Scottish smallpipes

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A set of Cocobolo Scottish Smallpipes with horn mountings, made in 2008 by Ebert Jones

The Scottish smallpipe, in its modern form, is a bellows-blown bagpipe re-developed by Colin Ross and many others.[1] There are many surviving bellows blown examples of similar historical instruments as well as the mouth-blown Montgomery smallpipes in E, dated 1757, which are now in the National Museum of Scotland. There is some discussion of the historical Scottish smallpipes in Collinson's history of the bagpipes.[2] But more reliable research and information can be obtained in Hugh Cheape's "Bagpipes: A National Collection." Some instruments are being built as direct copies of historical examples,[3] but few modern instruments are directly modelled from older examples; the modern instrument is typically larger and lower pitched. The innovations leading to the modern instrument, in particular the design of the reeds, were largely taken from the Northumbrian smallpipes.

Although there is evidence of small pipes dating back to 15th century, in its current form it is perhaps the youngest bagpipe with any popularity, having only existed in this form since the early 1980s.


Scottish Smallpipes are distinguished from the Northumbrian smallpipes by having an open end to the chanter, and usually by the lack of keys. This means that the sound of the chanter is continuous, rather than staccato, and that its range is only nine notes, rather than the nearly two octaves of the later 18th/19th century style Northumbrian pipes. A further distinction from the Northumbrian smallpipes is that the Scottish Smallpipes lack an unbroken line of traditional playing.

The instrument has a cylindrically bored chanter, most commonly pitched in A, although any key is feasible; D, C, and B flat are also common keys. Being cylindrically bored, the chanter sounds an octave lower than a conical-bored chanter of the same size, such as that of the Border pipes.

Scottish Smallpipes are normally bellows-blown like the Northumbrian pipes and Border pipes. Mouth-blown versions are also available, but they are less common because of the advantages of using a bellows, e.g being able to talk or sing whilst playing and blowing room temperature air across the reeds results in more stable tuning.

It is most commonly unkeyed, but occasionally high B, G sharp, F natural, and C natural keys are added. Though it would in principle be possible to add as many keys as to the modern Northumbrian smallpipes, not many pipers use a set with more than 9 keys. Most music written for the instrument uses only the nine notes of its unkeyed range.

The drones, typically three in number, are set in a common stock and are usually tuned in one of two patterns. For pipes in A, the tenor drone is tuned to the low "A" of the chanter, usually the tonic note, and the bass drone to the "A" an octave below this. There is also sometimes a dominant drone - this can be either a baritone, tuned a fifth above the bass, or else an alto drone, tuned a fifth above the tenor. For tunes in the key of D, the dominant drone can be either shut off or retuned. Most makers now prefer to make a baritone drone, rather than an alto, and many use only the bass and tenor. Other makers have developed drones compatible with both A and D chanters, so that one instrument can be used with either chanter. These sets include both A and D drones. One example is the "ADAD" style, with bass, baritone, tenor, and alto, as seen here:.[4] And by using longer tuning pins, and northumbrian smallpipes-influenced tuning beads, some smallpipe drones can easily be retuned to a pitch one or two tones higher. A Baritone drone in C can be retuned to D, or E for example.[5][6] This allows for increased drone tuning options, such as playing fifth or fourth tuned baritone or alto drones.


Originally one of the first documented bagpipes in Scotland, along with the Border pipes, smallpipes were popular in the Lowland areas of Scotland as far north as Aberdeen. Evidence shows them to have existed since the 15th century (Highland pipes can only be documented from the 16th Century), when they were used for dancing and entertainment in court and castle, later they became popular amongst burgh pipers, and town minstrels until the early 19th Century, when the demise of the town pipers led to their disappearing from the record. Being bellows-blown this made them suitable for playing for long periods. Bellows-blown smallpipes are believed to have entered Scotland via England, and the continent of Europe, examples are preserved in many drawings, carvings, and paintings from 15th century onwards, and in Europe from the 12th century onwards.

Since there was a break in the continuous playing tradition of the smallpipes, and Border pipes, no absolute, definitive playing style can be ascribed to them. However, according to the evidence provided by surviving sheet music written for these pipes (Dixon, Peacock, Riddell,) their style depended more on variations, runs, and arpeggios, as opposed to the surviving Highland music which is dominated by stylised gracenote techniques.

Smallpipes are extremely popular with Highland pipers, many of whom keep them, or a set of Border pipes, as a second instrument and play them according to the Highland tradition. Though it has somewhat supplanted the musically unsatisfactory Highland practice chanter as a relatively quiet rehearsal instrument for Highland pipers, it has gained wide currency as a session instrument, for both the Highland and Border pipe repertoires.

The Scottish smallpipes were the first widely available instrument to allow Highland pipers to participate in musical sessions with fiddlers, flautists and other instruments, as well as to accompany singers. Leading players include Hamish Moore, Gordon Mooney, Iain MacInnes, Allan MacDonald, Fin Moore, Brìghde Chaimbeul, Ross Ainslie, David Barnes, Gary West and Fred Morrison, as well as the late Martyn Bennett.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hamish Moore
  2. ^ Collinson, F., The Bagpipe, The history of a Musical Instrument, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1975 ISBN 0710079133
  3. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-09-05.
  4. ^ [1] Archived January 6, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Nate Banton's Quick Start Guide to Scottish Smallpipes
  6. ^ Ian Ketchin Smallpipes

External links[edit]