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Matt Seattle, musician, publisher and researcher of music, looks at some of the repertoire available to the Lowland piper.

I have just got my Border pipes, a prototype set by Phil Brown based on the Muckle Jock Milburn pipes presently residing in Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum. I first tried the original Muckle Jock chanter with a reed supplied by Michael Hofmann, and it overblew easily to high B, gave a good cross-fingered C natural, a high C sharp with ‘normal’       fingering and a cross-fingered C natural, a high G sharp with ‘normal’ fingering and a cross-fingered G natural. The F natural was not so good, Phil Brown (who studied Musical Instrument Technology at the London College of Furniture and is one of the UK’s finest wood turners) copied the complex internal bore of the Muckle Jock chanter and made many reeds himself from scratch, using Michael Hofmann’s reed, the diagram in Gordon Mooney’s Tutor and measurements supplied by Jock Agnew as guides, though not adhering to any one of these exclusively.

Although I was initially disappointed that the pipes do not a¢ present overblow (it may be possible to sort this out in the future by fine adjustments to the reed) this was more than compensated for by the ease with which I found it possible to get either sharp or natural C, F and G by cross fingerings - there are no metal keys, F natural is sometimes unconvincing on keyless pipes, but with these pipes a clear minor third between D and F is possible.

We know that Highland pipers have recently ‘discovered’ C natural, even though it was there all along, but were Border pipers, with their softer reeds and narrower bores, using these ‘forbidden’ notes in past centuries? We will probably never know for sure, but there is good evidence for the use of C natural at least in past times, Clean Pease Strae being an   obvious example: although written Highland pipe versions have no way of showing it, the C natural in the second bar is there in most fiddle texts surviving from the 18th century.

What are the implications of this wider choice of notes for the Lowland pipers and their   repertoires today? Well naturally a lot of French bagpipe music which exploits these     chromaticisms becomes accessible, as do some of the newer tunes of the type composed by Jon Swayne, Jock Agnew and others, But what of the Lowland and Border repertoire? I think we will probably look in vain for more than one or two old bagpipe tunes which make use of these notes, but if we look at the closely related fiddle repertoire we may come up with something useful for present purposes, if not for duplicating the past.

Apart from a few exceptions in E minor, minor mode tunes (even if adapted from fiddle tunes in other keys) usually end up in B minor on the pipes, but the availability of F and C natural means there are also possibilities of playing in D minor and A minor. Depending on the range of a particular tune, a bit of experimenting with different keys might even produce more than one viable version.

A Lowland reel I had long wanted to try on the pipes is Ratho Fair (Ratho lies between   Edinburgh and Livingston). This is written in D minor, and although the key signature in older written versions is one flat, the low B flats in the tune are all naturalised with accidentals, and I have replaced the one high B flat with A without great damage. The key signature in my version is thus as for C major, the tune being in the Dorian mode (D minor with   major 6th and minor 7th).

A great historical misfortune, with profound effects on musical literacy, took place when Highland pipers decided that they would notate their music without the use of a key signature. This means that a piper raised on Highland notation (are there any of you out there?) might look at this tune and think it will fit the ‘normal’ pipe scale, which it definitely does not. Hence the health warning with the tune. The accompanying chords, by the way, are best played on a Fender Strat with just a touch of distortion, closely approximating the ’cello accompaniment of the late 18th century.