The Bagpipes Give Pipes a Chance


Submitted by Don Graham

With The 11th  Annual Beach Celtic Festival in Toronto just around the corner we thought it would be interesting to give a little history and progression of  a very misunderstood and much maligned musical instrument. Is there any instrument that is the brunt of as many jokes as the bagpipes? The banjo perhaps? The accordion?  But even they don’t get the disrespect the pipes get. Scottish humour: The definition of a gentleman in Scotland? A man who knows how to play the bagpipes but doesn’t!  And yet at every Celtic gathering or festival the most often asked questions are: When is the Pipe Band coming on? Did we miss the Pipe Band?

While we automatically associate the bagpipes with Scotland it is a little known fact that they are not exclusive to that country. The design of the bagpipes played in Scotland and  there are many different versions maybe unique to Scotland, but the history of the instrument is much older on mainland Europe than it is in the British Isles.

The traditional Scottish bagpipes also known as the Great Highland bagpipes that are familiar to us have a history that is covered with legend. The Menzies Clan claim to own what’s left of a set of bagpipes that were carried into battle at Bannockburn. It was the custom for a Scottish regiment to be accompanied by a Piper.

Rod StewartRod StewartBagpipes became established firmly in Scotland in the 1700's, and this is where the different types began to appear. Smaller than the Great Highland pipes are the Border pipes; they are different because they don’t use a mouthpiece but rather a bellows. And just south of the border you have the Northumbrian small pipes, similar to the Border pipes, while many other types prospered in the last three hundred years.

There is a myth in Scotland that during the good old days before 1700, that a Clan Piper’s sole job was to play the pipes. There are claim that he was one of the most important people in clan society, second only to the chief. But in reality it was quite a different story. He was usually a domestic servant who could not read or write. His master got two talents for the price of one. Another example of Scottish frugality.

Another great myth is in the amount of time a student studied with any great piping instructor. The Scottish communities claim that it was for seven years and this has been taken from the famous 1743 indenture between Lord Lovat and his domestic servant and Piper, David Fraser. But the communities, not taking the proper time to study the indenture, fail to realize that the poor Fraser, due to the last vestige of feudalism in Western Europe, got a little over two months with his instructor Malcolm MacCrimmon and had to spend seven years, night and day, in penal-like servitude to his master Lovat, all of which had to be guaranteed by Fraser's brother William! However, this speaks volumes for the love of the instrument which these Highland Pipers had and, at the same time, says a great deal for the real history of Highland piping. In no other country is this love and the patronage that made it happen reflected.

Glass TigerGlass TigerSince the 1960s, bagpipes have also made appearences in different types of music  including rock, metal, jazz, hip-hop, punk, and classical music, for example with Paul McCartney's "Mull of Kintyre", AC/DC's "It's A Long Way To The Top", Korn's "Shoots and Ladders", John Farnham's "You're The Voice", Peter Maxwell Davies's composition Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise and the German power metal band Grave Digger incorporated bagpipes in many of the songs from their concept album "Tunes Of War". The Canadian crossover band Rawlins Cross also made extensive use of the pipes in their music, with one very popular tune called "Reel and Roll." And Glenn Campbell featured the bagpipes is his hit single Bonaparte’s Retreat.
Bagpipes have been ever present in rock so here are the Top Ten Tunes with Bagpipes in Pop Songs:

# 10 ‘Come Talk to Me’ Peter Gabriel (1992)
Gabriel’s ‘Us’ album begins with the distinctive squeal of bagpipes, which slice their way through the mechanical beat that keeps ‘Come Talk to Me’ lurching forward. The pipes aren’t the only Gaelic flavor added to the song: Sinead O’Connor provides backing vocals.

# 9 ‘Are You Ready to Rock’ Wizzard (1974)
 Following his work with the Move and Electric Light Orchestra, Roy Wood formed the glam band Wizzard, whose performances seemed to include every crazy idea its founder ever hatched: warpaint, costumes, puppets, dancing gorillas, roller-skating angels, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria. The group’s music had a similar everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, including multiple drummers, horns, strings and bagpipes – which close out this 1974 single, a Top 10 hit in Britain and Ireland.

# 8 ‘The Silent Boatman’ Parliament (1970)
Top 10 Rock 'n' Roll Bagpipe Songs? George Clinton’s Parliament? No, we’re still not kidding. Bagpipes take the spotlight for two stretches in this psychedelic-soul-folk-rock ballad, which closes the group’s debut album. The instrument’s presence is most likely due to the influence of Ruth Copeland, a British musician who wrote the song and co-produced ‘Osmium’ with Clinton.

# 7 ‘Tomorrow’ U2 (1981)
‘Tomorrow’ -- the centerpiece of U2’s second album, which tackles heavy topics like faith and God -- includes some religious elements, but it's mostly about the death of Bono’s mother, who died when he was young. The uilleann pipes (Ireland's national bagpipes) lend the early part of the track a misty, funerary tone, which eventually bursts into a furiously rocking finale.

# 6 ‘Thin Red Line’ Glass Tiger (1986)
Built on a sturdy pop foundation and powered by Alan Frew's accented voice, Canada's Glass Tiger found instant fame with their debut album, Thin Red Line, in 1986. Alan Frew's Scottish roots are called to attention on the title track, a story song about the feuding Argyll and Sutherland clans which betters any of the charted singles.

# 5 ‘Anthem’ The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (1974)
 Scottish rocker Alex Harvey tapped not one but two bagpipers from the London Scottish TA Regiment to assist on the ap propriately titled 'Anthem.' The pipes, in lockstep with an ethereal chorus of vocalists, bring the song's martial coda to a soaring conclusion.

# 4  ‘Sky Pilot’ Eric Burdon & the Animals (1968)
The seven-minute album version of Eric Burdon's antiwar epic showcases the Animals frontman at his most experimental. Following the opening verse and chorus, a guitar solo fades into sound effects of fighter planes and explosions, eventually leading to the distinctive bray of bagpipes. The music comes from a secret recording Burdon made of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards playing ‘All the Bluebonnets Are Over the Border.’ Rumor has it that the uncleared usage earned him a nasty letter from U.K. royalty.

# 3 ‘Celtic Ray’ Van Morrison (1982)
 The Northern Irish singer pays tribute to his Celtic heritage on the opening track of 1982’s ‘Beautiful Vision.’ And to Irish up his coffee, Van the Man adds some wistful uilleann bagpipes. Like memories of times gone by, the pipes waver in and out of focus throughout the tune. Morrison later recorded the song with the monsters of Irish folk, the Chieftains.

# 2 "Rhythm of My Heart" Rod Stewart (1991)
The single reached No. 3 in the UK chart and No. 5 on the US chart. The melody is an adaptation of "Loch Lomond". The meter, stanzas and lyrics are also based on the poem, a nod to Stewart's own Scottish heritage. Eric Rigler played the Great Highland bagpipes heard during Stewart's version. The single was played during the bar scenes in The Perfect Storm and. Stewart performed the song (with adjusted lyrics) at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

# 1 ‘Mull of Kintyre’ Paul McCartney & Wings (1977)
 The former Beatle pays tribute to the Scottish Kintyre peninsula – home to a farm estate he's owned since 1966 -- in this massive U.K. hit. McCartney enlisted local help for the folksy ballad in the form of bagpipers from Kintyre’s Campbelltown Pipe Band. Following its 1977 release, the Scottish paean sold more than two million copies in the U.K. to become Britain’s bestselling single ever (eclipsing the Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’). It’s still the bestselling non-charity single in the country’s history.

So we simply ask that you come to this year’s Beach Celtic Festival with open ears and enjoy the colourful dancers, the exciting bands, the kilted crowd and vendors plying their wares in Toronto’s only outdoor ceilidh. And above all - Give Pipes A Chance!