Those seeking good idiomatic Gaelic to describe their bellows pipe might want to consider ‘pìob shionnaich’. Here Iain McInnes describes some of the usages of the term for bellows pipes in the Highlands and some of the pipers who played them

This term was used by the Bruce and MacPherson families in the 19th century, and was sufficiently well-known for the lexicographer (and piper) Edward Dwelly to include it in his Gaelic dictionary of 1911. Father Allan MacDonald, collecting Gaelic expressions in South Uist and Eriskay in the 1880s was also aware of the term, applied to “pipes where a bellows under one arm supplies the place of the gaothaire” (blowpipe).1
The term pìob shionnaich is a curious one. It might translate literally as ‘fox pipe’, which is colourful if somewhat obscure.  Dwelly, possibly seeking to rationalise the meaning, offers the alternative of ‘pìob theannaich’, a direct reference, it would seem, to the bellows. Teannaich means to ‘constrict or squeeze’, and in certain circumstances to ‘tighten by pumping’. (Dwelly includes a wealth of nuance and localised idiom in his definitions). Most early Gaelic dictionaries contain the term.  The massive tome published by the Highland Society of Scotland in 1828, for instance, offers two definitions of pìob shionnaich:  ‘a bellows pipe’, and ‘the small bagpipe’.2
Whatever the precise etymology, pìob shionnaich was an expression used by one particular piping family with links to Glenelg, Skye and Raasay.  Writing in the Oban Times in 1913, Dr K.N MacDonald (compiler of the excellent ‘Gesto Collection of Highland Music’) provides a vivid description of the Glenelg piper Sandy Bruce:
 “I must first have heard old Sandy in the early forties [1840s], and I remember him quite well. He was a man about  5 feet 7 inches, sturdy and well set, of a ruddy complexion, clean shaven – not unlike Niel Gow in appearance. He wore a tartan coat,  with flaps embellished with silver-gilt bullet-shaped buttons, and trews.  His walk when playing pibrochs, was dignified and stately, and when he came to the quick passages he stood perfectly still. He generally set forth in the porch in Ord, Skye [K.N MacDonald’s home], where he had sufficient elbow-room, but the noise to me in those days was something terrific.
“Pibrochs were his forte, but he also played marches, salutes, and dance music when necessary. He would scorn to play the latter – the dance music – on the pìob mhòr, or large pipe. He reserved it for the pìob shionnaich, or bellows pipe, which he generally carried about with him on periodical visits to our place.”  … “His usual routine was to begin playing in the morning about 8 o’clock, without ever being asked, and again during dinner, pibrochs and salutes, and when there was any dancing he played the bellows pipe.  He was a very amiable and agreeable man – one of nature’s gentlemen – with a considerable sense of humour, and possessed a large repertoire of old stories of by-gone days”.3
Sandy Bruce was a piper of renown.  He took second prize in the famous pibroch competition in Edinburgh in 1807, when he was listed as piper to Niel MacLeod of Gesto (K.N MacDonald’s grandfather). He learnt his music directly from the MacCrimmons, and was on hand when Alexander Campbell, the composer and collector, visited Donald Ruadh MacCrimmon in Glenelg in October 1815.  Before having a tune himself, Donald Ruadh sent for Sandy, “a favourite pupil of his own, who played several pieces in a stile of excellence, that while it excited applause, reflected much credit on his able preceptor”.4
Piping passed on down through Sandy’s family, and K.N MacDonald records that his descendants retained a prize pipe which he had won at the St Fillans Games in 1823. His brother John was also a piper, employed by Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, where he played his part in entertaining visiting dignitaries.  A rather poignant letter from Scott recounts how John Bruce once spent an entire Sunday selecting twelve stones from twelve south-running streams for him, as a cure for jaundice.5  In the Bruces, clearly, there was music and lore in abundance.
Near-relations to the Bruces were the MacPhersons from Laggan in Badenoch. More ‘mature’ readers of Common Stock might recall old Angus MacPherson (1877-1976) perched on the front row of the Caledonian Hotel ballroom at the Northern Meeting in Inverness each year, dispensing piping wisdom and trenchant comment on the performers.  In a BBC radio interview broadcast in 1959, he recounted how his great-grandfather Peter had been a piper in Skye; his grandfather Angus (the ‘pìobaire cam’) was a pupil of John MacCrimmon, and a near-neighbour of the famous MacKay pipers in Raasay; and his father Malcolm (generally known as ‘Calum pìobaire’) had eventually settled in Cluny after working in Islay, Greenock and Stornoway. There he followed in his own father’s footsteps as piper to Cluny MacPherson, before retiring to the nearby cottage of Catlodge which became a base for his teaching activities.

Malcolm MacPherson’s piob shionnaich. (courtesy of the National Museums of Scotland; the pipes themselves are in the collection in the Piping Centre in Glasgow)

Angus himself had a fascinating life, recounted in his autobiography A Highlander Looks Back, which included a period in service to Andrew Carnegie at Skibo Castle, followed by 35 years as hotelier in Inveran – inspiration to a brace of fine compositions by G.S McLennan.
Although mainly associated with Highland piping, the MacPhersons were by no means above turning their hands to the bellows. In an article published in 1955, Seton Gordon wrote of them:
 “At this time [the 19th century], and much later, another form of bagpipe was in use in the Highlands. This may be the pipe referred to by Hume as ‘Scottes’.  The Gaelic name is Pìob Shionnaich, the Bellows Pipe…. Angus MacPherson, a celebrated piper and a judge of piping at the great Highland Gatherings, tells me that in his family there is preserved his father’s Pìob Shionnaich.  His father, Malcolm MacPherson, was a famous piper, and, like his father before him, was equally at home, and equally skilled, on either type of bagpipe. In those days dances would be continued for several nights in succession, and the piper, having opened the proceedings with the Great Pipe, would then sit at his ease on a stool or bench, and play dance music on the Bellows Pipe hour after hour, the fingering and scale in both Piob Mhòr and Piob Shionnaich being the same.”7
Surviving pipemakers’ catalogues show that bellows-blown instruments were by no-means a rarity in the nineteenth century.  In 1860, for instance, the Edinburgh maker Alexander Glen was offering  ‘Union or Lowcountry pipes of all descriptions made to order’, in addition to an impressive range of Highland bagpipes. In 1871 David Glen’s price list included a ‘Second Size Reel Pipe with a bellows’.   These, presumably, were the instruments that found their way into the hands of pipers in the Highland village halls.8
Angus MacPherson confirmed his father’s use of the bellows bagpipe in a radio interview conducted in 1971:
“Yes, it’s a Lowland pipe of course, and at weddings he always took that with him.  He’d have the two sets, and play all night on the bellows pipes, you know.  Of course as you know the reeds never got damp.  I can remember, I can visualise him now sitting on the chair.  And the smoking pipe – he’s smoking his pipe and playing the other pipe at the same time.  And jigs … he could play; and that’s the thing - the old jigs, they really were beautiful music, such as that jig Cailleach nan Guirean, the Herring Wife, and the Stable Boys Jig, and these old jigs.  Oh my, he could rattle these jigs out beautifully.”9
This testimony suggests that bellows pipes were a valued component of piping culture in the Highlands, at least within certain families, a practical alternative to the pìob mhòr, although never played to the exclusion of the mouth-blown pipe.  There is no suggestion that bellows pipes were used to explore alternative music, or unusual tonality.  For the Bruces and MacPhersons the pìob shionnaich simply had its place by the fireside and on the dance floor, part of the everyday rhythm of musical life.



1. Father Allan MacDonald Gaelic Words and Expressions from South Uist and Eriskay. Edited by J.L Campbell. Oxford University Press, 1953: 219.
2. Dictionarium Scoto-Celticum.  A Dictionary of the Gaelic Language.  Edinburgh. 1828.
3. Dr K.N MacDonald ‘The Bruces of Glenelg, Contemporaries of John MacCrimmon.’ Oban Times, Januray 4th, 1913.
4. Alexander Campbell (ms)  ‘A Slight Sketch of a Journey made through Parts of the Highlands and Hebrides; undertaken to Collect Materials for Albyn’s Anthology: in Autumn 1815’.  Edinburgh University Library EUL. La.III.577
5. Walter Scott.  Letter to the Duke of Buccleuch, 15 April 1819.  In J.G Lockhart Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. Edinburgh.  1842; 393.
6. Angus MacPherson interviewed by Fred MacAulay in Lairg, 21 August 1959.  BBC archive. LP25965.
7. Seton Gordon  “The Bagpipe” in John Hadfield (ed) The Saturday 15 Book. 1955; 188, 193.
8. These examples are contained in Jeannie Campbell Highland Bagpipe Makers, Edinburgh, 2001;24, the former excerpted from an edition of Glen’s Caledonian Repository, 1860.
9. Angus MacPherson talking to Seumas MacNeill. BBC insert reel recorded in Inverness, 27 April 1971.  The state of the tape suggests that this may never have been broadcast.