Scottish smallpipes

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A set of Cocobolo Scottish Smallpipes with horn mountings, made in 2008 by Ebert Jones Scottish Smallpipes.JPG
A set of Cocobolo Scottish Smallpipes with horn mountings, made in 2008 by Ebert Jones

The Scottish smallpipe is a bellows-blown bagpipe re-developed by Colin Ross and many others, adapted from an earlier design of the instrument. There are surviving bellows-blown examples of similar historical instruments as well as the mouth-blown Montgomery smallpipes, dated 1757, which are held in the National Museum of Scotland. [1] Some instruments are being built as direct copies of historical examples, [2] but few modern instruments are directly modelled on older examples; the modern instrument is typically larger and lower-pitched. The innovations leading to the modern instrument, in particular the design of the reeds, were largely taken from the Northumbrian smallpipes.


Although there is evidence of small pipes dating back to 15th century, in its current form it is perhaps the youngest bagpipe with widespread popularity, having only existed in this form since the early 1980s.


Scottish smallpipes are distinguished from the Northumbrian smallpipes by the open ended chanter, and usually by the lack of keys. This means that the sound of the chanter is continuous, rather than staccato, and that its range is only nine notes, rather than the octave and a sixth range of the later 18th/early 19th century Northumbrian pipes.

The instrument has a cylindrically bored chanter, most commonly pitched in A; pipes in D, C, B flat, and G are also common. Being cylindrically bored, the chanter sounds an octave lower than a conical-bored chanter of the same size, such as that of the Border pipes.The basic scale of the Scottish smallpipe is identical to the Mixolydian scale of the Highland and Border bagpipes: the 7th (leading) note on the scale is flattened, meaning in the case of an A chanter, the low and high G notes are natural, rather than sharp (as they would be in the scale of A major.)

Scottish smallpipes are most commonly tuned to be played with the same fingering system as Highland bagpipes (sometimes called 'half-covered'), however they can also be tuned to accept a 'covered' fingering system (very similar to that of the 'closed' system used for Northumbrian smallpipes), where only one finger is lifted from the chanter to play each note, the only difference to the Northumbrian system being that the tonic tonehole on the chanter is left uncovered (except when playing the low leading note.)

Scottish smallpipes are normally bellows-blown like the Northumbrian smallpipes and Border pipes. The advantages of bellows-blown pipes, such as greater stability of tuning (due to smaller fluctuations in humidity and temperature of air across the reeds) and the possibility to sing or talk whilst playing make them by far the most popular variation, however mouth-blown smallpipes are fairly common.

The chanter is most commonly unkeyed, but occasionally keys are added, most often high B, G sharp, F natural, and C natural, to extend the range and/or give access to accidental notes. A second thumb hole may be added to the back of the chanter to play C natural. Though it would in principle be possible to add as many keys as seen on modern Northumbrian smallpipes, very few sets with more than 3 keys exist. Most music written for the instrument uses only the nine notes of its unkeyed range.

The drones, typically three in number, are set in a common stock and are usually tuned in one of two patterns. For pipes in A, the tenor drone is tuned to the low "A" of the chanter (the tonic), and the bass drone to the "A" an octave below this. There is often also a dominant drone - this can be either a baritone, tuned a fifth above the bass, or an alto drone, tuned a fifth above the tenor. For tunes played on the 4th (i.e. in D on an A chanter), the dominant drone can be either shut off or retuned to the fourth on the chanter. Most makers favour a baritone drone, rather than an alto, though some use only the bass and tenor. Some makers have developed drones compatible with both A and D chanters, so that one instrument can be used with either chanter. One example is the "ADAD" style, with bass, baritone, tenor, and alto, as seen here: [3] With longer tuning slides or the addition of tuning beads (used widely on Northumbrian smallpipe drones), drones can easily be retuned to a pitch one or two tones higher. This allows for increased drone tuning options, meaning tunes can be played in the nominal keys of A Mixolydian, D major, B minor and by tuning down by a tone, in G. The use of longer tuning slides is also used to convert A and D drones to G and C drones (or vice versa), meaning the same set of drones can be played with chanters in D, C, A and G.


Originally one of the first documented bagpipes in Scotland, along with the Border pipes, smallpipes were popular in the Lowland areas of Scotland as far north as Aberdeen. Evidence shows them to have existed since the 15th century (Highland pipes can only be documented from the 15th Century in a form definably separate from Irish "warpipes"), when they were used for dancing and entertainment in court and castle, later they became popular amongst burgh pipers, and town minstrels until the early 19th Century, when the demise of the town pipers led to their disappearing from the record. Being bellows-blown this made them suitable for playing for long periods. Bellows-blown smallpipes are believed to have entered Scotland via England, and the continent of Europe, examples are preserved in many drawings, carvings, and paintings from 15th century onwards, and in Europe from the 12th century onwards. There is some discussion of the historical Scottish smallpipes in Collinson's history of the bagpipes. [4] More reliable research and information can be obtained in Hugh Cheape's "Bagpipes: A National Collection."

Since there was a break in the continuous playing tradition of the smallpipes, and Border pipes, no absolute, definitive playing style can be ascribed to them. However, according to the evidence provided by surviving manuscript collections of music written for these pipes (particular those of Dixon, Peacock, and Riddell), their style was built around variations, runs, and arpeggios, as opposed to the surviving Highland music which is dominated by stylised gracenote techniques.

Smallpipes are extremely popular with Highland pipers, many of whom use them, or a set of Border pipes, as a second instrument better suited to indoor playing, and play them according to the Highland tradition. Though it has somewhat supplanted the musically unsatisfactory Highland practice chanter as a relatively quiet rehearsal instrument for Highland pipers, it has gained wide currency as a session instrument, playing both the Highland and lowland (border) repertoires.

The Scottish smallpipes were the first widely available instrument which allowed Highland pipers to participate in musical sessions with fiddlers, flautists and other instruments, as well as to accompany singers. Leading players include Hamish Moore, Iain MacInnes, Allan MacDonald, Gary West, Fred Morrison, Fin Moore, Brìghde Chaimbeul, Michael Roddy, Callum Armstrong, Ross Ainslie, Gordon Mooney, EJ Jones, Ailis Sutherland and Barry Shears, as well as the late Martyn Bennett.

See also

LBPS list of smallpipe and border pipe makers

Related Research Articles

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The chanter is the part of the bagpipe upon which the player creates the melody. It consists of a number of finger-holes, and in its simpler forms looks similar to a recorder. On more elaborate bagpipes, such as the Northumbrian bagpipes or the Uilleann pipes, it also may have a number of keys, to increase the instrument's range and/or the number of keys it can play in. Like the rest of the bagpipe, they are often decorated with a variety of substances, including metal (silver/nickel/gold/brass), bone, ivory, or plastic mountings.

Great Highland bagpipe Type of bagpipe native to Scotland

The Great Highland bagpipe is a type of bagpipe native to Scotland, and the Scottish analogue to the Great Irish Warpipes. It has acquired widespread recognition through its usage in the British military and in pipe bands throughout the world.

The border pipes are a type of bagpipe related to the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe. It is perhaps confusable with the Scottish smallpipe, although it is a quite different and much older instrument. Although most modern Border pipes are closely modelled on similar historic instruments, the modern Scottish smallpipes are a modern reinvention, inspired by historic instruments but largely based on Northumbrian smallpipes in their construction.

Northumbrian smallpipes Bellows-blown bagpipes from North East England

The Northumbrian smallpipes are bellows-blown bagpipes from North East England, where they have been an important factor in the local musical culture for more than 250 years. The family of the Duke of Northumberland have had an official piper for over 250 years. The Northumbrian Pipers' Society was founded in 1928, to encourage the playing of the instrument and its music; Although there were so few players at times during the last century that some feared the tradition would die out, there are many players and makers of the instrument nowadays, and the Society has played a large role in this revival. In more recent times the Mayor of Gateshead and the Lord Mayor of Newcastle have both established a tradition of appointing official Northumbrian pipers.

Here Northumbria is defined as Northumberland, the northernmost county of England, and County Durham. According to 'World Music: The Rough Guide', "nowhere is the English living tradition more in evidence than the border lands of Northumbria, the one part of England to rival the counties of the west of Ireland for a rich unbroken tradition. The region is particularly noted for its tradition of border ballads, the Northumbrian smallpipes and also a strong fiddle tradition in the region that was already well established in the 1690s. Northumbrian music is characterised by considerable influence from other regions, particularly southern Scotland and other parts of the north of England, as well as Irish immigrants.

Pastoral pipes

The pastoral pipe was a bellows-blown bagpipe, widely recognised as the forerunner and ancestor of the 19th-century union pipes, which became the uilleann pipes of today. Similar in design and construction, it had a foot joint in order to play a low leading note and plays a two octave chromatic scale. There is a tutor for the "Pastoral or New Bagpipe" by J. Geoghegan, published in London in 1745. It had been considered that Geoghegan had overstated the capabilities of the instrument, but a study on surviving instruments has shown that it did indeed have the range and chromatic possibilities which he claimed.

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Welsh bagpipes

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This article defines a number of terms that are exclusive, or whose meaning is exclusive, to piping and pipers.

William Dixon manuscript

The William Dixon manuscript, written down between 1733 and 1738 in Northumberland, is the oldest known manuscript of pipe music from the British Isles, and the most important source of music for the Border pipes. It is currently located in the A.K. Bell Library, Perth, Scotland. Little is known of William Dixon's biography, except what has been learned from this manuscript, and from parish records in Northumberland.

John Peacock was one of the finest Northumbrian smallpipers of his age, and probably a fiddler also, and the last of the Newcastle Waits. He studied the smallpipes with Old William Lamshaw, of Morpeth, and later with Joseph Turnbull, of Alnwick.

Hugh Robertson (1730–1822) was a Scottish wood and ivory turner and a master crafter of woodwind instruments such as pastoral pipes, union pipes, and great Highland bagpipes.

John Dunn was a noted pipemaker, or maker of bagpipes. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Dunn was a cabinet maker by profession, initially a junior partner with George Brummell. In the trade directories, he also appears in his own right as a turner and a plumb maker and turner. His address was Bell's Court, off Pilgrim Street. He was buried on 6 February 1820 in St. John's, Newcastle. His father may have been one John Dunn of Longhorsley; if so, he was born on 3 September 1764. He should not be confused with one M. Dunn, the maker of several surviving sets of Union pipes.

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Colin Ross was an English folk musician who played fiddle and Northumbrian smallpipes. He was a noted maker of Northumbrian smallpipes, border pipes and Scottish smallpipes, and one of the inventors of the modern Scottish smallpipes.

Great Irish warpipes

Irish warpipes are an Irish analogue of the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe. "Warpipes" is originally an English term. The first use of the Gaelic term in Ireland was recorded in a poem by Seán Ó Neachtain, in which the bagpipes are referred to as píb mhór.

Shuttle pipes Bagpipes from France

Shuttle pipes are a type of bagpipes which derive their name from the drones used to produce the harmony. Rather than the long tube-like drones of most bagpipes, shuttle pipes use a shuttle drone, a cylindrical chamber enclosing a series of folded drone tubes, each terminating in a slot covered by a sliding "shuttle" which can be adjusted to lengthen or shorten the distance traveled by air moving through the tube, thus flattening or sharpening the pitch of the note produced.


  1. . Retrieved 7 January 2022.{{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. Goodbagpipes . Retrieved 7 January 2022.{{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. Archived January 6, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  4. Collinson, F., The Bagpipe, The history of a Musical Instrument, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1975 ISBN   0710079133