What is Lowland Piping

A brief survey of the history of piping in the Scottish Lowlands and Borders and a discussion of what the term means today


Where are the Lowlands?

The term 'Lowlands' as applied to Scotland generally refers to those areas that are not 'Highlands'; essentially, this means those areas where Gaelic has not been the native language for centuries. This is not a particularly satisfying definition, since Gaelic lingered on for a long time in the far south-west, an area now generally included in the term 'Lowland and Border'. Equally it is not always realized that the term 'Lowlands' also includes those areas of the east from Banffshire southwards as well as the areas south of the Clyde/Forth river basins. The area immediately north of these rivers up towards Stirling acts as a 'marginal' area between lowland and highland regions.

The term 'Border' is included in the Society name in order to embrace the commonality of culture that spans the border between England and Scotland, including the northern regions of Cumberland in the west and Northumberland in the east. It should also be noted that the whole of this southern area is not strictly speaking lowland at all; indeed much of it is decidedly 'upland', both the Scottish 'Southern Uplands' and the Cumberland and Northumberland moors.

In what follows, I have used the term 'lowland' as short-hand to cover all these areas.

The Origins of Lowland Piping

From what meagre information survives, there seems to be little reason to distinguish between bagpipes played in the Highland and in the Lowlands in the period before the mid-17th century. It is clear, however, that the music played had its own distinct characteristics, and it must have been the particular forms of Highland music that led to the distinct form of pipe that had emerged by the time the name 'Highland bagpipe' first began to be used. [Keith Sanger has demonstrated that this term was first used in documents in 1748].

The Lowland Bagpipe

The Lowland bagpipes are today recognised to be bellows-blown and to carry their drones mounted in a common stock.. This is an innovation which appears to date from the mid-17th century, although reliable evidence for the emergence of this form is almost non-existent. It should also be noted that bellows-blown pipes were known and played in the highlands too, and had their own Gaelic word by the late 18th century [piob shionnaich].

bpbellows 0c9d7
 Lowland or border pipe by Julian Goodacre

What originally distinguished highland from lowland piping, the music played, remains a potentially defining characteristic. That a distinct Lowland repertoire survived the hegemony of the GHB in the late-19th and 20th centuries can be seen from the manuscripts and rare publications which research has unearthed. The LBPS has been active in promoting and publishing this repertoire. However, many, if not most, bellows-pipers today play chiefly the higland repertoire, often in a modified highland style. The most common motivation for this seems to be the desire to play pipes along with other instruments, especially fiddles.

The Scottish smallpipes

Alongside these 'Lowland' pipes, which by definition have conically bored-chanters, giving a sound similar in quality to the highland pipes, if somewhat milder in tone and volume, there is a flourishing tradition of 'smallpipe' playing that has emerged over the last 30 years, quite separate from that of the Northumberland pipes. The smallpipes played today are a considerable modification from the old instruments which mostly date from the 18th century. These early smallpipes are very small, Pipes of this sort, perhaps half-an-octave higher in pitch than today's, were known in London as 'Scottish pipes' from the Restoration onward, and there are suggestions that there may be pre-civil war mentions, at least of bellows pipes, if not specifially 'Scotch'..

It is interesting to see that an increasing number of smallpipe players, who again are chiefly highland pipers playing a highland repertoire, are turning to smaller chanters, usually in D; and so the early pipes are making a comeback of their own.


Scottish smallpipe in A by Julian Goodacre

Lowland Music

The Lowland pipes before the 18th century, whilst they had a certain amount of Civic functions to perform [many burghs had their own 'town piper'], remained predominantly an instrument for dancing and dance music, often in the form of adapted popular songs, dominated the repertoire and playing style. During the early part of the 18th century the more refined 'chamber music' repertoire of the smallpipes, much influenced by the 'pastoral' movement and the Italian and French baroque, led to the emergence of extended sets of variations on popular song airs and some of the earliest known pipe music is of this form; the idiom remained a vital part of Northumbrian smallpiping.

Lowland and Border Piping Today

Scottish bellows-piping is exploring all these areas, as well as looking out to the contemporary revivals that have happened in other European countries in the last 30 years. Whether you are an accomplished highland piper or a newcomer to piping altogether, the lowland bagpipe and the Scottish smallpipe offer the opportunity to explore a wide range of music-making either solo or in consort with other musicians. The Lowland and Border Pipers' Society exists to encourage your exploration and to offer inspiration and resources to help you.