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Highland Pipes | Celtic Cultural Minute

Sean Mullen

Bethlehem’s annual Celtic Classic & Highland Games fill the city with the stirring, whirling call of the bagpipes that echo off of the autumn hills to open and close the games. These iconic pipes have a history even older than the Games themselves.

Scotland, and all the Celtic countries, boast a rich piping heritage, but it is the great Highland bagpipe of Scotland with which most people are familiar. It’s the pipe that we all know from pipe bands, Highland dancing, weddings and funerals. But there are two types of Scottish pipes, the Highland and the Lowland, or Border, pipes.

To play a Highland pipe, the piper blows into a pipe to keep a bag filled with air, air which then escapes thru four other pipes. Three of these are called the drones, while the 4th, called a chanter, is fingered to play the tune.

Lowland pipes work differently. Rather than blow into a pipe to fill the bag, pipers use their arms to squeeze bellows that blow air into the bag. The sound of these pipes is softer, more intimate than Highland pipes, and better suited to playing indoors, while seated. A popular form of Lowland pipe are the Border pipes; there are also Scottish Smallpipes, even quieter and more delicate than the Border pipes.

The roots of all Scottish piping are Celtic, though, as are the names for the 2 types of music played on the pipes, Ceol Beag and Ceol Mor - or Piobaireachd. Ceol Beag means “little music” in Gaelic, and can be played on both Highland and Lowland pipes. Ceol Beag describes all kinds of tunes and dances including strathspeys, jigs, reels, and slow airs.

Ceol Mor, which means ‘great music’, is the more formal music of the pipes, and it is only played on the Highland pipes, often by a solo piper. This powerful music includes salutes and tunes reflecting great events in history, aching laments and elegies, and gathering music, the tunes used to gather the members of a clan.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Highland pipes replaced the harp as the instrument of battle in the Scottish Highlands, reflecting changes in warfare itself. The clan chiefs needed to rally and rouse large bodies of clansmen, while at the same time striking terror into the heart of the enemy. The volume, mobility and sheer stirring power of the Highland pipe made it the perfect choice, giving rise to the rousing Ceol Mor musical tradition and to dynasties of great pipers like the MacCrimmons on the Isle of Skye.

In 1745, the Jacobite Rising saw the Scottish clans and Charles Stuart, AKA Bonnie Prince Charlie, score victory after victory against the larger, better-armed British Army. That all ended in April 1746 at the bloody, brutal battle of Culloden. The 1747 British Act of Proscription sought to destroy the clan’s way of life, banning the wearing of tartans, the carrying of arms, etc. Highland pipers and their instruments were considered instruments of war.

Eventually, the English military appropriated the bagpipe as a source of both intimidation and inspiration in battle, creating military marching bands that have accompanied their troops throughout the world, from colonial America to the modern Middle East. Thus, fittingly, this iconic Scottish instrument to this day evokes strength and courage, with the echo of Celtic longing and beauty.

For Celtic Cultural Alliance, this is Kate Scuffle. Slainte.

An actress, producer, writer and educator, Kate is the Managing Director of Selkie Theatre, and was the founding Executive Director of the award-winning Theatre Outlet. At The Outlet she produced several innovative performance series featuring new drama, music, dance and spoken word, as well as the Outlet’s Educational Outreach programs.
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