18th Century Great Highland Bagpipe

This pìob mhòr brings together a set of 18th century drones and Highland piping’s most precious relic, the chanter of Iain MacAoidh, Am Pìobaire Dall (1656–1754), ‘the lad who outstripped MacCrimmon’. The originals are in the museum of the National Piping Centre, Glasgow.

Whereas a considerable amount of pìobaireachd survives from this period, almost nothing remains of the instruments played by its leading composers. It was Hugh Cheape, then curator in charge of bagpipes at the National Museums, who suggested that I copy these drones, and Peter Cook, then at the School of Scottish Studies, who first suggested that I copy the Iain Dall chanter.

The exact date of the drones is not known. They bear a striking similarity to the watercolour sketch in Joseph MacDonald’s ‘Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe’ (c.1760). They are significantly lighter than drones of later periods and stand out for their wine-glass-shaped tops, which resonate beautifully.

At a glance, their shape and turning style would appear to have more in common with the Galician gaita. It is partly this that attracted me to them; they appear to be part of a European pipe-making tradition. Visually, I have never been drawn to the outward design of the modern Highland pipes.  Hugh Cheape in his book Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Instrument suggests that this design was developed in the last few decades of the 18th century.  Certainly, the distinctive turning and deep combing on modern Highland pipes is only possible when using dense tropical hardwoods.

The original drones are made of a light-coloured wood – possibly pear or elder – with bone and horn mounts and I would suggest they are early 18th century.

Click to enlarge

A comparison of the original drones with my first copy in whitethorn wood and horn

The pitch of the Iain Dall chanter is A 455-460 Hz, depending on the reed and the climate. This gives the instrument a warmer tone than a modern Highland pipe, pitched at A 476 Hz or higher. The Iain Dall chanter comfortably plays in Concert B flat, but not in Equal Temperament: the 7th and 3rd scale degrees are flatter for perfect consonance with the drones. The drones will tune comfortably anywhere between 430 and 480 Hz.

For a more detailed account of the chanter and its reproduction see ‘The Iain Dall Chanter’

I copy the drones using Scottish woods – pear, thorn, almond, yew, plum – with mounts in horn. The chanter is copied using lignum vitae, the wood of the original, which we identified by sending a sample to Kew for microscopic analysis. The chanter is finished and the pipe is set up by Barnaby Brown

Hear Barnaby playing these pipes:

·      Piobarich aon Cnocan, live at the Edinburgh International Festival, 20 August 2009

·      Lament For The Laird Of Arnaboll (Crunnludh), from the CD enclosed with The Highland Bagpipe – Music, History, Tradition ed. Joshua Dickson (Ashgate, 2009)

·      Cumha Mhic Aoidh (Urlar), live at St Audeon’s church, Dublin, 26 August 2011

In September, this year Barnaby and I attended the 10th annual Iain Dakk Festival in Gairloc. You can read my report of this event here


Highland Bagpipe in Pear wood with Horn mounts, with Iain Dall chanter in Lignum Vitae available now. This item is now SOLD<br />