Scottish Life Magazine - highland bagpipes artwork
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Scottish highland bagpipe

The Highland Bagpipe by Simon McKerrell

The pipes are quiet now, the competitions and games are mostly over, and for the majority of us, we now move into the autumn and winter seasons of learning, practice and teaching. Much of this quieter winter activity is social and, indeed, this social aspect is integral to why we play and listen, and why we support the pipers, drummers and dancers in our community.

Less so nowadays, but not always, this socializing involves the demon drink. For some pipers, and a good number of my own early musical heroes, alcohol was their downfall, both personally and musically. But for the vast majority, we acknowledge it is socially efficacious and are happy to partake (modestly).

There is a long history of piping and drinking, obviously. In fact, as long as there have been pipers, there has been drink, and the result is that many related stories, tunes and memories have become part of the piping tradition. Tunes celebrating drink range from classics such as "Campbeltown Loch, I Wish You Were Whisky" and "Spill the Beer," to masterpieces such as Niel Gow's "Farwell to Whisky" and his inevitable follow-up, "Welcome Whisky Back Again"!

One great story is that the very popular and well-known tune "The Ewe Wi' The Crookit Horn," which also has been known as "An Chaor Chrom," among other names, originally started out as a signal to revelers that the whisky from an illicit Highland still was ready to drink. The tune began life as a two-part reel (and, indeed, is one of the best tunes in any time signature and key) and was played in Highland glens when the illicit still had distilled enough whisky to sustain a ceilidh for the locals.

The full text of this column is available in the Winter 2019 issue of Scottish Life

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