In this article, the writer tells us that the skirl, or sound, of the pipes is being heard again –
and not only in Scotland
Tucked away close to London Bridge, the Mudlark Pub might normally take a while
to find. Tonight, however, you could locate it blindfold. Upstairs, as out of place as a
troupe of Oxfordshire morris dancers round the back of Glasgow Central Station, five
pipers are playing their hearts out. Even with the windows closed the decibel levels
are substantial. They are Manawatu, a Scottish pipe band from New Zealand, whose
unison playing is so precise that it sounds like a single instrument. Towards the end
they march downstairs into the street where they do a moonlit lap of honour, watched
by a slightly bemused-looking crowd.
The Great Highland Bagpipe is an instrument that inspires almost fanatical levels of
passion, despite the fact that most players don’t even make a living from it. But it is
a passion I want to share. And I’m not alone. Piping is on the up. In Scotland, new
pipe bands are springing up, and even in London a growing demand has meant that
organised classes for adults have started, apparently for the first time since the 1930s.
Run by the Scottish Piping Society of London, they cost around £10 for two hours –
probably the best-value music tuition in the capital.
Some students have Scottish roots. Others, like me, simply like the idea of a challenge.
A competent violinist and pianist and basic recorder player, I’ve even dabbled in the
ukulele. ‘So why not tackle the bagpipes?’ I think, as I eye a YouTube performance
by the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, the closest thing the piping world has to pin-ups. They
have teamed the bagpipe with electric guitars and keyboard, punching out dazzling
arrangements of rock anthems, attracting new audiences and players in the process.
Adam Sanderson, the vice-president of the society, is swift to reduce my ambitions to
more modest levels. “We get lots of calls from men who say, ‘I had a Scottish father
and I want to learn the bagpipes in two weeks so I can play at my daughter’s wedding,’”
But nothing about the bagpipe is easy. The hand position is deceptively like the recorder
yet, as Sanderson says, “halfway between and upside down”, and the tuning is based
on an ancient scale. Most woodwind instruments have a single or double reed. The
bagpipe has four. Moisture can flatten the sound; warmth raise it. Simply achieving
accurate tuning can be a minor miracle. Then there’s the chanter.
With just nine basic notes, pipers use nifty fingerwork that gives the illusion of playing
more notes than are actually possible. Modern technology makes life easier. Synthetic
reeds keep their pitch for longer. Pipe bags now come with a Gore-Tex lining. And
for the “wet” player there are moisture-control systems – boxes filled with absorbent
To find out more about what’s involved, I go to the Pipe Band World Championships in
Glasgow, where judges take just a day to work their way through more than 200 bands
from as far away as Australia and Pakistan. It can seem like an inward-facing event.
Literally so. As the bands play the marches, reels and strathspeys known as Ceòl Beag,
or light music, they turn away from the audience, watching each other so they don’t
drop a note.
“It gets under your skin,” says Alan McGeachie, who plays the pipes and is a drummer
with the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band, 12 times winners in the world championships.
“It’s in your blood. If you decide to leave, you think: ‘Thank God I’m away from it’,
and suddenly it grabs you. It’ll be with you to your last day.”
Which is why, early one morning, I am in a rugby clubhouse in South London to get a
preview lesson with Alasdair Smith, one of the instructors of the London piping classes.
I’ve attempted to get to grips with the fingering, using a practice chanter to honking
effect. Then I get to try out a full set of pipes – something that, in reality, no beginner
would attempt for months. I blow into the bag like a breathalyser. Instead of there
being constant pressure to force the air into the drones and chanter, seamlessly topping
up the reservoir of air as I go, the bagpipe “sirens” horribly. Only by blocking two of
the three drones do I get near a continuous note.
Then Smith plays a piece from the bagpipe’s classical repertoire, developing into
increasingly complex variations. Even to my ears, it’s light years away from my enamel-
stripping efforts. Piping can become an all-consuming obsession, he says. “I wouldn’t
want to sell it to anyone. It is enormously difficult and it’s a long journey, a striving for
perfection. When you’re well tuned and well set up, it’s uniquely captivating. That’s
what pipers are striving for.” Unfortunately for my neighbours, I’m beginning to have
an inkling of what he means.
Charlotte Phillips, in
The writer tells us that the Mudlark Pub “might normally take a while to
find” (lines 1–2).
as far as possible in your own words
why this is the case.
Why is it appropriate for the writer to use “however” in line 2?
How effective do you find the comparison “as out of place as a troupe of
Oxfordshire morris dancers round the back of Glasgow Central Station”
in your own words
what is meant by “the decibel levels are
substantial” (lines 4–5).
Why does the writer find it surprising that “The Great Highland Bagpipe is
an instrument that inspires almost fanatical levels of passion” (lines 9–10)?
Explain as far as possible
in your own words
in your own words two
pieces of evidence the writer gives to
support her claim that “Piping is on the up” (line 11).
Using your own words as far as possible
reasons why the writer
thought she might “tackle the bagpipes” (line 18).
What does the writer suggest about the group the Red Hot Chilli Pipers by
comparing them to “pin-ups” (line 19)?
Explain why any example of the writer’s
in the sentence in
lines 19–21 effectively conveys how impressive the band are.
The writer says “reduce my ambitions to more modest levels” (lines 22–23).
in your own words
what this means.
Explain why the sentence “But nothing about the bagpipe is easy” (line 26)
works well at this point in the passage.
Explain why the writer uses inverted commas round “wet” (line 34).
Why does the writer include the expression “or light music” (line 40)?
The player Alan McGeachie says that pipe music “gets under your skin” and
is “in your blood” (lines 42–44).
expression later in the paragraph shows what he means.
Look at lines 48–52.
Explain how any expression from these lines shows that the writer is not
impressed by the
Explain how effective you find any part of the expression “light years away
from my enamel-stripping efforts” (lines 55–56) in illustrating the difference
between Alasdair Smith’s playing and the writer’s.
Explain why it is unfortunate for her neighbours that the writer is beginning
to see what Smith means (see lines 59–60).
Think about the passage as a whole.
Why might “Skirl Power” be considered an appropriate title for this article?
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