Other noisemakers III – Bag and small pipes, bellows adaptation.

My study of contemporary ethnic instruments continues with the iconic instrument of the Scottish Highlands, the Great Highland Bagpipe(GHB) and its lowland cousin, the Scottish smallpipe. The great highland bagpipe is known from Persia to Inverness, largely, I suspect, from the influence of the British colonial period, although skin-powered instruments have been around for eons. “Bagpipes” as a category, is a composite of a wide variety of wind instruments, diatonic or self-scaled with a small number of notes, like the great highland bagpipe, border pipes, parlour pipes and smallpipes, or chromatic like the derived English Northumbrian pipes and the Irish Uilleann (pronounced “ee-lan”) pipes. The Irish Uilleann pipes are perhaps the most complex, both in design and in play.

They all have the same fundamental character however, having a melody chanter, or flute, and a number of tuned drones, all powered by the air-filled bladder, either of hide or synthetic construction these days. The bag is inflated either by way of a blowpipe or bellows. The smaller pipes like the Scottish smallpipe and the Uilleann typically are powered by bellows.

The great highland bagpipe is well known, of course, around the world, due to the popularity of pipe bands from all over. The smaller instruments, typically more a “parlour” instrument, are less well known commonly, although most people will instantly recognse their sound as being familiar when they hear it.

My study instruments are below:

My great highland bagpipe – a McCallum P3 set with a bit of ornamentation and a McC2 solo chanter, and powered by bellows, using a Dunfion bellows adaptor.

McCallum P3 bagpipes, with McC2 Solo Chanter and bellows.

McCallum P3 bagpipes, with McC2 Solo Chanter and bellows. I can dress them in Royal Stewart and burgundy as shown here, or in green or Black Watch, or in formal black velvet and gold.

The bellows on a GHB is practical for me, based on my age, overall health and state of ability. It takes no small amount of diaphram strength and endurance to maintain bag pressure for the GHB, something a younger piper can develop more easily over time. Since I also work with a set of Scottish Smallpipes on bellows, it makes sense for me to be consistent in this regard. Both pipe sets can be mouth blown. On the bellows, both sets use synthetic, rather than cane reeds, primarily because the bellows air is dry, and the cane reeds need moisture to maintain their tone. Cane reeds dry out fairly quickly on bellows.

UPDATE: Since there’s been some interest in the bellows adaptation, here are a couple of detail photos of the Dunfion smallpipes bellows adaptor when used on a GHB. The adaptor kit from Dunfion includes the right angle “thistle” piece that goes into the blowhole and the long hard tube that friction fits (slightly tapered) into the “Thistle”. The flexible plastic tube is usually supplied with the bellows. The bellows I’m using is a common Pakistani type sold on Ebay and from some makers and vendors (it’s what Dunfion uses, although I got mine from Ebay). A modification I made, which requires a small lathe and care, is to open the bellows’ air intake valve to a wider diameter, to facilitate more air more quickly on the expansion stroke. This was a benefit on both pipes (I have separate bellows for each). The valve body, tho painted black, is wood of a rosewood type, so the opening of the throat of the valve has to done carefully to avoid cracking the valve body. Care must be taken to not make the throat opening so large that the valve flap doesn’t seal. The bellows should be of fairly good capacity. Smallish ones may not porvide enough air.

Since the Dunfion adaptor is designed for smallpipes, it takes a fair amount of wrap to fit the blowhole. I used a heavy waxed yarn wrap, then a teflon wrap to contain the yarn. Moisture traps are not needed with bellows and I left the internal air valve in. Once set up, it’s as stable as any pipe fitting. I approached McCallum about a custom adaptor for standard GHB hole sizes, but they weren’t interested. I think there may be a niche market for a maker that wants to make up a bellows kit for a GHB. I’ve seen some older pipers give up their pipes because of failing ability to blow. This would keep many playing longer. It takes a bit to learn a modified rhythm with the bellows pumping, mostly for managing the right hand due to the motion, but its not too difficult, and your diaphragm will thank you. As nothing is changed on the bag fitting, other than the moisture trap (if you use one), switching back to a blowpipe is just pulling out the “thistle” and putting the blowpipe back in. The moisture trap could be left in if its dry and doesn’t interfere with the bellows air flow. You will have to change to a synthetic reed, however. Since I use drones with synthetic reeds on them, I’m not sure if drones with cane reeds will have a problem with drying out or not. I suspect they will.

Dunfion Bellows adaptor parts for a GHB (McCallum P3 here)

Dunfion Bellows adaptor parts for a GHB (McCallum P3 here)

Assembled adaptor with blowpipe and hose for bellows, installed in bag. The tube is usually covered with a sleeve of material complimentary to the bag cover.

Assembled adaptor with blowpipe and hose for bellows, installed in bag. The tube is usually covered with a sleeve of material complimentary to the bag cover.

Below are my Scottish Smallpipes, a basic Dunfion set from the Isle of Arran, Scotland. These are a two-drone set in A. The A tuning keeps the fingering consistent with the GHB and GHB practice chanters. As I get further along with the smallpipes, I can see a little fancier 3-drone set in my future. Both of the sets are made from a Delrin resin commonly known as “polypenco” – a very hard stable acetyl plastic that has excellent sound characteristics and almost none of the bad habits of more traditional Blackwood sets. They’re much less expensive too.

Basic Dunfion 2-drone Scottish Smallpipes in A, with bellows

Basic Dunfion 2-drone Scottish Smallpipes in A, with bellows

With the GHBs, I try to choose my practice times carefully – they are loud. High A on the GHBs will make your ears bleed if you’re indoors! Plugs are a necessity. The practice chanter and the smallpipes are much less intrusive.

Following are a few Youtube videos of the Scottish smallpipes, Northumbrian and the Uilleann pipes for your pleasure.

Scottish smallpipes – Jonathan Warner

Northumbrian pipes – a reel by Celia

Uilleann pipes

The haunting sound of the Uilleans – Davy Spillane – Caoineadh Cu Chulainn Uilleann Pipes

Tiarnan Ó Duinnchinn. You can hear the various drones come in during the piece.