Bagpipes - don't you just love 'em? Or perhaps, hate 'em?
Properly tuned and played - preferably in a suitably romantic location, such as a hillside looking over to one of these far-flung Western Isles - they sound absolutely magical. Unfortunately, they can also sound horrible, for many different reasons, some of which I explore in the Tuning section.
The focus of this website is the Great Highland Bagpipe - ie, the familiar variety which every Scot or visitor to Scotland understands as "bagpipes" (consisting of a bag, a blowstick, a chanter and three drones). The tartan cover is now considered rather old-fashioned. But as can be seen in the picture above, the Great Highland Bagpipe is not the only version of this instrument. Nor is it the most sophisticated (that accolade must surely go to the wonderful Uillean pipes of the Emerald Isle).
This site covers all aspects of my bagpiping journey. There are several strands to this story, including tuning, music (learned, performed and listened to) people and events.
Not the history of the bagpipe (for that you should consult one of the books, articles and websites mentioned in the Reference section).
Rather, this is my own history beginning with the Boys Brigade at the age of 13 or 14. At the outset, it is worth making clear that I certainly do not consider myself to be an accomplished piper. But bagpiping has been a part of my life since the age of 13 and an increasingly important part in the last decade.
So this story will only be of interest to my family and possibly to some of the bagpiping friends I have made along the way. I have recounted, as well as my poor memory allows, the most significant events in my bagiping journey. One aspect that may be of slightly wider interest is that of tuning. Unfortunately (as one of my teachers at the National Piping Centre once pointed out) I do not have a well-trained musical ear and, as I have not been a member of a band for many years, I have had to develop an alternative coping strategy, which you can find under the menu item Tuning.
But I digress. So where did my journey start?
Tuning the Pipes
For most of my bagpiping journey, from when I started playing the pipes at the age of around 14, until the last few years, the subject of tuning was, as Winston Churchill said of the Soviet Union in 1939, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". I knew only that:
- the high- and low-A on the chanter should sound an octave apart (something that could be arranged by lowering or raising the chanter reed in its socket); and
- the tenor and bass drones should sound one and two octaves below the low-A respectively (which could be brought about by changing the lengths of the drones).
I did not know about "balancing" chanters with tape until I started attending the National Piping Centre Summer Schools in 2005. Until the advent of electronic tuners, the correct relationships of the notes could only be established by listening: as long as you had an educated musical ear (which I fear, I did not). I did my best but the mystery for me lay in understanding how the chanter's notes should sound in relation to each other. Or, more particularly, how they could be adjusted in order to produce a perfectly harmonious sound.
Recordings - LPs, CDs and Broadcasts
Although I have tragically lost (or perhaps mislaid) the first two pipe band discs which I bought in the early 1960s (45 rpm EPs of the Edinburgh City Police) I still have the first Pipe Band LP which I bought in 1963: "World Champions - Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia", including as its first track, the famous Drummers' Salute composed by Shotts' hugely talented and innovative lead drummer, Alex Duthart. This LP is still a favourite (even if I never actually play it now). At that time, the band was led by Pipe Major JK MacAllister, who led Shotts to four successive world championships in 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1960. As stated without exaggeration on the front cover of the LP (in the form of a mock newspaper report) Shotts was "the most consistent prize-winning band and the finest combination of pipes and drums that the world has ever known." It was certainly the one that my chums and I in the 167th Glasgow Boys Brigade wanted to see and hear on our occasional participation in pipe band competitions.
My Pipe Tunes
The pipe tunes - that I have heard or played during my 50-year bagpiping journey - is what this section is all about.
I have learned (or in some cases, tried to learn) many tunes during this period. Some have been forgotten (at least in terms of being able to play them. Others were just too difficult to get my fingers round. I have tried to list them all with an indication of how I came to them. Some of those which I still play are illustrated in the section called Recordings (audio or video) using the practice chanter, the Deger electronic bagpipe or the pipes.
In the section Commercial Recordings I describe the tunes on LPs, CDs, broadcasts and on-line which have inspired me to learn them.
So what kind of tunes have I learned? The answer is Simple Ones!