I am often asked about the bagpipes. What are they made of? Where/when did they originate? How did I get started?
Here’s what I know:
The bagpipes were thought to be originally created somewhere in the Mediterranean. Pipers used their instruments to entertain but often shepherds would use the pipes to keep flocks quiet and calm. Some even believe that pipes were present at Christ’s birth. Imagine! The original instrument probably only had one drone and chanter. More specifically one upright pipe (drone) and one downward pointing pipe (Chanter or melody pipe). I have even heard that some believe that Egyptians had pipes long before but I don’t think there are any illustrations or proof of this.
The bag of the bagpipe is traditionally a leather or skin of some type. Today pipers have the choice of natural skins from the cow, goat or sheep. Of these cow leather is the cheapest and lowest performing, sheep is the best tonally and is also the most expensive. A sheep bag costs around $350 today and last only 18 to 24 months. With great care it can last longer. With the advanced materials available today pipebags are much hardier- they are made of kevlar, and other waterproof materials. Some are as expensive as sheepskin but they all last a lot longer. You do sacrifice some performance with these new materials and some pipers believe they don’t sound quite as good. But as with most things in piping there are many opinions out there and each has his own. (I play sheep for comfort, tone and control- I am always interested in creating the best sound and tone I can). Here is a picture of a sheepskin bag:
The bagpipes themselves are made of hardwood. Some pipers used to use ebony but this was pretty much stopped at the turn of the last century for two possible reasons: Ebony was prone to cracking and good ebony was becoming increasingly scarce. Other bagpipers used other woods as well, like cocuswood. Most bagpiper manufacturers switched over to Kenyan Blackwood. Very, very stable wood and incredibly dense. Black wood does not float. It was turned on lathes and many sets made over 100 years ago are still around. This wood must be dried for ages and then turned. Pieces with knots or other defects are often rejected. The guy who made my bagpipes (D.M Atherton) was notorious for being extra finicky in his selection of wood. I would estimate he rejected over 90% of the wood he used and he only purchased the best stock to start with! The handmade bagpipe is a work of art. There are some fantastic bagpipe makers alive today. Also today some are turning out bagpipes on CNC milling machines. This lowers cost, the CNC is very accurate but also the CNC cannot “sense” how the wood is behaving like a true artist can. If you ever want to buy a set of pipes get advice from someone- there are a lot of junk pipes out there that cannot be tuned and a lot of this junk comes from Pakistan. Cavaet Emptor. My pipes are Dave Atherton’s MD pipes- modeled after a very famous set of MacDougall bagpipes from the 1900s. They are world renowned as is Dave for his bagpipe making skills.
The reeds- many pipers use synthetic reeds in their drones today for dependability. Natural cane however gives the best tone of all but must be played regularly to perform well. Each drone has it’s own reed and the chanter has a double reed. That’s four reeds playing at once. Air demand wise the pipes are like playing a tuba. You need to work up the strength to play this instrument. Each drone is tuned to the chanter. The two shorter drones are the tenors and they tune one octave below the chanter, the single bass drone tunes two octaves below the chanter.
The chanter has a natural cane reed in it. No one has yet created a synthetic chanter reed that comes close to natural cane for tone and vibrancy. I use a chanter made by William Sinclair and Sons of Scotland- a world class chanter made of blackwood- I love the tone I get with this chanter.
That’s about all for now. Please come back when next time I will discuss the piper’s uniform. Thanks, Stephen the Bagpiper.