Northumbrian Smallpipes are, arguably, the
most sophisticated bagpipe. They are a small indoor instrument
that is bellows-blown, quieter than most, and capable of a wide
range of tunes. Basic sets have 15 notes, others range up to 25
notes and are fully chromatic over 2 octaves. They have a sweet
tone and are equally at home skipping merrily through dance
tunes or winding plaintively through haunting slow airs. They
are usually played as a solo instrument or in small groups, but
fit well into a Ceilidh band. They have a parallel bore chanter
and up to five drones that usually play a bass and tenor tuned
an octave apart and a baritone a fifth above the bass. They can
be altered to play in various keys.
There is some evidence that bagpipes arrived
in Northumberland around the 11th or 12th century. Since then,
they have been developed into the unique instruments that they
are. The most characteristic development was probably made in
the 17th century, when the end of the chanter was stopped,
giving them the staccato sound and closed fingering that
distinguish them from other bagpipes. Then, in the 18th century,
pipe-makers added keys to give them the extended range and
greater versatility. The basic design has not changed a great
deal over the last two centuries, until some of the contemporary
makers experimented with some refinements and developed sets
that transpose into other keys.
Northumbrian Half Longs (also known as Border
or Lowland pipes) are the big cousin and are of simpler design.
They are also bellows blown but do not usually have keys to
extend the basic eight-note, tapered-bore, open-ended chanter.
They are louder than the smallpipes and fit very well at the
head of a procession. There are several versions of the basic
design, some capable of cross-fingering to extend the range, but
generally their tune repertoire is similar to that of the great