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RAY SLOAN, maker of Northumbrian and Scottish small pipes, takes issue with     certain bagpipe terminology, discussing the origins of “half-longs” in the process.

I was very interested to read Brian McCandless’s article in the first issue of the journal of the recently formed North American Association of Lowland and Border pipers. I have   myself been working on a manual for the small pipes, which is to include a historical     section, and inevitably will take in their close relatives, the Lowland pipes and half-longs. The reason for this discussion and Mr McCandless’s article has raised one or two points of     contention in my mind.

I prefer to approach bagpipe terminology as it applies to our present-day understanding of the pipes in question. As a pipemaker, I constantly come across confusion in customers over what to call a particular pipe. I have had people, for example, almost ordering small pipes when what they were really after was Lowland pipes.

I hope that I can further simplify an understanding of what is what by resolving Mr McCandless’s list of bagpipes, for convenience, to just four types and two categories — all of them being bellows blown. I must say at this point that I am not concerned here with the pastoral pipes, only 1. Lowland pipes: 2. Northumbrian half-long pipes: 3. small pipes (ie. Scottish or Northumbrian).

I must first of all acknowledge Mr McCandless’s opening remarks in mitigation of what I feel are certain misconceptions appearing in his article. I want also to keep this article     reasonably brief since I aim to try and simplify matters, rather than further confuse. Having said this, however, it is necessary in part to look at some historical background which should, I hope, enlighten our understanding so that we all know what we are talking about when discussing these pipes and, more importantly, buving them!

Controversy and misunderstanding are not new to the world of piping: indeed, these seem inextricably linked. In his work of 1911, Bagpipes, Grattan Flood opens chapter XXII with the following:

“Much misconception has existed in regard to the Lowland bagpipe as distinct from the Highland. Some writers allege that the two instruments are totally distinct, and that the Lowland bagpipe is rather of an inferior class.”

This sentiment is also echoed by accounts, in RD Cannon’s authoritative The Highland Bagpipe and its Music, of these pipes being called “common”. And so, if nothing else, I hope to contribute to the collective controversy of pipers!

I have heard people talk about the four types of pipe in the following diverse terms - Border pipe/Border half long/Northumbrian half long/Lowland pipe/Lowland half long/Scottish small pipes/Scottish Lowland small - pipes/Border - smallpipes/Northumbrian small pipes and, in earlier years, “hill pipes” and the Northumberland large pipes (halflongs) .. I think you must agree that this is pretty confusing, suggesting that each label is an individual pipe. At the very least it raises only questions when we want answers.

There are just two categories of pipe here, both bellows-blown, which can be separated by chanter construction. On the one hand there are the Lowland and half-long pipes, characterised by a conically bored chanter. and the quite different small pipes which are cylindrically bored, except for the Scottish small pipes which will have a slight flair at the bottom inch or two, depending on pitch. These can also be separated by reed type. as both the Lowland and half-long are reeded with the basic. not modified, V-shaped Highland pipe reed, while both of the small pipes are reeded with the standard Northumbrian format of a parallel-sided reed.

You may by now have noticed that I have not mentioned the “Border pipe”, as outlined in Mr McCandless’s article. This is because it does not, in my opinion, exist, and to speak of it simply adds to the confused plethora of terms. A slight difference in bore size or   chanter/drone length does not justify the listing of such a pipe, having all the other characteristics of the Lowland pipe, as a separate form of instrument. The Lowland pipe and Border pipe are simply two ways of referring to the same “animal”. If Mr McCandless has found Lowland pipes with bores and dimensions slightly different from the “norm”, then it is more than likely that these are simply localised experiments - or aberrations - by individual pipemakers. It must be borne in mind that pipemakers are a particularly obsessive breed of musical instrument maker - they simply can't “leave it alone”.

Beyond this, I feel that, to justify a separate label of “Border pipe”, there would, at the very least, have to be a different sound being produced, or a different fingering employed. It is worth mentioning here that it could also be difficult using the bellows as an indication of Lowland type, as there were bellows pipes included in bagpipe makers” lists as late as 1901 that were in fact bellows-blown Highland half-sized or “reel” pipes, the drones of which are tied into contiguous stocks(1). According to R.D.Cannon, the last-known player of such a pipe was the late Angus MacPherson, who died in 1976, aged 96 years. He reputedly played the bellows pipes at weddings because, being blown with dry air, it would stay in tune throughout the long night and, as Cannon again points out. “This may be our best clue as to why bellows were introduced in the first place”.

I will at this point say briefly that I also feel that what Mr McCandless refers to separately as the “union” and “pastoral” pipes are also two ways of referring to the same pipe and that I acknowledge neither the “reel” or “Chamber” pipes as being “regulator” pipes, these both being small versions of the Highland pipe and certainly not possessing regulators. He is quite correct to use the term “Lowland pipe” to refer to a broad category of pipe that   possesses bellow, open-ended chanter and simple drones: however, I would suggest further that it is essential to add ‘open-ended chanter of conical bore construction’. This separates the Lowland pipe from the Scottish small pipe.

Having eliminated Scottish small pipes from the generic Lowland type. it becomes easier to identify, discuss (and buy!) the particular kind of pipe you are interested in.

We will now find that under the McCandless four-point heading Lowland Pipes 1. “generic” Lowland pipe. 2. Border pipe. 3. Northumbrian half-long. 4. Scottish small pipe, we can   reduce this to only two, namely the Lowland and half-long Pipes, since as we have seen that ’2’ does not exist and ’4’ is, I feel, the wrong class of pipe. This begins to make life a lot simpler when we recognise that the Lowland pipes and the Half-longs are essentially the same instrument, one being a regional variation of the other. The variations are seen in the chanter scales and drone arrangements. In the first instance. as Mr McCandless points out, the Northumbrian half-long chanter had a chromatic scale, whereas the Lowland counterpart had the flattened seventh scale of the Highland pipe. Beyond this difference in scale, however. there is absolutely no difference in either the fingering technique or sound/tone quality, save as to the effects of the particular woods used in manufacture.

I have looked at a number of half-long pipes at the Bagpipe Museum at Morpeth, Northumberland, and all except one had sharpened sevenths. It has to be pointed out,   however, that it is modern practice to produce half-longs with exactly the same flattened seventh scale that is typical of the Highland bagpipe and Lowland pipe. So then, we now have one type of pipe currently with only one regional variation remaining - the drones. The droves of the Northumbrian half-long are typically arranged with the inclusion of a fifthinterval drone, as with the small pipe, unlike the Lowland pipe which has the same arrangement as all other Scottish pipes, namely tenor/tenor/bass.

At this point the story becomes historically interesting and takes in Mr McCandless’s   question concerning the curious term “half=long”. Before I continue, however, I must     vehemently contradict Mr McCandless who says. "..the instrument normally carries a   chanter with a foot joint.” This is simply not true and there is no historical evidence to support the idea. I have examined some 14 sets of Northumbrian half-longs. dating from the early 1700s to 1930, and none display evidence of a foot joint. They rarely, if ever, even have a sole plate. I suspect that perhaps Mr McCandless has seen or been informed of a set of pipes similar to the set seen in Dublin Museum at the turn of the century and wrongly labelled “old Northumbrian - 18th century” and displaying a foot joint. There is a picture in Grattan Flood’s book of 1911 of a similar set of pipes. also labelled “old Northumbrian - 18th century’ - which I believe is possibly the same set. Anyone could, therefore, be forgiven for believing this to be true, and 1 find it hard to believe that this sort of wrong labelling does not persist.

I myself in recent years found a set of Northumbrian pipes in a museum in Skye labelled “Irish”. I believe the Dublin museum set and the one portrayed in the Grattan Flood book to be the trend of Lowland pipers in the 1700s to adapt the new uilleann pipe chanter for   Scottish fingering: by extending it with a foot joint which had transverse holes which       allowed it to be played in the Scottish open-ended style. In other words, a pastoral or union pipe. Interestingly there is also a picture in a book printed in a book printed around the turn of the century called The Bagpipe by A. Duncan-Fraser: this shows a set of pipes called the “cuisleagh ciuil of Ireland”. This set looks in every way similar to the “old Northumbrian” set in Grattan Flood’s book, and what is striking is the styling of the drones on both sets, being exactly the same, with distinctive tulip head bells. The only difference appears to be that the “Irish” set bas regulators on the drones and possesses an extremely long, unfolded bass drone. The chanter has a foot joint and looks exactly like the chanter in the Grattan Flood picture.

So, on the one hand. we have one set of pipes described as “Northumbrian” and proved to be wrongly labelled. and another set of (probably) the same manufacture labelled “Irish”. In both cases I contend that these are pastoral pipes, but one possessing standard Lowland drones. The point of this is to say that on the one hand it is very difficult trying to establish historical data in the face of such confusion: and on the other, that the only chanters I know of with foot joints are pastoral pipe charters and that, quite categorically, Northumbrian half-long chanters do not have and never have had foot joints as a “norm’. I would suggest that had this ever been the case, we would have seen it here in Northumberland?

So. “half=long”(2).. what does it mean? There is only one other thing I can say with         absolute certainty: nobody knows! Like so many aspects of piping history and terminology, The answers to such questions are left to informed guesswork = or otherwise. As for the suggestion that this may refer to the short bass drones(?), I tend to think not, as I have found only one example of a bass drone which is shorter than the norm for Lowland pipes/halflongs. This is on the set of pipes of 1772 which belonged to Muckle Jock Milburn of Bellingham. The bass drone is 5cm shorter than other drones. but the tenors are proportionately shorter also, and I find this quite insignificant as regards the question before us, telling us more about the lack of standardisation among makers of the period.

I personally believe the term to be a relative misnomer and possibly even a very local term used to describe this Lowland pipe variant in Northumberland.

‘There are some references in historical documents to two-droned Lowland pipes, as there are to two-droned Highland pipes: so it is one possibility that when the long bass drone was introduced the pipes retaining the two tenor drones only, which were exactly “half as long” as the bass drone, became named accordingly... This is, however, pure unadulterated conjecture on my part, but in the absence of any better explanation, why not? Whatever the real answer I feel certain that it was a local term, having little historical significance, and I do not believe that the term necessarily implies an older and bigger pipe in Northumberland. Looking again to circumstantial evidence to support this. 1 am equally certain that if either the half-long or an older pipe existed in any positive way. then most certainty they would have been mentioned in “dispatches” somewhere. So far, however, it is hard to find any old references to even a half-long, let alone a bigger pipe, beyond the early 1900s.

The term, however, has obviously been the subject of some debate in the county. In the Border Magazine number 371, of November 1926, a controversy was under way concerning the adoption of the term “half-long” for what was, in fact, the newly “invented” pipe for the Boy Scout movement in Northumberland. An article had appeared in a previous issue by an A.N. Appleby Miller, a Lieutenant in the Northumberland Fusiliers, protesting that the pipes adopted by the Boy Scouts “are erroneously called half-longs... and are alien to our county”. The important point here is that these pipes were invented, reinvented, remodelled - whatever term you like to use - around 1920 by W.A. Cocks, George Charlton and others,       specifically for use by the aforementioned Scouts.

In the subsequent article of November 1926, George Charlton says that these pipes were modelled on the Muckle Jock Milburn set, in addition to a set belonging to the Duke of Northumberland’s piper of the time, James Hall (3) The owner of the Muckle Jock pipes. Mrs CM. Stoddart of Ashington, Northumberland, stated that the set had been in her family for over 190 years, and that they had always been called “half-longs” in her family. Mr Charlton, as a result, effectively disposes of Lieutenant Millers statement that these pipes were “alien” to the area. Charlton goes on to say that the small pipes had been tried tor military use but were found not to be loud enough. So there is an element of invention here, based on a real pipe - the Lowland pipe variant described by at least one Northumbrian   family as half-longs. for reasons unknown.

In defence of the redevelopment of what he calls “the Northumbrian large pipes” that his movement had worked hard to save from extinction in 1926, Charlton says: “Sixteen troops of Northumbrian Boy Scouts have adopted the Northumberland half-long pipes. and every troop has been presented with a set of pipes free of charge by the people of Northumberland. Troops have adopted the Northumberland small pipes. A band of eight pipers is in the process of formation by Armstrong college. and their pipers have already played publicly. A band of six pipers has been formed by Newcastle Royal Grammar School. Over 60 sets of half-longs have been made during the past 12 months." (4)

This was the renaissance of Northumbrian piping in general and it was about this time that the bagpipe-maker Robertson of Edinburgh began making the half-long pipes as we know them. There are one or two further points worth mentioning in connection with their development. Robertson initially produced a number of these instruments with the true half-long chanter having a chromatic scale. “These were, however, withdrawn and replaced by chanters with the standard Scottish flattened seventh scale”. (5)

The reason for this is not fully known, but I suspect that it was because enthusiasts were by now used to the latter scale. found in the more widespread Highland and Lowland pipes. The drones of the half-longs, however, as redesigned by Charlton, Cox, et al, remained and persist to this day in the torm of tenor, baritone and base. And herein lies a fundamental error: the “stvle” of the drones was indeed modelled on Muckle Jock’s and James Hall's sets, but the format was quite wrong. I have looked at more than 14 sets of antique Lowland/half-long pipes and five of these (including Muckle Jock’s and Hall's) had the fifth   interval drone, all others being tenor/tenor/bass. Of the five in question, only one had the fifth interval drone in the baritone position i.e, between tenor and bass, and this was a Robertson set from 1930. All of the other truly original half-long drones bad the “fifth”   positioned at alto. i.e. sounding the fifth an octave above the baritone. In other words, the Robertson set follows the “Brian Boru” pattern of drones and not the original half-long   pattern. I can think of only one good reason for this, which is that, as Charlton stated in the Border Magazine, he wanted volume. The baritone drone, being twice as large as the alto, would obviously be louder and more dominant, contributing to the overall volume, but it is not traditional.

Also. the general “colour” of the sound of these drones is mach too loud and brash, as the early half-long makers obviously realised. The alto. on the contrary, has a blending effect complimenting the harmonic structure of the bass drone.(6)

In 1906, William O’Douane, working with Henry Starck in London, produced and patented the “Brian Boru” pipes as a new Irish “warpipe” and the drones were three in number, issuing from a common stock and arranged tenor, baritone, bass - exactly as the Robertson half-longs were to be produced a few years later. It is quite possible, if not likely, that Robertson or those searching for pipes loud enough to be used for marching Boy Scouts in Northumberland saw these pipes and were impressed by the volume and therefore decided to adopt the Brian Boru pattern of drones. It may be interesting to note here that the Brian Boru instrument never really took the imagination of pipers in this country and enjoyed only limited success in Ireland, the two-drone Scottish Highland type pipe holding sway as “warpipe” in that country. One reason for its unpopularity was the difficulty of fingering the complex keyed chanter.

And so, finally. where does this leave us? With no full answer to the riddle of the term “half-long”. but one or two anomalies corrected and, hopefully, some food for thought and at least some historical background. I think it is important to take note of the original drone structure of these pipes, and it could be said that unless a set of pipes has this structure, they are not true half-longs: in fact they are only truly half-longs if the chanter has a chromatic scale in combination with these drones.

With regard to nomenclature, I would like to finish with a list of the most popular pipes and what I feel should be their classification. I hope that discarding such terms as "Border pipes” is seen as constructive and that it helps us standardise on terminology...

Lowland pipes and Northumbrian half-longs

Characterised by bellows and three simple drones issuing from a commons stock, and an open-ended chanter of conical bore, having the shrill nasal sound distinctive of “outdoor” pipes such as the Highland pipe - but milder in volume. The chanter for these pipes can be with or without a chromatic scale: ie. with a sharp or flattened seventh note. The drone can be either tenor/tenor/bass, tenor/baritone/bass or alto/tenor/bass. (Pipes with a chromatic scale and alto/tenor/bass drones are true Northumberland half-longs.) The pipes are usually in Bb.

Scottish and Northumbrian small pipes

Characterised by bellows, three or more drones issuing from a common stock. Chanter is of cylindrical bore und has a characteristically mellow “indoor” sound. These pipes are available in most pitches. The Scottish small pipes are usually in the standard “Scottish” format of tenor/tenor/bass. It is unusual for them to have more than three drones but can have up to tive. Scottish small pipe chanters are open-ended and usually fingered like Lowland/halflong/Highland pipes. They can also be purchased optionally with a sharpened seventh. Keys are also added to gain notes above the octave, and more.

Northumbrian pipe chanters are closed and can have up to 17 keys, usually in F or G but can also be purchased in D and C. Fingering is of the “closed” type. Drones on the keyless sets are three in number, but keyed sets will have four or more. The “Standard” sets have seven keys and four drones.

Parlour pipes, reel pipes, chamber pipes and shuttle pipes are all less popular variants of Highland or Irish uilleaim pipes or of the above.

No doubt there will be further disagreements with some aspects of this article. but I think that you will find that the descriptions of the pipes mentioned are historically correct, and that my nomenclature does not further confuse the situation.


  • 2 W. A. Cocks in his book of 1933, THE NORTHUMBRIAN BAGPIPES. THEIRDEVELOPMENT AND MAKERS. refers to the half-longs as the Northumbrian Large Pipes and elsewhere as the Hill Pipes.
  • 3 Mr James Hall, piper to three successive Dukes of Northumberland.     1892 - 1931. Died aged 86. His half-longs were gifted to the Museums  Service in 1923 by J.W. Hedgeley and, along with “Muckle Jock’s” set,were the model for the new generation of half-longs.
  • 4 Probably mainly by Robertson of Edinburgh
  • 5 Information supplied by Colin Ross of Whitley Bay
  • 6 as above.