Bagpipes: A blast from the past
They look ridiculous. They can sound excruciating. But a new recording by a military band has breathed astonishing new life into the market for bagpipes.Jonathan Brown reports on an unlikely trend
It is nearly four decades since their last hit. In 1972 the Drums and Pipes of the Royal Scots Guards topped the British charts with their version of the world's most recorded song, Amazing Grace, shifting 13 million copies and setting a record for the biggest ever selling instrumental track.
Today, as the rest of Scotland celebrates the feast of St Andrew, the regiment is poised once again for chart success. The 16-piece military band, which recently signed a €1.7m deal with Universal, has crashed into the midweek Top 20 with its new album Spirit of the Glen ahead of acts including Mika and The Killers.
So taken back is the musical world at the apparently timeless appeal of the pipes, that the Guards' record company is now hoping that they could score an unlikely Christmas chart topper, even challenging X Factor's Leona Lewis for the coveted Yuletide top spot.
But the fact that the drone and skirl of the ancient instrument is finding a new audience is not coming as such as a surprise to those in the know. For the bagpipes are booming, not just in terms of their infamous ear-splitting volume, but in popularity.
According to online retailers Ebay, the market for new and second hand pipes is fizzing. "We've seen a massive uplift in the number of bagpipes listed. There are currently over three thousand bagpipes for sale ranging in price form €3 to €5,000," said a spokesman.
The phenomenon is, appropriately enough, being felt most acutely in the place that has become synonymous with the instrument - Scotland.
At Bagpipes Galore on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, Bob Hay was working flat out to meet the rush of orders ahead of this year's Hogmanay. Sales are up 30 per cent on this time year with customers from all over the world looking for their own hand made pipe to see in the 2008 in the appropriate manner.
"We have opened up quite a reasonable outlet in the Far East and they have taken 30 sets which is a lot of bagpipes in anyone's book," said Mr Hoy, who has played the instrument for 60 years.
He points out that the pipes are a complex musical instrument which offers the player a unique set of challenges - not least co-ordinating the control of the air supply with the fingering techniques required to ease a tune out of the chanter and drone and create that unmistakeable sound.
A hand made pipe costs around €1,000 a set, but the price, and the severe problems posed by trying to find somewhere to practice without upsetting the neighbours, seems to be doing little to deter the onslaught of interest. The pipes are a fairly ubiquitous feature of European and Asian culture and featured in the Bible as well as in the writings of Ancient Greece. It is thought the Romans - the Emperor Nero himself was a keen piper - brought the instrument to the British Isles and it was here that the tradition endured on its Celtic fringes. In Scotland and Northern Ireland each neighbourhood boasts a pipe band still.
Though pipe playing died out across Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was its adoption by the British Empire which kept it alive and the Scottish infantrymen who fought the imperial wars in their tens of thousands.
Scottish and Irish migrants helped export the form to the New World and to the antipodes, notably New Zealand said to be home to more pipers than Scotland.
Author and former Green Jacket Andy McNab remains a lifelong admirer of the pipes. "As a young soldier, I often heard the stories of Scottish infantrymen who became so pumped up on adrenaline after hearing the sounds of their pipes and drums during an attack, they wouldn't actually realise they were dead for 20 yards after they had been shot," he said, paying tribute to the guardsmen who he said march with "a pipe in one hand a rifle in the other.".
When they last hit the charts the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards were serving on the streets of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Since then they have been deployed in Bosnia and recorded the album between tours of duty in Iraq. It was launched in a blaze of pageantry in Edinburgh last week and Universal is hoping that the older record buying demographic could send it to number one this festive season on a wave of supermarket impulse buys.
The soldiers, who are donating their royalties to charity, are determined to turn the world on to the delights of bagpipe. They are set to embark on a 68-date tour of the United States in the New Year and have already been approached about performing at T in the Park and Glastonbury.
Bagpipes by numbers
1 Bagpipes developed independently in parts of Europe and the Middle East around the same time. The earliest surviving written reference comes in the writings of the Athenian poet Aristophanes, who disdainfully mentioned that the pipers of Thebes played on instruments of dog skin and bone.
2 There are four vital components to modern pipes: a steady supply of air delivered down the blowpipe; an airtight bag (originally made from animal skin but now synthetic) which stores and controls the supply of air via squeezing; the chanter or melody pipe, played by one or two hands; and the drone - a reeded pipe with a sliding joint to alter the pitch.
3 Bagpipes have long been popular as an instrument of war, both scaring the enemy and boosting the morale of the pipers' own side. During the Jacobite risings of 1745, possession of the pipes in Britain was punishable by death.
4 After leaving university, Alastair Campbell - later to be British Prime Minister Tony Blair's spinmeister-general - busked his way round Europe with his bagpipes - even basing an erotic essay on the experience.
5 There are more bagpipe players and pipe bands in New Zealand than in Scotland, largely as a result of Scottish migration in the 19th and 20th centuries.
6 The bagpipes made an unlikely appearance in Friends when Ross, played by David Scwhimmer, tried to learn to play them for his sister Monica's wedding.
7 Because of their limited range of just nine notes bagpipers can play only music specifically composed for the instrument. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies composed 'Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise' for the pipes in 1985 while musical satirist Peter Schickele featured them as one of his six instruments for the fictional PDQ Bach's Sinfonia Concertante.
8 The Emperor Nero was known not just for fiddling while Rome burned but also for his love of bagpipes. According to Suetonius, he once showed offered to play them in public after losing a poetry competition.
9 The noise of bagpipes can reach 111 decibels - louder than a pneumatic drill.
10 In 2005 army health and safety inspectors called for soldiers to wear ear protectors while learning the instrument.
11 Bagpipes featured prominently on AC/DC's fist-pumping anthem It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock n' Roll). The track featured on their three-million selling album High Voltage in 1976.
12 A mysterious bagpipe-wielding figure peers down from the central panel of Hieronymous Bosch's 15th century triptych The Epiphany, observing, apparently unseen, the Magi's adoration of the young Christ.
13 One of the earliest written records of the "great pipes" in Scotland came in 1623 when a man was prosecuted in Perth for playing them on the Sabbath.
14 The relationship between Cherie Blair and the Royal Family is said not to have been improved by the famous Balmoral ritual of a bagpiper playing a 6am reveille.
15 King Rama VI of Thailand ordered that the Great Highland Bagpipe replace the oboe as the official instrument of his elite Wild Tiger Corps.
16 An asthmatic teenager in Glasgow recently reported that his breathing problems had been radically improved since taking up the instrument. Scientists are investigating his claims.
17 The Gaida - a form of bagpipes- remains Bulgaria's national instrument, and it is common both in orchestras and at weddings.
18 Bagpipe standard Amazing Grace is often hailed as the most covered song in history, with more than 3,200 different recordings in existence . It was played at the funerals of Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, Joe DiMaggio and Sonny Bono.
19 The jazz musician Rufus Harley switched from saxophone to the bagpipes after watching the Black Watch play at President Kennedy's funeral, adapting the instrument to play jazz and blues.
20 Paul McCartney's bagpipe-based 'Mull of Kintyre' was his biggest ever hit. The 1977 single sold over 2 million copies, outstripping anything he had achieved with the Beatles and created the highest selling bagpipe track of all time.