Piobaireachd Instrumentation

I ran across a very interesting report on a letter from Dr. McLeod to John Mackenzie dated 30 October 1781, where the question of the Prize Pipe to be awarded in the first competition was being discussed

The great octave Drone, an article of considerable expence, is unnecessary in a Highland Bagpipe, as it can seldom be filled by any man in motion; & that it will be better to have only the Two unison drones and to apply the expence of the create Drone towards the Prize chanters above proposed.

Makes one wonder where we might obtain more of the material history of the instrument itself.  Clearly, we have early evidence of three-drone pipes from the 18th century. The famous drawing in Joseph MacDonald stands out as an important witness.

And yet, here we have an organizer of the first competition inferring that this was not the norm. Whether this is a dependable witness, or the effort of an organizer to save money, we can’t be quite sure. But of course, there are plenty of examples of two-drone pipes, in pictures and sculpture.

(Notice the different shoulder and hand positions, too.)

It may be interesting to ponder the impact that the “octave Drone” had upon pibroch performance as it became standard for the instrument. It may be even more interesting to think what its absence did: could it be that without the deep octave, the gentleness of the movements without the percussive emphasis upon low-G could shine? Just a thought.

H/T to the inestimable Keith Sanger, who keeps everyone honest by his diligent traversal of historical documents.


8 thoughts on “Piobaireachd Instrumentation

  1. You do realise that none of the three bagpipes with two drones that are pictured above are examples of the Great Highland bagpipe? (they are rather bagpipes from the Low Countries/Germany)
    Is is unclear to me which point you are trying to make with these examples… Ofcourse there are lots of different kinds of bagpipes (with different hand and shoulder positions)…

  2. Yes, I do. I am, in fact, quite fascinated by the huge variety of pipes, piping styles and cultures that used “bagpipes”. I find it interesting how the term “bagpipe” in modern parlance has come to mean only the GHB, when there are so many different types and were so many different types.
    But setting aside the illustrations, and more to the point – how does one reconcile the presumption of the three-droned pipe (are we calling such pipes the GHB?) being the instrument of piobaireachd with the written evidence of Dr. McLeod? Seems to me that this quote rather disrupts the idea. How far it disrupts it is a question I would like to pose and would enjoy bringing in the historians to answer. But clearly, the letter describes a situation that suggests the “GHB” was not the instrument of pibroch.
    Additionally, the work being done by Keith Sanger is beginning to make us sensitive to the fact that, according to the written archive at any rate, there seems to be much more evidence of the predominance of lowland pipes and pipers than we have up to now assumed. What impact might that have upon our idea of the “bagpipe” in Scottish history and culture. And I’m not entirely clear whether piobaireachd was played on lowland pipes (much less, what lowland pipes looked like and sounded like).
    Finally, I would very much invite you to find and share 17th and 18th images of pipes, whether two-droned or three-droned, from that part of the world. It would be a great benefit to us, I’m sure!

    1. I agree, the diversity of the bagpipe as a family of musical instruments is extremely fascinating! (although I am very partial the GHB and its Big music ;) ) In the context of folk/classical music, it’s interesting to think about the French musette de cour that was played at the French court during the Baroque period and for which several (leading) composers wrote music (including concerti and appearances in the operas of Rameau).

      The point you bring up is interesting, but I don’t know whether this really changes or disrupts our image of the GHB? The co-existence at one point of several versions of the instrument, that is with two and/or three drones, doesn’t make it less of a GHB (or makes the version with two drones less of a GHB)? But just different historical version of it? (Just as there is a (technical) evolution in every instrument) (Hugh Cheape might have written about this, but I’m not sure.)

      With regards to the lowland pipes, I’m not sure whether you refer to the lowland pipes (border pipes) or the bagpipes used in the Low Countries (the Netherlands), that I mentioned? In the last case, no piobaireachd was played on those for sure (completely different music and culture), in the first case also definitely not (as far I am aware).

      I don’t know how old this is (I guess quite recent), but on the collected Bineas is Boreraig collection, a piper with a bagpipe, consisting of one bas drone and one tenor drone, is shown!

  3. I have also been puzzled by that painting. When Keith mentions two-drone pipes, he has always meant unison drones. Where did the bass-tenor two-drone pipe enter in?
    I am rather curious about whether the materiality of the instrument and its acoustical properties might have affected composition and performance. For instance, Joseph MacDonald style taorluaths and crunluaths emphasize the low-A, not the low-G. They are much “lighter” in tone. Fosgailte crunluaths played “open” are also very much lighter. One could infer that motifs like darados and embaris did not emphasize the low-hand cutting gracenotes. Could all of this be because tonally, the two-drone tenor pipe “allowed” them? Could it have been the widespread adoption of the bass drone that caused a shift in the way we perform these, so they can be heard better against that deep drone? I have no idea how to answer that question, but it seems an interesting one to ponder.
    And by “lowland” I mean what today we would call border pipes. I believe that is what Keith Sanger is referring to. Not the pipes from the Netherlands. Although – how different were they?
    I was under the impression we more-or-less lost “lowland” piping tradition.
    I need to ask Keith these questions. Maybe I can get him to post.

    1. Yes, those are very interesting questions! But maybe it was also a matter of aesthetics? (preferring a lighter style as opposed to the dissonant LG) Or possiblye a(n unconscious?) combination of both?
      Okay. The pipes of the Netherlands (of course there were different kinds of them) really are different from the GHB (or Lowland pipes), e.g. the timbre, kind of music played on them, their social status (as a peasant instrument as seen for example in various painting of Bruegel),…

  4. I am interested in this for the same reason they were ,cost. I am doing a program where I perform as an 18th century piper in first person and want everything from instruments and clothing to be 100% authentic. The cost of 18th cen Highland Pipes to be reproduced is high so I considered 2 drones to reduce cost. If it was a bass and 1 tenor I would do it, but the sound of matched drones I would personally find lacking. Over 2 years ago I ordered the Montgomery Smallpipes from Julian Goodacre so I will have authentic smallpipes when they arrive.

    I have seen the lighter non low-G embellishments and I often prefer the lighter sound, even in early score light music.

  5. Where to start? Well perhaps with the picture of Joseph MacDonald as we have no idea where they were made as they were sent out to him by a well wisher in London. Hugh Cheape has suggested that the ‘modern’ highland pipe stems from the prize pipe of the early piping competitions. It is a view that coming from a different direction from Hugh I would certainly support. It was after all the competition organizers who determined that the competitors were to play the mouth blown ‘highland’ pipe and then later circa 1822 discouraged the use of two drone pipes.
    The early competition records show that a number of pipers with bellows blown pipes turned up to compete but were given expenses but turned away because (and note) they were using bellows pipes, not because they were not able to play ‘pibroch’. This in turn resulted in a number of old sets which show evidence of being converted from bellows to mouth blown. Just as there are a number of later old pipes which have had a bass drone added making them into three drone pipes. The well known ‘Kintail pipe’ is one example.

    So where do we go from here in looking backwards? Well first a comment on vocabulary. When I first started to follow these sort of online posts my normal reaction to someone referring to themselves as a ‘bagpiper’ or ‘bagpipng’ was to assume they came from the US. It is an interesting fact that in Scotland when working backwards to the past a bag is in fact rarely mentioned. I have a large database of references to pipers and piping extracted from contemporary sources including some 300 Lowland pipers running back from around 1800 to the 15th C and none of them mention a bag, it is always just ‘piper’. It is a similar situation among the Gaelic material or pipers who fall under the description of being Gaelic speakers. To save writing refer to this link for further explanation

    There are a small number of occasions when the term bagpipe is used but not usually when directly attached to it’s player. Even when the bagpipe has a description it tends to contract to a small pipe or a large pipe and these are the only defining descriptions used, The term Highland Pipe is much later and the term Border pipe is a modern description.
    Again to save writing see below for more information.https://www.academia.edu/7519753/Whats_in_a_Name._the_background_to_when_the_description_Highland_Pipes_was_first_used

    So how do we move on from there being a large bagpipe and a small bagpipe in use in Scotland. Well the first evidence of a division between mouth and bellows blown instruments comes in the second half of the 17th century when an English play-write uses the description of the sound of a Scots bagpipe with a leak in its bellows. Moving on from there into the 18th C there is of course the picture of Grants piper who clearly has three drones and is mouth blown. But it is also the case that references to two drone mouth blown pipes also occur and were obviously current at the time the Piping Competitions began.

    A point I have made before in an article on this site is that pipes were expensive and usually supplied by the patrons. In many cases those pipes were required to carry their patrons arms on a flag, which were about ten times the cost of the actual instrument. (any armorial s had to pass through the Lord Lyons approval and be painted by the official painter so expensive). Now any patron who had the money to have a pipe banner with his own arms would not bulk at the cost of a bass drone to fly it from, and I cannot see how a pipe banner could be flown from two tenor drones.

    Which brings us to the question of pictures. Well roughly contemporary with the first piping competitions we are in luck as a drawing of a two drone bagpipe is shown on the front page of Dominico Corri’s second volume of Select Collection of Scots Songs published circa 1788. Corri was one of an Italian family of musicians based in Edinburgh. For the contemporary Bellows Blown instrument of that period there is a sketch of the Haddington Burgh piper and drummer and further north another portrait from Aberdeenshire of a man playing a much repaired bellows pipe which has been modified into a mouthblown one.

Leave a Reply