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The Great Highland Bagpipe (Scottish Gaelic: a' phìob mhòr; often abbreviated GHB in English) is a type of bagpipe native to Scotland. It has achieved widespread recognition through its usage in the British military and in pipe bands throughout the world.
The bagpipe is first attested in Scotland around 1400 AD, having previously appeared in European artwork in Spain in the 13th century. The earliest references to bagpipes in Scotland are in a military context, and it is in that context that the Great Highland Bagpipe became established in the British military and achieved the widespread prominence it enjoys today, whereas other bagpipe traditions throughout Europe, ranging from Portugal to Russia, almost universally went into decline by the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Though widely famous for its role in military and civilian pipe bands, the Great Highland Bagpipe is also used for a solo virtuosic style called piobaireachd, or simply pibroch.
Though popular belief sets varying dates for the introduction of bagpipes to Scotland, concrete evidence is limited until approximately the 15th century. The Clan Menzies still owns a remnant of a set of bagpipes said to have been carried at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, though the veracity of this claim is debated. There are many ancient legends and stories about bagpipes which were passed down through minstrels and oral tradition, whose origins are now lost. However, textual evidence for Scottish bagpipes is more definite in 1396, when records of the Battle of the North Inch of Perth reference "warpipes" being carried into battle. These references may be considered evidence as to the existence of particularly Scottish bagpipes, but evidence of a form peculiar to the Highlands appears in a poem written in 1598 (and later published in The Complaynt of Scotland which refers to several types of pipe, including the Highland: "On hieland pipes, Scotte and Hybernicke / Let heir be shraichs of deadlie clarions."
In 1746, after the forces loyal to the Hanoverian government had defeated the Jacobites in the Battle of Culloden, King George II attempted to assimilate the Highlands into Great Britain by weakening Gaelic culture and the Scottish clan system, though the oft-repeated claim that the Act of Proscription 1746 banned the Highland bagpipes are not substantiated by the text itself, nor by any record of any prosecutions under this act for playing or owning bagpipes. However the loss of the Clan Chief's power and patronage and widespread emigration did contribute to its decline. It was soon realised that Highlanders made excellent troops and a number of regiments were raised from the Highlands over the second half of the eighteenth century. Although the early history of pipers within these regiments is not well documented, there is evidence that these regiments had pipers at an early stage and there are numerous accounts of pipers playing into battle during the 19th century, a practice which continued into World War I when it was abandoned after the early battles, due to the high casualty rate.
The custom was revived by the 51st Highland Division for their assault on the enemy lines at the start of the Second Battle of El Alamein on 23 October 1943. Each attacking company was led by a piper, playing tunes that would allow other units to recognise which Highland regiment they belonged to. Although the attack was successful, losses among the pipers were high, and they were not used in combat again during the war. A final use of the pipes in combat was in 1967 during the Aden Emergency, when 1st Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were led into the rebel-held Crater district by their Pipe Major playing the regimental marches.
The Great Highland Bagpipe is classified as a woodwind instrument, like the bassoon, oboe, or clarinet. Although it is further classified as a double-reed instrument, the reeds are all closed inside the wooden stocks, instead of being played directly by mouth as other woodwinds are. The GHB actually has four reeds: the chanter reed (double), two tenor drone reeds (single), and one bass drone reed (single).
A modern set has a bag, a chanter, a blowpipe, two tenor drones, and one bass drone.
The scale of the chanter is in Mixolydian mode, which has a flattened 7th scale degree. It has a range from one whole tone lower than the tonic to one octave above it. Bagpipers call the nine resulting notes low G, low A, B, C, D, E, F, high G, and high A.
The key is close to B-flat major; however, Bagpipe music is written in the key of D major, where the C and F are sharp (the key-signature is usually omitted from scores). This means that a bagpipe note is more than a semitone sharper than the similarly named note in common music. For example, the bagpipe low A is normally tuned to around 480 Hz, which is sharper than the standard B♭ at 466.16 Hz.
Traditionally, certain notes were sometimes tuned slightly off from just intonation. For example, on some old chanters the D and high G would be somewhat sharp. According to Forsyth (1935), the C and F holes were traditionally bored exactly midway between those for B and D and those for E and G, respectively, resulting in approximately a quarter-tone difference from just intonation, somewhat like a "blue" note in jazz. Today, however, the notes of the chanter are usually tuned in just intonation to the Mixolydian scale. The two tenor drones are generally an octave below the keynote of the chanter (low A), and the bass drone two octaves below, but they may be retuned to suit the mode of the melody. Forsyth lists three traditional drone tunings: Ellis, A3/A3/A2; Glen, A4/A4/A2; and Mackay, G3/B3/C2.
Modern developments have included reliable synthetic drone reeds as well as synthetic bags that deal with moisture arguably better than hide bags.
Highland pipes were originally constructed of such locally available woods as holly, laburnum, and boxwood. Later, as expanding colonisation and trade provided access to more exotic woods, tropical hardwoods including cocuswood (from the Caribbean), ebony (from West Africa and South and Southeast Asia) and African blackwood (from Sub-Saharan Africa) became standard in the late 18th and 19th centuries. In the modern day, synthetic materials, particularly Polypenco, have become quite popular, especially among pipe bands where uniformity of chanters is desirable.
The Gaelic word pìobaireachd simply means "pipe music", but it has been adapted into English as piobaireachd or pibroch. In Gaelic, this, the "great music" of the GHB is referred to as ceòl mòr, and "light music" (such as marches and dance tunes) is referred to as ceòl beag.
Ceòl mòr consists of a slow "ground" movement (Gaelic ùrlar) which is a simple theme, then a series of increasingly complex variations on this theme, and ends with a return to the ground. Ceòl Beag includes marches (2/4, 4/4, 6/8, 3/4, etc.), dance tunes (particularly strathspeys, reels, hornpipes, and jigs), slow airs, and more. The ceòl mòr style was developed by the well-patronized dynasties of bagpipers - MacArthurs, MacGregors, Rankins, and especially the MacCrimmons - and seems to have emerged as a distinct form during the 17th century.
Compared to many other musical instruments, the GHB is limited by its range (nine notes), lack of dynamics, and the enforced legato style, due to the continuous airflow from the bag. The GHB is a closed reed instrument, which means that the four reeds are completely encased within the instrument and the player cannot change the sound of the instrument via mouth position or tonguing. As a result, notes cannot be separated by simply stopping blowing or tonguing so gracenotes and combinations of gracenotes, called embellishments, are used for this purpose. These more complicated ornaments using two or more gracenotes include doublings, taorluaths, throws, grips, and birls. There are also a set of ornaments usually used for pìobaireachd, for example the dare, vedare, chedare, darado, taorluath and crunluath. Some of these embellishments have found their way into light music over the course of the 20th century. These embellishments are also used for note emphasis, for example to emphasize the beat note or other phrasing patterns. These three single gracenotes (G, D, and E) are the most commonly used and are often played in succession. All gracenotes are performed rapidly, by quick finger movements, giving an effect similar to tonguing or articulation on modern wind instruments. Due to the lack of rests and dynamics, all expression in GHB music comes from the use of embellishments and to a larger degree by varying the duration of notes. Despite the fact that most GHB music is highly rhythmically regimented and structured, proper phrasing of all types of GHB music relies heavily on rubato, the ability of the player to stretch specific notes within a phrase or measure. In particular, the main beats and off-beats of each phrase are structured, however, sub-divisions within each beat are flexible.
"Few attempts have been made hitherto to combine the bagpipes with classical orchestral instruments, due mainly to conflicts of balance and tuning," said composer Graham Waterhouse about his work Chieftain’s Salute op. 34a for Great Highland Bagpipe and String Orchestra (2001). "A satisfactory balance was achieved in this piece by placing the piper at a distance from the orchestra." Peter Maxwell Davies' Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise (1985) also features a GHB solo towards the end.
The GHB plays a role as both a solo and ensemble instrument. In ensembles, it is generally played as part of a pipe band. One notable form of solo employment is the position of Piper to the Sovereign, a piper tasked to perform for the British sovereign, a position dating back to the time of Queen Victoria.
The GHB is widely used by both soloists and pipe bands civilian and military, and is now played in countries around the world. It is particularly popular in areas with large Scottish and Irish emigrant populations, mainly England, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The GHB has also been adopted by many countries that were formerly part of the British Empire, despite their lack of a Scottish or Irish population. These countries include India, Pakistan and Nepal.
The GHB also spread to parts of Africa and the Middle East where the British military's use of pipes made a favourable impression. Piping spread to Arabic countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Oman, some of whom had previously existing bagpipe traditions. In Oman, the instrument is called habban and is used in cities such as Muscat, Salalah, and Sohar. In Uganda president Idi Amin forbade the export of African blackwood, so as to encourage local bagpipe construction, during the 1970s.
The GHB was also adopted in Thailand; around 1921, King Rama VI ordered a set to accompany the marching exercises of the Sua Pa, or Wild Tiger Corps. This was a royal guard unit which had previously practiced to the sounds of an oboe called pi chawa.
Although the bagpipes arrived from the British Isles with a user's manual, no one was able to figure out how to play them, so bassoon player Khun Saman Siang-prajak went to the British Embassy and learned how to play the instrument with the British soldiers, and then became instructor to the rest of the Corps. The band, which plays Thai as well as Scottish tunes, still practices at Vachiravuth High School in Bangkok, which is named for Rama VI.
During the First World War, some Breton pipers serving in the French Army came in contact with the pipers of Scottish regiments, and brought back home a few GHBs which Breton pipe-makers started copying. Polig Monjarret led the introduction of the GHB to Brittany during the Celtic revival of the 1920s Breton folk music scene, inventing the bagad, a pipe band incorporating a biniou braz section, a bombarde section, a drums section, and in recent years almost any added grouping of wind instruments, e.g. saxophones, brass instruments, such as the trumpet and trombone, etc.
Some of the most famous pipe bands in the world -not all for playing- are the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band (SFUPB), The Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band, the St. Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band some of which have won the World pipeband championships.