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The Highland Bagpipe by Gary West

Each year at the start of September, the world's one hundred or so top Highland pipers gather in Inverness to compete at one of our most prestigious contests, The Northern Meeting. As well as "light music" sections -- marches, strathspeys, reels, hornpipes and jigs -- "big music," or pibroch, continues to be a mainstay of the gathering, with a gold medal on offer, as well as the Clasp, the most elite contest, open only to previous winners of a gold medal. Pibroch is usually said to be a discipline demanding long study and great maturity, and like good wine, players are supposed to mature with age. The fact that the Clasp this year was won by a 23-year-old, Calum Beaumont, was therefore a most remarkable achievement, and it guarantees him peer recognition and prestige for the rest of his career.

The Highland bagpipe is very unusual in the field of Scottish traditional music in terms of the degree to which reputations are built almost entirely on success in competition. While that is beginning to change to a certain extent, allowing the likes of Martyn Bennett and Gordon Duncan to gain worldwide recognition without frequenting the competitive stage, there is no doubt that the formal judging of performance remains the central ethos of solo piping in the 21st century. More players are competing than at any point in history, so much so that even just gaining entry into certain contests represents an increasingly hard challenge, never mind winning them. Certainly, contests also exist for fiddlers, accordion players, singers and, occasionally, harpers, but in each of these traditions, competitions are relatively low profile events and are viewed by players and audiences alike as of minor importance compared to performance for entertainment and musical value alone. So why is the idea so dominant in piping? And where and when did it all begin in the first place?

When the bagpipe first took root in Highland society, probably around the 16th century (and, therefore, rather late in European terms...and long after the time of Braveheart!), it was very quickly adopted by the clan chiefs as a versatile instrument deserving a place amongst the artistic elites of their households.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2012 issue of Scottish Life.

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