March 15, 2011

Pipe bands: not hot

All nat-roo-al.Sitting here in the sun on the beach in various degrees of sobriety as my AADD gradually evaporates, various thoughts float by. Here’s one: are pipe bands better suited to colder climates?

Most of us would rather perform and compete in temperate climates but, when it comes to the world’s top-quality pipe bands, generally, the colder the climate, the higher the density of good bands. It seems to be true on both sides of the equator.

The closer the climate is to that of Scotland, it seems, the more likely you are to find a higher standard of playing. There are exceptions, and by no means is this a rule. It just appears to be true, at least today. It may change in the future.

If there is a case to be made for this premise, it’s probably because the Highland bagpipe was designed and tweaked over hundreds of years to work best in a mainly damp, temperate climate like Scotland’s. There’s a reason why sheepskin bags and cane reeds were ultimately chosen for the bagpipe in Scotland: they work the best.

As the popularity of the pipes and pipe bands has spread to other areas, so too have the gizmos and “technology” created in an attempt to tame the instrument. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the more non-Scottish the climate, the more likely you are to find thingamabobs to help players overcome problems presented by the instrument as it was designed for play in Scotland.

And now it seems that bands – at least those serious about competing in Scotland – are realizing that synthetic-whatevers possibly aren’t ideal for getting the best sound in the instrument’s native land. Plastic what-nots may be a great solution in Timbuktu, but they don’t necessarily adapt well to Glasgow.

The drier or hotter the climate, it seems, the more pipe bands are at a disadvantage. The Highland bagpipe in its natural form is not designed for a warmer arid environment and bands unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your perspective) enough to be in these places face an uphill battle.


  1. Andrew,

    being born and raised in the gloriously sunny Southeast of Brazil, I think I can add tuppence to the talk. I play with my pipe band [the SASPD] all over the South American continent, and even if temperatures vary greatly, for most of the time they tend to be hot to very hot. As the Pipe Sergeant I’m either in charge of tuning or either helping Pipey when he’s doing it, and I can tell you that warm temps are a great help for tuning. The reeds become brighter and the tone tends to rise, still it’s easier to get all pipers more or less together in a short amount of time. Especially if it’s sunny.

    Now that doesn’t happen in colder weather – like in the hilly side of our State, where we played frequently and the winter average is around 0ºC and we could hardly feel our fingers. But then perhaps this uneasiness to play in the frost is due more to the human factor than to the instrument per se, i.e. it;s our ‘fault’ for not being accustomed to playing in said conditions.

    Our former band went from São Paulo to Glasgow to compete in the 2007 season, and as we were in the Bridge of Allan washout we all felt we were indeed groping our way uphill. Now the following day, at N Berwick, the sun was scorching and we felt at home – for someone who has played with the no.1 dress under 40ºC at lunch time, the sun in Scotland feels like a fluorescent lamp!

  2. Not to get all Freakonomics on you, but my guess would be that it’s not so much temperature, but concentration of like-minded cultural folk who create interest and opportunity for those of us who aren’t.

    However as with all your musings, there seams to be an opening or introductory level of mirth that when peeled away to layers underneath, offers a genuine question.

    The gizmos, whosits, and developments may indeed have regionally isolated effectiveness. And that’s a fascinating idea. Paradigm shifts don’t come easily with us, and are debated long after we look around and realize they’ve ocurred. Some of this certainly could be attributed to spotty results due to climate.

    Or not. But I have said many times over while waltzing around a hot Midwest US games in massive amounts of heavy wool (much of it black) that it would have been nice if the Bahamians would have invented the Highland pipe. A nice light sportcoat over a light linen or collared t-shirt and some comfy shorts. I could do without the socks, though.

  3. I cannot speak from experience as I was not there, however a story has been told and retold about the reaction from Pipeband people at the time regarding the incredible sound put out at the worlds by the Victoria Police band the year they won grade one. I believe the collective opinion has been the premiere of the Ross canister bag (not sure if synthetic drone reeds were invalid or not).
    I agree wholeheartedly that what works best in general use in Scotland might not be what should be recommended for regular use in Arizona.

  4. I have spent most of my adult life in the Southern United States and have had similar thoughts. I do believe there are other factors besides the heat.
    First and most importantly, good piping can only happen when there are good teachers. Regardless of climate, if there is a good instructor, you will most likely find good playing. I think it is quite easy to identify MANY colder areas throughout the world with no good pipe bands.
    Unfortunately, some very good pipe bands have been humbled by “horizontal rain” and very cold temperatures at what we call a “World Championship” venue. It seems to me that poor weather conditions are a “disadvantage” for all pipe bands, not just the ones from warmer climates.
    Maybe we should work toward a more ideal venue in order to get the very best performance from every band? If we could achieve that one simple goal, where a band comes from will become a non-issue. Then we can start comtemplating where the JUDGES come from…;>)

  5. Good point Al! I have witnessed “local” bands getting the benefit of the doubt in heavy rains in a qualifier while overseas bands get graded purely on the performance of the moment without consideration for the body of work. When drones are zipping and tape is sliding, it makes it real difficult. It’s a working political science theory that northern (cooler climate) nation-states are more advanced, developed, and diversified while southern nation-states and those aligned closer to the equator are by and large poorer and less diversified economically, socially and culturally. In certain circles it’s considered chauvinistic and racist to discuss it out loud, but the metrics are there to support it. One could argue the theory holds-up in pipe bands quite well!

  6. Interesting, was just thinking on this after doing a piping seminar with some NZ and Canadian pipers who advocate more natural sheepskin and cane, I was thinking that perhaps becuse of the dryness in our summers (except for this year) that the use of synthetic in Australia particuarly in relation to drones and associatred moisture control may very well be because of our Dry hot climate, whereas NZ and Canda perhaps are closer to Scotland, Of course this doesn’t put uas at a disadvantge, you just have to be smart enough to recognise issue, it didn’t stop Vic Police………….

  7. These comments left me curious to know how the pipes would behave in Australia or Arizona or other hot and dry places, once a bit of humidity is always necessary for making the reeds stable. Our Brazilian summers are really hot but also really damp; for years before the Gannaway system – being myself a strong blower – I had to use a combo of moisture traps; markedly the Ross canister and a blowpipe hose + bottle. I still feel however that the human factor – like not feeling comfy when playing beneath a piercing cold Scottish drizzle – is the key to this equation.

  8. What I’d like to know (since we’re going retro here) is when are we going back to the single drone version circa 1500 s…oh, and, when are we going to switch back to playing with the single drone on the right shoulder instead of the left? To say nothing of rope tension animal skin type drums……..



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