The Highland Bagpipe…

Today’s Highland Bagpipe can trace its history back to a Middle Eastern origin. Ancestors of modern Celtic people brought this instrument with them as they traveled west and north from Mesopotamia (known today as Iraq and Iran.) As their culture evolved, so did this unique instrument.

Piobaireachd is the classical music of the Highland bagpipe. “Piob” is a Gaelic word meaning a pipe, or bagpipe. “Piobair” is a piper, and “Piobaireachd” is what a piper does with a pipe. For hundreds of years this has been the only kind of music played on the bagpipe. Until this last century Piobaireachd was not written down but passed from teacher to student through “canntaireachd,” or mouth music. This method of chant employs various combinations of vowel and consonant sounds to represent the notes and embellishments of Piobaireachd.

In the middle 19th century the British began integrating the bagpipe into their regimental style military bands. If you have ever listened to Piobaireachd you know that it is difficult at best to march to! Ceol beag, or “little music,” includes marches, strathspeys, reels and hornpipes, and is the most common form of music played today. Ceol beag is to the bagpipe what Jazz would be to a clarinet, flute or trumpet. Ceol Mor, or big music, would then be comparable to Classical music on the previously named instruments.

Although it looks almost impossible to play, the bagpipe (a.k.a. “wheeze & squeeze”) can be learned by almost anyone with a little dedication and a toleration for moderately loud music. The most difficult part of playing the bagpipe is in blowing more air in one hole than is escaping from the other four holes! With a little practice, however, the results can lead to many hours of enjoyment.

The bagpipes were a solo instrument originally, that is until the British got a hold of them! The British integrated them into their military marching bands to create a unique sound yet unequaled. Since the bagpipe has only one volume level accented and rhythmic cadences of the side, tenor and bass drums help give the band as a whole a sense of volume and dynamics (not to mention keeping everyone in step as they march!).

Bagpipe bands probably draw more spectators than any other type of band. Not for their unique sound alone, but their lively music and bold appearance help remind many people of the Celtic heritage they posses.

Stop by the South end of the park and listen to the Ceol Beag and maybe even a little Piobaireachd. The best way is to lie on the grass in the shade of huge maple trees and let the warm summer breeze carry the tunes of the pipers over your soul for a refreshing alternative to modern music.

 Taken from an excerpt from Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America from Canada to Vancouver’s Island and Oregon Through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Territory  published in 1859 by Paul Kane, an adventurer and artist. 

Kane describes his trips across Canada and into Oregon. He recorded sights and wrote about people in his diary along his two trips in 1845 and 1847-48.   The book published in London has many beautifully detailed pictures by Kane that it’s thought he adapted from sketches he made on the trips.

 In a diary entry of October 9.1846, Kane noted that he met a Highlander, Colin Frazer, who joined their party. Frazer came to this country from Scotland as personal piper to the founder of the Hudson Bay Company, Sir George Simpson.  When he played at villages and forts along the trip, he astounded the natives who had never seen a Scotsman in kilts nor heard the bagpipes.  (The Highlander, Vol 42, No.3, May/Jun 2004,  p 69)

 So even if you have never heard the bagpipes before, it’s ok.  We won’t introduce you to the intricacy of the nine notes that are available on the pipes or how there are three reeds that produce the sound.  We won’t talk about piping skills, nor the levels of competition nor the names of tunes.  Colin Frazer probably didn’t when he played in the wilds of Oregon in 1845.  But you, too, will be astounded at the complexity of the bagpipes and the technical difficulties of playing them that our competitors at Caledonian, 2012 have mastered.   Frazer probably was very accomplished—I hope he played jigs and reels like you will hear today and that the skirl of the pipes filled the air and all their hearts.  They never forgot it, nor will you.