According to seasoned bagpiper John Mulhearn, one of the best compliments you can get is that someone in the audience nodded off. Anyone who has experienced the bagpipes at close (or even at really quite distant) quarters will know that this phenomenon is not down to the instrument’s gentle character. Nor is it that audiences are being bored into stupefied submission, in spite of the shortbread-tins-and-military-tattoos image.
No: it’s more a blissed-out trance that Mulhearn – head of studies at the National Piping Centre in Glasgow – is referring to. And he’s clear that only a very particular type of bagpipe music can cause it: pibroch, a slow, extended style with a melodic theme that the player develops and embellishes over the insistent, harmonising throb of the pipes’ drones. It uses every last shred of the instrument’s potential to occupy your brain. Michelangelo said he carved angels out of marble to set them free; in the same way, pibroch inhabits the bagpipes and must be drawn with unhurried skill into the open.
There’s a decent chance you’ve never heard pibroch. In fact, even though a bells-and-whistles Burns Night – 25 January – might have a piper saluting the haggis, it’s possible that Robbie Burns never heard pibroch either. Your party piper would probably play a Burns composition, or something jaunty: reels, jigs, dances, waltzes and strathspeys (a type of slower reel) are all popular bagpipe styles. But they can be played on just about any instrument. Pibroch – the anglicised version of the Gaelic piobaireachd – cannot be played on anything but the bagpipe.
The Great Highland bagpipe consists of the chanter, on which the melody is played, and three drones, which provide the background accompaniment. The bag – a reservoir of air – allows the instrument to keep up a constant volume.
“Pibroch is the best vehicle for appreciating the sonic qualities of the bagpipes,” says Mulhearn. “It’s all about the relationship between your chanter and your drones, the immersive, hypnotic nature of that. It’s quite primal. When you’re playing faster stuff you don’t appreciate the tonal depth like you can with the long notes of extended pieces.” Most pibroch last between six and 25 minutes, and played at a stately pace, “the general effect of the whole piece of music is slow,” declares The Piobaireachd Society.
The Romans brought the bagpipes to Britain from the Middle East, and they’re mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where it is said of Robin the Miller that “A baggepipe wel koude he blowe”. But, while the instrument’s popularity waned in England, it endured in the Highlands. “Clan chiefs had their own pipers,” says Roddy Livingstone, one of England’s few pibroch teachers. “It was an outdoor instrument. Messages could be transmitted long distances using the pipes. They might announce births or deaths, or call the clan together for a gathering. On the battlefield, the pipes would drive the men on or pull them into a retreat.” Being a clan’s piper was a hereditary position. “The MacCrimmons are the most famous hereditary pipers. They were pipers to the Clan MacLeod of Dunvegan in Skye for 400 years.”
The moment that bagpipe-exclusive compositions started emerging is lost in the dreich mists of time. “Perhaps the mainstream music of a thousand or two thousand years ago was more suitable for bagpipes than your Handel and Mozart coming from western Europe,” says Livingstone. “But we can trace pibroch back to around the 14th century.”
This is the point at which the Great Highland bagpipe starts to pull away from other traditions: according to Livingstone, “bagpipes in other parts of the world play mainstream folk”.
Yet it’s the pipes’ military use that has dominated in the popular imagination, in part courtesy of the moving tales from the two worlds wars of pipers playing on in the thick of battle or as comrades went over the top. The military links might make it seem as if the pipes are the berserker of the instrument world, their skirl a scream, and certainly the pipes’ sheer volume lends itself to the battlefield; but they also have an inherent emotional resonance that, at critical moments, can rouse spirits. Here we are edging towards pibroch, where a player’s personal interpretation is all.
“It has always been difficult to write pibroch down,” says Livingstone. “We do use staff notation but only as a guide. It’s because of the music’s free-flowing, mesmeric nature, the climactic building up and then returning to the start, the circularity you see in Celtic art. It’s all this that makes it so addictive.”
The instrument imposes certain limitations. “We only have nine notes on the bagpipe chanter,” says Livingstone. “A number of piobaireachd use a pentatonic scale in their composition, which narrows the melodic line further, so we employ intricate fingerwork for subtle embellishments and ornamentation. We have to express our music by hanging on a wee bit here and cutting back a bit there.”
Pipers historically communicated pibroch to one another through song. The Gaelic word for singing is canntaireachd, and one late-18th-century document, the Campbell Canntaireachd, is the earliest known attempt to notate sung pibroch. “But the code to it wasn’t cracked until the 1920s, and singing is still central to the teaching of pibroch,” says Livingstone. He was taught by the renowned James Campbell of Kilberry for 25 years. “To learn pibroch you need a teacher. The singing of the tune can be the only way to bring across the very subtle points of expression and the rise and fall in pitch.”
Mulhearn, meanwhile, is adamant that singing can accompany pibroch as well as convey its mysteries. He founded the Big Music Society (“big music” being a translation of ceòl mòr, another phrase for pibroch that has also been used to describe the region’s pop music) with Calum MacCrimmon, “to create new performance contexts for pibroch, to get it explored away from competitions and to put it on the concert stage”.
He acknowledges that bagpipes are not great at mixing with others. “To get in tune with other instruments requires a great deal of understanding. If you’re having a tune-up backstage at 16 degrees and then it’s 20 degrees on stage, your pitch climbs up quite dramatically, while, say, the guitar will have held its tune. But that’s all part of your artistry and overall musicianship.”
This mercurial tendency is, like pibroch itself, a quintessential function of the instrument, which is a product of craftwork. “A good pipe-maker will season the wood for 10 years,” says Livingstone. “The majority still finish internally and externally by hand.” Then there’s the small matter of the bagpipe’s four reeds to contend with.
For a soloist to have it all come together is one thing, but for it to come together with other instruments is, as Mulhearn says, “a job!” When it does, though: wow. It’ll knock you out cold.