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By Chris MacKenzie


There is more than a touch of irony in the fact that the public perception of the Great Highland Bagpipe still centres around highland glens with kilted pipers, standing up to their knees in midges, churning out endless laments on pipes constructed from the pieces of the sheep the pipers wouldn't eat (and that doesn't leave much). That scenario bears as much resemblance to reality as a professional wrestling match does to a true contest (mind you, some would say 'don't try this at home kids' should also apply to the GHB).

The truth of the matter is that the closest most pipers get to a Glen is when they are standing next to him in the queue for the toilets at one of the contests, and the slowest tunes most pipers now play is a hornpipe. The biggest divergence from the 'tourist image', though, is in the technology used in the GHB itself. For years it was a crime, punishable by having your bass drone put where surgery would be required to remove it, to even consider deviating from the traditional materials and methods used in the construction and maintenance of the GHB. Ah halcyon days!

Slowly, but surely, cracks appeared as pipers strived to get a 'better' (more consistent, at any rate) sound. First the, now ubiquitous, polypenco chanter started to appear and won an audience as bands found it gave them a better (and more affordable) chance of matching their chanters. The general acceptance of the 'plastic' chanter seemed to open the floodgates for all kinds of innovations and now it seems only the piper's imagination is the factor limiting what is possible. Practically everyone now uses synthetic bags that require none of the dreaded seasoning (which involves a routine that makes Monty Python look sensible), synthetic drones are now so commonplace that some young pipers have never even seen a cane drone reed. Even the simplest end of the bagpipe, the blowstick, has a variety of innovations ranging from a wider bore to swivel ball and socket joints (to allow better positioning of the bag and chanter). Serious attempts have even been made to make pipes entirely from polypenco (not something that has caught on yet).

Perversely, as new innovations come into replace flawed originals, the new technology brings its own problems. The Goretex bag is a classic example, brought in as a low maintenance alternative to a hide bag; it has been a boon to pipers. Yet hide bagpipes are very efficient at absorbing the moisture in breath while Gore-Tex bags aren't, so more of the moisture makes it to the reeds, which causes all sorts of havoc. Even the synthetic reeds eventually react to too much moisture (and the cane chanter reed certainly does) so now we have innovations to stop the moisture getting through. These range from simple plastic tubes attached to the blow stock which trap water, through to complex systems where every reed has its own dedicated air supply, filtered through water retaining crystals that can be removed and microwaved, to remove the trapped moisture before returning to the bag.

Even the humble practice chanter has not been immune from change. Plastic reeds replaced the old cane ones (although you still see a few, a very few, hardy souls who play cane reeds). Plastic took over from wood as the predominant material and they are available in a variety of sizes to suit all figures. It can only be a matter of time before someone starts doing them in various colours (as Henry Ford said, you can have any colour you like as long as it's black). It cannot be said that the practice chanter makes the sweetest of sounds (certainly in my hands), so it is now even possible to buy a practice chanter with its own built in drone. That's if you just want to stay with a simple practice chanter, for now you can buy 'practice pipes' which are mouth blown and feature small drones in a variety of materials (plastic, wood, brass). If the blowing, tuning, and maintaining of real pipes leaves you colder than a streaker in Aberdeen, you can always plug in your electronic pipes and play away to your hearts content in perfect pitch and changing key at the switch of a button.

The majority of these innovations have come about in the last ten years and, like all other technological advances, the rate at which they are appearing is increasing. Some of the newer changes mentioned above will stick and be accepted as the norm in a surprisingly short time, while others will fade quickly from memory. That changes will happen is as inevitable as political scandal and, generally, the quality of sound demanded by today's players ensures that all the duff ideas end up in the bin, where they belong.

However it is also clear that many of the players brought up on this high tech piping don't have the same 'feel' for the bagpipe as those who have had to coax life out of a bagpipe when all hope seemed lost. Indeed, some Pipe Majors are putting their pipers back onto hide bags and cane reeds to give them better control over the sound they produce. That, perhaps, is the way forward with pipers learning their craft using the old tools, before being allowed to move on to the advanced materials. A slower route undoubtedly, but potentially more rewarding.

The current piping technology is impressive, but it pales into insignificance to the impact of the Internet. Yet, true to form, the piping fraternity has harnessed the power of the Internet for it's own ends. If you type 'bagpipe' into your browser you will be presented with an impressive array of sites to visit and it's well worth spending some rainy evenings browsing through them. Internet users will also soon be able to listen to Radio Scotland's 'Pipeline' (hey, good title!!), possibly the world's only scheduled radio program dedicated to the bagpipe (if you know different, drop me a line), over the web. Broadcasting is expected to begin in the late summer and I'll let you know when it does. Those in sunny climes who want to try and tune in to Ian MacInnes' excellent show now, and have access to the Astra 2 satellite transmissions, should tune to channel 927 at the local equivalent of Sunday 4.30pm GMT/BST (see shtml). Thanks to the June issue of the Piping Times for the Internet and Astra information.

On the slightly less leading edge subject of CDs, the Oban Pipe Band under PM Ian Hurst have produced a CD entitled 'The Oban Blend'. The band, currently competing in grade three, have put together a selection of sets that has one eye on strong sales to the hoards of tourists which visit Oban every year, and no doubt catch the band at one of the many gigs they do. Tracks, such as "The Dark Island", "Amazing Grace" and "Highland Cathedral", should ensure a steady stream of income to the band's coffers. The CD also features ex-band member Angus McColl guesting with a couple of solo spots.

Finally, there is still time to register for the Millennium march down Princess Street in Edinburgh. With thousands of participants, and hundreds of thousands watching, it will be a very special occasion.

Links, further information and recordings:

'The Oban Blend' - Oban Pipe Band, Monarch CDMON 837