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Colin Ross writes:-

Concerning the conical bore LOWLAND PIPES here are some of my comments.

1. Overblowing. If the chanters are in ’A’ or 'G’ sharp or ’G’ then overblowing is not too difficult on one or two notes above the thumb hole, but the Bb chanter is too high a pitch to do it comfortably. This also depends on the reeding which should be light i.e. 15" water pressure as with the small pipes or any of the bellows blown pipes for that matter.

2. Versatility. If by this we mean being able to play in other keys or obtain half tones then the maker should look io the diameter of the finger holes. These should be of the optimum size to allow for cross-fingering, as in the recorder, that gives a true half note where required. That particularly applies to the top G which can sound natural or sharp with the present hole position if the relevant holes are small enough to allow for cross fingering and yet still large enough to give good tone. The same applies for the minor third C nat in A.

3. Noise level. If you are intent on playing with the opportunity to overblow and also cross fingering then as I have said the playing pressure would be at 15" water level which tends to produce a warm rich but relatively sweet sound. If you wish to be as loud as possible then a harder REED must be used which would forgo the previously mentioned facilities to a large extent.

4. Pitch. I have mentioned as preferably being lower than Bb and the range to be extended by overblowing. However a top B being played with the pinkie of the left hand is a useful addition. For other key work the chanter becomes a different instrument and should be called a “keyed shawm” as it is no longer a Lowland Chanter in the same way that the “Brian Boru” chanter is not a Highland chanter.

5. Future Prospects. I think that the present degree of proficiency in making a reliable instrument is not sufficient to endear it to many pipers but given that the reeding, once dimensions and hole spacings on the chanter can be properly resolved then it may stand a chance. Even if that was accomplished it is still a little too loud for playing indoors without annoying the neighbours, family or cat, to be widely taken up. However if it was to be used by dancers as an accompaniment or to be considered as a band instrument it might become more used, but it will be a very long time before it overtakes the small pipes.

6. Making. Compared to the small pipes it is more difficult to make because of its size and mainly because of the difficulty in making the reamer for the chanter and then the actual process of reaming out the chanter. The bag and bellows are no more difficult to make than for other bellows blown pipes.

7. Materials. Despite the voices of doom concerning the unavailability of black wood etc. in the future, there is still enough around of one sort or another including our own native woods such as laburnum, box, walnut etc, to make the pipes which do not require the dense wood essential in small pipe making. The mounts and ferrules are easily available in many different materials.

8. The Drone arrangement. The traditional 2 tenor and one bass drone system for the Highland pipes may not be obligatory when it comes to the Lowland pipes. The Northumbrian half-long mistakenly had a tenor, baritone, bass arrangement (a, A) when they were revived in the 1920s, when it should have been alto, tenor, bass (e, a, A) which is commonly found on old examples of the pipes. Maybe there is room for future development there with double bass drones (as with the Irish pipes) or multiple configurations that can be switched off and on at will (as with the Northumbrian small pipes). These drones could then perhaps have regulators added, and with a fully keyed chanter (or double chanter) become at last the fully fledged Cold Wind pipes.

Hamish Moore writes:-


They are difficult to make, difficult to reed and difficult to play, and these are probably the reasons why they have not become as popular as the smallpipes.

My aim is to produce a chanter that is as quiet and as “sweet” sounding as possible and these two qualities are almost entirely dependent on the reed. If a Highland chanter reed is to be used then my advice would be to use the best quality reed available. A good Border reed will never be obtained from a poor quality highland reed nor one which has already been mouth blown for some time.

Robbie Greensitt writes:-


I have found the chanter reed to have a considerable effect on the chanter. The same chanter will behave differently with different reeds, and the same reed will have the same effect on different chanters. The allegedly “Northumbrian” chanters with a sharp seventh are no different from a “Lowland” chanter with a flat seventh. My chanters were made with the use of Glen’s tools dating from the mid-1800s. Depending on the reed, they played a flat seventh with both normal and alternate fingering, or a sharp seventh with normal and a sharp seventh with alternate fingering. I found that this also applied to other chanters, Scottish and Northumbrian, of traditional style.

Other individual notes could vary considerably in pitch depending on the reed. I have heard similar comments from Highland pipe reed makers.

I have found that a strong reed gives high ’B’ more easily than a soft reed does; no increase in pressure should be required. Soft reeds tend to burble on the low notes.

There are a lot of arguments about drone reeds. As long as they are stable and reliable and you like the sound they make in your drones, that is all that matters.

As far as the Lowland/Northumbrian pipes are concerned, I am a traditionalist. If you are not going to play Scottish/Northumbrian tunes in a style appropriate to the tradition, then these pipes are not for you.


.....some observations on the Lowland Pipes (conical bore) as you suggested .....

OVERBLOWING: In theory this is possible but I have found that the overblown notes are not quite true i.e. they are flat in pitch. There is also the problem in stability as to get the overblown note you need a soft reed and this causes lower notes to be unstable and also squeaks and squeals occur unpredictably. I am of course talking about a chanter without keys and using either half holing on the back thumb hole (shiverin’ the back lill) (literally in Scots shive = to halve, lill = finger hole/note).

All in all it is better to have a keyed note, and a stronger reed lo get the upper notes. The note is in tune, the note is reliable and the chanter performs well.

VERSATILITY: Bagpipes are not versatile instruments, but the conical chanter has some advantages over the parallel. Some chanters can produce ‘almost’ a chromatic range, certainly some extra notes and vibrato and slides are more effective. In a loud session they are good, but balance with most other instruments is a problem. With a band you find that the pipes need hardly any PA while the other instruments need a lot.

SOUND LEVEL: A lot of people are turned off by bagpipes, especially the raw saw-edged Scottish type. It is important to get the right level and sound quality from the   instrument. The drones should be mellow and the chanter extremely well in tune.

I spent a lot of time with a tuner and went through a lot of reeds to find a nice sound. It is mostly in the reeds and not in the kinds of woods etc (but that does have some effect).

REEDS AND REEDING: This is a book to be written, but you really have to experiment and be prepared to ruin a lot of cane and patience. Find a sound-proof room. Do not alter the chanter unless there is something drastically wrong. Most tuning problems can be overcome by manipulating the reeds. Refer to reed makers, other pipers/pipemakers etc.

PITCH: The best pitch for playing with other instruments is ‘A’, and more makers are now producing pipes in this key, indeed the smallpipes seem to be standardising on ‘A’ also. It is a good sound to hear several smallpipes against one conical pipe.

The Bb pipes have a distinct bright sound but they are incompatible generally with other instruments. Because many Bb pipes have been made by Highland makers there is a       tendency to be too loud, drone bores too big etc.

KEYS: I see no reason why keys should not be used, both sets I use have keys and this   allows some otherwise unplayable tunes to be accessed.

FUTURE PROSPECTS, I think the ‘A’ pipes will come into their own as more makers put time and energy into refining the instrument. I have played a set of pipes recently which had a plastic chanter reed and it was very nice indeed (J Swayne).

EASE OF PLAYING: I think it is a relatively difficult instrument, but so much depends on how it is set up. Many sets I have tried have been leaking/badly reeded/out of tune etc.

The basic mechanics have to be attended to before good playing can ensue.

MAKING: As far as I am aware they are no more difficult to make than any other bagpipe, indeed easier than Northumbrian pipes/Irish pipes.

BELLOWS: Should be big enough to power the instrument without strain.

BAG: Should be airtight and size is important as is length of neck. The bigger the bag, within reason, the easier it is to play and the shape allows a comfortable position.

WOOD AND MOUNTS: Blackwood and the other rosewoods are probably the best woods for stability and durability and metal is probably best for ferrules and Imitation ivory for mounts.

I prefer drones A a e’ but if you are playing in ‘D’ you should theoretically dispense with the e’.


I met Alan Jones in London - hot on the heels of his European tour. We talked of many     aspects of piping, but of particular interest for this issue of COMMON STOCK were his views on Lowland (conical bore chanter) pipes.

Jock: You presumably have some examples of these pipes in your collection?

Alan: Yes; several. All hold a particular interest. Of the two made by Colin Ross, one is a copy of a Robert Reid set made in blackwood and incorporating a triple bore bass drone, and the other has been constructed with holly wood drones and a chanter of boxwood. Colin found difficulty in obtaining a reed that would react in the original holly wood chanter with any degree of consistency and stability, thus boxwood was later used with good success. Both sets have high 5th drones.

There are three sets of Half Longs from the 1930s made by Edinburgh pipemaker James Robertson; of which one has a silver plaque on the common stock, stating that the set       belonged to the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. There is a set of Half Long pipes made by Richard Mahue of California, U.S.A., and an antique Border pipe possibly dated from around the 1760/1820 period. This set has “MacDonal(d?)/(?) Edin”. stamped in two places on the chanter. I understand there may be a brief reference to this maker in Langwell’s   Dictionary of Wind Instrument Makers.

Jock: Where did you get this old set?

Alan: From a pipe band drummer in Canada in the early 1980s, who in turn had found them in a second-hand shop in southern Ontario. When first put back into playing condition by American pipemaker David Quinn, it played close to B, but Colin (Ross) later fitted an   extension bush in the chanter so that it would take a more standard reed, and it now plays in Bb. [There is a photograph and short description of this set in COMMON STOCK Vol. 3 No.2, November 1987].

Jock: You use the word “Border” rather than “Lowland” to describe these pipes.

Alan: Yes. The pipes with the conical bore chanters I have always personally referred to as Border or Half Long pipes. I tend to use “Lowland” as a way of describing the group of pipes which includes both the conically bored Border/Half Long pipes AND the cylindrically bored Scottish Smallpipes. However, I am aware that there is not an overall common consensus on this matter concerning organological designation of these instruments.

Jock: Do you think there is a difference between Border and Half Long pipes?

Alan: I used to think that Border pipes from north of the Border had the drone arrangement of A a a, whilst the Northumbrian Half Longs had one of its 3 drones tuned to a 5th - be it a high or middle 5th - but I have heard a number of differing opinions on this subject also. I understand that most old (18th & 19th century) sets of these pipes that do in fact incorporate a 5th drone, are to be found with a high, rather than a middle 5th.

Jock: What sort of drone reeds do vou favour in your Border pipes?

Alan: I like composite reeds for the drones i.e. metal body cane tongue or metal body plastic tongue. My own experience in Border pipes is that they seem to be more stable than cane reeds. In contrast, it could also be said that getting absolutely the correct sized airtight cane reed can also result in a more stable drone. Stability is certainly more important to me than the difference in tone between cane and composite reeds, for if you have stable drones you will certainly sound more musical, and greater enjoyment will be found in playing a stable set of pipes. Also important is the amount of air needed to keep the pipes going. Border pipes can sometimes take a fair amount of air. I personally prefer to have an efficient and good sized bellows to supply a good volume of air with each stroke - as it also makes it much easier to keep the pipes stable, control the instrument in tune, and regulate a constant playing pressure. As for chanter reeds, cane is still the preferred material for most pipes; although research and experimentation does continue with various plastics. I have tried plastic chanter reeds, in search of greater reed stability with changes of temperature and humidity, but so far, have not achieved full satisfaction with them.

Jock: Is there much interest in North America for these Border pipes?

Alan: There is a definite interest, but I am only personally aware of 3 or 4 other persons who actually possess and play Border pipes. If I may be allowed to use a North American expression, they certainly seem to require more “TLC” i.e. “tender loving care” than a smallpipe, but the single most important contributing factor to the small number of players is the difficulty in obtaining a set. There are one or two makers now offering Border pipes, but nowhere near the same availability as smallpipes. I am not aware of any North American pipemaker who is seriously producing Border pipes.

Jock: Isn't part of the attraction of smallpipes that they mix nicely with other instruments?

Alan: In some cases that may be so, but from personal practical experience, I have found that the fiddle goes particularly well with the Border pipe and fiddlers really like the instrument’s comparable volume. I like the extra “edge” and volume that one can get with the Border pipe.

Jock: Your pipes are appropriately on display in Galashiels, in the Scottish Borders right now. What next?

Alan: An exhibition in Brittany, an exhibition in Wales in 1996, and possible potential     exhibitions in both Italy and northern Scotland next year. As a prime home base, and without labouring a point about the more favourable British climate, for the general well being of the collection it is my intention to keep them in the U.K. for the foreseeable future.