Six o’clock in the morning on the streets of Venice, Italy, a strange sound coming behind me caught my attention. A man marching, carrying and playing some sort of bagpipe came into view. Under his arm, a large inflated rubber looking bag, a single drone, something of a chanter, and a large drum on his back gave me the impression that he was a complete pipe band all by himself.
I tried to make some sort of comparison with the Great Highland Bagpipes that I play. There wasn’t much. I stopped, somewhat mesmerized by his sounds and ability to accept tips from bystanders without hardly missing a beat.
The Highland Bagpipes are only one of many bagpipes that are found throughout the countries of the world. Bagpipes of many countries have several things in common: an inflatable bag, a chanter, and a least one drone. When they appeared in the British Isles is a bit of a mystery, but they have been in existence since the 1200s and 1300s.
Ebony and African Blackwood have been some of the common hardwoods used in the making of the drones, chanters, and blowpipes. Nickel, silver, ivory, and an assortment of other materials have been used to dress the mountings, serving the purpose of ornamentation as well as keeping the woods from splitting. Today plastics and other synthetic materials are making inroads into the construction of pipes. Bagpipes probably started with just one drone and others were added, and by the seventeenth century, they achieved their present appearance.
Pipers often owned a prominent position in the feudal system of the clans in the Highlands. The clan chieftain had a full-time piper who played for general merrymaking, honoured guests, and many auspicious occasions including weddings, funerals, and battle celebrations. Of course, there were community pipers who were just common folk and played for ceilidhs, weddings, and funerals.
Pipers and their music come over to the new world with the immigrants. In fact, a last minute addition to the complement of the ship Hector’s passengers was a piper named MacKay.
In the early days in the settled communities of Cape Breton, the piper held a place of prominence perhaps even more so than the fiddlers. Although most played by ear and couldn’t read music, they developed a style of playing that was distinct and particular to Cape Breton. Piping was often a tradition within a family. Like fiddle music, piping seemed “to run in the family.” Getting a set of pipes in those early days was always a problem as most of the great pipe makers were still in Scotland. Early craftsmen in Cape Breton produced homemade bagpipes out of hard applewood.
On the August 13, 1955, the Canso Causeway was officially opened and “one hundred pipers” marched across linking Cape Breton with the rest of Canada. (I was lucky enough to be one of them). For many years since, an official piper welcomed tourists to Cape Breton. Recently, the practice has been discontinued. Maybe the Department of Tourism can’t afford it!!!
It was a pretty nice job for a student who was going to university. The student piper provided his or her own transportation, kilts, pipes, and was a wonderful introduction to Cape Breton for the tourist. Shame on government officials who make these decisions in an air-condition office in downtown Halifax. Most of the tourists recognized bagpipes as the Celtic musical instrument, and one they would expect to hear in Cape Breton.
The bagpipes we have today owe much to the history of Gaelic Scotland and Cape Breton, and as an instrument, with its robust sound and rare tonal qualities, much to the musical wealth of the Celtic people.