Opening the window of your apartment on the Royal Mile, you’re met with sights and sounds of a bustling city. Tourists and lorries, street vendors and shop owners create a chatter of activity. This cacophony is part of the music of Edinburgh. However, it’s merely the backdrop for a ribbon of song that floats and weaves through the city street. For, on several corners stand Edinburgh pipers whose bagpipes screel the notes of the nation.
During the several days we spent in or near the Royal Mile, we saw (and listened to) pipers of all ages. Each wore a traditional kilt, some in full regalia. And most played traditional Scottish bagpipes. Then, one day we came across a young piper whose music carried more harmonies, without the shrill drone of Scottish pipes. I asked the young man, whose name is Rex, whether these were Uilleann pipes – an Irish form of bagpipe I’d heard once in college. The Uilleann pipes look a lot like those Rex played. Turns out I was on the right track! Rex was playing a lesser-known instrument called the Scottish smallpipes. In preparation for this blog post, I emailed Rex, asking for more information about smallpipes and his experiences as a piper. Rather than summarize what he said, I’ll share his responses here:
Specifics: The ‘Scottish smallpipes’ as played when we met are a less commonly played form of pipes. The more traditional ‘Highland Bagpipes’ are most common. They have a huge link with Scottish culture and are referred to by some as an ‘instrument of war’. The ‘Scottish smallpipes’ are more quiet and usually played in pubs and at local gatherings. Very few people play these and so it takes around 6 months to a year to get a good set from a maker. They have the same finger work as the highland bagpipe although look and are played differently (with a bellow instead of a blowpipe). They are great for playing with other instruments, particularly the guitar whereas the highland bagpipes are more of a solo instrument (unless of course played with drums) The Uilleann pipes, also known as Irish pipes are, in my opinion the holy grail of piping expertise. There is a saying which is: “7 years learning, 7 years practicing, 7 years playing”…21 years to master. They are usually played sitting down and have 2 octaves with wrist actions to hold chords at the same time as playing. These are extremely complex to play and indeed make, which is why it can take several years to get hold of a set.