The St. John’s Pipers of Ocean Springs, MS

The St. John’s Pipers of Ocean Springs, MS


Random Thoughts on Piping

20 Nov 2023

The History of the Black Watch Tartan

In 1725, 10 years after the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion, General George Wade, Commander-in-Chief in North Britain, advised King George I he intended to create a “Watch” consisting of six Independent Companies raised from native Scots clans loyal to the Crown. The advice was given on the basis that the “Watch” would patrol the Scottish Highlands and the duties of the companies were to be "employed in disarming the Highlanders, preventing depredations, bringing criminals to justice, and hindering rebels and attainted persons from inhabiting that part of the kingdom." Essentially, keeping the peace within the Highlands, this new “Watch” was known in Gaelic as Am Freiceadan Dubh, "the dark" or "black watch".

To create the “Watch”, three Companies were formed by members of Clan Campbell (captained by Campbell of Lochnell, Campbell of Carrick and Campbell of Skipness), one of Clan Fraser of Lovat (captained by Lord Lovat), one of Clan Grant (captained by Col William Grant of Ballindalloch) and one of Clan Munro (captained by Munro of Culcairn). 

So successful did the Watch prove in bringing law and order to the Highlands, that in 1739 King George II commanded that four more companies be trained and added to the six existing Black Watch companies, creating one single line infantry Regiment known simply as The Black Watch. There was one condition to join, and that was that all the men must be native to Scotland.

What colour is the Black Watch Tartan?

The Companies wore a black, dark blue and green tartan, woven by over sixty weavers in Strathspey, the county of Clan Grant. 12 yard kilts were originally worn by the soldiers in the Black Watch, alongside red jackets, red waistcoats and blue bonnets. Their uniformed weaponry would have included a musket, bayonet, broadsword, pistol and dirk. From their conception, the regiment wore the Black Watch tartan, right up until 1940. 

In the collection of Lieutenant General Sir William Cockburn at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, Scotland, a sample of the Black Watch tartan labelled 'Grant' is on view. Another sample of this 'Grant' tartan was added to the collection of the Highland Society of London in 1822.

On the 15th May 1725, General Wade decided to issue an order regarding the uniform of the Companies:

"take Care to provide Plaid Cloathing and Bonnets in the Highland Dress for the Non-Commission Officers and Soldiers belonging to their Companies, the Plaid of each Company to be as near as they can of the same sort and Colour."

Wade said "... the Plaid of each Company to be as near as they can of the same sort and Colour." and although some historians argue that each Company wore its own tartan, it is generally accepted that they all wore the one which we have long known as "Black Watch", which is officially termed the Government Tartan.

Information given by General Stewart of Garth, appears to back this up as he states a new tartan was introduced at that time which was "distinct from all others". His information came from soldiers who served in the Black Watch in 1739. Although General Garth served from 1787 to 1804, his sources would have told him of any changes to the tartan design. The exact design and detail of the tartan exist from the 1760s. 

What Clan is the Black Watch in Scotland?

In the 1819 Key Pattern Book of William Wilson & Sons, suppliers of tartan to the military, noted about the Black Watch tartan: "This is said to be the Munro Tartan - but it is far more probable that it is the Campbell Tartan." There is also the possibility that the pattern was a popular one worn by many different clans throughout the Highlands.

In 1793 George III asked the Duke of Argyll to raise a regiment. Argyll then delegated this task to Duncan Campbell of Lochnell and the following year the 98th Argyllshire Highlanders were founded. Lochnell dressed the regiment in the Black Watch Tartan , which the Campbells also thought of as their own. Now we have the Munros, the Campbells AND the Grants claiming the Black Watch as their tartan - but it became even more complex.

In 1800 Major-General William Wemyss (a cousin of the Countess Elizabeth) then raised the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders. That regiment’s tartan was also the Black Watch Tartan (as confirmed by Wilson's records) - although it was now called "Sutherland Black Watch".

This began the cycle of clans adapting variations of the Black Watch tartan being worn by many Highland regiments, such as the Seaforth Highlanders (with red and white lines running through), the Gordon Highlanders (with yellow lines) and many Fencible regiments. It is believed the adoption of these patterns as Clan Tartans by clans such as MacKenzie, Gordon, Munro and Sutherlands, all arose by military association.

In 1881, when the 91st (Argyll) joined the 93rd (Sutherland), to form Princess Louise's Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, they chose - of course - the Black Watch Tartan. 

Why is it called the Black Watch?

There are a lot of theories as to why the “Watch” was called “Black”:

    Highlanders often demanded extortion payments to spare cattle herds, so the Watch was known for combatting “black mail”

    As soldiers of an unpopular government, the Watch were considered to be "black hearted" as they had sided with the "enemies of true Highland spirit", however, because the Watch would also call themselves the “Black Watch”, we can’t imagine this to be true

    The designation came from the Black Cockade of the House of Hanover (as opposed to the White Cockade of the Jacobites)

    Another notion is that the name is simply derived from the dark colour of the tartan

    The Companies’ main role was to "watch" over the highlands and be the enforcers of law and order.

      Does the Black Watch still exist?

      Throughout the British Army’s long history, regiments have been disbanded and amalgamated for reasons of peace reductions in troops, operational effectiveness and economy. Combining separate regiments has always been controversial and many believe it has diluted the heritage and tradition of unique organisations.

      As a result of transitioning from the massed mobilization during the Second World War, the Army shrank so drastically, it became impossible to keep county and clan names attached to regiments, so as far as possible they were given to smaller units down to company size. In 2006-07, the Government amalgamated several English, Welsh and Scottish infantry regiments into new ‘super regiments’. It subsequently came under heavy criticism from soldiers, veterans, politicians, the media and members of the public. Supporters of the change claimed that the old regimental heritages would be preserved in the battalions of the new regiments. Their opponents disagreed, and the discussion still continues today. In 2006, for example, the Royal Scots & King's Own Scottish Borderers, Royal Highland Fusiliers, Black Watch, Highlanders, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and Territorial Army (Scotland) were amalgamated to form the Royal Regiment of Scotland. The Black Watch tartan (with slightly lighter shades) was chosen for the new regiment and is still worn today as general dress by 3rd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland. 

      Who can wear the Black Watch Tartan?

      A number of tartans, still worn by Commonwealth military units, are known as ‘government’ tartans, and are defined in a standard currently maintained by Defence Equipment and Support within the Ministry of Defense. They are known by a number, a name, or both. The commonest government tartans also in regimental use today are royal Stewart (to which a number was not assigned); Government 1, (Black Watch); and Government 1A, (Sutherland district),  a slightly lighter form of Black Watch, and specifically with a lighter green – general-public fashion use often has a lighter blue instead or in addition. The designation “government” implies that these tartans can be used by anyone, that is, they are not reserved or privileged specifically for a clan or a group.

      The second most popular is the Black Watch, which is formalized to but not specifically used by the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 Scots); inherited in succession from Black Watch (Royal Highlanders), Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), and 42nd Regiment of Foot. The tartan is also among the most common in civilian use, and sold as such as well as under various names like old Campbell, hunting Grant, hunting Munro, etc. (often somewhat lightened). Today, anyone can wear the Black Watch tartan, although it is clear that for at least 270 years, the Black Watch tartan has only been worn by Scottish soldiers. At times, regiments have worn lighter shades and some darker, but the essential pattern, worn historically by Rob Roy's sons, has stayed the same and is still a symbol of Scottish loyalty, courage and sacrifice. 

      1 Nov 2023

      Practice Piping Proficiency Properly

      I am the pipe sergeant of my piping group, and for about twenty-odd years I have taught basic bagpiping to anyone who wants to learn from me. When asked how they could improve, my students got me to boil everything down, based on my years of teaching and piping, to a basic set of skills.

      I believe there are three primary areas of focus and failure for us average pipers. We call them timing, technique, and bagpipe issues. To the beginner, especially someone who has just transitioned to the big set, just playing one tune can sometimes appear overwhelming. However when you break things down and focus on fundamentals, it’s really not so bad. Let’s deal with “timing” first.

      Timing is primarily a matter of playing the tune at a steady tempo. Notes line up where they’re supposed to and the music comes out as the composer intended. You must train your fingers to follow, not to lead. Here’s what I mean.

      Stop tapping your foot as you play. Many average pipers tap one foot while they play, thinking this helps keep them on the beat - and it is a logical but erroneous assumption. Unless you were born with an uncommon sense of timing, you’ll end up tapping your foot to your fingers. Timing and tempo will be all over the place and you won’t even realize it. It’s a bad habit. STOP THIS - IMMEDIATELY! Unless you are working with a metronome, this habit will ruin a great tune by distracting your brain from the tune’s timing. 

      Identify the “landing notes”. These are the notes that land at the beginning of each beat. In a 4/4 march there are four such landing notes per measure. Make sure that these notes land at the beginning of the beat (on a click on the metronome - NOT your foot). This is your #1 priority. 

      Second piece of advice - SLOW EVERYTHING DOWN. It’s more important to have correct timing than it is to have correct tempo. As your proficiency grows, challenge yourself to play at the correct tempo, but do so gradually. Do not sacrifice timing or technique for the sake of tempo.

      Next … you must always practice with a metronome. Although it is often misused and disliked by beginner musicians, the metronome can be the piper’s best friend. Let’s look at some of the ways you can use a metronome to improve your timing. You can use a traditional mechanical metronome, a modern electronic metronome, or even a metronome app on your smartphone or tablet. So how does using a metronome help you with your playing?

      1. You internalise a rock-steady beat

      This is the biggest advantage a metronome gives you. As a musician you need to have a rock-solid sense of the beat. Everything in music is built on that steady (or sometimes intentionally not-so-steady!) tick, tick, tick, tick.

      One of the most noticeable traits of beginner (or just bad) pipers is that they have unreliable musical timing. They have not yet developed their “inner metronome” and so their playing sounds sloppy, even if they hit all the right notes. The tune sounds randomized and weird, and trying to work with other pipers becomes a “catch up” event rather than a nice, crisp strike in.

      Practising regularly with a metronome helps enforce the steady beat and over time you will find your internal sense of the beat becomes clearer and more reliable. Eventually you won’t even need the metronome to play perfectly in time, every time.

      2. A steady beat will free your attention

      While that steady tick-tock of the metronome keeps you in time and passively develops your internal metronome, your mind is actually freed up to focus on other aspects of music.

      Once you get past the initial discomfort of unfamiliarity, it is actually easier to practice your pieces with a metronome playing, because you don’t need to pay so much active attention to staying in precise time. The metronome helps you do that, freeing up your musical mind to think about pitch, dynamics and phrasing.

      3. You will learn to estimate tempos

      Each time you set the tempo on your metronome, try to tap out the correct beat yourself first. At the start you will probably be able to do a few simple tempos like 60BPM or 120BPM, but it is possible to develop a very sophisticated ability to estimate tempos, so that you need only look at a piece of sheet music labeled e.g. 75BPM and be able to play it at the right pace.

      4. You will automatically become more sensitive to tempo changes

      As you train your brain for tempo estimation and that rock-solid sense of beat, you will find you become more sensitive to variations and changes in tempo.

      From long accelerandos and decelerandos which change the overall pace of the music, to small or temporary adjustments used for musical expression, having an ear which easily detects changes to tempo is a key part of high-level musicianship. Piobaireachd is a perfect example of this.

      5. You will gain power over the beat

      When you listen to a truly moving performance, say a performance by a Gold Medalist, the chances are that the piper is able to create that effect by how they “play with” the tempo and dynamics of the music. More than just playing the right notes at the right time, true musicality depends on an ability to interpret the “correct” pitch, timing and volume and add your own expression to it.

      To be able to play around with the beat and add character to your performance, it is essential that you are first anchored in a rock-solid sense of the beat and tempo. Otherwise your creative changes will just sound messy. Train using a metronome and you will find new freedom to manipulate the beat, confident that you are grounded in a solid accurate tempo.

      You may have had bad experiences with metronomes in the past, particularly if an instrument teacher forced you to play endless scales with the metronome beat ticking away. But hopefully you now see that the metronome can be a very useful tool for you in a number of ways as you develop your playing and become a more sophisticated and impressive musician. If you did get metronomic hell while learning, chances are the beat is still there. It just works. 

      Next … You absolutely, positively HAVE to practice marching. Put the metronome beat into some headphones. Then begin by marching in place to the beat. March when you take a walk. March in your sleep. Always have tunes playing in your head or other listening device. Sync your feet to the metronome or to the beat of the music. If you’re sitting at the table practicing, pace your feet to the metronome. Left, Right, Left, Right. SLOW DOWN. Start marches at 70 BPM and get all the notes in. Don’t worry about embellishments just yet. Practice those outside of the tunes and add them in later as your ability allows.

      If you try to “skip steps” and focus only on the tune, embellishments or tempo rather than timing, you’ll be years trying to correct the issues that you’ve “baked” into your playing. Sometimes the rush to get on parade causes us to develop bad technique and timing that will be very challenging to correct. Do yourself a favor and hurry along slowly! 

      I had a break-through lesson some time ago with an adult student who was dealing with a number of issues like this. He’s around my age, and had only been playing for a couple of years. Mostly self-taught, he had issues that he had “baked-in” (which comes with its own set of challenges. Unlearning is a whole lot harder than learning things correctly from the get-go!) However, he had a great attitude and was determined to improve. Here’s what we discovered during that afternoon session.

      In learning new music and in playing tunes he had already worked on, his brain and his fingers were not in sync. They would meet up at certain points but were otherwise disconnected while moving through the tune. Unknowingly, he was often making stuff up. His timing and execution were out of step with his brain, and this translated to sloppy fingering and bad executive movements on the chanter. He was also operating on faulty information regarding the execution of some (most) embellishments. Lastly, his reading music skills were not great, and much of his playing was from memory. 

      In active tune learning, your eyes transmit information from the musical score to your brain. Your brain processes the information and instructs your fingers on how to behave. Your fingers respond, hopefully as they are instructed. Repetition moves the sight, muscle memory and sound to long term memory, and repetitive patterns start to become automatic. In all instances, your fingers need to follow this instructional path. You have to allow time for your brain to recognize the information sent by your eyes and then for your fingers to act on instructions sent from your brain. By skipping steps here, bad habits get memorized along with the good ones.

      In my friend’s case, he was allowing his fingers to move ahead of his eyes in his haste to “play the tune.” As a consequence, he was throwing in grace notes that weren’t there, playing wrong melody notes, and executing embellishments incorrectly. He was also repeating errors and therefore reinforcing poor technique. Bad things were being “baked” into his music. 

      What I really wanted him to do was to play each individual note separately, distinctly, and sequentially. We went back to basics. We played each note on the beat, including expanded embellishments. We slowed things way down. If he made a mistake, I immediately stopped him and made him play the phrase over three times correctly. It was painful. It was frustrating. It was infuriating. BUT - at the end of the lesson, he had successfully taught himself three new tunes spanning forty measures of music, and could play them error-free. I checked back with him the next week just to make sure that nothing ugly had appeared, but he definitely had the epiphany, and has only improved since.

      The lesson here is to never assume anything. Slow everything … w a y … t h e … h e c k … d o w n. Never give up! Be deliberate in everything you do. Accuracy first. Timing. Then speed. Then execution. And make your fingers follow your eyes! Don’t move your fingers before receiving instructions from your brain.

      NOW you can tap your foot …

      30 Oct 2023

      Does Practice Really Make Perfect? Well, it Depends.

      Ever heard of "unconscious competence"?

      It's when you can do something on autopilot, flawlessly and effortlessly.

      We had a guest piper join us this Sunday, from Wisconsin, but working in Wiggins, who drove an hour to us just to play with us in the Marshall Park Rotunda. We were definitely outclassed, even if he claimed his bagpipe sounded like he hadn’t played in a few weeks (which he hadn’t, but you’d never know because he was just THAT GOOD.) What got me was not that he slipped into our sets flawlessly and easily, like he’d been with us for years, it was his musicality. It was “unconscious competence” and a beautifully tuned bagpipe.

      Often, when we think of pipers who can play with total, enviable unconscious competence, we might picture our favorite famous piper. You know the one – they make it look easy. 

      But unconscious competence isn't always about peak performance. At its core, it's mostly about just doing things automatically.

      It's like riding a bike or driving a car – like Yoda says, you don't think, you just do.

      Ever heard the saying "You don't rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training"?

      When you start juggling too many things at once – or adding the nerves of performance to an already stressful situation – chances are you won't miraculously perform better under the pressure (despite what every Hollywood blockbuster told you!).

      When your brain is taxed by additional things draining your bandwidth for concentration, you will most likely regress to the level of skill, memorization, or playing ability that you're unconsciously competent at.

      That doesn't just mean being able to do something really well. It means being able to do something really well but on autopilot!

      To quote another well-known saying: "Don't practice until you get it right – practice until you can't get it wrong."

      And I'd add to that – practice until you can't get it wrong even when you're distracted and nervous!

      With the Festival at Harrison County Fairgrounds coming, I can no longer use excuses to fudge my playing by using my performance as a practice - I MUST practice daily so that my unconscious competence during my playing carries me through the fair and prevents me from ruining a great set of music. 

      One more quote for you, since I am pushing them - “Practice does not make performance perfect - PERFECT practice does.” 

      In other words, get it right, every time, so that error is not habit. Practice perfect tunes, and let it become unconscious competence.

      26 Oct 2023

      A Brief History of the Great Highland Bagpipe

      Today, bagpipes are most closely associated with Scotland. But did you know they can be traced back to an entirely different continent?

      Think of bagpipes, and you probably picture a piper wearing tartan kilt, feather bonnet, and the three-tasselled horse-hair sporran, playing ‘Scotland the Brave’, or perhaps ‘Skye Boat Song’. While Scotland undoubtedly has the strongest bagpiping tradition today, early evidence suggests that the instrument’s origins actually lie much further afield in place and time.

      The bagpipe as we know it today consists of a pipe that is blown into (to fill the bag with air), at least one drone, and a chanter – a reeded hollow pipe with holes that allow the piper to play a melody. 

      The history of the reed pipe goes back over a vast period in time to the third millennium B.C. Pipers played on reed sounded pipes and not flutes, and these stretch back unbroken for five thousand years. The earliest specimens of the reed sounded pipe have been found in Babylonia and ancient Egypt. Pipes excavated in the tombs of Egypt had actual reeds of straw, some with uncut straws beside them for their replacement. Straw reeds have been found in position in the pipes and protective cases also found with spare straws for cutting into reeds. Reeds found in the pipes have been identified as barley straw.

      The earliest known specimens of reed pipes and the earliest depictions of them are all of the double pipe. These were two duplicate pipes of cylindrical bore, bound together, each sounding its own reed. Finger holes corresponding in position in each pipe indicate that each finger covered the same holes in both pipes and produced the same note by means of circular breathing, a technique familiar to Scottish bagpipe teachers and the Aborigines of Australia. Both pipes were intended to play the melody simultaneously. These pipes obviously produce twice the volume of sound that a single pipe would. They have been identified on a relief as early as 2700 B.C. But in other illustrations,  some of these parallel pipes seem even to have been fitted with only a single reed.

      A second type of pipe has been found, and it also illustrated in similar fashion to the parallel pipe. These were the divergent pipes. Two separate pipes, held in each hand, and not bound together which were fitted with separate reeds. Since each pipe was fingered separately, many of them have been found with four holes in one pipe, (probably the right hand pipe) and three holes in the other, probably the left. The oldest set of pipes ever found, those of Ur, are divergent pipes. These were made of silver, indicating a highly developed instrument. They were found in the royal cemetery of Ur, around 2800 B.C. (Now in the university museum, Pennsylvania) unfortunately without reeds.

      A common alteration to both types of pipes was found where one of the pipes had all its holes except one, altered by the application of resinous material, probably wax. This enabled one of the pipes to sound a different note from the other. This would result in a continuous drone sound or harmony against the melody pipe. In some cases, this drone note was varied when two of the holes of the drone pipe were left open. Thus, the drone sound could be lowered or raised at will to produce a greater harmony without difficulty. Some pipes have been found with a hook arrangement inside the pipe, extended from a chain, for the purpose of extracting the wax.

      The status of the ancient world piper was held in great esteem, as judged by the grave of the piper in the Royal Sumerian Cemetery at Ur, and the ancient Greek statue erected to Phronomus, (the inventor of the ring stops.) Aside from his silver pipes, the Ur piper had the greatest number of offerings, more than any other burial in the cemetery. You guessed it, we have real evidence of a rich piper!  

      During the last thousand years B.C. double pipes were known and played all over the old world of the Near and Middle East. The divergent type was to prove more popular than the parallel type, according to archeological finds, which show them more numerous. From Ur in Sumeria, the divergent double pipes can be traced right up through Mesopotamia and Arabia, to the Eastern Mediterranean and the countries of Israel and Phoenicia, to Troy and the Hellespont, right to into Greece and Rome. The divergent reed pipes were (by numbers) supreme in the ancient world - or they were so unpopular they were dumped in their thousands - piper’s spouses probably have an opinion here. However, the literature of both Greece and Rome indicate that the pipes were one of the facets of everyday life in both countries. The chain of development seems to have been Sumeria, Egypt, Phrygia, Lydia, Phoenicia, Greece, Rome and Rome's colonies.

      The Greeks likely acquired the reed pipe early on from Egypt and from Asia Minor (Lydia). The first mention of the pipes in Greek literature is in the Iliad of Homer, and Greek tradition holds that reed pipes came to them from “Asiatic neighbours”. The Greeks used only divergent pipes, and could change the pitch of one or two of their pipes while playing by shortening the length of the reed held in the mouth (which the introduction of the bag would quickly end.) Greek pipes were intricate and sophisticated as was their method of blowing by nasal inhalation, using the cheeks as a reservoir, a method called circular breathing. Greece and Rome produced a golden age of piping which produced actual solo piping contests at Delphi and Pythia. A special pipe music known as the Pythian Nome, a musical form of five parts or movements was devised for these competitions.

      The Romans claimed that their pipes had come to them from the Greeks. However, the Romans liked their pipes bigger and louder. From court records regarding noise complaints in Ancient Rome, we note the sheer volume of Roman sound had increased immeasurably from the ancient Greek aulos. In Rome, a piper's guild was formed where the use of pipes was a recognised accompaniment to religious ceremony by law. The law also provided for the use of pipes at funerals, public games and the theatre. These pipers were employed by the state permeating life in the city of Rome. Even Gaius Julius Caesar recounted that the vision of a piper beckoned him to cross the Rubicon. 

      In Rome, stronger and stiffer reeds came into use, and street bands of pipes, drums, and cymbals became a familiar sight where, according to Ovid, pipers dressed up in fanciful garb. A procession of two hundred pipers was organised in 284A.D. at the Roman Circus by Carinus. However, it is with the Emperor Nero, in the first century A.D. that we have the first definite mention of a bag applied to reed pipes. His use of a bag is actually confirmed by Dio Chrysostom, who mentions Nero's use of the bagpipe in the second half of the first century A.D, as a means of avoiding 'the reproach of Athena' (distortion of the cheeks) caused by using the cheeks as an air reservoir. We know that the application of a bag was a new novelty during the first century A.D. because the Roman general Martial, not knowing what to call it, borrowed the Greek name for the pipes, aulos, and added the Greek word for a bag, askos, to it. He thus invents the word askaules to describe a bagpiper. The tibia utricularis was simply an adaptation of the bag principle to the Roman tibia, the drone and chanter version of the evolving double reed, divergent double pipe.

      The divergent double pipes were also in ancient Britain before the Romans came for good in 43A.D. They are shown on ancient British coins long before the Roman invasion. The second century altar to the god Atys found at Gloster depicts a rudimentary bag blown drone which would seem to indicate that the application of a bag was not too long in being adopted in Britain. In his book "The Bagpipe", Francis Collinson does not allow this conclusion, but this line of reasoning is not easy to understand. We know the instrument flourished in Gaul and Britain after the Romans left. Scottish lowland mercenaries served with the Roman Legions in the Danube campaign. The Roman occupation lasted for some three hundred and sixty years and we all know, all roads of culture led to Rome, because we know for a fact that the Latin army introduced the bag. By the time the Romans left, the instrument with bag, one drone and a chanter flourished in Britain, Northern Spain and Gaul (modern-day France). There’s even a fascinating oral tradition about this passed down among Northern Italian bagpipers to this day.

      According to the oral record, when Caesar invaded Britain, he hid his bagpipers from the mounted Celtic forces who opposed him. When the cavalry moved in, Caesar ordered the pipes to sound. The unexpected nasally drone and the wailing chanter spooked the Celts’ horses, causing them to lose to the Romans. Understanding the reason for their defeat, the Britons came to worship the instrument for its magical qualities. Whether there’s any truth to the myth, we’ll likely never know, but it’s ironic to think Caesar may have defeated the Britons with bagpipes, though. No matter the case, they remain a staple of Celtic culture in Scotland and Ireland to this day.

      Bagpipes in Medieval Europe

      The earliest bagpipe artefact discovered in Europe is a chanter, found in Rostock, Germany, in 1985, and dated back to the late 14th century. There are, however, several depictions in art and sculpture that suggest the instrument existed in Europe at least 100 years prior.

      An illustration in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a 13th century book of poems set to music, quite clearly depicts two bagpipers, with visible pipes, bags, and chanters. A similar illustration can also be found in a manuscript from northern France, dated around the same time. The following century, a passage from Geoffrey Chaucer’s magnum opus, The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), describes the bagpiping proficiency of Robin the Miller: “A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne”.

      In some 15th and 16th-century European churches, you’ll find miniature sculptures of bagpipes – often played by animals – carved into the wooden choir stalls. The invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century led to more and more written descriptions of musical culture and, importantly, music which had previously been passed on in the oral tradition began to be written down.

      In 1581, John Derricke published The Image of Irelande, with illustrations that clearly depict a bagpiper, and William Byrd’s My Ladye Nevells Booke (1591) includes a piece of music called ‘The bagpipe and the drone’, written for harpsichord.

      Thanks to a strong culture of passing down music by ear, the first piece of music written down for the bagpipes may not have appeared until the 18th century. A document from the 1730s known as the ‘William Dixon manuscript’ – now kept in the A.K. Bell Library in Perth, Scotland – is the oldest known instance of pipe music being printed.

      The history of Scottish Highland bagpipes

      The history of the Bagpipe in Scotland is not easy to trace. The Scots seem always to have played it and mastered it at an early date, almost as if they had contact with those Greeks of divergent pipes fame. The Scots are a quiet race, simply getting on with it and have never made any outlandish claims that they were the first to play a pipe or that their pattern was the best. Consequently, a start date is all but impossible.

      The non-performing community is obsessed with the thirteenth or fourteenth century as a start date. The dangerous thing about the non-performing community is that they are almost as bad as incurable romantics as are the performing community. The one thing common with both communities is that they both dwell in Scotland, a land that created Hollywood and continues to ridicule much of piping history, holding it out as the music of the amadan or fool. One thing is for certain is that Scottish piping tradition seems to have come up out of England, likely dragged there by the Romans. Another is that Scotland is much embarrassed by the Bagpipe. So let us take a look at some of the myths and facts of Scottish piping and draw our own conclusions. Keep in mind that both communities have never been able to break with Victorian romance and that the accepted way to verify piping history in Scotland is the usage of the expression "said to have been" and "may have been," especially if said by a judge of the Indian high court.

      Lowland Scottish Town Drummer and Piper

      The English used their pipe mainly as an outdoor instrument as the Romans had done, building roads, bringing in harvests and forming town waytes or musical watch men. A town crier put to music, these were armed bands, accompanied by musicians whose function was to march through a town announcing the start of a work day and its close, etc. The concept of these English wayte or watch bands was copied with passion by the Lowland Scots and ere long, each town in the Lowlands had its own (wait for it …) PROFESSIONAL (i.e. PAID) town piper. From that point, piping in Scotland really took off on its own. How it spread to the Highlands is anyone's guess, but anyone thinking that there was no communication between the Lowlands and the Highlands would be just playing into the romantic hands of both communities. Spread to the Highlands it certainly did, the Highland style exceeding in all of Scotland. An even stranger thing happened in the Lowlands. Here the hereditary piper seems to have been born. Not only would the role of town piper pass from father to son, but some towns actually provided housing for their pipers, a custom not unnoticed by the chieftains and their ilk in the Highlands. By 1700, the Reverend David Kirkwood advised that "Pipers are held in great Request, so that they are train'd up at ye Expense of Grandees & have a Portion of Land assigned & are design'd such a man's Piper."

      We must mention another romantic community forced on us, the Irish. Not content with the realization that they had no interest in mastering the pipe, they decided to claim, after giving it up, that it was they who introduced the mouth-blown pipe to the Highland Scots. We know that by the mid-fourteenth century, the Irish had finally absorbed the Anglo Norman piping tradition (slow learners, IMHO) and began to branch out on their own. They certainly had very strong connections with their Highland cousins so this claim may actually have some possibility. The only problem is that there is not a shred of music, piping or fingering evidence to support the Irish claim. There is evidence of harp music but we must not confuse two instruments.

      Opinions differ as to how, or when exactly bagpipes arrived in Scotland. One clan claims to own a set of bagpipes that was carried at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. We know for certain that they must have been there by 1400, as records of the Battle of the North Inch in 1396 describe ‘warpipes’ being played.

      Bagpipes were commonly used as rallying instruments at war, as a French historical document notes their distinctive sound ringing out at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547. The 16th century Scottish historian George Buchanan even wrote that bagpipes had replaced the trumpet on the battlefield as the symbolic sound of battle.

      It’s likely that the Scottish Highland bagpipe began with just one drone, with the second added during the mid to late 1500s, and the third introduced in the early 1700s.

      Throughout this period, the ceòl mór, also known as pibroch – tunes for battle, marches, gatherings of friends and family, martial salutes and laments – became established as the core bagpipe repertoire. This time also saw the rise of piping families, which included the MacCrimmons, MacArthurs, MacGregors and Rankins.

      Bagpipe-playing suffered a decline after King George II passed his 1746 Act of Proscription, in an effort to gain the Scottish Highlands for his own empire. The act weakened the legally recognized powers of clan chiefs, destroyed land ownership in common and caused a mass emigration out of Scotland.

      Although it is often said that the Act criminalised the possession, or playing, of bagpipes, no evidence actually exists in the writing of the act, nor in any prosecutions under the act. Through weakening Scotland’s culture, clan system, and independence, however, use of the instrument did decline.

      Some popularity returned during the expansion of the British Empire, as Highland regiments were at the forefront of many of the British military invasions. Pipers were also included amongst the troops of both world wars.

      Today, the bagpipes are frequently heard during military occasions and formal ceremonies, including at the funeral service for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 19 September 2022.

      They are also the official instrument of the World Curling Federation, thanks to the large influence Scots have had on the sport.

      Despite all its Scottish connotations, it might be surprising, therefore, to hear that the world’s largest producer of bagpipes is not Scotland, but Pakistan, whose bagpipe industry was worth almost $7 million in 2010. And we all know how much of that is for bagpipes that actually work.

      7 Oct 2023
      H&I Celtic Festival Offer!
      H&I Celtic Festival Offer!
      4 Oct 2023

      Should You Try Haggis?

      Burns’ Night is usually celebrated on January 25th, and if you attend a supper you will encounter the national dish of Scotland. Is 2023 the year of haggis?

      An infamous dish

      If you’ve never tried haggis before, you’ve almost certainly heard of it. Detractors and supporters alike are equally outspoken about the Scottish national dish. Despite how you may feel about this food, its presence in Europe has been recorded for more than 500 years, so there must be something special to have kept it around for so long. I had wanted to write a simple blog post about this long-lasting dish and its history with the Scottish-American community, but the story of haggis in the U.S. is more complex- and recent- than I’d originally thought.

      Haggis is traditionally a mixture of minced sheep’s pluck (organs including the heart, lungs, and liver) mixed with onions, suet (animal fat), salt, spices, oatmeal, and broth or blood; then cooked (usually boiled) encased in a sheep’s stomach. The resulting mix is traditionally served with mashed potatoes and mashed turnips, or neeps and tatties. All of these were considered poor food, because potatoes and turnips were usually fed to cattle as a supplemental. No self-respecting laird would have considered such a diet.

      Haggis never dies

      In North America the dominant culture doesn’t typically consume animal organs as part of our main diet. - the vast majority of us have never been that poor or our culture has not included organ meats in it’s daily consumption, so “offal” or organ meats tend to be regarded as low foods, suitable only for pet food. So, the average reaction to hearing about haggis for the first time is probably a bit of a gulp and a cautious grimace, at best. And yet no Burns Supper would be complete without The Haggis. It makes you wonder: what is the secret to this dishes’ popularity?

      Originally, many theorize, during the clearances after the fall of the Scottish throne to the conquering English, haggis was a food concocted by poverty-stricken working folks out of necessity. Sheep are livestock commonly raised in Scotland, and you can see their mark across the culture, including the wool that traditional Scottish tartan is made of. A sheep in its first year is a lamb and its meat is also lamb. The meat from sheep in their second year is hogget. Older sheep meat is mutton. After harvesting the good cuts of meat of the sheep for sale and barter, workers would have been given access to the inexpensive & unwanted offal. They found that it could be conveniently kept in another part of the sheep (the stomach) for traveling. Boiling, and with the addition of salt, spices and oats, it made quite a tasty and nourishing meal which could feed hungry folk for a week. So, haggis’ endurance as the national dish of Scotland isn’t just because it’s appetizing - it is. It’s also because through it, people reconnect with their hardworking Scottish roots.

      Another theory that parallels this one is the highland practice of “toe to tail” butchering. In other words, using a butchered animal as thoroughly as possible so that nothing is wasted. This is a custom that might strike some as a thing of the past, but the need to efficiently use animals has had a lasting impact on other signature cultural foods worldwide. Think of oxtail in Jamaican food, chitlins in the American south, or Aqutak, an ice cream made of animal fat and oil by Indigenous Alaskans. All things considered, haggis isn’t a terribly unusual dish. So why does it have such a reputation? After all, it’s outlawed in the U.S.

      The 50-year haggis controversy

      Maybe that’s a little hyperbolic. The dish itself isn’t illegal, but in 1971 the use of sheep’s lung in products meant for human consumption was banned by the USDA. This meant that, effectively, the import and creation of authentic Scottish haggis was now also illegal.

      I did some research to understand why this was the case. Lungs, known as “lights” in butchering, are a difficult organ to properly clean. It’s possible for fluid and matter from the stomach to make its way into lungs during the slaughtering process. Understandably, this turned some heads at the USDA. The next decades would see a UK outbreak of scrapie, a neurodegenerative disease found in sheep. This was the nail in the coffin; scrapie has not been proven before or since to be transmissible to humans through eating meat, but there was a desire to be safe rather than sorry.

      This is all very fair, but the ban still stands after 50 years. Scots have been eating haggis for those 50 years without issue (although some wonder once they meet a Scot, but that’s beside the point.) Many North Americans (fine, *I*) feel that it’s high time to reevaluate. Some argue that the impurities found in the lungs are no different than what we might consume anyways eating meat and living as we normally would. After all, the USDA allows a certain percentage of bug parts in hot dogs, for example. There have been reported talks as recently as January 2022 regarding the U.S. government’s stance on the ban, and it would appear that progress is being made. That progress, however, is slow. If you’re a fan of haggis or want to try it for the first time and you live in the U.S., what is to be done?

      New Recipes

      In the 500 years it’s existed, haggis has flexibly changed according to what people need. Scottish residents can now obtain a gluten-free haggis, a vegetarian haggis, a kosher haggis, and a halal haggis. The variety is endless as butchers strive towards a national dish that can be enjoyed by all. Naturally, not all these variants contain sheep’s lung, sad to say. Stahly’s and The Caledonian Kitchen both create haggis within the U.S. that follows the USDA regulations. Modern haggis worldwide now incorporates a variety of meats and meat substitutes other than just hogget, mutton or lamb, and obtaining a haggis inside North America is now easier than it’s ever been. Purists, however, insist that sheep’s lung is essential in order to give the mixture a lighter texture. To them, U.S. haggis is an affront to the real thing. There is one more option, if you’re hardcore: a black market has sprung up around those who need their haggis made by the original recipe. For the rest of us, though, the substitutes will just have to do.

      “Is it good?”

      Well, it’s all a matter of taste, really. When you get down to it, haggis actually isn’t much distinct from sausage in ingredients, just in scale. But even celebrity chef Alton Brown balks at eating haggis after demonstrating how to make it. Others on vacation in Scotland try haggis for the first time and wonder what all the negative press is about. Like any other dish, the final product varies in taste and texture depending on who’s making it, so perhaps that accounts for the polarization. Served with whisky, however, it’s something to be appreciated as distinctively ours. Real Scottish fare. Good and wholesome, like bridies and pasties.

      Here in Ocean Springs, we are haggis appreciators! We usually buy a US-produced sheep’s haggis that comes well reviewed: “like corned beef hash, but with 1,000 times more flavor!” Positive reviews of haggis compare it to some recognizable foods: soft, crumbled sausage, or somewhere between a pate and a meatloaf. If you’re curious, though, the best thing you can do is try it yourself.

      And if you already know how good haggis is, why not show it off and ``? After all, the more enthusiasts there are, the more likely we will get an even greater variety of haggis available here in the states!

      Ith gu leòir! (“Eat plenty!”)

      Scottish Proverb; 12 highlanders, one bottle of whisky and a piper make a rebellion.

      22 Sep 2023

      How do people learn to play the bagpipes? - A few frequently asked questions, and their answers.

      As with any instrument, anyone can learn how to play the bagpipe. I have successfully taught people of different ages and abilities, and no one is incapable of learning. It all depends on your own personal work ethic. Your own goals will play a part in the kind of practice you need to perform. Your teacher should be aware of the goals you have set for yourself and should be able to help achieve those goals with the right type of instruction. For example, you shouldn't be focusing on learning heavy open-grade competition music if your goal is to play in your local St. Patrick's Day Parade. Your goals will be able to tell you what you need to focus on.

      Generally, these steps will be apparent upon practicing. Books and videos are very helpful, but it's best to have a teacher in a one-on-one or class setting to tell you where your faults are. Even the best pipers have a mentor who will critique their playing - the feedback improves playing by catching simple mistakes before they become ingrained habits.

      Practice daily, even if it’s only for ten minutes. You should be seeing improvement over time. Your progress won't show overnight but more over weeks and months. Yes, there will be times where you feel like you aren't moving forward, but stick with it. Having a healthy amount of faith in yourself and your teacher will keep you going on your journey to learning the bagpipes.

      So, the question “how do I learn to play the bagpipe?” does not have one simple answer. First let us consider the following points.

      The Realities of Learning:

      1.  Playing a Full Set of Bagpipes is Physically Taxing:

      The Great Highland Bagpipe is far and away one of the most difficult instruments in the world, both in terms of technique and physicality. Apart from the memory work involved in learning tunes and the often complicated finger techniques required to play, one must be reasonably physically fit in order to be able to play the instrument. While a normal set of bagpipes weighs about 5 to 6 pounds they can feel incredibly heavy after a 30 minute practice session.

      The very beginning stages of learning will be the hardest. Many beginners experience light-headedness after a few minutes of blowing, but with practice, this will go away. Unfortunately, headaches from the effort and back pressure in the sinuses can be frequent and annoying, but staying hydrated will aid your short term endurance.

      You will definitely sweat. A LOT. You might experience pain in the arm, shoulder and elbow that is used to squeeze the bag since you will be using muscles in your arm that have never been used in this way before. Older pipers sometimes complain about the joints in their fingers and cramping in their hands as they age out of very fast and complicated tunes.

      Your lips will also begin to give out after a short while of playing but this does go away as practice is steady and consistent. Playing the bagpipes is like a full time gym membership, but instead of counting reps, you'll be counting minutes.

      2.  No One EVER Begins on the Actual Bagpipes, Despite What is Claimed on YouTube:

      To further add to the difficulty of this instrument, you shouldn’t begin learning on the actual highland pipes. You'll want to invest, first, in a good quality practice chanter. This is a small, family-and-friend-sanity-saving  practice tool that lets you practice the fingering and basic gracenotes without the loud sound of the highland pipes. Usually made of plastic and involving no bag or drones, this small instrument doesn't sound like a bagpipe nor is it as hard as one.

      Every decent piper has begun their career on a practice chanter and, while this is a beginner's tool, you’ll never stop using it. Bands, teachers, and experienced competitors continue to use the practice chanter for the rest of their lives on a daily basis. Why? For the same reason mentioned above, that you can practice the fingering and melody without the volume factor and there is virtually no stamina required to play it.

      After you have learned the basic embellishments and your first handful of tunes, you should be ready to move to the highland pipes, at which point you'll feel like you're starting all over again. This phase can take anywhere from a half a year to upwards of 2 years.

      3.  They Are VERY Loud: 

      No one really understands how loud the bagpipes can be until they are practicing at home, indoors. The bagpipes were made to be played outdoors but doing this in your backyard today might result in some upset neighbors. One solo bagpipe can range at about 110 decibels (about as loud as a vacuum cleaner or a motor cycle) while a full pipe band will range at about 130 decibels (about as loud as a jet engine taking off). All players should begin with wearing ear protection as repeated exposure to these loud volumes can result in deafness over time.

      The frequency range of the bagpipe chanter is also quite high. Most normal orchestral instruments tune their concert "A" to 440 hz while bagpipes tune their "A" anywhere from 470 to 486, resulting in a much more shrill and high pitch. You may want to think about where your practice will take place as many public places have noise ordinances, and the pipes may disturb others around you. If you live in an apartment, you might be able to practice in a park. Sometimes churches will allow you to use their spaces for a short while, but you should always ask. 

      4.  Practice is VERY Time Consuming:

      As any musician will tell you, perfect practice makes perfect, and the bagpipes are no exception to this rule. Either on your pipes or your practice chanter, the time it takes to run through a good practice should take some effort. Only through intense, accurate and honest practice will an individual be able to progress normally onto their pipes which can take up to another several months or several years to become fully competent.

      A normal practice session with the practice chanter should start at ten minutes a day and increasing as fingers settle into pattern, tunes become less like work and familiarity allows speed with accuracy, but by six months practice on the practice chanter should last at least half an hour daily. Pipers who are serious about their craft will practice for an hour a day plus half an hour on their pipes, so dedication, persistence, accuracy and physical fitness all make a champion piper.  

      Beginners who transition to the pipes struggle to keep the instrument going for more than 5 (or so) minutes while many advanced players attend weekly band practices lasting an hour or more. Again, through regular practice, your endurance will improve. I have taught many beginners of all ages and a surprising number of them just quit because of the practice requirements this instrument demands.

      If you have issues with time commitment and/or don't have patience to sit and practice, you will struggle to improve at the rate your day allows. The rule of thumb here is just do it.

      5.  REAL Bagpipes are EXPENSIVE:

      In all honesty, who can blame someone for wanting a good deal on their first set of bagpipes? You will see prices online for a full set of “highland” pipes for as little as $200. Before eagerly heading to the checkout page you should be aware of some things. Especially, beware of pipes from Pakistan. These instruments, while cheap, are not made to be a functioning musical instrument; rather a decorative piece to hang on a wall or above the fireplace, but that is not stated in the descriptive information! Just don't purchase this instrument thinking you will get a quality set. When in doubt, always check with another more experienced piper to make sure this is a real instrument. 

      With today's internet, there are lots of online forums and Facebook pages available to someone who is looking to identify a set. Decorative pipes like the Paki pipes are usually made of junk woods like pine and cottonwood. The internal dimensions and fittings are poorly cut and bored, and the fittings are cotton string and cheap nickel. The bags are usually poor quality, uncured goatskin, and the cane reeds are dreadfully cut and of poor quality. Assembled, they may look real, but tuning and playing them is fruitless and frustrating. Avoid these so-called sets if you want to play the instrument. 

      A good set of real pipes made of African Blackwood or cocobola can be purchased for as cheap as $1,000 while a more inexpensive set made of Polypenco or Acetyl Plastic could be as low as $700. Both are good instruments but there are differences in tonal quality and stability. A typical beginner will most likely want a new set of pipes, but sometimes you can get a hold of a used set which could be cheaper. You'll always want an experienced piper to check these items for authenticity and playability. Ask your teacher for assistance - he or she can guide you as can members of the band who service pipes.

      6.  Finding the Right Instructor:

      Learning the bagpipe requires instruction, since the nuance of the music and the instrument are difficult to learn from a book, and having a set of experienced eyes and ears correcting errors before they become habits is essential, not just for the pipes. That said, good players who can teach well are few, so many people find it difficult to get a hold of a teacher. Often times you can start with a teacher by going to your local pipe band. Most bands will teach you the basics if you are willing to join the organization once you are competent enough to play.

      7.  What if there aren't other pipers close to you, or any that are willing to teach?

      This is a bit tricky. I do not recommend tackling the bagpipes on your own. Trying to "teach yourself" will bring about bad habits which will cause problems in your technique and, over time, amounts to the instrument not sounding like it's supposed to. This is what gives the instrument a bad name - a badly played oboe is blamed on the player, but a badly played bagpipe is ALWAYS blamed on the instrument. I cannot understand or explain that, but there it is.

      Obviously, then, you will need some kind of instruction with either a live person or - if in person is simply out of the question - an online lesson. With the fantastic online resources today, you should be able to find someone who would be willing to teach you through Skype or other video lessons. You'll want to do your research on the types of teachers you want to take tuition from. There are even online piping schools which employ multiple instructors who have years of playing experience. It is truly amazing what an online search will do for you.

      You definitely want someone reputable who will honor your commitment to learning. Private teachers usually give lessons that can last an hour. A reasonable rate is anywhere from $25 to $60 for an hour. Remember, you are paying for someone's time as well as the years of experience they've had playing this instrument. 

      Beware the "price-point" teacher. Most self respecting pipers who are decent players will refer you to a good musician for lessons. However, there are those who are willing to take your money and keep you sounding terrible so you keep coming back for lessons. Most beginners aren't aware of the skill of their teacher, but the simple way to avoid this is to listen to the teacher play.

      By and large, you get what you pay for. Do your research and be smart about who you choose for tuition. As both a piping teacher and student, I know the value of having someone who is both knowledgeable and practical in their teaching style. Music reading and experience playing other instruments help. If you are already a musician, whether a novice or professional, the skills you’ve already learned will greatly help you learn the bagpipes.

      Hopefully, you now have an inkling about what you’d need to develop as a bagpiper. And as mentioned before you will have to learn how to blow and squeeze the bagpipe to produce sound. At least that will be easier though if you can transition some of your music skills to learning fingerwork.

      Lastly, you only get out of piping what you put in. Slow and steady improvement and practice wins the race. So if you practice, you will progress. However, if you are a skilled musician who is too lazy to practice, you may not progress much, as I have seen with some musicians. So pick up the chanter, and come and see us! 

      22 Sep 2023
      Bagpipe disassembled …
      Bagpipe disassembled …

      Electronic Tuners and Bagpipes - the Reality of Tuning the GHBP

      Okay, I am going on a total rant right now. Let me tell you my prejudiced opinion about electronic tuners. To quote one of my heroes, “ELECTRONIC TUNERS! We hates ‘em, we hates ‘em, we hates ‘em FOREVER!”

      I very recently attended a function where they proudly featured a “new” piper who was to play the VIP party into the hall, then play a few tunes while the top table got their dinners and drinks before allowing the rest of us peons to be served. All good, until he struck in the pipes. 

      You know - even if you’ve never heard the pipes played before - that a bagpipe can sound amazing. But even the most tone-deaf of us know when a bagpipe is badly played, or worse, out of tune. Needless to say, he struck in, and the howling discord of badly tuned drones filled the room. He then proceeded to play his medley, and it was just awful. 

      His drones were all off from the chanter by as much as a quarter note, and did not mesh with each other. It was cacophonous. It was disastrous. In short, it was a piper’s worst nightmare. My table mates looked at me with pity as I winced and cringed - they know I play, they’ve heard me play, and they know I play pretty well. The piper knew his tunes, though, and his timing and execution (oh, yes, a pun under the circumstances, but so so true) was actually pretty good, but those warbling drones made the whole ambience cringeworthy.

      After the poor piper had butchered his way through his set, one of the guys strolled up to the top table and suggested they call me up. Bastards, the lot of them. But the horribly embarrassing deed was done, the summons issued, so I got out my pipes (after asking the piper’s permission to perform, since it really was his gig), and quick tuned my drones up to my chanter. He was amazed. He was even more amazed when I launched into a rousing march set and quickly had the hall stomping and clapping. My drones were pitched to my chanter, there was no beating or warbling, and the tunes just skipped out of the pipes into the air in a melodious and (if I may say so myself) masterfully musical manner, carried on the pleasant buzz of the drones.

      After the meal, the now humiliated piper shyly approached me and began asking a bunch of questions that told me he didn’t know how to tune his pipes. In the anteroom, I had him pull his chanter and showed him how to find the sweet spot after pulling about a foot of tape off the chanter. I then had him air up and play his low A, and set his drones to his chanter. Then I set my own chanter and drones, explaining each step as I did. 

      There was not more than a hair of difference between the two sets of pipes - that is until he pulled out his bloody electronic tuner, reset his drones to some sort of formula, and proceeded to ruin the whole sound I had worked so hard to get. I started over, but every time I reset his drones, he’d pull out the tuner and “correct” the settings, until I finally said some words in my Australian dialect that meant “okay, enough”. If he wanted to play a duet with me, I’d be delighted - but only, ONLY, if he would not retune to the electronic thing he seemed so desperate to use. He agreed, and I reset his drones, then told him not to touch ANYTHING. We played two good sets, his pipes stayed in tune with mine, and afterwards everyone came up and congratulated him on how much better his pipes sounded after we had “repaired” them. 

      That was when he asked me the one question he hadn’t up til then.

      Do you use a digital tuner to get your bagpipes in tune?

      No, I do not. Ever. 

      I’ve never used one because I have never needed to. My instructors ALL made me tune my pipes by ear, even when I was practicing by myself.

      I do not use a tuner to tune my pipes. Neither should you.

      If you do, you're not alone. Many, many pipers - especially pipe majors setting their bands up for competition -  use digital tuners, especially given they're now so easily available on your smart device of choice. This allows the band to set their drones to a common pitch so they do not warble and mess with the chanter variations, and create a sound cloud that is both stable and pleasant - and loud. But they never, NEVER use them to “tune” the pipes. They all tune by ear.

      So should you never use one? 

      I often joke to my students that "the only good use for an electronic tuner is to decorate your fishbowl".

      I believe that far too many pipers don’t know how to tune their drones, and therefore they rely on what should be simply a reference tool. They can't tune up without one. They need it, and get anxious if they can't use it. 

      Tuning your drones to the chanter for solo playing should be a no-brainer. It’s what the ancients did, and it is what good players do. Tune often, especially if you’re fighting the heat, or you have to sit a while. Temperature, humidity, materials the pipes are made of, all contribute to a complex variation of scale as any piper knows. What is in tune in the vestibule of the church goes sharp in the church hall, or flattened in the garden.

      The chanter is ALWAYS the reference point - the reed needs to be seated in the “sweet spot” where the high and low A are an octave apart - by ear, not by tuner. At this point is where you add tape, only if needed, once that sweet spot has been found. The next step is stopping the base and middle tenor drone, and setting the outer drone to tune with the low A on the chanter. 

      This requires practice, a good ear, a firm but appropriate hemped tuning joint so the top of the drone moves with some resistance but not sliding off easily, and a steady pressure on the bag to keep the drone note stable. Then the middle tenor drone is tuned to the outer, and finally, the base drone to the tenors. Like all things bagpipe, it just takes experience and knowledge. We tune the pipes BY EAR. One of the worst things a brand new, learning piper can do is to pick up an electronic tuner and try to 'skip' the step of learning to tune by ear (and brain). The results are as I illustrated in my initial paragraphs.

      Tuning is no different than any other sensory skill. Just like learning to ride a bike, we need to teach our instincts to work with our mind to integrate what we're hearing with how our instrument performs, and even the best of us can get frustrated when our instrument is being truly temperamental. We need to use common sense, exhibit patience, and develop experience experimenting with our tuning until it clicks.

      There is no such thing as a good piper who exclusively uses a digital tuner to tune their pipes. You’ll never see any of the world champions doing it. Ever.

      Bagpipe tuners can only report frequency back to you. Just like a carpenter’s level, or a square, or a measuring tape, the tuner is just a reference device, and no more. A measuring tape cannot tell you where to cut. A square can’t tell you whether you should adjust your framing. A level can show you if you are parallel to the ground, but not what to do about it if you’re not.

      A tuner can show you what frequencies you are producing, but not what to do based on that information. Don’t use it to force an unwilling set of reeds to an arbitrary frequency - the results will be horrible. Tune your pipes to suit the reeds, the environment or the event. Fine tuning just before you play your set will keep the pipes in tune, prevent those wails and warbles, and gain you a reputation for being a good piper.

      Tuners can be useful reference tools, I will concede, but should NOT be used in the process of learning to tune, and/or the actions of tuning itself.

      And that's because tuning devices and apps can’t teach you how to tune, or replace you in the process of tuning. That skill needs to be learned by you. Don’t be that piper. 

      13 Sep 2023

      The Bagpipe is Nothing More Than A Nine-Note Party Favor!

      At my first bagpipe lesson, this is what my instructor called the thing. He even denied it was a musical instrument at all - there were no rests, no dynamic range, a single key signature. Yes, he was just making a point, but at the time, I was appalled at his complete disregard for his expertise and talent on this amazing, historic and incredible instrument.

      I have also met bagpipers (usually people who've never touched another instrument) who declaim it's the pinnacle of difficulty and expression in music. Clearly these people have never seen a pipe organ or an Irish fiddle (or the Uillean pipes!) played! But over the last thirty years, I realized my first instructor WAS right - that the bagpipe is really just a nine-note party favor, but one that comes with a very colorful (and sometimes, especially in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, very hot) costume.

      The nine notes of the bagpipe form a simple Mixolydian scale with a flattened 7th on top and bottom. We write these notes G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and A. I boldfaced the first A because it's the tonic, and the note we tune our drones to. There’s a chart in an earlier blog post if you need to review the fingering of these notes, but I digress. Now, strictly speaking, the C and F are sharp, but for some reason it's suppressed in printed pipe music. Don't be fooled! Add two sharps in your head when you're looking at tunes in pipe collections.

      Old pipe music was largely dual-tonic; that is, often it would have a phrase in A, followed by a phrase in G (think "The Devil in the Kitchen"). Sometimes this role was reversed (G Lydian mode, like "The Bob of Fettercairn"), or the two keys would be in B minor and A (like "The Ale is Dear").

      The scale of the bagpipe is ideal for this kind of music, but it is pretty limiting to the modern ear.  Recently, more and more music has been written for the bagpipes in the key of D major, forcing a retuning of the chanter's D (which used to be sharp relative to most intonation systems).

       So every bagpipe tune you see will have these nine notes. If you see a tune with more than these, it's already been adapted for fiddle. Similarly, tunes and songs adapted for the bagpipes will be "squished" to fit this scale. Many is the tune in A major that saw its G# (e.g., "Highland Whisky") flattened to fit the pipes. And others saw a high B turned into an ornament, or a low F-sharp turned into a low G. 

      But wait! I've been lying to you, because though pipe music is written as if it's in the key of two sharps, it's now played somewhat sharp of three flats! So our scale really is 25 cents sharp of Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb.

       Why do we write it one way and play it another? It is because the pitch of the instrument has been rising in the last couple of centuries relative to most other instruments. When Joseph MacDonald - a trained violinist who studied the pipes as a young adult - wrote his manuscript on the Highland pipes in 1759, he felt the scale of the bagpipes was close enough to call its tonic "A." But A drifted pretty high in Victorian times.

      With the Scots Guards "Queen's Hall" standard in 1799, A became more than half-way to what we now call Bb. When it drifted back down, during the late 1880’s, the Highland pipes stayed up there. For a while, then, it was in vogue to play with brass bands, so Bb was a perfect key for the instrument. But that fell out of fashion at a time in the 1970’s when competition judges and pipe majors were looking for a "brighter" sound for bands. So, mistaking "sharp" for "bright," up the pitch climbed again, almost to halfway between Bb and B.

      Sanity has once again crept over the community in the last few years, and now it's just sharp of Bb now. At the same time in the 70’s as folk music drifted into mainstream and celtic tunes became popular, a movement to "play in A" began, a tragedy of perception, so you're now seeing a few weird solo and "Celtic" pipers having chanters made in concert A to be more fiddle friendly (think “Red Hot Chilli Pipers”). Sorry we can't do more about the volume!

      One more slight exaggeration must be revealed about the bagpipe scale. It's really not nine, but more like eleven and a half notes. Many current polypenco (plastic) chanter/reed combinations, with much creative fingering and blowing, can play a note close to C-natural and F-natural as well, and a very few can play something close to G#, with an alternate and heretical cross-fingering. Even fewer can play a high B! But the tuning on these notes is usually suboptimal, even with yards of tape and hemp, so they're better for passing tones than notes one holds on.

      Realistically,  formal bagpipe music never uses these notes; woe upon you if you actually play "Lochiel's awa' to France" in a proper A minor in competition. We purists will seize your nine-note party favor and break it.

      5 Sep 2023

      The Scots Battle in New Orleans No-one Ever Heard Of - The 93rd Highlanders

      93rd Highlanders with 7th and 43rd Regiments at the Battle of New Orleans  (painting by Don Troiani)
      93rd Highlanders with 7th and 43rd Regiments at the Battle of New Orleans (painting by Don Troiani)

      A little more than two hundred years ago, kilted Scottish soldiers from the straths in Sutherland, Scotland marched to the sound of bagpipe and massed drums against a US army in the "forgotten" Battle of New Orleans.

      These men were part of the storied 93rd (Sutherland) Regiment. They were regarded as incredibly courageous and brave by both sides as they fought in the open with no shield from musket or cannon fire, and they would not break until overwhelmed by American forces as their numbers dwindled to less than platoon force.

      It took sixteen miserable weeks for the British Forces to finally assemble in New Orleans traveling by sea and then marching overland to their final encampment in Chalmette. The 93rd landed on the evening of 23 December, having spent six days and nights packed in open boats exposed to rain, sleet and a bitter north wind. They moved up through the swamp towards where the advance guard was surprised by a night attack by 1,200 militiamen. By dawn the Americans withdrew, leaving behind 74 prisoners.

      On the left three light companies, among them the 93rd, stormed a redoubt on the river bank from which the whole enemy line could have been turned. But there the Brigade Commander was killed, and the advance came to a standstill.

      The 93rd alone pushed out into the centre until they were only 1OO yards short of the ditch. During the advance, their Commanding Officer was killed. His successor would neither advance nor retire without a clear order.

      So there they stood, rock-like, in close order, being slowly destroyed by the concentrated fire of the whole American line, until Lambert, the surviving General, after a careful survey, at last withdrew them.

      They marched back with parade-ground precision, leaving three-quarters of their total strength killed or wounded and having laid the foundations of an immortal legend: a reputation for disciplined and indomitable courage.

      An American observer later commented; 'It was an act of unbelievably cool determined bravery'. I believe that’s polite language for “sheer idiocy”, but discipline was harsh, and so they obeyed orders despite the stupidity of the results. The British had nearly 2,000 casualties that day, of whom 557 were from the 93rd. The Americans behind their parapet had 6 killed and 7 wounded.

      The 93rd lost over 75 percent of its fighting force in less than 2 weeks, because of tactical blunders and egregiously inept decisions by their British officers. Ironically, lack of communication meant that neither side knew that peace had in fact been signed two weeks before the battle.

      Wounded prisoners, all of whom had been well treated in American hospitals, were returned; and the 93rd were able to muster half their original strength when they landed back in Britain.

      For the remaining members of the 93rd who eventually returned to their clan lands in Scotland, the misery continued. Many of the men of the 93rd had been recruited from on a promise that their families would not be evicted in a Highland clearance. They found that their homes had been cleared while they had been fighting for their lives on the battlefield.

      About a hundred remained behind along the Gulf Coast, settling in Louisiana and Mississippi, marrying Indian and Cajun wives, and bringing the bagpipes into their communities and ceremonies.

      As Acadia became more homogenized, the bagpipes became less and less important while jazz, zydeco and blues became mainstream. There is now a resurgence in interest in family history and heritage as families begin to research their ancestry, and discover hidden Scottish roots that still run deep.

      The skirl of the pipes evokes strong feelings of pride and loss, and piping is being reintroduced as part of the new wave of music. 

      1 Sep 2023
      The Bagpipe Scale
      The Bagpipe Scale

      Playing the Bagpipe

      If you have already learned an instrument, playing the bagpipe won’t present a huge challenge - even if you are a percussionist (see. “Drummer”). The bagpipe is NOT an instrument you should start on if you’ve never played in your life. That said, work on the practice chanter is easy and anyone can do that, so that is why we start every piper out on it.

      The bagpipes are unique in that you learn the tunes on one instrument in order to play them on a completely different one later. Once the beginner has developed the skills and memory on the practice chanter, the transition to the Great Highland Bagpipe is relatively easy - it’s all about coordination. But I’m discussing the pipes, not the chanter here, so let’s move on.

      If I were to break down the two main categories of what you need to learn while learning the bagpipes, the two main categories would be fingerwork and tone.

      Fingerwork is where most of those skills that you have already picked up if you are a musician come into play, otherwise it’s just learning new muscle movements. For example, when I started to learn the bagpipes, I had about 3 years of self-taught guitar experience. Because I already was familiar with the concepts of pitch and rhythm, I didn’t have to add that to my learning curve. I already had a big advantage over some of my classmates in our chanter classes. Understanding those concepts helped me to transition them to doing fingerwork on a practice chanter.

      What probably makes the fingerwork aspect of bagpiping tricky is that unlike many other instruments, it involves a bit more coordination to play a single note. You are more or less using all 10 fingers when you play any single note on the bagpipe. Compare that to a piano. Anyone can play a note — or even — multiple notes on a piano instantaneously — regardless of whether or not a person has ever played a single on a instrument in their entire life. Compare that to a guitar. Guitar involves more coordination: at least 2 or 3 fingers to play a single note if you count the thumb behind the neck. To play on a practice chanter requires much more coordination to navigate around the different notes and to play even simple melodies.

      The other aspect of playing the practice chanter (and eventually the bagpipes) is learning the skill of blowing air to produce a sound. It is another thing that the brain needs to focus on doing while trying to practice your fingerwork. While it isn’t very difficult to blow air into the practice chanter, it is important to develop the skill. If you don’t blow hard enough the reed will not sound properly. If you blow too hard then the reed will stop vibrating.

      Because bagpiping also is very physical (another aspect of what makes bagpiping unique from other instruments), your lips will actually get tired. The more you practice however, the more stamina you will develop. It is important to develop this so that you can get adequate amounts of time to practice. In order to do so, your lips will get tired. When your lips are very tired they will lose the seal on the chanter. This is also known as “blowout.” Keep practicing and it will get better though. However if you give up playing the moment it starts to occur, it will take longer for your stamina to develop. Furthermore, you will need to be able to do this comfortably before moving onto the bagpipes which will require even more stamina (and more coordination to learn to squeeze the bag).

      Another useful skill that can transfer to the bagpipes is sight reading. Sight reading corresponds with the ability to play different pitches with rhythm in real time. It involves also the part of your brain that interprets the notation before you play the notes. Even if you aren’t the greatest sight reader, the bagpipes are rather easy to sight read since for the most part there are only 9 notes and the notes are written without any flats or sharps.

      Since the scale is limited, you also won’t have to worry about reading different keys, which is more of a skill to develop, say, if you were reading piano music. The main thing you will have to do is associate the finger movements with any of the 9 notes written on the staff. After that, then you will work to develop your rhythm and timing of those notes.

      If you have already seen pipe notation, you will notice also many “mini” notes written before and after notes. These are known as the grace notes and embellishments. There are regular occurrences of these grace notes and embellishments. As you progress in your learning, you will have to learn each individual grace note and embellishment before you can apply that to reading bagpipe notation. The dexterity and discipline that you have learned from other instruments will help somewhat in learning the new finger movements.

      As I mentioned in the beginning of the blogpost, the second aspect of piping to learn is tone. Tone is another extensive topic to cover but it does happen to make the bagpipes also very unique. For the most part, if a person were to use an app or tuner for a guitar, the guitar would already sound decent. (Not to say that the make of the guitar, amplifier, strings, parts, and especially the player’s capabilities don’t have important effects on the guitar’s sound). However with the bagpipes, a good deal of knowledge of maintenance is required to make the bagpipes sound good, before trying to “tune” them to a tuner. For example, if you were playing on a bagpipe that was leaking air, that issue would need to be addressed in order to make the bagpipe sound good. Air loss affects efficiency, makes the drones “wobbly”, ruins tuning, makes tonal quality variable, and makes the instrument hard work.

      While this article is intended not to cover tone, you should now have an inkling about what else you’d need to develop as a bagpiper. And as mentioned before you will have to learn how to blow and squeeze the bagpipe to produce sound. At least that will be easier though if you can transition some of your music skills to learning fingerwork.

      Lastly, you only out get what you put in. Slow and steady wins the race. So if you practice, you will progress. However, if you are a skilled musician who is too lazy to practice, you may not progress much, as I have seen with some musicians. So pick up the practice chanter! 

      IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: This irrelevant and unnecessary disclaimer may or may not cover any and all misuse, accident, lightning, flood, tornado, tsunami, volcanic eruption, earthquake, hurricanes and/or other Acts of God, neglect, damage from improper reading, incorrect line voltage, improper, weird, kinky or unauthorized use, broken antenna or marred cabinet, missing or altered serial numbers, removal of tag, replacement of tag, electromagnetic radiation from nuclear blasts, sonic boom, crash, vessel sinking or taking on water, motor vehicle crashing, dropping the item, falling rocks, magic potions, spells, leaky roof, broken glass, mud slides, forest fire, or projectiles (which can include, but not be limited to, arrows, bullets, shot, BB’s, paintball, shrapnel, lasers, napalm, torpedoes, or emissions of X-rays, Alpha, Beta, Gamma or Martian Death rays, knives, stones, kittens etc.). No license, express or implied, by estoppel or otherwise, to any intellectual (or lack of) property rights are granted herein.

      28 Aug 2023

      NEW! St. John’s Pipers Polo Shirts - $25!

      These beautiful Polo style shirts are now available for purchase by interested individuals. With our new stylish logo and a breathable cotton weave, this shirt is worn by the pipers at informal events as an easy care and cool option to formal wear. We do not have a lot of these available, so see P/M Muzzy before we run out - they are going fast!

      26 Aug 2023

      Another (Stolen) Piping Technique for The Piper’s Benefit

      How to relax the Chanter Death Grip and relax into speedier and more accurate fingerwork - go pet a puppy.

      I have a habit of attempting to choke my chanter, practice or pipe, to death. I grip it hard, strangling and crushing it, while I work on speed or technique, and I wonder why the sound I then get sounds muted, sloppy, and/or badly executed. It’s all about the grip. When I relax and allow my fingers to move freely, the tune comes out, bright, melodic and executed well. 

      One of the challenges we pipers all face is the need to keep our fingers and hands consistently relaxed while playing. Top players achieve a relaxed yet strong grip, allowing for the most efficient movement and providing strength and quickness when needed. This allows them to play fast, strong, clean, and for longer durations without stress or strain. I have found something that helps when I start to tighten up, and I'd like to share my exercises for hand relaxation inspired by the piano teacher and author Margaret Elson.

      In her book Passionate Practice, Elson describes what she calls "puppy dog hands":

      “When your hands are heavy, or after you release a ball, or when you let your hands fall easily, palm up, in your lap, there's no extra tension in your hands. They look like a puppy dog's paws when she's on her back waiting to get a tummy rub. All easy and floppy.”

      I know. It’s not masculine. But dammit, it works. Now, Elson in her book is describing the technique for piano players, but it is such a great concept that here I've modified it for us pipers.

      1 Sit in a chair with your practice chanter lying on the table.

      2 Rest your hands in your lap, palms facing up. Breathe slowly and let your hands feel heavy.

      3 Slowly raise your hands up and place them on your chanter. Keep your fingers and hands completely relaxed and free of tension as you place your fingers into position over the holes. Be floppy.

      4 Focus your awareness on the minimum amount of energy needed to keep your fingers in position on the chanter, covering the holes. Let the natural weight of your hands and fingers cover the holes, but don't add any extra squeezing force. Just let the hands hang heavy.

      5 Blow Low G.

      6 Stop and put down your chanter and go back to Step 1.

      7 Repeat several times until you can achieve perfect relaxed form — holes covered, ready to play, aware of the minimum energy needed to get into position.

      The next and most challenging step is to maintain this state of relaxed fingering while playing more than Low G. Keep it simple at first and gradually build up the complexity.

      Here are some things to play while you focus your awareness on your puppy dog hands.

      1 Low G

      2 The scale

      3 The scale alternating with Low G between the other notes

      4 High G grace note scale

      5 GDE grace note combinations scale

      6 Doublings

      7 Grips, taorluaths, D Throws

      8 . . . any of the exercises in the green book and handouts Bill has given us.

      Remain focused and aware of the tension in your hands and fingers. If you find yourself tightening up at any time, stop… pause and release the tension and try again. If you're like most pipers, some elements of your fingering will be overly tight or tense simply because you've practiced that way. It's a normal phase every piper goes through as we learn to control and master our technique. But REALLY good pipers understand the importance of relaxed technique - it lets us play cleanly and consistently at a variety of tempos while conserving energy to let us (and our audience) enjoy playing for longer stretches of time.

      Playing the chanter and the pipes should be enjoyable and relaxing. Becoming more familiar and comfortable with our instrument will decrease our performance anxiety, allowing us to be less concerned about technique and more focused on the accuracy and speed. After all, choking the chanter to death because youre worried simply exaggerates the anxiety. Relax. Think puppy dog hands. And watch your technique improve.

      13 Aug 2023


      You've just finished playing your bagpipes, you’re hot and sweaty and aren't quite sure what to do with them when you are done. Take them absolutely and completely apart and swab them out with Q-Tips? Just toss them onto the black leather car seat while you run off to the beach for a leisurely summer swim?

      What steps are necessary to properly stow your pipes after playing will depend on a number of factors, primarily having to do with moisture control. Now, most of the advice below pertains to the care of wood bagpipes. Plastic (or "poly") pipes are very durable and handle extremes in termperture and moisture much better than wood pipes - hence not a bad choice for piper who plays in snow or in desert summers - or, like me, is just lazy.

      On the other hand, while poly pipes usually sound pretty good, you just don't see them at the top levels of competition, so there's a trade off involved. Also if you are one of the masochistic few who have a set of bagpipes with corked joints or worse, rubber grommets, ideally these joints should be disassembled when not in use to keep the cork from compressing and losing its springiness, and keep the rubber rings from breaking down. But, as I said, most of us have hemp.

      If you are a dry blower, live/played in a dry climate, use a moisture control system, or simply didn't play that long, you can probably get away with just disassembling the base drone and putting the pipes in their case. Unzipping the hybrid bag and giving it a quick wipe with a paper towel is good, too. Otherwise, wiping out your chanter and drones will probably be a good idea as you do not want standing water left on the surfaces of your pipes.

      Excessive moisture can cause your wooden pipes to split. You may hear stories from pipers who insist on one of the extremes - just bung them in the box or a meticulous cleaning first - the thing is, what works greatly varies from piper to piper, pipe set-up to pipe set-up, and climate to climate.

      Personally, I remove my chanter, cap it, sometimes I may plug that stock, remove my blowpipe (I have an in-stock valve), open my zipper, place my pipes in the case and then take off and flip around the top (two sections) of my bass drone - I typically don't play for hours and am not a particularly wet blower. A bandmate dries his reeds, blowpipe and drones, then breaks them down completely - he has determined that his system works best for him.

      One more thing - this is a precious and sometimes expensive wooden instrument. Oil the bores of the drones and chanter at least twice a year to prevent them splitting, and to enhance the tone of the drone note. Any oil is better than no oil, but the majority of musicians use almond oil or bore oil (a blended oil for wood) on a pull-through such as a rifle rod or a shotgun pull-through. It doesn’t take long, and the instrument will last for ever. Food-grade mineral oil will work too, but I prefer the plant-based oils.

      Don’t oil the bore of a poly pipe, though. Please.

      That said, let’s seriously talk maintenance of your expensive musical instrument.


      Most pipers remove the chanter from its stock and place the chanter in a "dry stock" (also called a "chanter cap") which covers the end of the chanter and protects the reed. In most locales, a chanter reed will develop mold more quickly if the chanter is left attached to the bag when not in use. And sometimes the chanter may become stuck in its stock—not exactly the most desirable situation! I advise you to buy one chanter cap for every chanter you own, because breaking a worked-in reed is not fixable, it takes time to get a chanter reed “just right”, and accidents happen, usually just before you’re getting ready to play a gig. 

      You may wish to remove any beaded moisture on your reed, after removing the chanter from the bag, by gently pressing it with a tissue for a few seconds, though some pipers go so far as checking the reed against their lip for any wet feeling. Some recommend leaving the reed exposed to air for 5 minutes before stowing it in a cap. If you do air out your reed, be extremely protective of it, you don't want it getting whacked or rolling off of a table or chair!

      If you are in a dry climate such as Denver, Colorado (high altitude) you could just leave the chanter in its stock on the bag to help the reed retain moisture. (Kinnaird Bagpipes of Canada invented the Piper's Pal Chanter Cap, a cap with a moisture stabilization feature which many pipers have found helpful regardless of climate. However, in Mississippi, I find it more expensive than effective.)

      In cold temperatures or after lots of playing, moisture will condense on the inside of your chanter. If this an expensive African Blackwood - or, for that matter, ANY wooden chanter - ideally, this condensation should be wiped out after playing. There are a number of swabs on the market, basically a cone-shaped plume of absorbent material on a metal rod. These swabs work nicely. Oil the chanter twice yearly to preserve and protect the inner bore. Poly chanters just need a quick pull through with an extra-long pipe cleaner, and then the reed covered under a chanter cap. 


      Most pipers can get away without doing much to their drones after playing. But again, you don't want moisture sitting inside the bores of your drones. If this is an issue for you, a "pull through"—a string with a rag strips at one end—may be used to wipe out the larger bores of your drones, or you can buy a drone mop - basically a brush made of cotton fibers that you can push into the bores to catch any excess. Oil twice yearly, more often if it’s hot and dry.

      Now, if you do happen to own a set of poly pipes, you'll find that condensation beads up more easily on plastic than wood and that moisture may run down and clog your reeds. It wouldn't hurt to check your bores and wipe them out when necessary.

      Drone reeds.

      Condensation on the tongues of synthetic drone reeds is a very common problem, even with dry blowers. It's good practice to dry the body of the reeds after extensive playing and wipe out under the tongue using a thin durable paper—paper currency (i.e., a dollar bill) works well since it's designed to not tear easily. Nose tissue and toilet paper is not recommended (too fragile)—nor is a business card which may have the unintended consequence of springing the tongue, affecting both efficiency and tone.

      Some people remove and store their drone reeds in a protective box after each use. If you are one of these, make sure your reeds are very secure when you go to play - this constant removal/installation can compress the hemping and a reed may drop into your bag as a result, an embarrassing and sometimes alarming experience you never want, but all pipers will get.


      If you have a synthetic or hybrid bag with a zipper, then you will want unzip your bag to allow it dry out. Give it a wee wipe on the inside with a paper towel or a nice lint-free coton cloth. With a hide bag, you want to avoid having it dry out, but you also don't want it super moist either. You can help the bag retain moisture by plugging any open stocks with a cork. Unless you’re playing every day, a hide bag will gradually dry out even with all the stocks plugged—particularly if it's a sheepskin bag. If it's necessary to dry an overly-wet bag then leave one or more of the stocks open.

      Into the Case.

      A pipe case serves a number of purposes. It allows you to carry quite a number of items easily, it protects your pipes from impacts, and can also somewhat serve to mitigate rapid changes in temperature and humidity.

      When you place your pipes in their case, you don't want so much leeway that the pipes knock around and chip, scratch, or dent. You also don't want to force the pipes into the case so that they are on the verge of cracking—while drones and stocks are reasonably solid overall, the tuning pins are particularly vulnerable, as is the chanter. And remember, if you employ a hose system in the bag for moisture control, make sure these lie flat as you don't want any kinks.

      Wrapping the chanter in something (such as fluffy fabric or bubble wrap) to protect it is wise. If you really want to baby your pipes, sets of commercial fabric sleeves are available or some pipers go as far as cutting individual slots in a large block of spongy foam for each bagpipe section.

      If your case is overly stuffed you might consider weeding out nonessential items (particularly items that could scratch or otherwise damage your pipes) or if they are all things you need readily available, investigate a larger case. 

      Storing/Moving your Pipes.

      A good piece of advice is to think of your bagpipes as your baby. Don't leave it in a car unattended. Play with it often. Don't drop it or throw it. Only sit on it if you are sure that it's big and strong enough to hold your weight. Feed it (seasoning, if a hide bag). Don't leave it wet (empty/dry your moisture traps). Don't force things to move if they are really stuck. If it screeches, it probably needs some attention. And singing tunes to it (canntaireachd) won't hurt!

      Bottom line, treat your pipes to a mild environment that would be very comfortable for you personally. So if your car is a very mild environment and will stay that way while you are gone, then, yes, you can leave your pipes on the seat—but it better be a very overcast and not too hot or too cold of a day! I have seen a set of poly pipes go from a glorious looking stand of pipes to something reminiscent of a banana statue. It still played music - but it looked really sad and wilted.

      In closing...

      If you take good care of your bagpipes, they will take care of you, and they will last your lifetime - and probably a few more. Yes, some pipers are lucky and can get away with not taking proper care of their pipes, but sooner or later, it may just to come back to haunt them!

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      P/Sgt COL. (Dr.) Bill Christmas