Bagpipe Society

Promoting the bagpipe revival since 1986

Bagpipe Guide

Lowland and Border Pipes

Played in the North of England and the Lowlands of Scotland from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Border Pipes are currently undergoing a renaissance.

Quiet enough to play alongside other acoustic instruments but maintaining the characteristic skirl of the Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB), Border pipes are typically in A, are bellows-blown, have three drones set in a common stock which lie across the chest, have a nine note scale, and usually employ GHB fingering. There is no formalised gracing style but the nature of the instrument lends itself to GHB ornamentation.

Repertoire is drawn from Scottish and Northumbrian sources, not least the 1733 William Dixon manuscript, the earliest surviving collection of bagpipe tunes in the UK. Younger players are discovering the chromatic possibilities of the instrument.


‘Southern’ English Border Pipes

Border pipes were never standardised and consequently while Southern English Border Pipes look like their northern cousins, they are much influenced by, and closer in sound to, the French Musette à Béchonnet and the Grande Cornemuse du Centre.

A modern development, in other words, English Border Pipes tend to be in G, low D or low C, can be mouth or bellows blown, have up to four drones carried on the shoulder or across the chest, use half-closed fingering, and are nearly chromatic over a one and a half octave range. Various makers now produce variants of the same instrument (sometimes under different names).

Repertoire overlaps with its northern cousin but the instrument’s versatility allows English, French, Breton, Early Music and even Eastern European tunes to be played. That this is a new instrument means that in the absence of a tradition players tend to develop a unique and identifiable style. English Border Pipes are one of the most popular pipes to feature at the Blowout.


Border Smallpipes

A newly invented pipe by Mike York, Border Smallpipes work with identical, half-closed fingering to English Border Pipes, thus making them an ideal practice set or suitable for EBP players looking for that smallpipe sound.

Mouth or bellows blown in D, with a set of drones across the chest, BSPs have a range of one octave plus a leading note, while a second thumbhole allows the dorian mode. Ideal for Early Music, the Scottish Smallpipe repertoire, or tunes from the William Dixon manuscript.

The Great Highland Bagpipe

Love it or hate it, there’s no getting away from the GHB, which, thanks to the British Empire (and Army), is played all over the world (and by such luminaries as Evelyn Glennie and Alastair Campbell). It’s the instrument everyone thinks of when they hear the word bagpipes.

Perhaps because of its military associations, or the historic need to preserve Highland culture from erosion, its style is highly regimented and regulated. Expect a sharp rap to the knuckles if you try to bend the rules. Famously a high-pressure instrument requiring a stiff blow, the GHB is in A (or concert Bb), has a nine note mixolydian scale with its own variant of half-closed fingering, and three drones worn over the shoulder.

With its own distinct repertoire, the GHB is ideal for marching soldiers into battle, lamenting the fallen, or rousing the living with a furious reel or stately strathspey.


Scottish Smallpipes

A modern development of the 1980s, Scottish Smallpipes are based on the old eighteenth-century instruments that survive in various museums.

SSPs are typically in the folk-friendly keys of A or D, are usually bellows-blown, have a set of drones in a common stock worn across the chest, and use a nine-note scale that fingers like a GHB but which plays at a fraction of the volume. Some makers include a second thumbhole which allows minor (dorian) tunes to be played.

With its cylindrical bore, the sound is characteristically lilting, but perfect for playing with other acoustic instruments or to accompany dancing. In recent years the instrument has become extremely popular in America.


Northumbrian Smallpipes

Alongside the Great Highland Bagpipe, NSPs are the other pipes that most people have usually heard about.

Unique amongst British bagpipes in having a chanter that is closed at one end, and related to the French Musette de Cour from which it probably derives, NSPs have a characteristic staccato sound and remain strongly rooted in the music and traditions of the North-East of England.

Played with closed fingering, NSPs are bellows blown, have up to four drones worn across the chest, and employ a number of keys to extend the range and to enable accidentals.

They come in a variety of pitches, have a rich and unique repertoire and their singing quality lends them to slow airs as well as crisp hornpipes.


Uilleann Pipes

From Riverdance to Titanic via Braveheart, the keening upper reaches of the Irish, Uilleann Pipes (pronounced ill-en) have so seduced the modern world that the sound is a universal shorthand for all things ‘Celtic.’

The most sophisticated pipe there is, expect to dedicate your life to mastering it: it is said to take twenty one years, of which the first seven are required to save up the money to buy a set!

Bellows blown and with a uniquely fingered scale and a two octave range, the chanter can be played open or closed by stopping the end on your knee, which allows staccato playing. In addition to the drones, which lie across the chest and legs, UPs have a set of regulators. These are keyed drones that remain silent until played with the wrist, allowing rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment.

The repertoire is large, mostly Irish and Scottish, and there are distinct regional styles in Ireland (and amongst the Irish diaspora), not to mention those that have emerged from the travelling community.


The Pastoral or Union Bagpipes

Pastoral Bagpipes were played all over Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, mostly by the gentry with too much time on their hands, and are the direct ancestor of the Uilleann Pipes.

Many surviving instruments exist in museums and private collections but attempts to make working copies have achieved mixed results, owing to the difficulty of setting the reeds correctly.

Pastoral Bagpipes are bellows blown, fully chromatic over a two octave range and use open fingering. There is a small but dedicated group of enthusiasts attempting to revive the Pastoral Pipes.

Leicestershire Smallpipes

This is a simple English bagpipe with a low rich tone that has been developed by Julian Goodacre. It can be either mouth or bellows blown. The chanter plays a diatonic nine-note scale and is usually played with covered fingering. In common with most European bagpipes depicted before 1500 these pipes only have one drone. Both the chanter and the drone terminate in distinctive flared bells.

It is one of the most popular bagpipes to be found at the Blowout, and lends itself to ensemble and harmony-playing.


Welsh ‘Pibgorn’ Pipes

The Pibgorn is a Welsh reed-pipe (a kind of ‘bag-less’ bagpipe, if you will, similar to the Basque alboka), with a long history of use in Wales going back to the Middle Ages. There is a Pibgorn revival at present, and some makers have ‘re-bagged’ the pipe to recreate and revive the equally ancient Welsh Bagpipe.

Unique amongst British pipes in having a single reed, Welsh Pibgorn Pipes tend to be in D, have an eight note scale, use open fingering and have a single drone on the shoulder. Drones can usually be retuned up a tone, so that minor modes can be played. The chanter usually ends in a piece of carved horn, projecting forwards and amplifying the sound.

With a repertoire drawn from traditional Welsh sources (and even hymns) they sound ancient and very different from all other British pipes.


Welsh ‘Veuze’ Pipes

While one revived Welsh bagpipe is based on the Pibgorn, a second variety is more similar to the Breton Veuze, a loud, mouth-blown double-reed pipe.

Welsh Veuze-style pipes come in a variety of keys (D and Bb are most common) use open fingering, have a nine-note scale, and will cross-finger to allow most chromatic notes. They have a striking (though not strident) sound, which makes them ideal accompaniment for dancing.

Pipes appear at 1.18!


Double and Triple Pipes

In British churches there are many depictions of pipers playing bagpipes with two chanters, one for each hand. No instruments survive, but various makers have made working double pipes, including Julian Goodacre, John Tose and Jim Parr.

Each double pipe sounds very different: some use closed fingering and have cylindrically-bored chanters, others open fingering and conical bores. What unites them is that the two chanters allow the piper to play simple harmonies, or to play different rhythmic ‘loops’ with each hand.

Julian Goodacre’s Cornish Double Pipes are inspired by a carving dated from the early 1500’s in Altarnun Church, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall.  They have a deep and sonorous tone. The two chanters are fingered independently: one plays the upper half of the octave, the other the lower half. Both chanters can play the tonic note and thus, using covered fingering, one can create a constant drone whilst playing the melody. They are pitched in low D.

Julian also makes English Doublepipes based on measurements taken from the James Talbot manuscripts of the 1690s. A similar chanter appears in a German picture from 1636 and there is a detailed account of two sets being played in 1729 by James Bell of Carlisle.

These English double pipes have a single chanter that contains two bores. The finger holes are arranged so that one can produce simple harmonies and counter melodies. The pipes usually have a single drone. They are fairly quiet with a gorgeous tone.


Nothing is known about the Early Medieval Triplepipe beyond its depiction in British carvings and manuscripts from the 8th- 13th centuries. Of the ten images that have been discovered five are from England.

Like the Pibcorn, this bagless bagpipe has two chanters and a long drone, all with single reeds and all of which are held in the mouth, played using circular breathing.

A similar instrument, the launeddas, can be dated back to prehistory and is still played in Sardinia. Barnaby Brown is responsible for reviving the triplepipe and has based his technique upon the Sardinian tradition. It appears that the triplepipe is the ancestor of all the pipes that are now played in Britain and it is wonderful to hear it being played still.


Hummelchen Smallpipes

One of the sets of pipes described and depicted by the Renaissance organologist, Michael Praetorius, modern day Hummelchen (or ‘bumblebee’ pipes) have been reconstructed from these original drawings.

Mouth-blown, with one or two drones that project forwards, half-closed fingering, a nine-note scale and holes within easy reach, Hummelchen make an excellent beginner’s pipe for adults and children alike.

They have a sweet, rustic sound, as befits their name, and are particularly suitable for playing Early Music.


Bruegel or Flemish Pipes

Bruegel Pipes, as the name suggests, are reconstructed from those depicted by Renaissance painter, Peter Bruegel the elder (whose ‘enflamed’ pipers were censored by the Victorians!)

With their drones dramatically rising forwards and upwards, they are a striking bagpipe, the Hummelchen’s big brother. Fingering and keys vary, but often they sound and play just like a Southern English Border Pipe, the only difference being the ‘geometry’. Excellent for Early Music.


Medieval Bagpipes

Chaucer tells us that bagpipes were a feature of medieval English life: the Miller pipes his fellow pilgrims on their way in the Canterbury Tales. Images tell us that medieval pipes were mouth blown, had a conical bore, a single drone and a large round bag. They were probably loud, in other words.

Various makers have reconstructed medieval pipes. Julian Goodacre makes a Greatpipe, with loud conical chanter and a long, eye-catching, flared drone, based on a 15th century illustration of the Miller.

Jim Parr makes a medieval pipe based on the Gallician Gaita, the pipe still played in the North West region of Spain in an unbroken tradition going back to the Middle Ages. And Jon Swayne adapts the externals of his English Border-style pipes to make them look medieval (flared ends, large bag etc), while keeping the benefits of a modern chanter design.

The geometry of a large bag can make Medieval Pipes slightly harder to grapple with than their modern counterparts, but they are ideal for anyone involved in re-enactment, living history or playing in a costume band.


Electronic and Digital Bagpipes

Over the years there have been various attempts to make digital or electronic bagpipes, from iPad apps to actual instruments that you blow, squeeze and finger as normal.

One of the most inventive instruments available is the German-designed ‘’ which uses sampled bagpipe sounds. You can change instrument type, pitch, temperment and fingering at the flick of a switch, and the chanter responds to vibrato and ornamentation in a surprisingly accurate way.

Opinion on the merits of such an instrument remain divided, but it is increasingly popular on the continent amongst experimental artists and metal bands!


Website editor Andy Letcher.
Website management Joe Wass.
Illustrations by Rima Staines.