The sound of bagpipes call to the very soul of Scots everywhere.
Is it in our blood? We think so.
The pipes have a long, long history extending into the distant past. There is evidence it all began in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Perhaps you may be able to still hear that nasal skirl of the snake charmer, calling over the centuries from a forgotten land. Certainly, the Romans picked them up, and they marched with their legions as they pushed their imperial frontiers into, not only the Middle East, but northern Europe and the wilds of the borders of Caledonia, ancient Scotland. There is a figure of a piper carved on Hadrian’s Wall. As the centuries past, the pipes became a folk instrument. You see them depicted in various forms in many of the paintings of the great Dutch masters, trying to preserve in their time, a disappearing past.
The British made pipes a vanguard instrument as their armies swept the world, advancing their security and trading interests and building a world-wide commercial empire. After the civil wars in Scotland were finally put down and the culture of the Scots, including the pipes, temporarily suppressed, the British military found a way of using these former warlike renegades. Piping battalions became part of every British regiment. It was largely here that the pipes’ association with the drums became a consistent feature of pipe bands. Pipe music became part of the shock and awe component of military campaigns, and indeed, much of what we see in traditional Highland regalia as well as band and soloist competition rules come directly from the centuries of tradition with the British military. You can see that any time you watch pipe bands on the march. Many veterans and active police and firefighters are attracted to the military traditions and culture of pipe bands. Some bands around the world are composed entirely of active duty officers.
Many of the traditional tunes you hear played by soloists and bands were written by pipe majors in British military bands serving all over the world from the battle of Waterloo to the battle of the Somme, and many wars after. One of the most evocative forms is called piobaireachd (pronounced “P-brock”). It began centuries ago in Scotland, before any of the music was written down. It was taught by singing and memorizing patterns. Many were composed to commemorate great war leaders or the loss of companions fallen in battle. These are slow, sonorous compositions, that many feel, show off the qualities of the instrument best.
Today piping is enjoying a kind of world-wide renaissance, as people of all ages flock to the instrument. Even though the art is centuries old, and at home in the hills and glens of rural villages and backwaters of the world, the instrument is now loved by people everywhere.
Piping and drumming registration for 2022 will be available here.
Solo pipers compete in several different events at competitions and festivals all over the world.
The events, including piobaireachd (pronounced P-brock), are based on the different types of music: marches, slow marches, and dance-style tunes (like the strathspey, the reel, the hornpipe, and the jig). Pipers are divided by ability-level: Grade 5 are beginners, through to Grade 1 (advanced). All music is memorized. The names of tunes tell of people and places and events that help the Scots remember their past and keep history alive.
Pipe band competitions started slowly and informally. In 1930, the Scottish Pipe Band Association was formed in Scotland. Early on, contests seemed to be dominated by Army Pipe Bands. But that soon gave way to civilian pipe bands.
Like solo piping competitions, the pipe bands that compete are organized according to playing ability. The top level is Grade I (one); the bottom level is Grade V (five). Sometimes, bands lose personnel and don’t meet the “size requirement” for a higher grade. Most contests have two events: A Medley (this is the most creative because a pipe band can play any type of pipe tune in any combination), and a Set (usually a March-Strathspey-and-Reel set, also known as an “MSR” set). Not all pipe bands compete and many pipers play for fun.
The drum corps of a pipe band consists of a section of drummers playing Highland snare drums. The snare drums have very tight Kevlar heads, designed for maximum tension to create a very crisp and strident sound. The drum corps is responsible for supporting the piping with a solid rhythmic foundation and a sense of pulse; the score being played by the drum corps is usually based on rudimental patterns and can often be quite involved, with solo, unison and contrapuntal passages throughout. The drumming in pipe bands has been compared to that of big band or jazz drumming; both combine technique and rudimental drumming while striving for unity and a rhythmic feel.