The Highland Bagpipe: History, Context & Performance

Hello friends & fam!

For this week’s blog I thought I’d talk about my favorite course that I took this semester…. *drum roll please*…. The Highland Bagpipe: History, Context and Performance! Say, what?! Yes, I actually did take a course on how to play the bagpipes and yes, this course actually exists here at the University of Edinburgh.

So, what did I actually learn in this class?

Well, there were three different components to this course, as the name suggests:

  1. History
  2. Context
  3. Performance

I’ve been asked hundreds of times about this course by people back home and from here in Edinburgh, so I thought I’d give you a little synopsis of what I’ve learned this semester and all of the fun that I had doing so! (Plus, my final exam for this course is on Wednesday so this is actually helping me study a little 😉 )

History

In history component of this course, we overviewed the origin of the bagpipes, how it played a role within Highland society throughout history, and how that role has changed over the years. So, as many of you know, I am very much not a history major so this area of the course was a bit challenging for me. There’s so many dates, battles, and names (In Gaelic, the native language of the Scots in earlier years) that you have to remember and my brain was often a bit fried from trying to memorize them…so we’ll see how this final exam goes!

One aspect of the history of the Highland bagpipe that I found interesting was its origin story. There is one possible idea that has circulated in the history of the bagpipe that it originated in the Middle East and was brought up to Scotland due to trades back and forth. Slowly but surely the bagpipe became more important to the local societies in Scotland and soon there were families that took up piping as a profession! These families were known as the “Piping families” of early Scottish Celtic society and would play their pipes for royalty, write songs of praise about specific families, and even would accompany poets for recitations. These families often ran their own “piping colleges” to teach their kindred their profession. Pretty interesting, eh? I thought so.

Context

When you hear about the bagpipes, what do you automatically think of? I know before I took this course an image of strong man marching in a tartan kilt, tall fuzzy hat, and red hair playing a gigantic bagpipe always immediately came to my mind. In fact, that was what I mostly thought of when I thought of Scotland! But did you know that there are more than 100 different types of bagpipes around the world? Some of these bagpipes were played before the Highland Bagpipe was even invented! Here’s a quick video of some bagpipes that are found originally in Spain and its called the Galician Gaita; these pipes are definitely one of my personal favs from outside of the UK.

My personal favorite type of bagpipes overall is probably the Irish bagpipes; its an intricate and extremely complex instrument that utilizes harmonies along with the tune of the bagpipe. Recently I was able to visit the National Piping Centre in the city of Glasgow in Scotland and got the opportunity to watch a very skilled piper perform with one of these bad boys. It was so rad! Here’s a youtube video of those you should check out if you’re keen:

Performance

Q: ERICA, DID YOU REALLY LEARN HOW TO PLAY THE BAGPIPES? 

A: Well, sort of.

When you begin to learn how to play the Highland bagpipe, you first start practicing with the part of the instrument that provides the melody, otherwise known as the practice chanter. Okay, so quick lesson on the different parts of the bagpipe: so you know the little thing on the end of the bagpipe that has the holes for your fingers to cover and play? That’s the chanter. The three tall tubes that stick out of the bag of the bagpipe are called drones and that’s what gives the steady sound that is in the background of the melody. The bag that holds all of the air inside of it is called a bag. (What? NO WAY.) There’s also a blowstick where you, well, blow air into the bag. (Mysterious, I know!) Here’s a pic for reference:

bagpipeparts.gif

So, I learned how to play the practice chanter. I would describe the practice chanter as the Scottish cousin of the recorder that we all learned how to play in elementary school; so it’s basically the chanter bit of the bagpipe detached and one of the most annoying sounding instruments ever (Probably just because of how badly I play it, but it’s fine). For the past four months I’ve been practicing the practice chanter and no, my roommates did not chuck me out of the flat (Thankfully). Y’all, playing the practice chanter was one of the most interesting yet difficult things I’ve ever done. There’s so much technique and skill required to even play a simple tune on this little instrument! Spending the semester practicing on this little instrument gave me a serious appreciation for all of the lads and lassies who are pipers out there because y’all, I have absolutely no idea on how they do it.

P.S. I bought my practice chanter with my course so it’ll become stateside. If you want a personal concert definitely hit me up for a small fee. 😉

Overall, this course was absolutely one of my favorite life experiences that I will never, ever forget. Not many people can say that they took a class on how to play the bagpipe in Scotland while attending a Scottish university and I’m so glad I’m one of the people who can. Thanks so much to Iowa State University for sending me to this lovely place, to the University of Edinburgh for providing this course, and to the professors who taught me this semester (talking to you Professor Beaton and Professor Finley, y’all are the best).

Finally here’s a video of a cover All of Me by John Legend on the Highland Bagpipe that I particularly found entertaining. Enjoy, and thanks for reading! x

(**I do not take credit for any of these videos or photos used except for the featured photo of the thistle above**)

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2 thoughts on “The Highland Bagpipe: History, Context & Performance

  1. Neato! What an awesome class! I was lucky enough to see Seven Nations over 20 years ago; they were one of the first non-traditional bagpipe bands (they’re heavy metal). Here’s a song from them your mom will remember: http://youtu.be/dCmI9TRE8Sg

    Like

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