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Calls and Responses

There are two new calls in this edition – if anyone has any responses, please send them to me before 1st May to


I found the following quote in the Wikipedia entry on ‘Tharapita’, the Estonian thunder god. It lacks a citation, so I’m wondering if any members can shed light on its provenance and whether there is any truth to the claim?

According to several medieval chronicles, Estonians did not work on Thursdays (days of Thor) and Thursday nights were called “evenings of Tooru”. Some sources say Estonians used to gather in holy woods (Hiis) on Thursday evenings, where a bagpipe player sat on a stone and played while people danced and sang until the dawn.

Andy Letcher


Many, many years ago, in Chanter, I asked why the top ‘A’ on the Highland bagpipe is often out of tune. Makers of other bagpipes with full octave range or more always make sure their high octave note is good and true (and all the other notes too – why not?). Some Highland bagpipes do have a good top ‘A’, but many do not which, for me, spoils their otherwise fabulous music. There seems to be no standard out-of-tuneness and it’s not necessarily an indicator of a cheap instrument or a poor player – far from it.

That honest enquiry elicited no answers, other than from a Scotsman offended that I should dare to ask (i.e. shut up, which was rather silly) but I couldn’t just let the matter drop. I’ve asked lots of people since, and some have tried to suggest explanations, but they’ve never been very positive or persuasive, so I still don’t know. May I try again?

James Merryweather

Two calls from in the Winter 2016 edition of Chanter have had the following responses:


Please can someone tell the earliest known evidence of the use of bellows to power the bagpipes? Elizabeth Armstrong


Regarding Elizabeth Armstrong’s enquiry on the origin of bagpipe bellows, I would direct her to my article in Common Stock, Vol 30, No2 (December 2013) which addresses this very issue. To summarize: the earliest bellows bagpipes we can be sure of were two 16th century Italian double-chanter instruments – Canon Afranio’s Phagotum (c. 1520) and the Sordellina (first reference to a bellows blown version, 1574).

Given that both these instruments were Italian, it’s interesting that there is some fascinating but inconclusive evidence for a bellows bagpipe in the Roman era. This centres on a series of figurines allegedly representing the shepherd god Atys discussed by Baines, Collinson and others. Having discovered a couple more of these figurines myself, I started to write on the subject several years ago, but got sidetracked (as usual). To summarize again: they could be playing a bellows blown single pipe (half aulos) to accompany pan pipes, or they could be playing a zavzava (friction drum).

The world, of course, runs on coincidence, so I was tickled to see that this edition of Chanter features an image of both the Sordellina (back cover) and the Zavzava (p.31)

All Common Stock articles are available on the Lowland and Border Pipers Society website: Elizabeth will have to join to access them, but it is well worth it, past issues contain some excellent research on historical British pipes.

Paul Roberts

Manchester Cathedral - Irish Bagpipe

Manchester Cathedral - Irish Bagpipe

During my survey of two-chanter bagpipes in English art, I came across just one example of bellows, a reference to a late 15th century angel high in the roof of Manchester Cathedral, but please don’t get your hopes up. The source, provided on an entrance table along with the church guide, was idiotic, so I was glad I was there to check. Here is a footnote from my article ‘2-Chanter Bagpipes in England’ (The Galpin Society Journal, vol. LIV, 62-75, 2001 and vol. LV, 386-390, 2002):

21 Hudson H. (1922). The minstrel angels of Manchester Cathedral. Robertson & Co., St Annes-on-the-Sea. Rev. Hudson reasoned that the other bagpipe in Manchester Cathedral does not have a blow-pipe (it was probably lost during unsympathetic restoration – the hurdy-gurdy is particularly awful) and, therefore, must have been inflated with bellows and, therefore, is the Irish bagpipe. Therefore, the other, which has a blowpipe, must be the Scottish bagpipe. (He carelessly fails to acknowledge that it rather unusually for a GHB has two chanters!)

James Merryweather

Manchester Cathedral - Scottish Bagpipe

Manchester Cathedral - Scottish Bagpipe


What happens in very shallow tapering cones, where the taper is measurable but almost imperceptible? Does any amount of conicality, no matter how small, flip the one into the other? Is there a tipping point, a critical amount of conicality that is required? Or is there some grey area, where you might have some hybrid of the two? I’m wondering, in other words, if you might ever be able to make a smallpipe that retained the acoustic properties of a conical chanter? I’m sure there is a theoretical answer, but have any makers experimented with this? Andy Letcher


First a disclaimer: I have little or no formal training in acoustics. What I know comes from what I have read, what I have learnt in the practical business of making instruments and from talking to other makers. Apologies for errors, misstatements and confusions. The subject is extremely complicated and there will be simplifications and omissions.

To coin a phrase, there are many cones, but only one cylinder. Whenever in the past I have had a conversation about what happens ‘in between’ there has has been much humming and ha-ing and stroking of beards (if present), but talk has petered out without any conclusions whatsoever being arrived at. I have quite a few books on musical acoustics and none of them addresses this question directly. However I have found the following statement on the useful website of the Acoustics Department of the University of New South Wales ( The change in the frequency of the resonances is a continuous function of the cone angle. To understand this it’s necessary to know what is meant by the word ‘resonances’. Woodwind instruments work by supporting a longitudinal vibration of the air in the column. The tube of a successful woodwind is arranged in such a way that the tone at the pitch we hear it (the fundamental) contains harmonics at whole-number (1, 2, 3 etc) multiples of the frequency of the fundamental under playing conditions. This is what is meant by ‘resonances’. A tube closed at one end with a cone angle of zero, in other words a cylinder, supports one quarter of a wavelength and a harmonic regime in which the even harmonics are absent, at least at low frequencies, so the frequency of the second harmonic is three times that of the fundamental. On the other hand a cone closed at one end supports one half of a wavelength, and both even and odd harmonics are present, so that the frequency of the second harmonic is twice that of the fundamental. The consequence is that a musical cone the same length as a musical cylinder sounds one octave higher, just as we see with eg a border pipe as against a smallpipe, and the resonances spoken of govern the pitch/length relationship, whether overblowing takes place at the octave (twice the frequency - border pipe, oboe, saxophone etc) or twelfth (three times the frequency – clarinet), and the tone quality; the absence or weakness of odd harmonics accounts of course for the particular sound of the clarinet and smallpipe which is sometimes described as hollow.

The above article goes on to say: “The didjeridu provides an example of a range of different instruments covering quite a large range of cone angles. Some are nearly cylindrical and overblow close to a twelfth. None are ever conical, but some approximate truncated cones with varying angles. The higher the angle (for a given length and mouthpiece diameter) the lower the note of the next register. A typical didjeridu overblows about a tenth.”

So as soon as a cylinder becomes a cone, the relationship between the fundamental and the harmonics (the next two or three at least) changes so that the interval between the fundamental and the first overblown note becomes narrower. If you made a clarinet with the same slight conicity (‘conicality’, Andy?), it would mean that for, say, a six-finger lower register note of G, the second register note would be B. Not perhaps a very useful musical result. It would also mean that the harmonics would not be whole-number multiples of the first harmonic, the fundamental, which would destroy the musicality, stability and response of the first register notes.

The other part of the question (which is not directly addressed in the above statement) is: what happens to the pitch of the fundamental? The answer is that as the cylinder becomes more conical, the pitch of the fundamental rises. This suggests that without doing anything else, to arrive at a musically useful result, the cone would have to be widened until you reach a point where the rising pitch of the fundamental agrees with the lowering pitch of the overblown note, thus bringing the harmonics into alignment, and gradually turning something like a clarinet into something like a saxophone. At any intermediate point, you would not have a musical instrument unless you did something else, like making changes to the reed/staple/mouthpiece arrangements (which you could call for simplicity the driver) in such a way as to induce it, by bringing the harmonics into alignment one way or the other, to behave either as a ‘clarinet’ or as a ‘saxophone’. I think that below a certain cone angle it would be impossible to find a driver combination which would make a ‘saxophone’; conversely above a certain cone angle it would be impossible to find a driver combination which would make a ‘clarinet’.

You might observe that practical conical bore woodwinds have widely differing cone angles but all overblow accurately at the octave, and you might think of the saxophone, the oboe and the bassoon. The soprano sax has a cone angle of about 3.5°, the oboe about 1.5° and the bassoon about 0.8°. The answer lies in the alignment of practice with theory. Practical woodwinds are truncated cones. If they were complete, there would clearly be no way of energising them at the top end. The half-wavelength of the fundamental is close to the length of the theoretical complete cone; the missing part is made up by the staple, the reed cavity, the compliance of the reed, and in the case of the saxophone, the mouthpiece cavity. So part of the process of making a practical woodwind lies in tailoring the parts of the instrument representing the missing part of the cone so as to produce the correct relationship between the octaves.

So we come to the last part of the question as to whether it’s possible to make a smallpipe which “retains the acoustic properties of a conical chanter”. Those properties are that it plays an octave higher than a smallpipe for a given length; it cross-fingers; it overblows at the octave; its sound has the spectral characteristics of a conical chanter; it possesses the acoustic properties of a conical chanter. Then what characteristics would it keep for it still to be a smallpipe? The questioner is not quite specific enough on this point, but I suspect what he is after is a chanter which has the moderate volume and sweet tone quality of a smallpipe (and perhaps the same pitch register), but which has the added capabilities of cross-fingering and overblowing at the octave.

We have seen that because there is no whole number between 2 and 3, it is not possible to build a chanter strictly in between a smallpipe and a border pipe. The pastoral pipe is of course not a small pipe, but what it is, is the result of an attempt to design a quieter more polite bagpipe (a smallpipe?), with a pitch register, range (overblowing at the octave) and volume comparable with that of the flute and the violin, plus some cross-fingering. So to bring the volume down the designer narrowed the cone angle greatly in comparison with contemporary bagpipes, even in fact with contemporary oboes, with which they can be compared fairly directly in pitch. The cone angle of surviving pastoral chanters tends to be in the region of 47:1 or just over 1.2°. Assuming a minimum practical value for the throat of the cone, and in reducing the cone angle, it follows that the length of the missing part of the cone must grow; and indeed you find that the staple length for a pastoral pipe or uilleann pipe is in the region of 50mm. This compares, for example, with a staple length of around 40mm for a low D chanter (same approximate length and pitch as a pastoral chanter) having a cone angle of, say, 38:1 or 1.5°. In addition to this the head (cane part) of the uilleann and pastoral reed is considerably more substantial than the oboe or D border chanter equivalent, which adds extra virtual length to the missing part of the cone. On the longest common woodwind, the bassoon, there is of course no staple. What would be one is so long that it becomes a separate part, the crook, connecting the top of the bore with the reed. But the optimum length of the staple is unfortunately not the end of the story. The designers of reeds for pastoral and uilleann chanters know that part of the process of getting the octave relationships correct is also to find the optimum shape for the staple and the reed-blades and the correct placement of the reed-blades on the staple.

To sum up, and to make a gross simplification, successful instruments having a conical bore, have a 1:2 relationship between the first and second harmonics. Those with a cylindrical bore have a 1:3 relationship. Neither the cone nor the cylinder will be perfect. What must be perfect is the whole number relationship between the harmonics. A number between 2 and 3 does not produce a musically useful result in the sense that the question was asked.

A couple of years ago I was pondering a similar question.  Conical bores also differ from cylinders in pitch, the latter playing an octave lower.  A D smallpipe chanter plays at the same pitch as a D border but is half the length.  Can then a chanter be made that can switch between the two and hence play two or more octaves?

Jon Swayne


In response to Andy’s question, I think it all comes down, as ever, to the reed.  The reed and the bore have to collaborate and set up a regime of oscillation that has integer harmonics.  The regime chooses to see the bore as either a cylinder or a cone.  If it can’t  quit decide it may jump back and forth producing a wolf tone, autocran or multiphonic (if you like the sound of it).  A slight taper will play like a cone though the tone may be different.  The regime doesn’t need the harmonics the bore offers to be musical or ‘integer’, it can push them into line but the pitch will be higher because the end of the chanter is now more open.  As the taper increases, the pitch will continue to rise, so to keep it at D the chanter will need to be even longer.  I presume the resulting instruments would be unstable until the taper is such that the chanter is twice the length of the original cylindrical smallpipe, or in other words a border pipe.  I haven’t tried this of course.  I’m presently of the opinion that some drones play as if they were conical at low bag pressure as they start up.

  I’m not sure I’ve answered either question and I’m happy to be corrected.

Sean Jones


Andy Letcher asks if there is a point between parallel and conical bored chanters which would allow a smallpipe to also have the acoustic properties of a conical chanter. I wish he had not asked this, as it is a really fascinating subject and one that I have sometimes dwelt on when sleep evades me in the wee wee hours.

It is of relevance to me because my Leicestershire and Scottish smallpipe chanters do all have very, very gently tapered bores starting from about one third of the way down from the top. There is a historical rather than acoustic reason why I originally adopted this design, but later I was pleased to observe that it helps to amplify the lower notes on the chanter, which tend to be weaker on a parallel bored chanter. I make them in a variety of keys and they all behave in a similar way, although I have found that with some nifty fingering on my D Scottish smallpipe chanter one has the possibility of producing an acceptable approximation of Bb and C#. But basically for 28 years I got what I expected from this style of chanter, which was just nine notes. (plus occasionally some embarrassing squawky high notes).

But that was all BC. (Before Callum). Once I made Callum Armstrong his Scottish smallpipes in A, he immediately started exploring the possibility of integrating those squawky high notes for musical purposes. We have now gone on to create a chanter with only four keys that will play three octaves. That story has been told elsewhere in Chanter and Common Stock. But it is important to note that his chanter is definitely behaving like a parallel bored smallpipe chanter as it overblows at a twelfth rather than at an octave, which is what a conical chanter does.

It would be fascinating to make series of reamers, each one with a slightly wider cone, to start doing some research. To do this properly I think one would need adequate funding for a couple of months of pure research. So step one would be to find a funding body and make an application for a sizeable grant to cover one’s loss of income from making pipes for the period of the research. Perhaps four months would be more realistic? Hand me £10,000, Andy, and I will begin the project after breakfast tomorrow. One can but dream……..

Seriously, there are just so many variables to this line of research which all need to be considered before one could begin. Too many, perhaps? Choice of chanter key, wall thickness, and most importantly the design of reed. Instinctively I would guess that at a certain degree of conicity, one could produce a ‘fish nor fowl’ chanter.  But I imagine it would be tricky to control and might sort of respond like a smallpipe chanter using one reed design, and sort of respond like a conical chanter using another reed design. And I cannot imagine that with either reed it would play very well in tune. And I am prepared to bet that Callum was the only person in the world that could make convincing music on it. Make that £20,000, Andy.

I am looking forward to hearing what other makers have to say as I expect we may have conflicting opinions. I do hope so!

Julian Goodacre