Highland Piping in the New World:
A Nova Scotian Perspective

by Barry W. Shears
© February 18, 2007 

When most people think of the bagpipe, the first thing which springs to mind is the numerous pipe bands seen at various festivals, highland games and parades. Many people are simply unaware that the bagpipe originated in Egypt as a simple reed pipe over 3000 years ago and later spread throughout Europe and Asia. There are various types of bagpipes played throughout Europe but the one most familiar to people is the Great Highland Bagpipe. The Great Highland Bagpipe developed in the highlands of Scotland over four centuries ago and, except for successful efforts in changing the configuration and style of the drones, the instrument has changed very little since then. It is basically an assortment of wooden tubes which now consists of three drones, two tenor and a bass, which provide a rudimentary harmony to the melody pipe or chanter. A bag, which acts as an air reservoir, and blow pipe, with a one way valve, complete the instrument. These features allow the player to take a breath without interrupting the sound of the music. Pipe bands are relatively new phenomena considering the long history of the bagpipe and date to the British army of the 19th century. While the first civilian pipe bands made their appearance on Nova Scotia's musical landscape at the turn of the 20th century, most people today are unaware that any other piping tradition exists.

For the tens of thousands of New World Gaels who left the Scottish Highlands and settled in Nova Scotia between 1773 and the 1840's music played a prominent role. Gaelic songs and stories, violin and pipe music all played an integral part in the day to day lives of these early settlers and in some areas continues to do so. Often people would gather in a designated house or home known as a ‘Ceilidh House’ to enjoy instrumental music, stories, dancing and any news from neighbouring communities. The Ceilidh house provided the ideal environment for various cultural art forms to be passed from one generation to the next.

By the end of the 19th century there were almost 100,000 Gaelic-speakers in Nova Scotia (although by the late 20th century this number had declined to less than 500 speakers). This increase in population in the 19th century was accompanied by an increase in the number of pipers in the Province. Since bagpipes were expensive and difficult to acquire from Scotland several local craftsmen in Nova Scotia made bagpipes in the last quarter of the 19th century.

The early Scottish settlers brought some bagpipes to Nova Scotia but in disproportionate numbers to the people who could play them. In some areas one set of bagpipes would serve several family members. The early settlers and their descendants held the national instrument of Scotland in very high esteem. Many could play a few tunes on homemade chanters but not many could afford to purchase a new set from Scotland. Hence a growing market for inexpensive, locally produced instruments emerged.

In many cases the pipe maker was also a wood turner. This very old profession was indispensable to pioneer society. The production of chair and table legs, spinning wheels, and repairs to various farming implements were all part of the craft. A few 19th century wood turners made a profitable sideline of manufacturing and selling bagpipes. This trend continued in Nova Scotia until shortly after the First World War.

In Scotland bagpipes were originally made from a variety of woods such as boxwood and native hardwoods like laburnum. Tropical woods such as ebony, cocus and blackwood became popular after their introduction in the 1700s. These instruments were mounted with a variety of materials such as pewter, cattle horn, bone and stag horn. Mountings serve a practical as well as decorative purpose. The mounts are placed at strategic locations to help prevent the wood from splitting. In Nova Scotia the most common hard woods for bagpipe making were apple wood and sometimes ash and pear wood. Occasionally if the maker lived close to a ship building centre some exotic woods like lignum vitae were available. Many instruments were turned on a lathe, usually powered by a foot treadle. Others were carved by hand. In some cases the conical shape of the pipe chanter was achieved by using an old three-sided French bayonet as a reamer. Cattle horn, bone, brass and sometimes ivory from walrus and whale were used to adorn these homemade instruments.

The overall design of the bagpipe has altered very little from the 18th century. The bells or terminals at the end of the drone, once almost pear- shaped, took on a smaller, slightly square profile. In Scotland the demands placed on the player and instrument in the army required a heavier bagpipe. The drones became thicker and longer. This 'army' pattern with its large ornate mounts has continued to present day.

Many of the bagpipe makers in Nova Scotia would undoubtedly copy the sets originally brought from Scotland. This might explain why Nova Scotia bagpipes are noticeably smaller and more delicate in appearance than their modern Scottish counterparts. The most notable feature of the surviving examples of locally produced instruments is the number and size of the drones. Duncan Gillis, Grand Mira, made only two droned sets at first, adding a bass drone when requested to do so. Two droned sets of pipes were banned from competition in Scotland after 1821 due to a perceived disadvantage on the part of several competitors.

Reeds for the instruments were made from a variety of materials. The MacIntyre pipers of Glace Bay made chanter reeds from old cane fishing rods while other pipers used strips of birch bark or maple wood shavings affixed to a copper staple. Drone reeds were crafted from elder after the soft spongy centre was removed. Practice chanters were made from young maple trees and sometimes alder. The centre core or heart was burned out with a long wire heated in the fire. After the position of the finger holes was marked, they too would be burned out in similar fashion.

Existing examples of both immigrant sets and homemade instruments are rare, and at present there about a dozen immigrants sets held in private collections in the Province. During the 19th century there were about a half dozen bagpipe makers in Nova Scotia. Most of these makers were part time manufacturers supplying relatively small localized markets and included people such as Robert Ross, Peter MacNeil, Alexander “Ban” MacIsaac, Fred MacEachern, Jonnie Archie MacLellan, Ronald Maclean, John MacDonald, and Duncan Gillis.

Duncan Gillis, or Duncan 'Tailor' as he was known, was born in South West Margaree, Cape Breton about the middle of the last century. He relocated to the Grand Mira area of Cape Breton. Duncan manufactured bagpipes from the 1880s to about 1920. An advertisement in the Pictou News, 1886 reads:

The subscriber most respectfully wishes to inform the public, and particularly all lovers of Highland Pipe Music, that he makes, ,and has now ready for sale, first class bagpipes, not to excelled in tone by any of the celebrated Glasgow Bagpipes. According to recent and very reliable testimony there is not another manufacturer of Bagpipes in America.
Prices vary form $30 upwards, according to the quality of mounting. Patronage solicited.
Duncan Gillis, Turner
Grand River, C.B., Nov 5, 1886

The address is given erroneously as Grand River. Duncan Gillis lived at Grand Mira.

Fred (Farquhar) MacEachern , River Denys Mountain, Cape Breton, made three or four sets of pipes in the 1890s.

Alexander 'Ban' MacIsaac of Giants Lake, Guysborough County, Nova Scotia immigrated with his family as a young boy from Moidart in 1843. He made a set of bagpipes from ash, using a sheepskin for a bag. He taught himself to play the bagpipe and became 'the most popular entertainer in the district.'

Another area of Cape Breton where bagpipes were made was Meat Cove. Originally settled by immigrants from the Isle of Skye, several pipers here made their own instruments. Johnnie Archie MacLellan would carve the various sections of the bagpipe from a solid piece of apple wood. In the fall, the bones of a butchered steer would be collected, dried and carved for mounts using a knife and a 'rat-tailed' file. Also in the community were brothers:  Rory, 'Red' John, Dave and Duncan MacKinnon. They were sons of Alexander 'Sandy' MacKinnon. In total the family consisted of nineteen children and most could play an instrument or step-dance. Rory and John made bagpipes, sewed their own pipe bags, and made their own pipe chanter reeds using strips of birch bark. Later they used cane from chairs blown from the decks of passing cruise ships, which sometimes washed up on the shore. The reed staple was fashioned from a 22. calibre shell casing. 'Red' John MacKinnon (1870-1940) was also a noted violin player and step dancer. Red John MacKinnon was invited to perform in Scotland, but in 1940 tragedy struck and he died of a stroke.

Ronald MacLean came from Stillwater, a small community close to the present town of Louisburg, Cape Breton. Ronald was described as a self- taught piper. He was a skilled carver of clocks and made at least one set of pipes. Although he immigrated to Boston in the early 1890s where he was employed as a successful wood carver, he still managed the occasional summer visit to his old homestead.

Peter MacNeil, Christmas Island Parish, Cape Breton was commonly known as 'Peadar Dubh" and was a direct descendant of Rory MacNeil, family piper to the MacNeil's of Barra. Born in the late 1800s, he was described as 'a man of more than ordinary intelligence'. He was a talented craftsman, farmer, and turner. He built several boats and houses, as well as being skilled in the use of a lancet. Local sources state he made three or four sets of pipes for pipers in the Iona-Washabuck area of Cape Breton. Peadar Dubh's nephew, Malcolm MacNeil, was a piper.

Robert Ross was born in Dornoch, Scotland, in 1769. He enlisted for a short time in the 75th Regiment of Foot and upon discharge immigrated to Pictou Nova Scotia around 1817. Ross manufactured spinning wheels as well as bagpipes and when he died on August 14, 1843, he bequeathed 'his tools for making bagpipes to his eldest son, Alexander' (Alexander Ross c.1801-1861).         

Roderick MacLean, an 1817 immigrant piper to Cape Breton, from the Isle of Barra, Scotland. Notice the two-droned bagpipe.

Many of the pipers who left Scotland for Nova Scotia could not read or write music. Gaelic-speaking pipers learned their music by ear and this method of learning piping continued in Nova Scotia among some pipers until well into the 20th century. Pipe music sprang from the Gaelic language and most of the tunes had Gaelic words. The traditionally-trained piper learned tunes from the music being sung, either with Gaelic words or a form of mouth music (chanting) called canntaireachd. This teaching method is the essence of the oral tradition and was considered far superior to attempting to learn a tune by studying written notes on a page. As a result of cultural and geographical isolation, learning pipe music in the oral tradition in Cape Breton and North Eastern Nova Scotia lasted until the middle of the 20th century. During the 1950s the piping competitions held in August at the Gaelic College at St Anne’s, Cape Breton, offered two categories for juvenile piping: one for ear –learned pipers and a separate event for those pipers who played by note.

       The immigrant pipers who settled in Nova Scotia played several types of bagpipe music designed especially for the solo piper -- ceòl mór agus ceòl beag (big music and little music). Ceòl Mór refers to what has sometimes been referred to as the “classical” music of the bagpipe. This was developed in the highlands of Scotland beginning sometime in the 16th century. These are long pieces of music which can last, on the average, from between 10 and 20 minutes from beginning to end.  The construction of this type of music consists of variations on a theme and resembles the Italian Rondo.  To be a proficient player of Ceòl Mór requires a good memory and very good manual dexterity. Ceòl Beag refers mostly to dance music -- strathspeys, jigs and reels. It is this type of music which became the most popular form of pipe music among the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders who settled in Eastern Canada.

The sheer volume of the bagpipe made the piper an attractive purveyor of dance music, especially in open fields, one room school houses or small community halls. In Nova Scotia there was a tradition of pipers playing for step-dancers for both solo and group dances.


One of the prime functions of community pipers in Nova Scotia was to supply music for dancing. The volume of the instrument made it an ideal choice for outdoor entertainment and almost every area of the province settled by Scottish Gaels appears to have included community dance pipers. This was not unique to the Scottish Gaels because, as George Emmerson, a noted Scottish dance historian, has commented, pipers had provided dance music throughout Europe for centuries.

We have noted the supreme place of the bagpiper as the purveyor of dance music at all social functions of the ordinary people from medieval times. Most of these functions had to be conducted outdoors or in a large farm building, such as a barn and that when it was empty. The fiddle held sway indoors but it is not until the eighteenth century that one sees it offer serious competition to the bagpipe in popular social dance, and then particularly in the Central Highlands, Breadalbane and Strathspey.

When one thinks of Scottish dancing two forms of it immediately spring to mind: Scottish Country Dancing, and the various solo exhibition dances such as the Sword Dance, Sean Truibhas, Highland Fling, etc.

Scottish Country Dancing was imported from France and England and developed in the ballrooms and assembly-halls of late-18th century lowland Scotland and its performance later incorporated some regional dance styles. The Highland dances, although now performed following set rules and regulations, are believed also to have originated among ancient rural dance forms.

One Scottish dancer in particular is given credit for changing the performance style of the ancient dance known as the Sean Triubhas (The Old Trousers) in the late nineteenth century. Piper Willie MacLennan (1860-1898) was one of the first professional Highland dancers in Scotland to learn ballet technique and employ it in the Scottish exhibition dance idiom. It was felt that Highland dancing at the time was marked more by ‘enthusiasm than grace’ and his employment of ballet technique to enhance the impact of the Highland dances altered the whole approach to the art of exhibition dancing. Other exhibition dances were eventually similarly affected by European ballet styles.  The current style of Highland Dancing is both graceful and physically demanding and usually requires a lot of jumping. Subsequently the rhythm and tempo of the music has been altered to reflect these changes, playing it much slower and moving the expression from Simple Time (rounded) to Compound Time (pointed). The ‘wildness’ of Scottish dance music became slower and more subdued to reflect these changes.

For people in Cape Breton who remember the more ancient dance form of the Seann Triubhas the changes implemented have rendered the current form of the dance unrecognizable. As Margaret Gillis, the great-granddaughter of dancing master, Alexander Gillis, observed: “The Seann Triubhas was a different dance than the one that they do in Highland dancing today with piping. That wasn’t the Seann Triubhas our early settlers had at all!”

We are left to wonder what specific social dances the common people in the Highlands of Scotland performed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This period is too early for Scottish Country Dancing, and the Sword Dance and others cannot be termed social dances. There is no recollection of Scottish Country dancing in Nova Scotia among the Gaels, which indicates that it was unknown at the time of immigration.

The most obvious answer, but not necessarily the only one, is a form of dancing known as step-dancing. All indications suggest this was a popular form of entertainment in Europe two centuries ago. Remnants of this type of dance can be found in Ireland's Sean Nos dance tradition, Northumberland step-dancing, Appalachian 'Buck' dancing in the United States, French and Acadian dances in Quebec and the Maritimes, and Scottish step-dancing in areas of Canada's Atlantic provinces, most notably Cape Breton. For many of the New World Gaels, dancing was an important form of recreation and socializing. As George Emmerson, discovered, “Browsing through the statistical accounts for the various Scottish parishes for this period (18th century), one finds time after time that their chief amusement is dancing” and according to the Statistical Accounts compiled in the early 19th century, ‘dancing to the music of the bagpipes was a favourite pastime’ in Barra.

Step-dancing involves the intricate movement of the dancer’s feet in time to the music and is much less regimented than the current display dances performed at Highland Games and competitions. Step-dancers have the freedom of expression to insert particular steps or dance sequences to match the notes of the music to which they are dancing. This form of dance matches the style of dancing observed by Colonel Thornton in the Scottish Highlands in 1804 where he noted that “[the dancers] all shuffle in such a manner as to make the noise of their feet keep exact time.” In its more traditional form, the dancer remains almost motionless from the waist up, employing movement of the knees, ankles and feet to “beat-out” the rhythm of the music. Step-dancing is also physically demanding and graceful but in Cape Breton and parts of mainland Nova Scotia it is performed close to the floor when compared to modern Scottish dances. This dance form requires the music to be played much faster than the display dances described above and in Simple Time, which is a much rounder rhythm than Compound Time.

Several dancing masters were among the early immigrants from Scotland. These dancing masters came from both the Hebrides and parts of the Scottish mainland which gives an indication of how widespread the step-dance tradition was in early nineteenth century Scotland. A list of these professionals included:

“Mary MacDonald Beaton (1795-1880) ... had been a distinguished dancer in Scotland and after immigrating to Cape Breton, set up a school near MacKinnon’s Brook for the purpose of teaching that skill.”  “Allan ‘The dancer’ MacMillan... was born in Lochaber, Scotland. Around 1817 he came to America, and he came to Rear Little Judique in 1820. He was a celebrated dancer and, after coming to this country, kept a dancing class in both the settlements of Judique and Creignish.”

Other dancing masters included John Kennedy, who immigrated from Canna in 1790; Angus ‘Ban’ MacDougall, piper and dancer, an 1812 immigrant from Moidart to Cape Breton; Malcolm MacLean, who came from Mull in 1826, and Alexander Gillis, who immigrated from Morar to Cape Breton, also in 1826.

The dancing masters would migrate from community to community staying with friends or relatives. According to an account by the late James D. Gillis, the dancing master would set up a school in a community or area.  The school would involve mostly young people and the training would extend over two or three days. In the beginning, graceful and simple moves would be introduced. This was followed over the next few days with more intricate dance steps.

There has been much discussion over the past few years on the origins of ‘Cape Breton step-dancing’. The late Alex Currie was of the opinion that Scottish step-dancing originally came to Scotland from Ireland. Alex cited as his source for this theory his father, the well known step-dancer Peter Currie. Purists might be aghast at such a suggestion but Alex felt that the migration of this particular form of dance occurred several hundred years ago when the Western Isles and Ireland shared a similar language and culture. Such cultural exchanges during the sixteenth and seventeenth century would not be uncommon. The MacMhuirichs, bards and chroniclers to MacDonald of Clanranald, were reputed to have had at least some of their training in Ireland, as were some of the pipers who founded piping schools based on the Irish model in Scotland. There are a few examples of the close ties between pipers in both Ireland and Scotland. One such story involves Donald MacDonald of Baleshare, North Uist, who sent his half-brother, Angus MacRury, to Ireland to learn the Irish method of curing bacon. “Angus brought his pipes along and while at Kilkenny was also in contact with Irish pipers where, it was noted, they had some common tunes but with different tune names”.

Certainly the old style (sean-nós) form of step-dancing sometimes seen in Ireland today does bear a strong resemblance to Cape Breton dancing. Absent, however, in Irish traditional dance is the type of music known as the strathspey, or strathspey reel. While not conclusive this indicates that if step-dancing did migrate to Scotland from Ireland then some aspects of Scottish dance evolved outside the Irish influence.

In medieval Europe dance music was supplied by singers, or any one of the various forms of bagpipe at that time. As musical sophistication evolved, other instruments were created to provide music for dancing and listening. The introduction of the violin with its musical range, dynamics and quieter sound when compared to the bagpipe, coincided with a growing trend to move entertainment indoors. Changes came slowly to the remote Highlands and Islands of Scotland. By the mid-eighteenth century there emerged dance musicians competent on both instruments and, as George Emmerson points out: “It is apparent too, from some of David Allan's pictures, that, the piper sometimes alternated with the fiddler at weddings and the like. Sometimes the piper was also a fiddler, as was the case with Joseph and Patrick MacDonald.” Occasionally the function of poet and musician was administered by a single individual. Duncan MacPhail, piper, bard, fiddler, harper and composer from North Uist was a veteran of the Battle of Sherrifmuir during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715. He was also credited with composing an elegy for James MacDonald to the melody of the piobaireachdSirJames MacDonald of the Isles Salute. He died around 1795 when he was 104.

The descendants of many Highland immigrants in Nova Scotia continued this tradition of dual musicianship and many also fulfilled the function of local bard. In Scotland there would be some tunes common to both instruments but gradually the range and popularity of the violin enabled its players to develop its own distinctly Scottish violin repertoire. This era, roughly 1740-1830, is sometimes referred to by Scottish violin music historians as “The Golden Age of Fiddling”. It is interesting to note that the second half of this ‘Golden Age’ coincided with extensive immigration to Maritime Canada.

 (Fig. 2) Three Piper/Fiddlers: “Black” Angus MacDonald, “Little” Allan MacFarlane,
Angus Campbell Beaton, Glendale, Cape Breton, c. 1930.

It is not known for certain when the violin penetrated the Western Isles but by the late 1700s the bagpipe was still being employed for outdoor dances often accompanying very diverse ceremonies such as religious celebrations.

Outdoor communions were often devoid of pious solemnity, burlesqued by the presence of peddler’s booths, confectioners' tables and whiskey tents. The celebrated oderick MacLeod, a nineteenth century Evangelical Minister in Skye, described a scene which he witnessed during his boyhood at Dunvegan:        … as soon as the services, which were conducted in the open field, were ended, three pipers struck up music, and three dancing parties were formed on the green [where the communion was served]

This is an important description in so much as it reveals the type of music played (i.e. dance music) in the late eighteenth century, as well as the close proximity to the famous MacCrimmon piping college at Boreraig. Some piping “authorities” in the twentieth century  maintained that Ceòl Mór (Big Music) was the only form of music performed by a majority of the eighteenth century pipers, and that many of the family pipers considered Ceòl Beag (Little Music) as decidedly inferior. Existing evidence does not support this view, and it would be tempting to imagine one or more of the MacCrimmons or their pupils playing for group dances such as the Scotch Fours when not playing the classical music of the bagpipe. The concept of “Hereditary” pipers playing dance music is further evidenced by the fact one of the celebrated MacKays of Gairloch, John Roy, was sent by his father to Strathnaver to learn dance music. Primary sources indicate that early immigrants and their descendants in the Maritimes were well acquainted with dancing as a form of entertainment and leisure, as this description of Scottish Gaels landing at Prince Edward Island in the early 1800s illustrates.

Another band of settlers, who, sailing from Moidart to Prince Edward Island, also enjoyed the good fortune to be accompanied by a piper. A descendant  tells that when they landed they formed themselves into sets on the shore and danced a Scotch Reel to the music provided by Ronald MacDonald the piper; and Bishop Fraser, who was present at the celebration exclaimed with delight," That man has the best little finger on the chanter I have ever known."

Later descriptions of social dancing to bagpipe music appear in C.H. Farnham’s article entitled “Cape Breton Folk, written in 1886 for Harpers New Monthly. In 1885 Farnham and a companion walked what later became the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, and his observations offer a first hand account of rural life on the island. Farnham mentions attending two gatherings, one a house party at Ingonish, the other, a “Gathering of the Clans” held at East Lake Ainslie in 1885:

Each of the platforms had about it a large crowd looking at the reels and jigs and piper. The dancing went on all day vigorously. The most impressive figure of all was the piper. The pipes go well with the national emblem: they are a very thistle in your ear; their weird barbaric strains are certainly inspiriting and martial, but you must be a Scotchman to love them. One of the pipers a very tall, very dark, very shaggy man, sat up with a rigid neck, stiff figure, puffed out cheeks, and looked like the presiding genius of some awful heathen rite. But he was one of the gentlest of men. I afterward spent a day with him noting some of the native airs of Cape Breton.


Whether the author of this travelogue was referring to melodies composed in Cape Breton or simply to Scottish tunes played in Cape Breton we will never know. Since this encounter occurred at East Lake Ainslie, and judging by the description of the performer, the piper in question was in all probability, Farquhar (Mór) MacKinnon.

 (Fig. 3)‘Big’ Farquhar and Margory  MacKinnon, c. 1910

The MacKinnons of East Lake Ainslie were known as Clann Fhionghuinn a’ Chiùil (MacKinnons of the Music) and the extended family included several pipers and fiddlers and step-dancers. This family was descended from pioneer settlers who came to Cape Breton from the Island of Muck in 1820.

The traditional dances brought by the first Highland settlers from Scotland consisted mostly of the “Scotch Fours” and the “Eight Hand Reel”. These dances were performed by two couples and four couples respectively. At the turn of the century these dance forms were being displaced by the more modern group dances such as the Saratoga Lancers and the Quadrilles. These imported dances constitute the modern square sets or square dance.

Sometimes there would be solo dancers and even impromptu dance competitions held at ceilidhs. This was an opportunity to demonstrate individual skills and introduce new steps. In some areas a lighted candle would be placed on the floor close to the dancer. When the performer was finished he or she would snuff out the candle flame by clicking their heels together. Other dancers demonstrated their skill by dancing with a small glass of water placed in the bands of their hats, the finest dancers not spilling a drop during their performance.

A piper was often called upon to provide dance music at wedding receptions especially in areas of few fiddlers. In some instances there would be friendly competition between pipers and fiddlers and sometimes the musician played both the bagpipe and violin or in a few areas of Cape Breton the piper and fiddler would play together.

The tradition of pipers playing for solo and group dances was at its most popular in the 1920s and 30s and this tradition continued in a few remote areas of Cape Breton until the 1960s. By the mid-20th century more popular forms of entertainment had appeared and this coupled with the increase in the number of junior pipe bands playing strictly band tunes imported from the modern Scottish idiom helped displace the older style.

(Fig. 4)  Pipers on parade, Pictou, Nova Scotia, 1912.

During and after the two World Wars more and more pipers entered military and civilian pipe bands. In this environment pipers were exposed to the latest developments in Scottish piping styles. In the early 20th century Scottish piping had entered a period of change, described by one immigrant piper to Canada as a “piping renaissance”. These changes wee accompanied by music standardization and a more heavily embellished form of bagpipe playing. It was spear-headed by a professional class of musician, comprised of successful competitive pipers and more often than not, pipers with military connections. In Nova Scotia the older style of piping eventually gave way to the standardized, competitive way of playing of the bagpipe. Dance rhythms gave way to march rhythms as dance music was replaced by the music of the route march, the parade square, the street parade and Highland games competition circuit.  These changes in musical expression coupled with the development of electronic amplification and the popularity of the violin in areas such as Cape Breton successfully displaced the bagpipe as a social dance instrument.

(Fig. 5) An early pipe band in Nova Scotia, c. 1906.


During this 20th century transition period in Nova Scotia many of the older pipers trained in the oral tradition could not or would not change and so became part of a parallel piping culture. The changing role of a piper in Nova Scotia society was from a solo tradition to one of the ensemble or pipe band musician and from an oral tradition to a written one.  By the mid-20th century the function of the piper had become more narrowly defined. No longer required as dance musicians the duties of the piper were reduced to occasionally playing at funerals and “piping in” head-table guests at weddings and receptions. Playing in competition became the prime function of pipers in Nova Scotia and countless hours were spent on standardizing technique and repertoire.

The playing of these older musicians did not conform to the pipe band or competitive style of piping and many of these pipers were criticized by their contemporaries from both Nova Scotia and Scotland. Despite this adversity many of the older pipers retained their individual styles of playing, the old tunes and the ability to play for step-dancers. Their playing was inextricably linked to the step-dance tradition, and for these pipers the bagpipe continued to serve as a medium for the expression of Gaelic culture in Nova Scotia for much of the 20th century.

(Fig. 6) Alex Currie(1910-1998)
One of the last of the ‘old-style pipers in Cape Breton.
Alex played the pipes with his left hand on top of the chanter.

Dance Music

The development and performance of dance music in Scotland appears to date to the 18th century. Early fiddle collections by Robert Bremner (1757), Neil Stewart (1761) and John Riddle (1766) indicates that by that period various forms of dance music were well developed in Scotland. These published collections consisted mostly of Strathspeys, Reels, and Jigs in addition to a few Slow Airs. In the Lowland and Border area of Scotland music developed along what can be best termed as a “variation on a theme” structure. Basic tunes were enlarged with the addition of numerous parts or variations on a basic musical theme. This feature probably developed to extend melodies used for social dance. A good source of these types of tunes can be found in Matt Seattle’s ‘The Master Piper: Nine Notes that Shook the World’ (1995), a book of mostly Border music gleaned from a collection compiled around 1733.

Strathspeys are believed to have evolved from the reel in an area of Scotland known as the River Spey. Strathspeys are meant to be played in Simple Time and are usually written in either Common or 4/4 time, having four beats to each bar. At present they can be sub-divided into two groups; Dancing strathspeys and Listening strathspeys.

Dance strathspeys are played much rounder and faster to accommodate the stepping rhythms of step-dancers. Examples of step-dance tunes include the older two-parted strathspeys, which in the nineteenth century were referred to by the longer term Strathspey-Reel. Tunes such as Miss Drummound of Perth, Devil in the Kitchen, and That’s How the Kale was Ruined, make very good dance tunes.

Listening strathspeys are not meant to be danced to and so are usually played more pointed and slower than their dance counterparts. Samples of these types of tunes include competition-style strathspeys, and those tunes associated with Highland Display dances such as The Highland Fling, Gillie Calum, and SeanTruibhas. The influence of competitions resulted in the addition of several variations to the basic two-part melody and many new strathspeys now have a minimum of four parts. Examples of these types of tunes are Arniston CastleMoneymusk, Tulloch Gorum, and The Athole Cummers.

Reels are very old. The are believed to have originated as a rudimentary dance form on the European continent, being eventually adopted and improved by the Scots and eventually making its way to Ireland. It is performed with two beats to the bar and is written in 2/2 or Split Common Time. Like the Strathspey, the reel started off as a two-parted tune but it was later expanded to four, six and even eight parts. The effect of competition has also changed the performance style of this tune type and these tunes can now also be divided into two types: Dancing Reels and Listening Reels. Some competition style reels like Pretty Marion, John Morrison of Assynt House, Sandy Cameron can be played as both listening and dancing reels.

Jigs are another old dance form. They are mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare and are popular in both Ireland and Scotland. Jigs come in a variety of Compound Time signatures, the three most common being 6/8, 9/8, 12/8.

A large collection of marches, in a variety of time signatures, comprise a significant number of tunes written for the bagpipe. These tunes, with a few exceptions, can be further divided by their time signatures into two groups: Simple Time and Compound Time.

Simple Time tunes can be identified by the following time signatures: 2/4; 3/4; and 4/4. These tunes consist of two beats (2/4), three beats (3/4) and four beats (4/4) to the bar respectively. A bar of 2/4 music is made up of 2 quarter notes or their equivalent; ¾ music has 3 quarter notes or their equivalents, and so on.

Time signatures change from Simple Time to Compound Time with the addition of a dot (.) on each of the quarter notes per bar (or their equivalents).

Compound Time tunes which correspond to the Simple Time equivalents are 6/8; 9/8; 12/8. The addition of the dot changes the rhythmic structure of the tune as well and gives the tune a lift or “lilt”.