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Getting to know: Smallpipes & Border pipes

Granted, these are some small bagpipes. But I when talk about smallpipes, this is not what I’m talking about. =)

Going smaller & softer

Sometimes, less (volume) is more

Ok. Smallpipes and Borderpipes—to me, these are “the other Scottish bagpipes.” Without a doubt, they’re not nearly as widely known as the Highland pipes. So if you’re not familiar, well, get ready for a treat.


This is a recording of Brìghde Chaimbeul—a tremendous young performer of Scottish smallpipes. She’s a very accomplished Highland piper as well, but it seems that she particularly enjoys smallpipes. This set is keyed in ‘C,’ which seems to be a favorite of hers, as whenever I come across a recording of hers, she’s usually playing on a ‘C’ set.

Border pipes

This is a great video of Fin Moore playing border pipes (though I believe he refers to them as “reel pipes”) with fiddler Andrea Beaton. Two incredible musicians together like this makes for a truly amazing result. Both border pipes and smallpipes are excellent for allowing pipers to play along with a variety of other instruments in this fashion. Enjoy!

The folksy bagpipes that nearly went ‘dodo’

Smallpipes and borderpipes are more of a folk music type of bagpipe, as opposed to the more standardized Highland bagpipe we all see and hear most of the time.

As with many old folk instruments though, their survival has depended on people within their culture keeping them alive—passing it along to future generations, etc. This didn’t happen very well in the past. In the early to middle parts of the 20th century, smallpipes and border pipes nearly became extinct.

Colin Ross, was among the first to bring Scottish bellows pipes back from near oblivion. His work inspired many other makers, and both smallpipes and border pipes are now enjoying a steady, rapid growth in use.
Image: Jim McGillvray

In the 1970s and 1980s though, a few pioneering folks (such as Colin Ross, who sadly passed away recently) made a steady push to reestablish interest in them. For the time being, it seems that their efforts paid off. Smallpipes and border pipes have enjoyed a tremendous revival, and they only seem to be gaining in popularity.

This was in no small part due to the fact that many of the folks who took up making them designed the chanters to use fingering systems very close to that of the Highland pipes. In time, many Highland pipers found they had a whole new instrument they could pursue, with limited need to relearn new techniques.

Technically, the Scottish smallpipes and border pipes in use today are actually a modern invention, though they’re based upon old folk instruments that fell into disuse long ago.

Standard pitch!

… but mixolydian sticks around

If you don’t get this, then just take my word for it—this is hilarious. =)
Image: classicfm.com

As opposed to Highland pipes, today’s small/border pipes are set to a standard pitch and are designed to be played in keys that more easily lend themselves to playing with other folk instruments such as fiddle, flute, guitar, harp, piano, and so on. Chanters keyed in ‘A’ (yes, actual ‘A’ = 440hz) are most common in Scottish circles, though chanters keyed in C and D are also frequently seen and played (sometimes Bb as well).

Just like the Highland pipes though, small/border pipes are also set in mixolydian mode, which means that the seventh note of its scale is a half-step lower than it would be in a normal Major key. Some makers will alter this, but when they do, it’s almost always done due to a special request by the customer.

The highlighted notes are what constitutes each type of scale in ‘A’ … Major vs. mixolydian. So that means a bagpipe chanter keyed in ‘A’ will have sharps on C and F only—that also happens to be the same sharps for the keys of D Major and B minor … thus, the three most frequent keys for bagpipe tunes are A mixolydian, D Major and B minor.

Smallpipes, key of A

This is a great recording of Tim Cummings, performing at the Upper Potomac Piper’s Weekend, an annual event in West Virginia. Tim is playing some old, Appalachian-style tunes that he’s set to pipe music, and he’s playing them here on a set of ‘A’ smallpipes. Tim’s smallpipes are made by Nate Banton (as are mine).

Smallpipes, key of C

Found another nice clip of Brìghde Chaimbeul playing away on her amazing-sounding ‘C’ smallpipes. Note, it appears that she’s applied tape to the holes of her chanter in order to achieve a minor-sounding scale. I’m pretty sure Brìghde’s smallpipes are made by Hamish and Fin Moore.

Smallpipes, key of D

Great live clip of Fin and Hamish Moore playing onstage with Gary West in 2013, all playing on ‘D’ smallpipes. Fin is on the left, Hamish on the right. Fin and Hamish are brilliant pipemakers (my borderpipes came from them), though I’m not sure if they’re taking orders any longer.

Bellows vs. blowing

Yup … I do both. =)
Images: Andrew Lesny / David Fimbres

Small/border pipes are often found in bellows-blown setups, as opposed to mouth-blown (like the Highland pipes). However there are now plenty of Highland pipe makers who have introduced mouth-blown smallpipes, as these are easier for Highland players to pick up and play.

Though it takes some learning to adopt the use of a bellows, there are often many benefits for players who decide to take the plunge.

Because air from the bellows lacks the heat and moisture of a player’s breath, there are far less issues with moisture in the pipes and the reeds. Natural, cane reeds can sometimes last a lifetime with proper care, and pitch tends to be much easier to control—something which is very handy when playing with other instruments.

Use of the bellows also allows something ultra-cool … singing whilst playing. A notable example of this would definitely be Allan MacDonald—I’ll embed below a video of him singing canntaireachd along with his playing the piobaireachd Lament for the Children.

Wonderful clip of piper Allan MacDonald singing canntaireachd to his playing of Lament for the Children on smallpipes.


Cylindrical bore chanter, very mellow

A view of my set of smallpipes, made by Nate Banton. This is a dual A/D set, so there are two chanters, ‘A’ and ‘D’ … and there are four drones.
Image: bantonwoodson.com

Scottish smallpipes are certainly the most popular “alternative bagpipe” to the Highland pipes. Because the chanter has a cylindrical bore, in general it is a very quiet instrument.

Thus, when Highland pipers tire of being given a hard time over the sheer volume of their instrument, smallpipes are likely a perfect solution. Plus, since today’s smallpipes are usually made to a specific concert pitch, they play well with other instruments. However, sometimes they can be so soft that they get drowned out, so depending on the setting, smallpipes might need amplification to be heard clearly by a large audience.

Also regarding the chanter design being cylindrical, finger alterations will not bring about “accidental notes” such as a minor 3rd and minor 6th (e.g., C-natural and F-natural on an ‘A’ chanter). As such, it isn’t uncommon to see keys and extra holes on the chanter to allow for additional notes.

There are also some additional innovations that have been made by some ambitious and pioneering makers. Donald WG Lindsay in Scotland has been experimenting with a new chanter design which will allow an ‘A’ chanter to reach as high as the ‘D’ above high-A, and ‘D’ below low-G. Here’s a sample video:

Sample tune being played on the Lindsay System chanter. The note range is noticeably larger than one would usually hear.

Another really cool take on the Scottish smallpipes is the work being done by Julian Goodacre on his “Double Scottish Smallpipes.” This employs a chanter that is essentially two chanters in one. Two reeds, two bores, and two sets of holes. In the hands of a stylist like Callum Armstrong, one can essentially play a harmonizing duet with themselves. Get a look and listen at this wonderful insanity:

This smallpipe chanter by Julian Goodacre has two reeds, two bores, and two sets of holes … designed for the player to be able to rest each finger across both holes, or one … allowing a clever musician to play their own harmony.
Image: goodbagpipes.com
Callum Armstrong playing his own composition Cutty Sark Jig on a set of Goodarce Double Smallpipes.
Callum Armstrong playing his own composition The White House Waltz on a set of Goodarce Double Smallpipes.

Border pipes

Conical and louder like Highland pipes, but still much softer

A view of my borderpipes, made by Hamish and Fin Moore.

Border pipes are also significantly quieter than Highland pipes, though not nearly as quiet as smallpipes because of its conical bore. Historically, they were most frequently found in the border areas between Scotland and England, hence the name. They’re also frequently called reel pipes or Lowland pipes.

Many find the border pipes to be much more sensitive to pressure and fingering than smallpipes (and Highland pipes as well). As such, when starting out with piping, border pipes themselves might not be the best choice—at first, smallpipes might be better for getting a feel for the bellows and pressure control.

Border pipes are, in my experience, perfect for large sessions and noisy venues where something softer like smallpipes would be easily drowned out. Still, with indoor sessions, many musicians have found that the loud, conical bored chanter can be too loud—not as overpowering as Highland pipes, but loud all the same. So there are a few makers who have more recently taken measures to offer a more mellow and slightly softer border pipe—Banton/Woodson in particular.

Border pipes in particular nearly went extinct by the mid-20th century, so practically all makers who are working with the instrument are still kind of “figuring things out.” Over the least 20 years or so, there’s been dramatic improvement overall in the quality of sound that comes from the instrument.

Playing style & repertoire

Lighter movements, dance tunes, and improvisation

Onstage playing border pipes with friends Nathaniel Diamond-Jones (left) and Jonathan Danforth.
Photo: Susan McEwen

Smallpipes and border pipes are instruments more geared toward folk music, the playing style is much looser than that of the Highland pipes.

As for tunes, you’ll find lots of the same variety of tunes as you might with the Highland pipes: airs, marches, jigs, strathspeys, reels, etc. (not piobaireachd usually). Many tunes on these pipes lend themselves well to dancing. Here’s a nice example, a set of waltzes being played by border piper/maker Jon Swayne:

Border piper/maker Jon Swayne, playing a set of waltzes. Amazing set … in the key of low-D (though he’s playing the tunes in G)!!!

Many tunes are shared between players of Highland/small/border pipes, though there are many very old tunes from the original Lowland tradition that many pipers like to stick to. Check out the Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society for much more information on these sorts of tunes.

Heavy Highland pipe movements tend to feature lots of low-A and low-G, which makes a lot of sense since, on a Highland chanter, those are the instrument’s loudest notes. Movements like grips, taorluaths, and darados really stand out on the Highland pipes’ conical chanter—not so much with smallpipes, nor with border pipes in some respects.

As mentioned before, the smallpipes utilize a cylindrical bore, which has the opposite effect in the volume of notes. High-A will be the loudest finger-note on an ‘A’ chanter, and low-G will be the softest, by far. Consequently, those heavy grips, taorluaths, and darados from the Highland piper’s bag of tricks don’t sound quite right.

I recall a humorous description from a friend of mine one time, who said that those movements on a smallpipe “sound more like a ‘burp,’ or like your bagpipe has a cold.”

Now the border pipes do have a conical chanter—but still, the heavier Highland movements tend to not lend themselves well to these pipes either. As said before, the border pipes can be finicky things—very sensitive to pressure and also fingerwork. Heavier movements from the Highland style can often bring about nasty chirps and squaks from a border chanter, as does liberal use of high-G gracenotes on lower notes (which are also very common in Highland gracing).

So with gracenotes and embellishments, smallpipe and border pipers will more often take a much lighter approach. More light gracenotes, simple strikes/hits, and quick runs/flourishes of notes to add some flavor and emphasis. Also, many small/border pipers often prefer to vary the gracings and settings of their tunes in a somewhat improvisational manner, whereas Highland players will normally try not to deviate from a predetermined version of a tune. Small/border pipers will frequently repeat tunes two or three times before moving onto another, so by altering the setting of the tune a little each time, it keeps the tune sounding fresh and non-repetitious.

Here’s a good comparison with a tune that’s common to both Highland and small/border pipe repertoires: The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow.

The first example is a recording of border piper/maker Will Woodson playing one of his own sets of border pipes. The second is a recording of the 9th Battalion Ulster Defence Regiment, playing the exact same tune, though in a manner that’s much more typical of how Highland pipers would play it. If you listen carefully, I’m sure you’ll find that Will’s fingering style is much looser, lighter, and he artfully alters his gracings and setting a bit each time he repeats the tune. Neither manner is better than the other, they’re simply different approaches for different reasons.

The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow, Will Woodson
The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow, 9th Battalion Ulster Defence Regiment


Options abound

Image: pando.com

Drones with both smallpipes and border pipes are normally collected together in a common stock. There’s usually at least a tenor and bass drone, and often there’s an additional one or two drones present as well.

Generally the bass and tenor drones will be tuned to the tonic note of the chanter. Other drones present can take a variety of forms. A baritone drone will sound an extra note that’s below the lower tonic note on the chanter, whereas an alto drone will sound a note that’s between the chanter’s two tonic notes.

For example, on an ‘A’ chanter, a baritone ‘E’ drone will sound the ‘E’ that’s below the chanter’s low-A, and an alto ‘E’ drone will sound and ‘E’ that’s the same pitch as the chanter’s ‘E.’

Many sets now-a-days are designed to accommodate more than one chanter key, in which some of the drones present on the set can be repurposed depending on which chanter is used, and the sound wanted by the player. Additionally, some makers construct the drones so that the tops can be swapped onto different drone bottoms in order to achieve a different pitch. These make for some VERY versatile instruments.

Here’s a nice video from pipemaker Robert Felsburg, demonstrating the different drone setups that can be used with his four-drone smallpipes:

Rob Felsburg talks about and demonstrates how to change the drone setup of his four-drone smallpipes to accommodate different key chanters.

And the guys over at Banton/Woodson continue to release some truly amazing options when it comes to drones for small/border pipes. In recent years they’ve been producing sets with yet another level of drone: the contra-bass. Normally you only see drones of this nature with uilleann pipes—its set a whole octave below the regular drone. Get a listen to this madness:

Will Woodson playing on one of his contra-bass border pipes. Listen for when he switches the contra-bass on at 1:14. EPIC!

Get in touch to learn more

Don’t worry, I’ll be able to hear you. =)
Image: Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

So there’s a lot of information here. Hopefully you’ve found some of it useful. Of course, there’s a lot more to it.

If you’d like to know more, please don’t hesitate to Get In Touch. And if your curiosity has been piqued, maybe you’d like to think about Taking Lessons to investigate things still further.

Either way, we should talk—so drop me a line. Cheers!