History of Border Bagpipes, Border Pipes and Lowland Pipes

This history of Border Bagpipes aims to clarify the often confusion in terminology when speaking of Lowland Pipes and Scottish Smallpipes. Sometimes people call the ‘Scottish Smallpipes’ ‘Lowland’ Pipes or even ‘Lowland Smallpipes’, this is wrong. Scottish Smallpipes are quite different and they should never be confused with Lowland Pipes. Lowland Pipe Chanters have a conical bore whereas Smallpipe Chanters are typified by a cylindrical bore which makes the sound of the two Pipes quite distinct from each other. The conical bore of the Lowland Chanter gives a sound very reminiscent of the Great Highland Bagpipe but is not quite so loud and strident. The Scottish Smallpipes have a very mellow and soft tone quite different from the sound of the Lowland Chanter. Where the two Pipes do have similarity is in the fingering of the chanter which is basically the same as the half-open fingering system used for the Great Highland Bagpipe, and the fact that they are both dry-blown Pipes being driven by air delivered from bellows under the arm. The other similarity they have is that that all Drones issue from a common stock.

What are Scottish Smallpipes ?

Scottish Smallpipes are a bellows-blown bagpipe historically originating in the Lowland and Borders region of Scotland/Northumberland (N.E. England). There are examples of instruments like this such as the mouth-blown Montgomery Smallpipes in E, dated 1757, which are now in the National Museum of Scotland.

They were not popularly played until after their revival in the late 70’s and early 80’s when they were re-developed into their present form by the Northumbrian Smallpipe maker Colin Ross of Whitley Bay – a town on the coast of Northumberland just outside of Newcastle Upon Tyne. Despite the fact that they are called ‘Scottish’ Smallpipes the epicentre of their revival was undoubtedly in the N.E. of England and more especially in the county of Northumberland. The fact that they are called ‘Scottish’ smallpipes is more to do with a deference to the existence of historical sets such as the Montgomery set and the fact that they are played with the same fingering as the Great Highland Bagpipe. Other than that they are an instrument developed more especially by makers of the Northumbrian Smallpipes like Colin Ross, Ray Sloan and one or two others who were based in an around Northumberland in the early 1980’s.

One of the reasons for this is that Smallpipe makers were readily equipped with the tools and techniques required for the manufacture of the now new ‘Scottish Smallpipes’. What made this possible was that like the Northumberland Smallpipes the Scottish Smallpipes are made with cylindrical bores giving them the rich, sweet and melodic sound for which they have become famous and they also utilise exactly the same chanter reed and drone reeds.

As the Scottish Smallpipes became more widely played during the 80’s, first of all in the smallpiping and traditional folk music community, interest spread quickly into the Great Highland Bagpipe community in the British Isles and from there interest spread internationally. One of the principal reasons for their widespread popularity in the Great Highland Piping community is that the fingering employed to play both pipes is exactly the same This means that anyone playing the Great Highland Bagpipe can pick up a set of Scottish Smallpipes and play them – providing that they can deliver the air required to the bag by using bellows worked under the elbow rather than blowing air in by mouth.

The distinction between mouth-blown pipes and bellows blown pipes is very important. With bellows-blown pipes there is no moisture from the breath anywhere in the system, which leads some people to call bellows-blown pipes ‘cold wind’ pipes (cauld wind pipes). There is a huge benefit here because without the moist air from the player depositing reed-rotting spittle onto the reeds they do last for very much longer without the need for replacement.

A later development took place after the bellows-blown smallpipes gained increasing popularity with Highland Bagpipe players which was that some makers of the Great Highland Bagpipe who recognised a commercial opportunity, but who were not familiar with making bellows, started to make mouth-blown versions. Because of the problems with moisture-laden breath it became necessary to reed-up these pipes with plastic reeds. This gives rise to a much inferior sound and pipes like this simply do not have the rich character or mellow sweetness that natural reed cane produces.

Scottish Smallpipes typically have three drones issuing from a common stock. The usual drone configuration is a bass drone sounding low ‘A’, a baritone drone sounding ‘E’ and a tenor sounding ‘A’ an octave above the bass. The Highland Pipe configuration of one bass and two tenors is also often used. Scottish Smallpipes are more often than not found in the key of ‘A’ as this means they can be played with other instruments but they are also available in ‘Bb’/’C’ and ‘D’. The other advantage of ‘A’ pitched pipes is that the spacing of the finger holes on the chanter is very similar to that of the Highland Bagpipe chanter giving a ‘familiarity’ to those players of the Highland Bagpipe taking up interest in playing the Scottish Smallpipes.

Nomenclature of the Bellows-Pipes of the Lowlands and Border regions of Scotland and Northumberland

As a Maker of Smallpipes and ‘Lowland Pipes’ I regularly come across confusion in customers over what to call a particular Pipe. I have for example had people almost ordering ‘Scottish Smallpipes’ when it seems that really what they wanted was ‘Lowland Pipes’; now in 2011 mostly referred to by the misnomer ‘Border’ Pipes. I say ‘misnomer’ because ‘Border Pipes’ is really an umbrella term to incorporate all of the pipes found in the Border region. It’s interesting to note that in his book ‘Bagpipes’ (1960) Anthony Baines makes no reference to ‘Border’ Pipes only either ‘Half-Longs’ or ‘Lowland’.

I hope that I can simplify an understanding of ‘what is what’ in the following. I must say here that I am not concerned with the ‘Pastoral Pipes’ only the ‘Lowland Pipes’, ‘Northumbrian Half-Long Pipes’ and ‘Smallpipes’ (Scottish and Northumbrian).

Controversy and misunderstanding are not new to the world of Piping: indeed they do at times seem to be inextricably linked! In his work of 1911; ‘Bagpipes’, Grattan Flood opens chapter XXII with the following:

“Much misconception has existed in regard to the Lowland Bagpipe as distinct from the Highland. Some writers allege that the two instruments are totally distinct, and that the Lowland bagpipe is rather of an inferior class”

This sentiment is also echoed by accounts in RD Cannon’s authoritative “The Highland Bagpipe and its Music”, where he makes mention of these Pipes as being referred to as “common”(1). And so, if nothing else, I hope to contribute to the collective controversy of Pipers !

I personally have heard people talk about Pipes of the Border region in the following diverse terms:- Border Pipe – Border Half-Long – Northumbrian Half-Long – Lowland Pipe – Lowland Half-Long – Lowland Smallpipes – Scottish Smallpipes – Border Smallpipes – Northumbrian Smallpipes and, in earlier years , Northumberland Large Pipes and Hill Pipes. I think you must agree this could get pretty confusing……?

There are in fact just two distinct types here, both bellows-blown, and they can be separated by chanter construction. On the one hand there are the Lowland and Half-Long Pipes characterised by a conically bored chanter and then the quite different Smallpipes which have a cylindrically bored chanter. The ‘Scottish Smallpipes’ do often display a slight flair in the bottom couple of inches of the chanter which sometimes leads people to believe it is conically bored throughout, it is not. These Pipes can also be separated by reed type as both the Lowland and Half-Long are reeded with the basic but modified V shaped Highland Bagpipe Reed while both Northumbrian and Scottish Smallpipes are reeded with the standard Northumbrian shape of a parallel sided reed.

I have read an article which typified four types of ‘Lowland’ Pipe:-

  1. Generic Lowland
  2. Border
  3. Northumbrian Half-Long and
  4. Scottish Smallpipe.

In fact this can actually be reduced to only two ‘types’ of ‘Lowland’ Pipes namely the ‘Half-Long’ and the ‘Lowland’. To incorporate the Smallpipes into a class of ‘Lowland’ pipe only causes confusion given that most people think of the Lowland pipe as having a conically bored and fairly loud chanter. If we recognise that the Lowland and Half-Longs have a conical bore in the chanter and are therefore essentially the same instrument then the only real difference is a regional one in a) the chanter scale and b) the drone arrangements, that is all. To classify an instrument with a chanter of completely different tonality and construction (Smallpipes) alongside the above makes no sense, unless we say they are in a ‘category’ of ‘Border’ Pipe.

The Northumbrian Half-Long chanter had a chromatic scale with a sharpened 7th whereas the Lowland Pipe chanter had a flattened 7th scale typical of the Highland Bagpipe chanter. Beyond this minor difference in scale, there is absolutely no difference in either the fingering system or sound/tone quality, save as to the effects of the wood used in manufacture or the strength of the reed used. As we have seen Scottish Smallpipes must be separated out from any association with a Lowland category by virtue of the cylindrical bore, and the fact that they were also played outside of the Scottish Lowlands – there is even historical reference to a ‘Highland Smallpipe’.

If we must put all of these pipes in a category together – and it is only human to do so – then as suggested above that should be ‘Border Pipes’. This makes more sense because a border has two sides and we are talking of types of bagpipes which span both sides of the English/Scottish Border, whereas the reference to ‘Lowland’ is peculiarly ‘Scottish’. Given this how can we sensibly include Northumbrian Half-Longs or Northumbrian Smallpipes in a ‘Lowland’ category ? Now it should be obvious that what we are currently calling ‘Border’ Pipes (2011) should really be called ‘Lowland Pipes’. There is also more historical support for calling this instrument the ‘Lowland Pipe’ rather than the ‘Border’ Pipe.

RD Cannon:

“Lowland Pipes are sometimes called ‘Border’ Pipes, but the term is a misnomer: they were played throughout the Lowland region , which includes the whole North Eastern seaboard of Scotland”

I have studied a number of pipes classified as ‘Half-Longs’ at the Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum in Northumberland and all except one had sharpened 7ths. So why were they classified as Half-Longs ? Because of the sharpened 7th but principally because of the drone configuration. Baines makes no mention of a sharpened 7th on the chanter his only differentiating feature between Half-Long and Lowland Pipes is the drone configuration.

In ‘Bagpipes’ by A. Baines he says, with reference to the Brian Boru Pipes:

“This has three drones tuned to the Northumbrian intervals: tenor (a) baritone (e) and bass (A)”

Then later with reference to the Northumbrian Half-Long:

“……..it differs from the Lowland in having the three drones tuned to tenor (a), baritone (e) and bass (A)…..” i.e. ‘Northumbrian’

RD Cannon:

“It is also worth noting that Lowland Bagpipes all seem to have had three drones, one bass and two tenor”

So, we now have one ‘type’ of pipe typified by a chanter with a conical bore with a regional variation on the drones and a sharpened 7th chanter. That variation typifying them as a ‘Northumberland Half-Long’ as distinct from a Lowland pipe. The drones of the ‘Northumberland Half-long’ are typically arranged with the inclusion of a 5th interval drone, as with the Smallpipes; unlike the Lowland Pipes which as we have seen typically, and historically, have the same arrangement as all other ‘Scottish’ pipes, namely tenor/tenor/Bass drones.

Okay, so that sorts out the difference between the ‘Border’ (misnomer), Half-long and the Lowland pipe but…… “Half-long” (2) what does it mean, what is it besides a curious term ? There is only one thing I can say with absolute certainty; nobody knows!

Like so many other aspects of piping history and terminology the answer to such questions are left to informed guesswork – or otherwise. There is a suggestion that this may refer to a short bass drone, but I tend to think not as I have found only one example of a bass drone shorter than the norm for a Lowland or Half-long Pipe. This is on the 1772 set of pipes which belonged to Muckle Jock Milburn of Bellingham, (appropriate then that they introduced a Half-long competition class for the Bellingham show). The bass drone is 3cm shorter the other bass drones, but the tenors are proportionately shorter also and so I find this insignificant as regards the question before us, telling us perhaps more about the lack of standardisation amongst makers of the period. I personally believe the term Half-long to be a relative misnomer and possibly even a very local term used to describe this Lowland Pipe variant in north Northumberland. It could simply be that they considered them locally, but loosely, to be ‘half as long’ as the Highland Bagpipe?

There are some references in historical documents to two-droned Lowland Pipes, as there are to two-droned Highland pipes, so it is one possibility that when the long bass drone was introduced the pipes retaining the two tenor drones only, which were exactly “half as long” as the bass drone, became named accordingly. This is however pure conjecture on my part, but in the absence of any better explanation why not ? Whatever the real answer I feel certain that it was a local term that ‘caught on’ having little historical significance. I do not believe the term necessarily implies that there used to be an older and bigger pipe in Northumberland. Looking again at circumstantial evidence I am equally certain that if a ‘Northumberland Long pipe’ existed in any form then most certainly it would have been mentioned in ‘despatches’ somewhere along the way. So far however it is hard to find any old references to even a Half-long, let alone a bigger pipe, beyond the 1900’s.

Debate on the term is not new. It has previously been the subject of some debate in the county. In the “Border Magazine” No.371 of November 1926, a controversy was underway concerning the adoption of the term ‘Half-long’ for what was in fact the newly “invented” pipe for the Boy Scout movement in Northumberland. An article had appeared in a previous issue by an A.N.Appleby Miller, a Lieutenant in the Northumberland Fusiliers, protesting that the pipes adopted by the Boy Scouts: “…are erroneously called ‘Half-longs’…..and are alien to our county.”

The important point here is that these pipes were invented, reinvented, remodelled – whatever term you choose to use – around 1920 by W.A.Cocks, George Charlton and others specifically for use by the aforementioned Boy Scout movement in Northumberland. We must bear in mind however that there is historical reference to these pipes in Northumberland as we have seen.

In a subsequent article of November 1926, George Charlton says that these pipes were modelled on the Muckle Jock Milburn set in addition to a set of pipes belonging to the Duke of Northumberland’s piper of the times, James Hall(3). The owner of the Muckle Jock set, Mrs C.M.Stoddart of Ashington Northumberland, stated that the set had been in her family for over 150 years and that they had always been called “Half-longs” in her family. Mr.Charlton, as a result, effectively disposes of Lieutenant Miller’s statement that the term was “alien to our county”. Charlton goes on to say that the Smallpipes had been tried for military use but that they were found not to be loud enough.

In defence of the redevelopment of what he calls “the Northumbrian Large Pipes” that his movement had worked hard to save from extinction in 1926, Charlton says “sixteen troups of Northumbrian Boy Scouts have adopted the Northumberland Half-long Pipes, and every troop has been presented with a set of pipes free of charge by the people of Northumberland. A band of six pipers has been formed by the Newcastle Royal Grammar School. Over 60 sets of half-longs have been made during the past 12 months.” (4) This was the renaissance of Northumbrian piping in general and it was about this time that the Bagpipe maker Robertson of Edinburgh began making the half-long pipes as we popularly know them.

There are one or two further points worth mentioning in connection with their development. Robertson initially produced a number of these instruments with the true half-long chanter having the sharpened 7th chromatic scale. These were, however, withdrawn and replaced by chanters with the standard Scottish flattened 7th (5) The reason for this is not fully known, but I suspect that it was because enthusiasts were by now used to the latter scale found in the more widespread and popular Highland and Lowland Pipes.

The drones of the half-longs, however, as redesigned by Charlton, Cocks et al. remained and persist to this day in the form of the Northumbrian intervals: tenor (a) baritone (e) and bass (A)” (Baines) Herein lies a fundamental problem. The ‘style’ of the drones was indeed modelled on the Muckle Jock MIlburn and James Hall sets, but the format was quite wrong. I have looked at more than 14 sets of antique Lowland and half-long pipes and five of these including Muckle Jock’s and Hall’s had the 5th interval drone, all others being tenor/tenor/bass (i.e. Lowland). Of the five in question only one had the 5th interval drone in the baritone position i.e. between tenor and bass, and this was a Robertson set from 1930. All of the other truly original half-long drones had the 5th positioned at alto, i.e. sounding the 5th an octave above the baritone. In other words the Robertson set followed the Brian Boru pattern of drones and not the original half-long pattern of bass – tenor – alto. (See reference to Henry Starck of London below)

I can think of only one good reason for this, which is that, as Charlton stated in the Border Magazine, he wanted volume. So whilst remaining essentially ‘Northumbrian’, with the baritone drone being twice as large as the alto it would be louder and more dominant therefore contributing to the overall volume desired, it is not traditional for a true half-long. In addition, the general ‘colour’ of the sound of these drones is much too loud and brash, as the early half-long makers realised . The alto drone has a blending effect complimenting the harmonic structure of the bass drone (6).

In 1906 William O’Douane working with Henry Starck in London, produced and patented the “Brian Boru Pipes’ as a new Irish Warpipe. The drones were three in number issuing from a common stock and were arranged bass, baritone, tenor – exactly as the Robertson half-longs were to be produced a few years later. It is not only possible but highly likely that Robertson, Cocks, Charlton et al. searching for pipes loud enough to be used for marching troops of Northumbrian Scouts saw and heard these pipes and, being impressed by their volume, decided to adopt the Brian Boru pattern of drones for their newly designed Northumberland Half-long Pipes.

It may be interesting to note here that the Brian Boru pipes never really took the imagination of pipers in this country and enjoyed only limited success in Ireland – the two-drone Scottish Highland type of pipe holding sway as the “warpipe” in that country. One reason for its unpopularity was the difficulty of fingering the rather complicated keyed chanter.

And so to conclude, where does this leave us? With no full answer to the riddle of the origin of the term Northumberland ‘Half-Long’, one or two anomalies and misnomers corrected e.g. ‘Lowland’ Pipes not ‘Border’ Pipes, food for thought and hopefully at least some historical background. I think it is important to note the original drone structure of the half-longs in the bagpipe museum and it could be said that unless a set of pipes has this drone arrangement of bass, tenor, alto they are not half-longs. To put it another way if you do have a set of bellows pipes with a conical bore chanter, drones issuing from a common stock with the arrangement bass, tenor, alto then what you have there is a set of Northumberland Half-long pipes. To be ultra correct they would also need a chanter with a sharpened 7th, but we’ll let that one go!

With regard to nomenclature. I would like to finish with a list of the most popular pipes and what I feel should be their classification. I hope that discarding such misnomers as ‘Border Pipes’ to describe a specific and separate bagpipe is seen as constructive and that it helps standardise on terminology. Not least so it helps prospective customers know what to ask for when buying pipes !

What are Border Bagpipes ?

Includes bellows pipes of the Lowland and Borders region of Scotland and Northumberland:

  • Lowland Pipes (often called Border Pipes)
  • Northumberland Half-long Pipes
  • Scottish Smallpipes
  • Northumberland Smallpipes

These can be sub-categorised into two types of bagpipe typified by:

  1. Chanters with a conical bore.
  2. Chanters with a cylindrical bore.

Lowland Pipes and Northumberland Half-Long pipes

Characterised by bellows and three simple drones issuing from a common stock and having an open ended chanter with a conical bore. The chanters have the shrill nasal sound distinctive of ‘outdoor’ pipes such as the Highland bagpipe – but milder in volume often using a modified Highland chanter reed of V shaped construction. Drones are louder than the drones of the Smallpipes, which are also very much smaller.

The chanters for these typically have the Scottish flattened 7th scale but the true Half-long would have a sharpened 7th. (rarely found). The drones can be either bass/tenor/tenor or bass /baritone/tenor or bass/tenor/alto

Pipes with bass/tenor/tenor drones are ‘lowland’ Pipes whereas pipes with a 5th can be properly called ‘Northumberland Half-longs’, especially if they have the alto drone in place of a baritone.

The pitch of these pipes is either ‘Bb’ or ‘A’ with ‘A’ being the more popular. The fingering system is the same as the Highland Bagpipe.

Scottish and Northumbrian Smallpipes

Characterised by bellows and three or more simple drones issuing from a common stock. Smaller and quieter in sound than either of the above. The chanters have a cylindrical bore and have a characteristically mellow or sweet ‘indoor’ sound. Unlike either of the above these pipes are available in a variety of pitches typically:

  • SSP : A/Bb/C/D
  • NSP : C/D/F/G.

The Scottish Smallpipes drones usually display the standard ‘Scottish’ format of tenor/tenor/bass. It is usual for them to have three drones, but can have up to five (unusual). Scottish Smallpipes have an open ended chanter and can be played in exactly the same manner as the Highland Bagpipe. The lower note like the Lowland/Half-long and Highland Chanters is a transverse hole at the bottom of the chanter. It is possible to add keys to the chanter – popularly the sharpened 7th and or one note above the top open hole (thumb note). It is also possible to add other notes. This is a modern development and I have seen no historical evidence of keys on antique Scottish Smallpipe chanters.

Northumbrian Smallpipes normally have four drones – nominally D/G/d/g. It is usual for them to have a ‘tuning bead’ on the drones situated up the length of the drone to open a higher note to enable the player to play in different keys with the appropriate harmonic accompaniments. The chanter end is closed and it is played with a closed fingering system which means the player only has one finger off at any time. This gives it a very staccato, ‘bubbly’ and sweet sound which is very typical. This makes it highly distinctive and unique compared to the other bagpipes mentioned.

The chanters will usually have x7 keys but it is possible to add up to 17 keys. Simpler sets can have only three drones and a closed-end keyless chanter.

Parlour Pipes, Reel Pipes, Chamber Pipes and Shuttle Pipes

These are all lesser known variants of the above, and Highland or Irish Uilleann Pipes. They have all been found historically in the Border regions.

  1. Cannon. R.D. The Highland Bagpipe and its Music. pg.21.
  2. W.A. Cocks in his book of 1933, ‘The Northumbrian Bagpipes, their development and Makers’ refers to the Half-Longs as the ‘Northumbrian Large Pipes’ and elsewhere as the ‘Hill Pipes’.
  3. Mr. James hall, piper to three successive Dukes of Northumberland, 1892-1931, died 1942 aged 86. His Half-Longs along with Muckle Jock Milburn’s set were the model for a new generation of Northumberland Half-Long Pipes. Probably influenced also by the Brian Boru pipes of Henry Starck of London.
  4. Probably mainly by the Highland Bagpipe maker Robertson of Edinburgh.
  5. Information supplied by Colin Ross of Whitley bay.
  6. As (5) above.