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Portraits of Scotland – Edinburgh Piper

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copyright 2016 Mollie Bozarth

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:

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copyright 2016 Mollie Bozarth

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.

My piping life: I have been playing the pipes for around 7 years now, starting off at around age 8. Having lived in Scotland all my life, I have been surrounded by piping since as long as I can remember. But it never occurred to me to play as I thought it was too “mainstream.” I couldn’t have been more wrong! Piping is a passion for me now. My grandfather was a piper in the black watch regiment, so he played a role in getting me motivated. My first teacher was ‘Alasdair’, the piping legend of Dunbar (east coast). He taught me for 5 years and in my opinion is one of the best teachers that one could ever hope for. A truly amazing man! Not only does he play fantastically well but also makes his own instruments. Next I moved to Paris at 13 and joined the ‘Paris & District Pipe Band’ for 1 year which was fascinating. They’re a group of piping enthusiasts from Brittany who used to play the Breton pipes but had moved over to the traditional ‘Highland Bagpipe’ as the repertoire was larger. This was when I first started to realise there were different branches of piping. Whilst there I met a man who reconstructed pipes of the Baroque period by gathering information, specifically from paintings. This was really an eye opener to me and prompted me to expand my playing abilities. Since then I have started the Scottish smallpipes and also the tin whistle (guitar also for accompaniment). Busking (street performing) is something I love. I often go out with a friend and we play together. We have done so all over, in Edinburgh, London, Paris, and Italy. These have been self-paid-for trips that we have covered with busking proceeds. This is what keeps my love for piping going. Not only do I get a chance to improve my piping and get more confidence performing in public, but I also meet new people all the time. Piping has a real impact on people. It conjures powerful feelings of patriotism and is also very emotional at times. It gives me a real kick to see people so happy to hear the pipes and to be so supportive of them! It is an incredible tradition that has been around for centuries, and I hope it will continue be so.
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