joke yet.
    –  Oliver Herford, American writer, 1863-1935

Pipes of Pan(demonium)

Eventually the truth will come out, so I have decided to go public with an admission of a perverse vice that I have kept secret for some 50 years.

I like bagpipe music.

Although I do not play the bagpipes or collect them, or even know much about the instrument’s history, design, or construction, I am fascinated by the exotic music they make and I admire the skill of the pipers who play those sonorous tunes. Non-aficionados may call bagpipe music discordant, raucous, or even blaring, but to me it is mellow, melodious, and often haunting.

Perhaps that is because I have lost my sense of hearing to a large extent, and the nuances of the intricate music produced by the “finer” instruments of the philharmonic orchestra (or even the guitar, dobro and bass of a soft rock band) are now mostly beyond my range of tonal recognition. The bagpipes produce only nine different notes, and I can still hear all of those and their blends.

My listening experience and appreciation are based almost completely on music of the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe, the familiar goatskin bag with five slender pipes jutting out, played by a Scotsman dressed in clan tartan kilt and cape. That iconic image is something from the 18th and 19th centuries, a symbol of the national pride, heritage, courage, and invincibility of the Scots, but today’s piper is as likely to wear the more mundane uniform of a military band from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada or other former British colony.

The pipes would probably have disappeared from the music world more than a century ago were it not for their use by the armies of Great Britain as the wailing clarion that led red-coated regiments to war on every battlefield of its worldwide empire. The Scots maintained their reputation as ferocious fighters even after their country was subdued by England, and respecting the highlanders’ bravery and daring the British military universally adopted the Scottish bagpipe for its regimental bands. The purpose may have been to terrify the indigenous warriors of barbarous lands with the screeching pipes that led the advance of the kilt-clad “ladies from hell.” It would certainly have terrified me.

The tradition of bagpipes leading regiments into battle ended during World War I because of the high rate of casualties among the pipers. Along with cavalry charges, piper-led regiments were a romantic holdover from the pre-Industrial Age of warfare, forms of combat that were destroyed, quite literally, by machine guns and rapid-fire artillery. Khaki uniforms, camouflage jackets, and steel helmets replaced plaid kilts, capes, and bearskin hats, but the remembrance and reenactment of the musical military rituals of a more pompous era live on as celebrated bagpipe ensembles continue to dress in traditional attire.

And, military history buff that I am, that may be part of the bagpipes’ appeal to me.

Bagpipes themselves have changed little and are ubiquitously recognized, that familiar tartan-draped bag with five ebony wood tubes: two tenor drones, a bass drone, a chanter, and a blowtube. The drones protrude from the top, resting on and above the piper’s left shoulder, and the tip of the blowtube is fixed in the corner of his mouth so he can keep the bag constantly inflated at the correct pressure. The chanter is held in both hands before him, played somewhat like a double-reed oboe, or a more sophisticated version of the simplistic flutophone that all of us of a certain age had to master in the fifth grade.

The bagpipe is not a complicated instrument. Playing it well, however, is enormously complicated.

Because there is continuous airflow from the inflated bag through the ever-wailing, single-note drones and the chanter, all bagpipe music is of necessity performed legato style; its nine notes and blends are played smoothly and connectedly, and transitions from note to note have no intervening silence. No other reed instrument is played this way or has this continuous sound. Bagpipes do not fit into any normal orchestra music arrangements, to say the least.

The Great Highland Bagpipe is “closed reed” – the reeds of all three drones and the chanter are fixed and enclosed in the pipes. (If you become a student of the bagpipes, you will learn that the tenor drones are one octave below the A note of the chanter, and the base drone is two octaves below the chanter’s A note.) Because the air flow is continuous and the reeds are closed, the piper cannot end or alter a note or tone with an air-stop, or by mouth positioning or tonguing, so he must separate the notes by means of techniques called gracenotes, doublings, embellishments, taorluaths, throws, grips, and birls.

I do not pretend to understand what any of those terms mean, nor can I recognize and name them when the piper executes them. All I know is that, to me, the music is eerily beautiful, and a masterful piper’s skirling rendition of a classic bagpipe tune such as Scotland the Brave, Ye Banks and Braes, Mist Covered Mountains of Home, or Will Ye No Come Back Again can raise goose bumps on my skin.

I enjoy the more fast-paced and light-hearted tunes, too: Gay Gordons, Irish Washerwoman, Rowan Tree, Loch Marie, Highland Laddie. But a few measures of Amazing Grace or Auld Lang Syne can reduce me to tears, maybe because those tunes have been played on the bagpipes at the memorial services for friends lost and gone.

A friend to whom I confided my aberrant addiction said that all bagpipe music sounds exactly the same to him. Well, the instrument is limited to nine notes, so he has a point. But while it may not have the range or variations of Benny Goodman’s jazz clarinet improvisations, the bagpipe far surpasses the “music” of the one-note rap singers that seem to have caught the fancy of the public for reasons I cannot comprehend.

I confess to my vice, this strange love of bagpipe music, but I admit it is an acquired taste.

The Scots-Canadian comedian Michael Myers is alleged to have said, “My theory is that all of Scottish cuisine is based on a dare.” Maybe the repertoire of the Great Highland Bagpipe has the same roots.


More stories about life in the North Country are published in my two collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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7 Responses to Pipes of Pan(demonium)

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Good man Jerry. I love the stirring sound of the pipes which feature in many traditional musics. Regards Thom.

    • Thanks, Thom. Since I cannot play the pipes myself, I am going to take a CD of a 48th Highlanders performance to hunting camp this fall and play it, loudly, at the appropriate time for my friends’ enjoyment. I will let you know if I survive.

  2. mrain1 says:

    I too love the bagpipe. As an Italian-American I lament the absence of such an instrument in the repertoire of most Italian operatic orchestras. Even Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor which was set in Scotland lacks a bagpipe. I think most of us would agree that listening to Pavarotti sing Nessun Dorma is insignificant compared to “Flowers of the Forest” played on a bagpipe…

    • Yeah, if Antonio Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù had built bagpipes instead of violins, the history and culture of western music would be different. For one thing, we wouldn’t have all those damned staccato pieces in light opera. And sportscasters would say, “It ain’t over ’til the fat piper trills.”

      • mrain1 says:

        You are absolutely right. If those lovely Italian artisans had made bagpipes then they would have migrated in greater numbers to the United States and as the population of the South grew and country music became prevalent, we would have seen the bagpipe instead of the fiddle. I can just imagine Rocky Mountain Breakdown played on a bagpipeor instead of the Dueling Banjos we might have seen dueling bagpipes.

  3. VocareMentor says:

    Bagpipes played Amazing Grace at the memorial service for my cousin. It was a beautiful part of the service and added immensely to pay tribute to him. – Terrific post. And although I’ve read it before, I especially like the Hitchcock quote at the beginning.

    • Thanks, Vocare. My hunting camp cronies are not enthusiastic about my insistence on playing bagpipe music in the quiet of the evening, but they will eventually come around. Or throw my CDs into the lake 🙂

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