Bagpipes, long associated with royal reveille and haggis, are hitting the right note in other areas, says Mary Skipwith

Mary Skipwith looks at the evocative power of the bagpipes and their importance for military and royal ceremonies.

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Bagpipes, alongside the recorder and violin, vie for the title of Marmite instrument. There are few sounds more excruciating than a recorder being blown by an enthusiastic toddler or a violin being scratched into submission by a learner but, for some, bagpipes clinch it. For them, the initial noise of the bag filling with air is how one imagines the love child of a pair of barber’s clippers and a vacuum cleaner might sound. This then escalates to a drone not dissimilar to a half-hearted wail from a child who has long forgotten what he is complaining about but persists nevertheless.

However, for the majority, bagpipe music is powerfully evocative, stirring the soul and conjuring up images of the untamed Highlands, majestic stags and national pride all beautifully packaged in a tartan ribbon of sound. As the official instrument of Scotland, soldiers have been beckoned to the battlefields, sportsmen energised for their national matches and pageants promoted with the rallying notes from bagpipes. From celebrations to commemorations, they play their part in enhancing already heightened emotions.

Even the most stoic viewers of the funeral of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh must have felt a lump lodge in their throats as the lone piper marched solemnly out of St George’s Chapel. The swirling skirl of the historical lament Flowers of the Forest gently fading as the coffin was lowered simultaneously wrenched and swelled hearts. Pipe Major Colour Sergeant Peter Grant was the man who had the honour and responsibility bestowed on him that day. He admits, “I was well aware that my performance was about to be broadcast to 12 million people worldwide so there was a lot of pressure prior to playing. However, when it came down to the moment my nerves went – I think because I was involved with the service. I felt a sense of emotion and sadness when I saw Her Majesty, who had lost her husband of so many years.”

Piping was destined to be part of Grant’s profession from a young age. Taking up the instrument when he was seven, he was already proficient in his teens. Then, he tells me, “I joined the Army after seeing The Queen’s Royal Guard at Balmoral Castle. Mesmerised by how smart they were, I wanted to be part of it. It was always my ambition to play at the Braemar Gathering and after I achieved this, I wanted to take my hobby to another level.” It’s fair to say he’s passed muster. Grant’s reference to Gatherings alludes to the royal family’s long-embedded love for Scotland, which extends to the bagpipes. Indeed, Queen Victoria created the position of Piper to the Sovereign in 1843 upon discovering that the Marquess of Breadalbane had his own personal piper. It is a role still active today, traditionally held by a serving, non-commissioned officer and Pipe Major from a Scottish or Irish regiment. One of his most important duties consists of playing beneath HM The Queen’s window every morning at nine o’clock for a quarter of an hour when she is in her primary royal residences. Imagine the drinks party conversation:
“So what do you do?”
“Well, I’m The Queen’s alarm clock.”

On Burns Night, too, the instrument takes centre stage, used as it is to pipe in the haggis. There’s something rather comical about the shape of a set of bagpipes and if haggis did exist as animals, one could suppose the instrument was traditionally made from them. In reality, it was most commonly sheep skins that were turned inside out before pipes were attached to where the legs and neck had been.

According to experts at The National Piping Centre, the history of the bagpipes is long and its origins in Egypt. Historically, it was a solo or self-accompanying instrument, since it provides its own harmony through the use of drones. Most European countries have their own style of bagpipe, with the duda from the Czech Republic, the zampogna from Italy and the Irish uilleann pipes all using a bag and drones and either mouth- or bellows-blown.

“Bagpipes are loved all around the world by different cultures and bring great happiness and emotion to many,” Grant says. Indeed, it’s not just ceremonial duties that have taken him all over the world. “I am the Platoon Commander of the Assault Pioneers, which is the primary role of the Pipes and Drums. People often don’t realise that we are infantry soldiers first, with piping and drumming being our secondary role. I am responsible for making sure all of the platoon is deployable, trained and ready for any operational theatre across the world. However, if we are on a military exercise or operation, we will always take our pipes with us, regardless of the combat role we are going to perform. We don’t always get the opportunity to play them, but we will have them on standby.”

Most British military bands use the Great Highland bagpipes. These were standardised with three drones, chanter, bag and mouthpiece in the late 1700s. Gordon Arthur, former High Sheriff of Leicestershire and a piper in boyhood, notes, “The real skill with the Great Highland bagpipe is demonstrated by the players of ‘piobaireachd’, the traditional Gaelic music for solo players. With three drones as backing to the chanter, it is a much louder instrument than all others.”

Arthur’s piping career may have been short but it sounds rather sweet. “In 1964, during my second term at Rugby, I was persuaded to join a piping class, which I attended religiously every Sunday afternoon, using my practice chanter in my study during the week. I didn’t find it easy as I had no real musical training and could not read or understand music. Nevertheless, I stuck with it and found that by learning by heart I could begin to play well-known military marches. After a year, my parents bought me a set of pipes and I had to learn the complexities of playing the chanter (much louder than the practice one) while squeezing the bag to provide air and marching in step at the same time. I progressed sufficiently to join the school pipe band and in 1967 the band played for HM The Queen when she visited the school to mark the quatercentenary. After this high point the band declined and, in due course, disbanded. Without a teacher and a purpose, my piping career came to an end.”

Champion piper Kirsty Lawson had a much longer relationship with bagpipes. “From nine years old, I took fiddle lessons from the world-famous Angus Grant. He was an incredible fiddler but I really wasn’t into it. I was only allowed to give it up if I took up the bagpipes, so when I was 11 that’s exactly what I did. Thank goodness I did, because my life would be completely different to how it is now.”

One appeal for Lawson was the earning potential. “At the age of 12, I started busking. The first time I did it, I made £30 in 15 minutes. Bear in mind this was 1994 so it seemed a huge amount; I was hooked. I would spend my summers busking in a car park in Fort William where all the tourist buses parked and I earned a ridiculous amount.” However, this wasn’t her only good fortune. “When I joined the Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band in 2005, I met my future husband, a Canadian drummer. We went to the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow that year [a competition that attracts more than 8,000 pipers and drummers from 200 pipe bands and 16 countries]. It was the first time I had ever been – and we won the highest grade that’s awarded.”

A calamity before a selection performance at a major almost turned her attendance into a pipe dream. “We had a practice and the pipe major told us to be sure to dry out our water traps in our pipes. I forgot, only realising the next morning, so I set up my hair dryer in order to dry it but left it on the hottest setting, melting the plastic joint that should have connected it to my pipes. The Pipe Sergeant generously gave me his dry V3 water trap before taking mine and duct taping it into his own pipes. I played that day and we won.”

Bagpipes are usually associated with military and royal tradition, but there has been a shift. They have featured in songs by well-known artists and groups, including AC/DC, Paul McCartney and John Farnham. Finlay MacDonald, Steven Blake, Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton promote the pipes among the wider musical community and composers such as Phil Cunningham feature pipes in their compositions. And then there are the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, who have created ‘Bagrock’, a fusion of traditional Scottish music and rock/pop anthems, delivering high-octane performances playing ‘bagpipes with attitude’.

Learning to play the pipes, however, requires an ability to multitask. Lawson’s advice is to start young. “As a child, I felt bagpipes were easy to learn. As an adult, it is definitely more challenging. When one thinks about what’s involved – blowing, squeezing the bag, keeping the tone steady, tuning your drones, remembering the tune (you rarely use music) and often marching at the same time – it’s a lot to master.”

It’s now possible to do a degree in piping. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland currently hosts the largest piping degree programme in the world, working in conjunction with The National Piping Centre. Additionally, pipers now pursue master’s and PhD degrees, and piping has grown to become a respected part of the academic and professional music community. Another way in is through the military and Pipe Majors such as Grant ensure all their pipers are developing and progressing through their qualifications. “At the Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming the pinnacle is the seven-month Pipe Major’s course. It involves practical playing in terms of light music and piobaireachd, musical theory and the history of piping,” he explains.

Because it requires such skill and knowledge, it’s a tricky instrument to fake playing. Grant remembers, “We were at a musical engagement where we required 12 pipers. One fell sick so we took one of the drummers and dressed him in a piper’s uniform. Thankfully, this drummer had challenged himself a few times to play the pipes and knew how to hold them to a certain extent. He managed to pull it off without the spectators making any observations but I wouldn’t risk it again.”

Bagpipes are not for everyone and some readers may feel this article has droned on for too long. Yet for others it has hopefully cemented a love or reawakened a passion. Talking of reawakening, I’m off to see if I can find a piper to stir me from my slumber every morning. Perhaps he can serenade me while I breakfast, too. Needless to say, it’ll be toast and Marmite.