The Great Highland Bagpipe (Gaelic : A' Phìob Mhòr, in English often abbreviated GHB) is a type of bagpipe native to Scotland, which 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, having first appeared in European artwork in Spain in the 1200s. The earliest references to Scottish bagpipes 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 Spain 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.


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.[1] Textual evidence for Scottish bagpipes is more definite in 1396, when records of the Battle of the North Inch, at Perth reference "warpipes" being carried into battle.[2] 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."[3]


The Great Highland Bagpipe is a woodwind instrument, in the same family as the bassoon, oboe or clarinet. Although it is classified as a double reed instrument, the reeds are all closed inside the wooden stocks, instead of being played directly by mouth as other double reed woodwinds are. The GHB actually has four reeds; the chanter reed (double), two tenor drone reeds, and one bass drone reed, which are single.

A modern set has a bag, a chanter, a blowpipe, two tenor drones, and one bass drone. The scale on the chanter is in Mixolydian mode, which has a flattened 7th or leading tone. It has a range from one whole tone lower than the tonic to one octave above it (in piper's parlance: Low G, Low A, B, C, D, E, F, High G, and High A; the C and F could or should be called C or F sharp, but this is often omitted). Although less so now, depending on the tuning of the player, certain notes are tuned slightly off just intonation, for example, the D could be tuned slightly sharp. This has the advantage that the pentatonic scale in G major is closer to just intonation, even though the D is itself sharp to the drone keynote. However, today the notes of the chanter are usually tuned in just intonation to the Mixolydian scale. The two tenor drones are an octave below the keynote (Low A) of the chanter) and the bass drone two octaves below.

Modern developments have included reliable synthetic drone reeds, and synthetic bags that deal with moisture more consistently than sheepskin bags, with lower maintenance requirements.


The Gaelic word pìobaireachd simply means "pipe music", but it has been adapted into English as "Pìobaireachd" or less commonly, pibroch (something of an Anglicism due to Walter Scott and that ilk). 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 seventeenth century.

Compared to many other musical instruments, the GHB is seemingly 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, 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.

Cultural roleEdit

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.

Worldwide diffusionEdit

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, United States of America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Former British EmpireEdit

The GHB has also been adopted by many countries that were formerly part of the British Empire, despite their lack of a Scottish population. These countries include India, Pakistan and Nepal, famous for their Gurkha soldiers).

The GHB also spread to parts of African and the Middle East where the British military's use of pipes made a favorable 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.


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 GHB 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.

Well known bagads include Bagad Brieg, Bagad Kemper, and Bagad Cap Caval. In Brittany, the GHB is known as the biniou braz, in contrast to the biniou kozh, the small traditional Breton bagpipe.

Related instrumentsEdit

  • Practice chanter, a bagless and droneless double-reeded pipe with the same fingerings as the GHB. These are meant to serve as practice instruments which are more portable and less expensive than a set of pipes.
  • Border pipes are similar to the GHB, but quieter and thus suited to playing for dances and sessions. Rather than being inflated by mouth, their air is provided by bellows under the arm.
  • Scottish smallpipes are a modern interpretation of extinct smaller Scottish pipes used for recreational music. They were revived in the late 20th century by pipemakers such as Colin Ross.
  • Electronic bagpipes are electronic instruments with a touch-sensitive "chanter" which senses finger position and modifies its tone accordingly. Some models also produce a drone sound, and the majority are made to simulate GHB tone and fingering.

See also Edit


  1. The bagpipe: the history of a musical instrument. Francis M. Collinson. Routledge, 1975 ISBN 0710079133, 9780710079138. Pg 132
  2. Collinson, 135
  3. Collinson, 141.


  • Hugh Cheape, The Book of the Bagpipe (Belfast: The Appletree Press, 1999).
  • Francis Collinson, The Traditional and National Music of Scotland (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966).
  • Francis Collinson, The Bagpipe (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975).
  • John Gibson, Old and New World Highland Bagpiping (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002).

External links Edit