Sunday, 12 September 2010


I was required to go out and purchase a chanter for a certain acquaintance of mine. You will know, of course, the significance of a Scotland, a 'chanter' is either a person who sings a great deal, or it is part of a set of bagpipes. You blow into one end, and your fingers play the tune further down the pipe. If you have picked the bagpipes as your instrument of choice, you will learn and practise on the chanter. If you insist on practising on a full set of bagpipes all the time, you will have no friends.

I am well aware that the bagpipes are not everyone's ideal sound. Firstly, they are preposterously loud, particularly if you are in the same room(there are rumours that they can be heard 10 miles away). In the past, many a Christmas dinner Chez Nous has been enlivened by a set of bagpipes, and there is no pretending they are quiet. ....glasses shatter, small children cry, dogs whimper, cats howl, old ladies block their ears before bolting for the nearest exit. It's a jolly good way to clear a room, but it's fair to say, the pipes are not exactly 'easy listenin'.

But oh, how they make my heart ache...your ears, my heart. I have to admit, I cannot listen to one note on the pipes without my spine tingling, and before long, there's a glistening about the eyes. The skirl o' the pipes must be one of the most atmospheric sounds there is, a sound which lies very close to the soul of this nation. Wherever I am in the world, the slightest hint of the pipes is the fastest route back home, enough to induce instant projectile weeping and a ridiculously self-indulgent longing for the mountains and glens of one's childhood. You'd think I might grow out of this kind of thing, but's becoming worse with age. In a decade or so I'll be a jibbering emotional wreck if I go on like this. It really is verging on the pathetic.

It's odd that bagpipes are so peculiarly Scottish nowadays. After all, a form of the instrument is mentioned in the Bible, and it is almost certain that they were played in Ancient Egypt. Many countries had some form of bagpipes at one time, but today, if you think of the pipes, it's almost impossible to think of any nation other than Scotland. While many countries were becoming less and less interested in the instrument, it seemed to suit the culture of the Highlands. The pipes were spectacular for playing outside, so useful for weddings, funerals, Highland games, processions and battlefields (they still play a significant role in theatres of war today). At one time, a Highland piper was a person of immense esteem, and in battle, if he could play well, nothing else was required of him.

Nowadays, you might think all this piping nonsense is just an act, a piece of kitsch cow-towing to the tourist market...really, in 2010, what is the point of dressing up like something off a short-bread tin and parading about in the cold?

You might also think piping was going out of fashion, that the younger generation are not particularly interested in this most ancient of sounds. After all, it looks like the most appalling effort to have to get a note out of the things...why bovver?

I can assure you, there is no cow-towing, and there's plenty of keen young lungs being puffed up to deliver a decent 'skirl'. A set of bagpipes is a seriously cool piece of kit round here, and nobody messes with the piper, wherever he, or she, may pipe. And check out the clothes? The togs are a total groove...only a wimp would miss out on the chance to put that lot on.

Since our return to this fair land, you wouldn't believe the number of times my shell-likes have been treated to a quick blast from someone's pipes. I hadn't realized they were so prevalent, nor that I had missed them so intensely while abroad....they are everywhere, from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, to the Kirk door, to the village hall on a Thursday night.

It's tremendous. If you listen to a good piper, and if you can afford to risk having your ears blown off, you will find no better illustration of the turbulent emotional undercurrent that lies beneath the stoical outward appearance of many a Scot. Prepare to be moved.


  1. I will never tire of hearing the pipes!! I love them!!

    May I pass on my best wishes to your 'acquaintance' who is about to embark on learning how to play this fine instrument - good luck to him and good luck to you and your quest for the best ear defenders you can get your hands on....

  2. Having grown up in central Africa my first encounter with the pipes was the Pipe Band of the King's African Rifles (back in the day when half the atlas was pink!) Then I married an Aberdonian and our son went to school in Scotland so I heard the pipes a lot. They make the most evocative, plangent sound - there is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite as heart-stirring as a lament played on the pipes.

  3. Pamela...I will pass on your good wishes, and go shopping for ear protection. amazing to hear pipes in Central Africa.It is an extraordinary sound,enough tae bring a tear tae a glass eye.

  4. I used to enjoy playing the chanter as a child....until it mysteriously vanished one day and was never to be seen dad had a part to play in it's disappearence I suspect!

  5. My brother-in-law is a fine piper and my nephew, aged 10, now the proud owner of his first (in fact I'm told they'll be his lifelong) set of pipes. However, I know that my dear sister, whilst appreciating the polished tunes, was over joyed at the discovery of the 'electric chanter' - best Christmas present she ever bought as now her husband simply plugs in and sits like a happy lunatic in the corner, fingers working treble perfect silence!

  6. Stevenmaple...get enother one...never to late.

    Anon...electric chanter? I'm v intrigued.

  7. Stevenmaple...that was meant to read 'too' not 'to'....urgh...always such a rush!