Bagpipes, Scotland and Robbie Burns

By Donny MacKenzie


RobbieBurnsScotland 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.

Bagpipes have been around for many hundreds if not thousands of years, and some trace their origin back to the snake charmer of the Middle East at least 3,000 years ago. The bagpipes spread from India across the Mediterranean into Eastern Europe. The earliest reference to bagpipes in Scotland appear in a Military context and it is in that context that the Great Highland Bagpipe became established in the British Military and has achieved the Militarywidespread fame they enjoy today.


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. ParDE

The power of the bagpipes is to be taken seriously.


The human ability to express creative thoughts and emotions are exemplified in this instrument.

Pipes are very difficult to harmonize with other musical instruments, and as a result are often played solo, or in small groups or in bands made up of entirely just pipes or pipes and drums.

There are 2 main styles of music played on the bagpipes: cEOG bEAG

the Gaelic term Ceol Mhor (Kale More) and Ceol Beag (Kale Bec).

Ceol Mhor (Kale More) or big tends to be the slow, stately and complex, lasting upwards of 10minutes while the Ceol Beag

(Kale Bec) or little refers to dance tunes such as reels, gigs, strathspeys and slow airs.

Bagpipes are commonly used to accompany Scottish Highland dancing.

A set of bagpipes consist of 6 main parts: Pipes parts
- a blowpipe
- a chanter
- a bass drone, and 2 tenor drones
- a bag      
- and a set of cords.

The blow pipe, chanter and drones are all held in place in stocks all attached to the bag with the drones held in an upright position by a set of cords.


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.

The Bag is an airtight reservoir, which hold air and regulate its Reeds

flow while the player breathes enabling the player to maintain a continuous sound for some time.

The bag is most commonly made from the skins of goats, sheep or cows. However, bags can be made from synthetic materials including Gore-Tex.


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.

The drone is a cylindrical tube with a single reed. It is designed in two or more parts with a sliding joint called a bridle so that the pitch of the drone can be manipulated.

Drones are traditionally made from tropical hardwoods such as rosewood, ebony or African Blackwood.

If you simply pick up a set of bagpipes and attempt to play them Crosseyed

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.

A piper will practice nearly 10,000 hours (for all you counting Chanter

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.

The practice chanter is an instrument in its own right. It’s primary purpose is to provide a convenient way to practice new tunes and complex fingering.

The chanter itself contains a single reed and eight bored holes Goose

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.

It is a big jump from the practice chanter to the bagpipes. A traditional approach is to use a ‘Goose’. This is essentially the bag, a blow pipe and a chanter. There are no drones.The ‘Goose’ allows the new piper to concentrate on developing breathing and bag control techniques.

Because the pipes and reeds are made of wood and the bag is often an animal hide the environment has a direct impact on their sound.


When it is hot the wood Dronesexpands 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 Pipersupplied 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.

No other wood-wind instrument employs more than a single reed. A single reed can become very cantankerous and difficult. Multiply this by 4 and you’ll have an idea of what pipers go through. You can further see why the bagpipes are such a difficult instrument to master. 


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 Battleof Culloden the bagpipes

stirred Scottish troops to arms, allied with the French Jacobites against the British.

While the battle ended in a massacre of Scots, Irish and

Jacobites the Highland Bagpipes were viewed as an instigator of insurrection.

The piper, who had wielded them in battle, was always targeted first and usually executed. Upon the completion of the Battle of Culloden the British forbade the Scottish their highland dress, religion, language and bagpipes.

Years later the British Military realized that kilts and bagpipes were great motivators for the Scottish regiments. This surge in popularity was boosted by large numbers of pipers trained for military service in World War I and World War II. Following the model of the British Military a large number of police forces in Scotland, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and the United States of America formed pipe bands.
Robbie Burns was a Scottish poet and songwriter widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. From humble origins and a meager education, Burns became an icon of the impoverished working class rising to intellectual grandeur.

It is believed Robbie Burns went onto write over 375 ballads and songs along with almost approximately 150 poems. There are still today people finding work that may have Burns’ fingerprints on them.

Nearly 150 years later long after his death which occurred on July 21, 1796, at the age of 37, much of Burns’ work has been transcribed into bagpipe arrangements


Photo of Donny MacKenzie by Gordon Fader




The MacKenzie Family Pipes

Donny Mac

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!"


MacKenzieDonny’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
-White Cockade
-Ye Jacobites by Name
-Highland Laddie
-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.
-Bonnie Dundee
-Com Rigs are Bonnie
-I Ha’a Wife o’ My Ain
-Maggie Fancy
-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