The bagpipe, specifically, the Great Highland Bagpipe, or “a’ phìob mhòr”, is an instrument of great cultural significance with a long tradition of playing, native to the Scottish Highlands, but renowned around the world. The GHB’s unique sound is instantly recognizable, and evokes images of rolling green hills, men in kilts, expansive lochs, and the creatures that may or may not dwell in their depths.
Traditional materials used in bagpipe construction are often of animal origin, but fortunately, at least in the case of the GHB, there are vegan alternatives available, and it is possible to play a set of pipes which is not made from animal parts. As a proud vegan piper, and as somebody who always likes to think that if there’s something that I want to do, that there’s somebody else somewhere who wants to do the same thing (it makes me feel a little less crazy), I hope that some vegan out there who has always wanted to play the pipes, but never knew how easy they are to veganize, will find this information useful.
Great Highland Bagpipes, and bagpipes in general, are somewhat unwieldy contraptions which may appear quite complicated to the untrained eye, but in reality, once broken down into their chief component parts, are fairly simple to understand. As the name suggests, bagpipes consist of a bag and some pipes, and while the bag is usually the most obviously non-vegan part of a set of “traditional” pipes, there are a couple of things to look out for elsewhere on the instrument. Let’s take a quick tour of bagpipe construction, and explore some of the vegan options for each part.
At the heart of any bagpipe is a bag, which is hopefully airtight, or very close to it. The bag plays an important role as a reservoir for air that can be used to ensure a constant and steady supply of pressure blowing over the reeds (more on those later), including during those times that the piper needs to inhale. For some reason, as a child I always believed that bagpipe bags were made from cow stomachs. While this does appear to have been true for some ancient bagpipes, the bags used for Great Highland Pipes are traditionally made not from internal organs, but from cow or sheep hide. I think I must have been getting the bagpipes confused with haggis.
As it turns out, a wide variety of bags made from synthetic materials, such as Gore-Tex, is available, and synthetic bags seem to be becoming the norm, with many pipemakers offering them over hide bags by default with new sets of pipes. The newer synthetic materials offer many advantages over hide, such as better airtightness, eaiser maintenance (hide bags periodically require a messy maintenance procedure called “seasoning” to keep airtight; synthetic bags never need to be seasoned), and increased durability over traditional hide bags. “Hybrid” bags are also common, which combine a synthetic liner with a hide outer shell, to get the benefits of the synthetic bag, while retaining the tactile properties of hide, which some pipers prefer. Such bags are obviously not vegan.
Unlike other common applications of animal hides, there’s little, if any, attachment to the look of a hide bag on a set of Highland pipes, since the bag almost always has a cover over it. (More on covers later.) When shopping for a bag, keep in mind that synthetic bags are easy to distinguish visually: if it looks even remotely like hide, you can be almost certain that it came from an animal. This may come as a relief to people who are accustomed to shopping for things like shoes and purses, where it’s becoming increasingly difficult these days to discern vegan leather alternatives from animal skin leather.
Many synthetic bags, including the one I play, incorporate a zipper, which allows easy access to the interior of the bag to retrieve reeds that have fallen into the bag (oops!), or for installation and maintenance of gadgets such as moisture control systems or drone check valves. I highly recommend a zippered bag, both for easy retrieval of fallen reeds, and for the moisture control possibilities. Moisture control is especially important for beginning pipers, who tend to blow wet, and for synthetic bags, which do not absorb moisture like hide bags do. If you do a web search for “bagpipe moisture control” you will see that there are many fancy and expensive gizmos that can be installed inside a bag to control excess moisture from the piper’s breath (the moisture is primarily condensation of water vapor, not saliva). Don’t get scared off by these fancy systems: most pipers who play synthetic bags do just fine with a basic water trap, which is often included with the bag. My bag came with a very simple water trap, which is easy to use and does the job just fine. Even in the absence of any dedicated moisture control system, one can simply open the zipper when not playing, to allow the collected moisture to evaporate. If you do choose to invest in a “canister” type of moisture control system, keep in mind that you will need a slightly larger case to accommodate it, as a bag with a canister system installed has a greater volume when deflated than one without.
Also deserving of consideration is the bag cover. The bag cover is a decorative item that encloses the pipe bag itself, and which can be made of a wide variety of fabrics. As with any textile product, bag covers can be made from plant, snythetic, or animal fibers, or from a combination of multiple different fiber types. When I purchased my pipes at the Kintail shop in Glasgow, I was advised that the bag cover was made of a synthetic fabric, but the decoration at the fringes of the cover contained wool fibers. The shop was more than happy to substitute a bag cover that used an alternative decorative trim. If you have any doubts about the origin of fabric used in a bag cover, most sellers will be happy to sell you a set of pipes without a cover, and you can purchase one separately, or make your own. Many pipe bands issue matching covers to all of their pipers, so it’s not an unusual request to purchase a set of pipes without a bag cover.
Different varieties of bagpipe will have different configurations, when it comes to the various pipes that project from the bag. There are three types of pipes that are common to most bagpipe designs. These are:
- The chanter, or melody pipe, which works like most woodwind instruments and has a set of finger holes, and/or sometimes keys, that allow for a variety of different notes to be played. Some rare varieties of bagpipe have multiple chanters, but the typical number is one.
- The drones, a set of pipes whose lengths are adjustable for tuning, but stay fixed while the instrument is being played. Some bagpipes have only a single drone, but it’s more common to have two or three. Each drone plays only one note, which is sustained the entire time while the instrument is being played. The drones provide a constant tone that harmonizes with the melody being played on the chanter.
- The blowstick, which on mouth-blown pipes is the means by which air is transferred from the piper to the bag. The blowstick typically has a one-way valve, which will allow air to enter the bag, but will prevent the escape of air through the blowstick. This ensures that air leaves only through the drones and chanter when no air is being blown in, such as when the piper takes a breath and squeezes the bag to maintain a steady level of pressure. As an alternative to taking air through a blowstick, some bagpipes are filled by means of a bellows.
Each pipe is joined to an opening in the bag, usually by means of a stock which is tied into the bag and remains fixed to it at all times. The pipe may be inserted into and removed from the stock for maintenance such as changing reeds. Depending on the bagpipe design, each drone may have its own stock, or drones may all plug into a common stock that ties into a single hole in the bag, and has separate receptacles for each drone. On some rare designs, pipes tie directly into the bag, and cannot be simply unplugged from a stock.
Many different configurations of chanter, drone, and filling mechanism are attested in bagpipes around the world, but the configuration of the Great Highland Bagpipe is a single, keyless, chanter that plays nine different notes, three drones, each in its own stock, and a blowpipe, as the GHB takes more air than is practical to produce via a bellows. Of the drones, two are tenor drones which play a note that is exactly one octave below the base note of the chanter’s scale, and the third is a bass drone which plays a note exactly one octave below the tenors. The drones project up from the bag, over the shoulders of the piper, in contrast to other designs where the drones may fall across the piper’s chest, or project downwards, parallel to the chanter.
As far as construction materials go, the primary material used in the traditional construction of all five pipes of the GHB is wood. The exact type of wood has varied over the ages, with African blackwood (Dalbergeria melanoxynon), the same wood typically used for many other woodwind instruments like clarinets and oboes, having been the standard since the 19th century. In modern times, many pipes are made from Polyoxymethylene, a thermoplastic known for having high dimensional stability across temperature changes, and for being easy to machine. Pipemakers and pipers usually refer to polyoxymethylene by the trade name “Delrin”, or the more generic “polypenco”, “acetal”, or just “poly”.
While the pipes themselves are chiefly made of animal-friendly materials such as wood or plastic, the traditional decorative trimmings on older sets can be a cause for concern. Great Highland Bagpipes are typically adorned with a variety of decorative pieces, especially on the drones. These decorations include: ferrules, rings that surround sections of drones and stocks to help protect the wood from cracking; slides, cylindrical sheaths sometimes found along the lengths of drone tuning pins; mounts, purely decorative pieces that flare out at the ends of drone sections; ring caps, pieces with a central air hole which cover the tops of the drones; the mouthpiece, typically a removable section at the mouth end of the blowpipe, which can sometimes be quite ornately decorated; and the sole, a decorative piece at the foot of some chanters. The materials used to decorate a set of pipes can vary, but a fairly traditional setup would be to use elephant ivory for the mounts, ring caps, sole, and part of the mouthpiece, and silver for the ferrules and slides. Some pipes may be equipped with ivory ferrules, and on some sets, horn may take the place of ivory to decorate the various parts of the pipes. On especially high end sets, these decorative pieces may feature intricately carved designs.
Luckily for the animals, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) bans the trade of elephant ivory, so contemporary sets use imitation ivory in its place. Vintage bagpipes which were made with elephant ivory must be accompanied by a CITES certificate which attests to their manufacture before the ivory ban, so any responsible seller will know for certain whether ivory pieces on a set of older pipes are natural or synthetic. You will find that the bulk of the expense of the priciest sets of bagpipes comes from decorative pieces made from extravagant materials such as sterling silver, which do not affect the sound of the instrument in the least. My pipes are a pretty basic, plainly decorated set made from blackwood, with wood projecting mounts, and nickel silver ferrules and ring caps — fairly modest in appearance, but rich in sound. I play a plastic chanter which does not have a decorative sole, and an excellent after-market blowstick from Peter Crisler.
For those who may be concerned about shellac or other animal-derived substances that are sometimes used to finish wood products, rest assured that you will almost never see such a varnish on a quality set of pipes. Bagpipes should be cared for gently and never painted or varnished, with a periodic application of vegetable or mineral oil to maintain the proper balance of oils and moisture in the wood. In fact, the presence of a varnish on a set of bagpipes is usually a telltale sign that the set is of poor quality, with the varnish used to (usually unsuccessfully) disguise flaws in materials and/or workmanship.
Reeds and Miscellaneous Other Bits
The various pipes of a bagpipe make sound because air passes through or over a set of reeds on its way out of the bag. There really isn’t a whole lot to think about when it comes to reeds, which are traditionally made from… reeds. Specifically, Arundo donax, sometimes known as “Spanish cane”. Each of the three drone reeds of a Great Highland pipe is typically made from a section of cane, with a tongue blade cut directly into the cane. The chanter reed is a double reed, with two blades carved from cane wrapped around a cylindrical metal staple, tied together by some string. Cane, being a natural material, is notoriously fussy, and many pipers these days prefer to play synthetic drone reeds, which vary greatly in design, but rarely use animal-derived materials. (I’m not aware of any counterexamples, but I’m sure if I said that no synthetic reeds used animal materials in their construction, I would immediately learn of the latest new reed made from hair and bone…) Synthetic chanter reeds do exist, but generally don’t come close to the sound of natural ones, so almost all pipers choose to continue putting up with the fussiness of cane reeds for now.
The fit between different sliding pieces such as the tuning slides of the drones, or the ends of the drones, chanter, and blowpipe in their respective stocks, is controlled by adding or removing bits of thread called “hemp”, which despite its name, is typically linen thread on most modern pipes. The thread itself is made from plant fibers, but it is usually coated with beeswax to make the joints slide more smoothly and to retard the absorption of moisture. I personally use untreated, “dry” hemp on my joints, but it’s probably possible to substitute a different wax for beeswax. An alternative to hemping is to use plumber’s teflon tape, but care should be taken with this, as moisture may become trapped between the tape and the wood. I see many pipers use a combination of hemp and plumber’s tape: the inner layer of thicker thread is easy to build up quickly, and the outer layer of tape is thinner, and therefore more suitable for making fine adjustments.
Since the drones of the Great Highland Bagpipe have individual stocks, and are fairly long and heavy, a cord is tied between the tops of the drones so that they can flare out evenly and keep stable in their positioning as the piper moves. The cords are a thick rope, typically with tassels on the end, which can be made from many different kinds of fibers, including wool or silk. I was assured by the folks at the Kintail shop that despite being called “silk cords”, the cords that tie my drones together are actually made from nylon, which is superior to silk in durability, and much less expensive as well. Some sets of pipes may have a decorative ribbon between the drones in addition to the cords: these can be made of any type of fabric.
One last piece to consider is the valve that prevents air from coming back up the blowpipe. A traditional design for this valve is a simple flap of leather that closes over the bag end of the blowpipe: if your blowpipe is designed for this kind of valve, it’s easy to substitute a piece of a different material. Some blowpipes feature integrated valves that use a rubber flap or a plastic ball to prevent backflow, and several aftermarket valves are available that can be used instead of the traditional flap design.
Before You Get Too Excited…
If you’ve stayed with me so far, you hopefully now know a lot more than you did before you started reading this article, about the different materials used to make a set of Great Highland Bagpipes, and the most common things to look out for if you want to play the pipes while avoiding the use of animal products in your instrument. It’s also possible you got bored reading this somewhere in the first couple of paragraphs, and have skimmed or outright skipped the bulk of this article: if this is you, then the short version is that it’s actually quite easy to put together a set of vegan bagpipes, and there’s probably a good number of pipers out there who are “accidentally” playing a set of vegan pipes.
If I’ve become successful in my quest to own the top search result for “vegan bagpipes”, and you’ve come here specifically because you’ve always wanted to play the bagpipes, but weren’t sure if you could get them veganized, then you are now empowered with the knowledge you need to make it happen. However, before you go out and take the next step to make your bagpiping dreams come true, I feel obligated to issue the following warnings, because it would be irresponsible of me not to do so:
- For the love of all that is good, start with a practice chanter! Getting vegan bagpipes is easy, but learning to play them is not. It takes an incredible amount of dedication that many aspiring pipers underestimate. Granted, if you’re vegan, you probably already know a thing or two about dedication, but even if you are completely certain that playing the pipes is in your future, you will still want to learn the fingerings and embellishments on a practice chanter before adding on the complication of blowing up a full set of pipes. (A practice chanter is a quieter version of the pipe chanter, played without a bag or drones, used by beginners to learn how to play, and used by experienced pipers to learn new tunes and practice old ones.) There’s not much to worry about as far as materials: the practice chanter is made of plastic or wood, and typically has a small plastic double reed. You should also try to find an instructor in your area.
- Don’t go out and buy the cheapest bagpipes you can find Most pairs of inexpensive bagpipes are of poor construction, and are good for little more than hanging up as wall art, use as a prop or part of a costume, or perhaps kindling in a fireplace. Although technically “playable”, these budget pipes, ubiquitous in tourist shops in Scotland and auction sites on the internet, usually require much effort at great expense to reliably get a good sound from. Save your time and money and buy a real set of pipes from a reputable pipe maker. Another good reason to have an instructor or some other link to an existing piping community in your area is that you’ll be able to get some good advice when it comes to selecting a set of pipes.
- If you join a band, you will probably have to wear some non-vegan uniform bits There’s a great joy to be had playing the bagpipes by oneself, but there’s an even greater joy in getting together with a bunch of other people who, despite all common sense, also enjoy playing the pipes. Thing is, many pipe bands have matching uniforms for all of their members to wear, and traditional Highland dress isn’t exactly known for animal-friendliness. The best you can hope for is to find a band whose uniform policy is compatible with your philosophy. My personal rule is that uniform items I personally own must be vegan, but I do wear non-vegan items that are owned by the band. This has worked out for me with the bands I’ve played in so far: the last band I played with had a large stock of uniform items to loan to band members; the band I play with now allowed me to substitute vegan alternatives for the couple of uniform items I had to purchase (there are still non-vegan items that belong to the band). If this system doesn’t work for you, then I would recommend looking for a band without a uniform, or with a very relaxed uniform policy. Either that, or move to Austin (if you don’t already live here) so that we can start a vegan pipe band. Think I’m kidding? Just try me.
Well, that’s all I have to say about vegan bagpipes for now. Feel free to continue the conversation: are you a vegan piper? a vegan looking to become a piper? a piper looking to become a vegan? just somebody who has questions about piping or veganism? Fire away in the comments section!