Bagpipes, Scotland and Robbie Burns
By Donny MacKenzie
Scotland boasts of many important cultural icons: world renowned whisky, Saint Andrew, Robert the Bruce, haggis, ancient castles, golf, curling and many more. But nothing symbolizes Scotland more than the bagpipes and Robbie Burns. Without a doubt the most recognizable symbol of Scotland is the bagpipes. And we all know the great contribution Robbie Burns has made to the Scottish heritage. Burns’ work was even taken further to now include modern day bagpipe music.
One reason the bagpipes became so tied to Scotland was the growing trend for the bagpipes to be associated with Highlanders, bagpiping families and warfare. The Highlander acquired an international visibility who were renown on the battlefields and with this the bagpipe became a recognized symbol. The unmistakable sound of the bagpipes is most often heard before they are seen.
This noble, stately and proud instrument is a class of musical instruments which use a set of 4 enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air, from the bag and provided by the player, to create a very distinctive, pleasant and melodic sound. Because of the ancient nature of their sound, the bagpipes present a lyric, almost magical quality, in the tone they create.
The Great Highland Bagpipes is truly an honoured instrument.
The power of the bagpipes is to be taken seriously.
The human ability to express creative thoughts and emotions are exemplified in this instrument.
the Gaelic term Ceol Mhor (Kale More) and Ceol Beag (Kale Bec).
(Kale Bec) or little refers to dance tunes such as reels, gigs, strathspeys and slow airs.
The air supply is supplied by the player through the blowpipe to fill the bag, which supplies the air for the chanter and drones. The player ensures the bag is filled with air at all times. The chanter and drones are fitted with reeds, which create the sound as air passes through these reeds.
flow while the player breathes enabling the player to maintain a continuous sound for some time.
The bags are cut and saddle stitched with an extra strip folded over the seam and stitched to minimize air leaks. Holes are cut to accommodate the stocks.
you will get nowhere very quickly. The bagpipes is one is the most difficult instruments to learn to play.
When most people try them for the first time, they try to blow as hard as they can to get them to play – believing the air pressure from their lungs will drive the pipes. The real force, though, is the arm – while the air from one’s mouth is important to get the pipes going and playing well, it’s the pressure the piper creates by squeezing the bag with his left arm that actually drives the pipes.
Playing the bagpipes is a very complex task with a lot happening at once and a lot to do at the same time. Once the bag is inflated and the 4 reeds start sounding you are committed.
that is the equivalent to 15 straight months) before he/ she will be considered a competent enough to play.
The first year is spent exclusively on the practice chanter and without this practice the player will surely result in failure.
of which, like the chanter on a set of bagpipes,
9 notes are produced. They are Low A, B, C, D, E, F and G as well as High A and High G. G, D and E are the most commonly used notes and are played in succession and are performed rapidly by quick finger movement.
When it is hot the wood expands and the pipes tend to be
sharper but when it is cold and wet the piper’s breath condenses in the bag, which can eventually foul-up the reeds.
A good piper takes the environment into account when adjusting his pipes.
The air supplied to the reeds come alternately from 2 places: air comes directly from the player’s lungs using the diaphragm and chest muscles; then from the bag using the left arm and shoulder
muscles alternating again with the lungs then to the bag.
It is necessary that the air supplied to the reeds is of steady
pressure as the continuous transition from bag to lung to bag are made. If the pressure is allowed to vary, the 4 reeds will
go in and out of tune with one another and resulting like a cat fight rather than music. An out of tune bagpipe with the chanter fighting the drones is truly a horrible thing.
Temperature, humidity and barometric pressure can cause serious tuning problems.
The Highland Bagpipes have the distinction of being the only
musical instrument to be ever labeled as a weapon.
It is believed that at the Battle of Culloden the bagpipes
stirred Scottish troops to arms, allied with the French Jacobites against the British.
Jacobites the Highland Bagpipes were viewed as an instigator of insurrection.
Photo of Donny MacKenzie by Gordon Fader
This particular set of bagpipes has been in the family of HBC member Donny MacKenzie for generations.
They were made by the world’s leading bagpipe manufacturer, Peter Henderson in Glasgow around 1901. They are constructed of African Blackwood, ivory and silver.
They were played at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in World War I by Donny's grand-uncle, "Black" Jack MacDonald (1894-1954).
MacDonald was a prize winnning piper, who also served as a Pipe Major for the Cape Breton Highlanders in World War II.
There were several stories circulated about this colourful gentleman, including one where he was alleged to have gotten into an altercation with an American tourist, leaving the visitor flattened with one punch.
He also had words with King George VI. While stationed in Aldershot England during the war, his regiment was to be inspected by the King. The King noticed the ribbons of two world wars on MacDonald's Canadian uniform and asked him how long he had been there, meaning, in England.
MacDonald replied "Since 0700 hours and we are God damn cold!"
Donny’s father Francis played these bagpipes for 60 years. This included 38 years with the Cape Breton Highlanders Pipes and Drums Band, then the Nova Scotia Highlanders 2nd Battalion. In that time he played in the lead band at the Official Opening of the Canso Causeway, then individually for the Queen Mother, for no less than 6 Canadian Prime Ministers and 7 Provincial Premiers. He performed at hundreds of weddings, funerals, official openings, political rallies and piped in hundreds of pounds of haggis.
On one of Francis MacKenzie's trips to Scotland, he of course, took his bagpipes. He was part of a group from Sydney. An equally large contingent from Glasgow was there to greet them. Naturally the Glasgow people had a piper to pipe them off the plane. MacKenzie beat them to the punch by playing ‘Highland Laddie’ as they exited the aircraft. MacKenzie and the Scottish piper played a spontaneous duet to the cheers of everyone in the airport.
Donny’s father has piped at the marriage of all his 8 children. This ritual has continued now to the grand children and, in some cases, the great-grand children.
The following songs, ballads and poems by Burns have been transcribed to bagpipe tunes:
-Auld Lang Syne
-A Man's a Man for a’ That
-Ye Banks and Braes
-Because He Was a Bonnie Lad
-The Corn Rigs and the Barley Rigs
-Scots Wha Hae
-Aye Fond Kiss
-Flow Gently Sweet Afton
-Rantin Rovin Robin
-The Soldier's Return
-Ca' the Ewes
-Kenmure's On and Awa'
-My Love She's But a Lassie Yet
-Up and Waur Them A'
-Willie Whistle O'er the Lave O't
-Ye Jacobites by Name
-The Dusty Miller
-On The Banks of Allan Water
-There Was a Lad,
-Flow Gently Sweet Afton
-My Love is Like A Red Red Rose
-Duncan Gray cam here tae woo
-I'll aye cam in by Yon Toon
-A Rosebud by my early walk
-Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot
-Aye Waukin O.
-Com Rigs are Bonnie
-I Ha’a Wife o’ My Ain
-Willie MacPherson’s Lament
-I’ll Aye Cam in by
-I Ha’e a Wife o” My Ain
-The Lea Rig
-O Kenmure’s on and Awa, Willie