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The Border Pipes

Bagpipes in Scotland come in two flavors, the better-known being the Highland variety. The other category consists of bellows-driven pipes. (Some call these “cauld wind” pipes because they use the “cold wind” from the bellows rather than the hotter air of the piper’s breath; others are offended by the use of the term cauld wind to designate this category of pipes.) Another difference is regional; these bellows pipes do not come from the Highlands, but from Lowland areas. The instruments in this bellows-driven group include not only the Border pipes (also known as Lowland pipes), but also the Northumbrian smallpipes (NSP) and Scottish smallpipes.

The Border pipes get their name from the Border region of Scotland. Border pipes and Northumbrians were traditionally popular on either side of the border, giving these two kinds of pipes a parallel history and a common repertoire. Northumberland has historically been very close to Scotland, and not just in matters of geography; the same tunes were played and appreciated in Northumbria as in the Scottish lowlands near the border.

Border pipes are bellows-blown and feature a common stock with three drones, typically two tenor drones and a bass drone (in this respect, they are similar to the NSP and Scottish smallpipes). However, their chanters are conical, similar to the Great Highland Bagpipes (GHB). The conical chanter makes Border pipes significantly louder than Scottish smallpipes or Northumbrians (both of which have cylindrical chanters). Border pipes can play at a lower volume than the GHB, however, while retaining the Great Pipes' uniquely vibrant tone. Most Border pipes are made in the key of A, to enhance their compatibility with other instruments used in Scottish and traditional music; some pipemakers also produce Border pipes in Bb and G.

By the way, should you ever run across a set of Northumbrian half-longs, these are not the same as Northumbrian smallpipes. Northumbrian half-long--a now-archaic term for pipes with conical, open-ended chanters and three drones in a common stock--is just another name for Border pipes.

Historical Notes

There are no historical traces of bellows-driven pipes prior to the 16th century, so it is likely that they were invented around the middle of that century, the first models probably being imported from Germany. Within 100 years, Highland pipes, English mouth-blown pipes, and rudimentary examples of the Northumbrian smallpipes had spread throughout Scotland, Ireland, and Northern England.

From medieval times through their abolition in 1836, at least 127 towns in England and Scotland employed bands of Waits (or Town Music), a cross between a civic musician and town crier. Waits were called upon to play on ceremonial occasions and to welcome important visitors, but they also played nightly as they walked through the streets sounding curfew. Every morning, waits would be up with the dawn playing and making public announcements (e.g., weather and sea conditions), and their music awakened the servants in the neighborhood to let them know it was time to commence their morning chores. What's all this got to do with a bagpipe? Well, while the shawm was the dominant instrument among waits throughout most of the British Isles, in Northern England and Scotland waits typically played the Border pipes.

Throughout most of the 18th century, the basic design and functionality of both Border pipes and Northumbrian smallpipes did not make much progress. The catalyst for further development in the instruments was the rampant popularity of fiddle hornpipes. Pipers were frustrated at the limited range of the Border pipes and NSP; without modifications to the instruments, it would be impossible to play the new fiddle repertoire on a nine-note Border pipes chanter or eight-note NSP chanter. (These tunes could be played on Uilleann pipes, however, so Uilleanns moved higher in popularity.)

The NSP continued to evolve, benefiting from the efforts of a dedicated group of stalwart supporters and craftsmen determined to make improvements to the instrument to ensure its survival. Unfortunately for the Border pipes, no instrument makers or craftsmen came forward to adapt their design so as to enable a broader repertoire. As a result, the Border pipes fell out of favor, and nearly fell out of existence altogether. By 1855, Border pipes had all but vanished from the entire border region and Northumberland, but survived around the area of Aberdeenshire. Preservation of the instrument was continued by Boy Scout Pipe Bands and young men in military training programs, who played their marching music on the Border pipes.

Here to Stay

In the 1980s, the Border pipes got swept up in the great piping revival. New players (as well as veteran GHB pipers) took up the instrument, motivated by its quiet, sweet sound and flexible tuning options. The Border pipes were readily adopted by traditional music ensembles, and there is currently no shortage of renowned pipemakers who have established Scotland operations to produce and market them. Over the centuries, the instrument has ventured near the brink of extinction several times but has always survived, demonstrating that Border pipes are definitely here to stay.