Published: November 30, 2000

Eclectic Company

The Book of the Bagpipe
By Hugh Cheape
The Appletree Press, Belfast, Northern Ireland
77 pages

Reviewed by Catharine Heddle

Editor’s note: Catharine Heddle is neither a piper nor a drummer, but has a keen interest in Scottish music, and thus we felt that she is an appropriate reviewer for The Book of the Bagpipe.

Your friends don’t know what a drone is? Your wife can’t distinguish between port-a-bial and canntaireachd? Your boss thinks a chanter is the person who recites passages from the Bible from atop a park bench in New York?

They need The Book of the Bagpipe.

Written by Hugh Cheape, curator of the Scottish Collection at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and a devotee of the pipes, the book is an eclectic mix of history, tradition and mythology. It will fascinate and inspire just about anyone new to piping, and inform many veterans of the instrument as well.

The book’s nine chapters take the reader through the history of the pipes, from their origins as reeded pipes in the Near East over four millennia ago, to the current form and function of Scotland’s national instrument. Delightful illustrations, photographs and diagrams enliven the pages and demonstrate the richness of the piping tradition in many parts of the world.

The reader learns about the different parts of the Highland bagpipe, as well as how it differs from its Irish and Northumbrian counterparts in sound, construction and character. Laypersons will be surprised to learn the pipes were at one time the universal musical instrument of Europe and parts of Asia, long before they reached Scotland sometime after the 13th century.

The author describes the material evidence for the evolution of the instrument, perhaps in more detail than the true layperson would desire. The illustrations and photographs add interest and accessibility to this overlong discussion.

A serious historian, Cheape also explores the variety of musical traditions and repertoires enjoyed by pipers around the world, and describes the changing role of the pipes in high and low society, the church, government, witchcraft and even war.

Particularly interesting is the evolution of tunes and melodies through the years, influenced by the complex interplay of social, political and economic factors. In addition to written records, much of the evidence for piping’s role in society is gleaned from depictions of the pipes in art and architecture, as pipers adorn church buildings, castles and even medieval weapons.

Readers will remark on piping’s strangely dual role in both religious and secular activities; as folk tradition and the domain of aristocracy; in rural and urban settings; and as an accompaniment to weddings and an instrument of war.

Tremendously well-researched, The Book of the Bagpipe opens up the rich world of piping to the newcomer, portraying the vivid diversity of traditions, instruments and musical styles with solid historical evidence. It will be a treasured addition to libraries and coffee tables around the world.

Catharine Heddle is a public relations professional who lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She has a general interest in Highland piping.

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