OT: 27 November 1915 – Allan MacDonald [“The Bagpipe Chanter Scale”]

The Oban Times, 27 November, 1915

 [The Bagpipe Chanter Scale]
Waternish, Skye, 13 November, 1915

 Sir,–Many of your correspondence may be interested in the following quotation from the second edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” Edinburgh, 1778 (printed for J. Balfour & Co., W. Gordon, G. Bell, G. Dickson, C. Elliott, W. Creech, J. Mcleish, A. Bell, J. Hudson, and C. Macfarquhar):–

Bagpipe, a musical instrument of the wind kind, chiefly used in Scotland and Ireland. The peculiarity of the bag-pipe, and from which it takes its name, is, that the air which blows is is collected into a leathern bag, from which it is pressed out by the arm into the pipes. These pipes consist of a bass, and tenor or rather treble; and are different according to the species of the pipe. The bass part is called the drone, and the tenor or treble part the chanter. In all the species, the basse never varies from its uniform note, and therefore very deservedly gets the name of drone; and the compass of the chanter is likewise very limited. There is a considerable difference between the Highland and Lowland bag-pipe of Scotland: the former being blown with the mouth, and the latter with a small bellows; though this difference is not essential, every species of bag pipe being capable, by a proper construction of the reeds, of producing music either with the mouth or bellows. The following are the species of bag-pipes most commonly known in this country:–

1. The Irish Pipe.–This is the softest, and in some respects the most melodious of any, so that music books have been published, with directions how to play on it. The chanter, like that of all the rest, has eight holes like the English flute, and is played on by opening and shutting the holes as occasion requires; the bass consists of two short drones, and a long one. The lowest note of the chanter is d on the German flute, being the open note of the counter string of a violin; the small drone (one of them, commonly being stopped up) is tuned in unison with the note above this, and the large one to an octave below, so that a great length is required in order to produce such a low note, by which account the drone hath sometimes two or three turns. The instrument is tuned by the lengthening or shortening the drone till it sounds the note desired.

2. The Highland Bag-Pipe.–This consists of a chanter and two short drones, which sound in unison with the lowest note of the chanter except one. This is exceedingly loud, and almost deafening if played in a room; and is therefore mostly used in the fields, for marches, etc. It requires a prodigious blast to sound it; so that those unaccustomed to it cannot imagine how Highland pipers can continue to play for hours together, as they are often known to do. For the same reason, those who use the instrument are obliged either to stand on their feet, or walk, when they play. This instrument hath but nine notes; its scale, however, hath not yet been reduced to a regular standard by comparing it with that of other instruments, so that we can say nothing about its compass.

3. The Scots Lowland Pipe.–This is likewise a very loud instrument, though less so than the former. It is blown with bellows, and has a bass like the Irish pipe. This species is different from all the rest; and as it cannot play the natural notes, but hath F and C sharp. The lowest note of a good bag-pipe of this kind is unison with C sharp on the tenor of the violin tuned concert pitch; and as it hath but nine notes, the highest is D in alt. From this peculiar construction, the Highland and Lowland bag-pipes play two species of music essentially different from one another, as each of them also is from every other species of music in the world. Hence these two species of bag-pipes deserve notice as curiosities: for the music which they play is accompanied with such peculiar ornaments, or what are intended as such, as neither violin, or even organ, can imitate, but in a very imperfect manner.

4. The Small Pipe.–This is remarkable for its smallness, the chanter not exceeding eight inches in length; for which reason, the holes are so near each other that it is with difficulty they could be close. This hath only eight notes, the lower end of the chanter being commonly stopped. The reason of this is, to prevent the slurring of all the notes, which is unavoidable in the other species, so that in the hands of a bad player they become the most shocking and unintelligible instruments imaginable, but this, by having the lower whole close, and also by the peculiar way in which the notes are expressed, plays all its tunes in the way called by the Italians staccato, and cannot slur at all. It hath no species of music peculiar to itself; and can play nothing which cannot be much better done upon other instrument; though it is surprising what volubility some performers on this instrument can display, and how much they will overcome the natural disadvantages of it. Some of the species, instead of having drones like the others, have their bass parts consisting of a winding cavity in a kind of short case, and are tuned by opening these to a certain degree by means of sliding covers from which contrivance they are called shuttle-pipes. Besides these, there are a variety of others, called Italian, German, Organ, etc. bag-pipes, which have nothing different in their construction from those above described, nor any good quality to recommend them.

Next week I will give a quotation as to the origin of bagpipe music.–I am, etc.,

Allan MacDonald