Thursday, 19 May 2011

British Bagpipes

Bagpipes in Canterbury
The first recorded bagpipes played in the British Isles were sounded in Canterbury in Kent, in the fourteenth century, as described by the Kentish writer Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales.

First British Bagpipes in the Canterbury Tales
The following is an account of how British bagpipes attracted great crowds in Kent, written in original Kentish English:
A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne. And therwithal he broghte us out of towne.
Are bagpipes in Britain of Kentish origin?

For more on the amazing beauty of British bagpipes, read on and hear the beautiful tunes:

British Bagpipes

The bagpipe is a traditional musical instrument in England and Ireland and the most popular in Scotland. The beautiful sound of bagpipe music derives from a display of reed pipes attached to a leather bag inflated with air and a set of finger-holes to determine the tune. Bagpipes were common all over Britain from at least the 14th century – accounts referring to them being historically present in literature – but they may have been in use in Britain and Ireland prior to that time. Geoffrey Chaucer, England's famous 14th century poet, describes the closing lines to the miller's portrait in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales as follows: A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne. And therwithal he broghte us out of towne.

Composition of the Pipes
The pipes are traditionally made from oak, but certain other kinds of good-quality wood are also used. The pipe that descends from the bag is known as the chanter; it is a fingerboard with a display of holes that the piper holds, covering and uncovering these with movement of the fingers, similar as with a flute, in order to give the notes. The chanter, as its name tunefully describes, plays the melody.

The pipes protruding from the upper part of the bag are called drones, and are usually three in number. A drone, contrary to the chanter, does not play many notes, but, as its name implies, gives a continuous sound, each drone having its own specific pitch. A more sophisticated drone can be regulated to two or more pitches.
The simultaneous hum coming from a drone accompanying the melody given by the chanter is a distinctive characteristic of bagpipe music. The drones attached to the same bagpipe vary in length and rest on the left shoulder and upper arm of the piper.

Bag, Stocks and Reeds
The bag is traditionally made from air-tight sheep or goat skin with a number of holes as openings. A cylindrical wooden socket, known as a stock, protrudes from each hole, and serves as the base for a pipe. The Scottish bagpipe has one stock for each drone, most other models have one stock for all the drones. Each pipe, or set of pipes, is firmly placed onto the corresponding stock.

The chanter and the drones each have a small reed protruding from the end and entering the stock. The passage of air from the bag causes the reeds to vibrate, thus determining the sound effect of the chanter and drones.

Obtaining the Music
The piper who plays the instrument has to maintain a constant reserve of air within the bag, exert pressure on the bag to convey air into the chanter and drones, play the melody while holding the chanter and operate the drones.

Scottish Bagpipes
The Highland bagpipe is the commonly known Scottish national instrument which has achieved world fame. The bag rests between the piper’s left arm and upper waist and has a blowpipe attached to it through which the piper blows to inflate the bag with air. A valve within this mouthpiece prevents the return of air. The use of the blowpipe to convey air by mouth relates the Highland bagpipe more directly to the original bagpipes that were common in Britain and Europe in the Middle Ages before the advent of the bellows.
The Highland bagpipe made its appearance in the British army during the 18th century with the Scottish Highland regiments. The instrument has a bass drone and two tenor drones, these being tuned an octave apart. The use of drums accompanying the Highland bagpipes gives the unique pipe music its well-known marching character. The Lowland bagpipe is essentially the same as the Northumbrian small pipe, and during the 19th century gave way to the Highland pipe.

English Bagpipes
English bagpipes have maintained a position in local musical tradition in the north of England, where they are known as Northumbrian small pipes. As with the Irish union pipes, they are bellows-blown. The bellows consists of a small leather bag with a valve for air to enter, this being pumped in through movement of the piper’s arm. The air then passes through an outlet into the main bag, smaller than that used with the Highland bagpipe. The bellows was introduced to British bagpipes around the beginning of the 17th century with the exception of the Highland pipe and the Northumbrian and Irish war pipes, which are mouth-blown.

Irish Bagpipes
The bellows-blown bagpipes in Ireland developed into the union pipe around 1700. This instrument maintains the use of the bellows to convey air, has three drones and one or more additional pipes with four to five keys that have a function between a chanter and a drone, making this bagpipe a very particular instrument in its complexity.

The two-droned Irish war pipe is mouth-blown and dates back to at least the 16th century. Similar to the ancient English and Scottish war pipes, of which the Highland bagpipe is a model, it is adapt for marching.

Written by D. Alexander

Caption: Canterbury Cathedral

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