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The Scottish Smallpipes

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 Northumbrian smallpipes, Border pipes (also known as Lowland pipes), and Scottish smallpipes.

The Scottish smallpipes (the name is sometimes abbreviated to SSP) closely resemble the Northumbrian smallpipes, from which they were developed. The key modification that turned a Northumbrian set into a set of Scottish smallpipes was a switch from a closed fingering system to a half-open system.

Chanters: Closed or Open-Ended?

The chanter of the Northumbrian smallpipes is closed rather than open at the end. When all fingers are down, covering the holes, there is silence. The Northumbrian piper must work one finger at a time, lifting one finger to play a note, then putting it back down before moving on to play a subsequent note. On other bellows-driven pipes, a note is always playing, even when all fingers are down.

The chanter of the Scottish smallpipes—as well as the other bellows-driven varieties—is open. The fingering system on the SSP has been designed to be identical to that of the GHB (or Great Highland Bagpipes); pipers using the half-open system must lift several fingers simultaneously to produce the notes desired.

Controversial Origins

Talk about controversy: some swear that the Scottish smallpipes date back to medieval times, others insist the instrument was invented for the first time in 1983. Over the centuries, there were many varieties of smaller bagpipes—both mouth-blown and bellows-blown—which were common throughout the British Isles. The chuisleann pipes and other extinct varieties may have been Scottish, and they may have been small, but they are not Scottish smallpipes. When it comes down to key functional and design differences such as the fingering system and the bore of the chanter, it is quite clear that the Scottish smallpipe in use today is a completely different instrument from what some may have called a Scottish smallpipe centuries earlier.

With a nod to the raging controversy, the instrument today known as the Scottish smallpipes was indeed invented by Colin Ross in 1983. Prior to his invention of the Scottish smallpipes, Colin Ross had been a builder/player of Northumbrian smallpipes. (At one point, his traditional music band, High Level Ranters, was the lone remaining band still playing Northumbrian smallpipes on stage.) Putting his experience making Northumbrians to full use, Ross made his own modifications to a Northumberland set. Ross designed a new chanter that featured a cylindrical bore, so that it would fit a Northumbrian's chanter reed, yet was playable using the same half-open fingering system used by Great Highland pipers.

The Half-Open Hybrid

The result was a new hybrid instrument, the Scottish smallpipes. Colin Ross' new instrument has been credited with leading a revival in the use of bellows-driven bagpipes not only in the British Isles, but internationally. Highland pipers have a special affinity for the Scottish smallpipes, since the SSP do not require them to learn a new fingering system; many keep it as a second instrument, which they can play indoors and won't overpower most other instruments. A new generation of pipe-builders learned their craft in the process of supplying the demand for Scottish smallpipes, basing their creations around Ross' revolutionary chanter/reed combination.

In general, the SSP are available in a choice of four keys—A, B flat, C and D—with A being the most common and the accepted standard. Compared to other pipes—the uilleanns spring immediately to mind—they are relatively easy to maintain; the reeds stay dry and are very stable. The pipes' rich tones and compatibility with other instruments have kept their popularity at a peak. With worldwide appreciation of Celtic music growing steadily, the large-scale piping revival that Colin Ross touched off in 1983 may be just now catching its second wind.