Bagpipes are a distinctive part of Scotland's culture. All bagpipes are played in the same basic way: a piper fills a sheepskin bag with air which exits through the pipes attached to the bag. The piper covers various holes on the "chanter" to play different notes. The Great Highland Bagpipe is the most popular type of bagpipe. The Lowland Bagpipe is less well known, despite a modern resurgence in popularity. The differences between the two bagpipes reflect the differences in Highland and Lowland culture and history.
The Great Highland Bagpipes are well known as an instrument of war. According to the website Celtic-Instruments, bagpipes were a favourite of generals because of "their chilling effect on opposing troops." Lowland pipes are more associated with civilian use. Towns in the Scottish Lowlands employed border pipers to play both in the morning and at evening curfew. These pipers also served as a form of town crier, and played for town feasts and festivals.
The source of air is the primary difference between Highland and Lowland bagpipes. Great Highland Bagpipes are mouth-blown, while Lowland bagpipes are bellows-blown.
To play mouth-blown bagpipes, a piper must blow through a mouthpiece, filling the bag with air. Bellows-blown bagpipes are played when the piper fills the bag with air by squeezing a bellows between her arm and rib cage.
The chanter of both the Great Highland Bagpipes and the Lowland Bagpipes is conical in shape. This conical chanter distinguishes the Lowland bagpipes from other smaller pipes, such as the Northumbrian and Scottish Smallpipes, which have cylindrical chanters. The Highland and Lowland bagpipes have a similar tonal quality because of the chanter's shape. The Lowland Bagpipes are tuned to A, while modern Great Highland Bagpipes are more commonly tuned to B-flat.
Great Highland Bagpipes are the loudest of all pipes, while the Lowland Bagpipes are much quieter. (See References 1 & 3) The loudness of Great Highland Bagpipes is attributed in part to the pair of tenor drones not found on any other bagpipe. These two drones duplicate each others' sound and the only purpose for having both seems to be to increase the pipes' volume. Great Highland pipers sometimes purchase Lowland Bagpipes because they are quiet enough to play indoors.
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