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The Great Highland Bagpipes

Celtic-instruments image of Scottish piper wearing a traditional kilt, playing the Great Highland Bagpipes

Of the more than 200 types of bagpipes played in the world today, Scotland's Great Highland Bagpipes are arguably the most famous. They are mouth-blown and stunningly loud, in contrast to the bellows-blown and softer-sounding pipes of Lowland areas, which include the Northumbrian smallpipes, Border pipes (also known as Lowland pipes), and Scottish smallpipes.

Regardless of the type of bagpipes being played, the principles remain the same. The Highland piper blows forcefully through the short blowpipe, filling a sheepskin bag with air; he generates the desired notes by manipulating eight finger holes on the chanter pipe; and the air exits through three additional pipes attached to the bag, which are the bass and the two tenor drones. The expelled air being forced out through the drones vibrates a reed in the end of each drone, creating the bagpipes’ distinctive sound.

The design of the Great Pipes imposes certain playing limitations on the piper. With a continual flow of air moving through the drones, a note is always playing, and the piper cannot interrupt the sound between notes. To accomplish the same objective--creating a division between two notes--the piper may instead elect to insert a grace note. On the Great Pipes, it is also not possible to convey emphasis by playing some notes more loudly than others; if emphasis is desired, the piper may choose to hold the note longer, or to introduce more complex ornaments, such as taorluaths, doublings, trills, grips and birls.

Because of their overpowering sound, these great bagpipes are not widely used for playing traditional Celtic folk music with other, softer-voiced instruments. It’s far more common to find the Uilleann pipes being played in combination with other Celtic instruments. However, many recordings are available of large ensembles of Scottish pipers (a.k.a. Highland Regiments) accompanied by multitudes of drummers.

Historical Notes

In one form or another, close relatives of the bagpipes have been around for thousands of years; they were used to lead Roman infantrymen into battle, and may have been played for the entertainment of Egyptian pharaohs. In every corner of the world where Celtic people have settled, the bagpipes or Piob have been absorbed into and become an important part of the culture.

As near as anyone can guess, ancestral versions of the Great Highland Bagpipes (minus a couple of drones) in use as instruments of war arrived in Scotland sometime during the 1300s, settling in the Highlands regions circa 1400. In the 14th century, the British Navy is said to have employed pipers, the earliest-known instance in the centuries-old relationship between Highland pipers and the armed forces of Britain. The worldwide fame enjoyed today by the Great Pipes is due ironically in no small part to the British Army, which recruited Scottish Highlanders into regiments that were pressed into battle in all corners of the Empire. Each individual Highland Regiment of the British Army boasts its own repertoire of marches, strathspeys, reels, and retreats, not to mention its own pipers and pipe bands.

The Great Highland Bagpipes are currently played all over the world. Musicians of many nations, even in countries having their own native form of bagpipes, are arranging traditional folk tunes for play on the Highland pipes. In a parallel development, some Celtic musicians have rediscovered ancient airs and piobaireachd tunes and arranged them for other Celtic instruments, such as the harp, fiddle, and guitar. The Great Highland Bagpipes and their repertoire continue to evolve, and their popular appeal shows no signs of diminishing.

For historical information presented in greater detail, refer to the pages on History and Piobaireachd.


Music written for the Great Highland Bagpipes falls into one of three repertorial categories:

Up until a century or so ago, the piping world was overrun with snobbery. Fancy-schmancy fingering and fast-moving dance tunes were generally frowned upon. But all that has changed. While ceol beag was all but unknown at the dawn of the last century, in terms of number of tunes, it now comprises an overwhelming majority of all the music written for the bagpipes.

Today, there is broad public support for rapid-fire dance music; a piper’s pyrotechnics are roundly encouraged, and pieces that can show off a player’s fingering skill and technique –- such as strathspeys, reels, and hornpipes -– are all the rage. It’s a golden era for the ceol aotrom repertoire.

Ceol meadhonach is the middle music, and was also performed by some of the ancient masters. The ceol meadhonach found favor with Highland pipes fans who were not enchanted by the ceol mor’s rigidly structured arrangements and lack of vocals. The slow airs of the ceol meadhonach are perfectly suited to vocal accompaniment, and its jigs provide pipers with plenty of opportunities to limber up their fingers on the chanter.

Ceol mor, or piobaireachd, is the classical music of the bagpipe. Like other European forms of classical music, piobaireachd focuses on a single central theme. Serial variations are presented until the theme is said to have been exhausted; the piece then reverts to the original theme at the finish.

The entire piobaireachd repertoire consists of slightly more than 300 tunes; many of the finest were composed centuries ago by members of the most influential family in the history of piping—the MacCrimmons. There is great uniformity across the entire piobaireachd repertoire, since every tune follows a similar, regimented pattern and structure.

Parts of the Great Highland Bagpipes

Parts of the Great Highland Bagpipes: Bag, Chanter, Stock, Blowpipe, Bass Drone, Tenor DronesThe graphic at right shows a modern set of Great Highland Bagpipes. In addition to the bag, a set will have the following pipes: a blowpipe, a chanter in B-flat pitch, two tenor drones (pitched an octave below the fundamental of the chanter), and one bass drone (pitched an octave below the tenor). The pipes are bound into the bag and set into a wooden socket called a stock. Instrument manufacturers have been quick to embrace technological innovations and the latest synthetic materials. Bags, for example, are traditionally made of sheepskin, but bags made from synthetics such as Gore-Tex are getting more common. Parts once made exclusively from ivory have been replaced with plastic ones. Many varieties of wood are now used in making the pipes; not all pipes are made of rosewood these days. Reeds are typically cut from cane, but synthetics of several types are making inroads into reed manufacturing as well. During a performance, the piper works out the lead part on the chanter pipe, and the melody plays against a background provided by the drones (this background is known as the urlar, or floor). The chanter has eight finger holes commanding the continual attention of the piper--seven holes in the front, and one in the back.On a set such as the one shown, a piper can produce nine notes, ranging from low G to high A. (Theoretically, that is…)

Practice Sets for Highland Pipers

Unless you live on your own private island, you probably won’t be able to get away with practicing regularly on a full set of pipes. They’re just too high-decibel for that. Fortunately, manufacturers have designed practice sets with stealth in mind, so that pipers can keep their skills sharp without inciting everyone within a five-mile radius to call the police. The first option as a practice instrument is a practice chanter, which bundles together a chanter and smaller-sized reed. The practice chanter allows the piper to practice fingering, and is capable of producing every note possible on a regular set of the Great Pipes.

Another practice instrument, known as a goose, has a chanter, reed and a bag, but no drones. This configuration enables a piper to practice not only fingering, but also breath control and maintaining optimal bag pressure.