6 Replies to “I just noticed this…”

  1. I think there is some evidence that left orientation used to be more normal for Highland bagpipes, and some evidence that there was no standardisation.

    Certainly for Gaelic harps, left orientation was pretty much universal in the old native tradition:

    I think it makes a subtle but important difference to how the music is expressed, because the different hands have different strengths and weaknesses.

    I wouldnt call it playing “left handed” because left and right handedness is a completely different phenomena from choosing different functions for the dominant and passive hand.

    Another one of my ‘research’ lists though unfortunately the endnote numbers along with those details of where the pictures can be seen have failed to transfer. I really should give up the quill pen and learn how to use a computer but, then again their actual use is not really required when buried in old documents.

    I am afraid Simon that a concept of dominant and passive hands is not relevant to playing a pipe. Unless both hands are equally and agilely deployed then you will not make a piper. As far as playing positions are concerned I think the list does not require further comment. Why it should have been so is a different question of course.

    (R) circa 15th C Angel playing bagpipes, Roslin Chapel
    Bag under right arm

    (R) circa 1714 Piper to the Laird of Grant
    Bag under right arm

    (R) circa 1746 John Geoghegan
    Bag under right arm

    (R) circa 1748 Highland Piper, Louvestein Castle, Holland
    Drones a bit spiffy but bag under right arm
    Wall painting

    (R) circa 1760 Joseph MacDonald self portrait
    Bag under right arm

    (R) circa 1765-96 The Highland Family
    Bag under right arm
    Painting by David Allan (1744-96)

    (R) circa 1765-96 The Highland Dance,
    Bag under right arm
    Painting by David Allan, foreground shows the Gows,
    piper tucked away behind

    (R) circa 1770+ Allan MacDonald, Earl of Eglintons Piper
    Bag under right arm

    (R) circa 1770 Geordy Sim, Town piper of Dalkeith
    Bag under right arm
    Etching by John Kay

    (R) circa 1774 The Mitred Minuet
    Bag under right arm

    (R) circa 1780 A Highland Dance
    2 pipers bags under right arms
    Painting by David Allan

    (R) circa 1784 Neil MacLean, with prize pipe
    Bag under right arm

    (R) circa 1790 A Highland Wedding
    Bag under right arm
    Painting by David Allan ( 1744-1796)
    Two drone pipe


    (L) circa 1810 Archibald MacArthur
    Bag under left arm
    Engraving by John Kay

    (R) pub 1812 John MacDonald, Glenaladale
    Bag under right arm
    Portrait by Alexander Kay, engraved by J Mitchell

    (R) 1821 Death of the red deer, Atholl Estate
    Bag under right arm
    Painting by David Wilkie

    circa 1822 Series of pencil sketches of pipers made by David Dighton

    (R) Kenneth MacRae
    Bag under right arm

    (R) John MacGregor
    Bag under right arm

    (L) John MacKenzie
    Bag under left arm

    (L) John MacKay
    Bag under left arm

    (L) Donald MacDonald (? junior)
    Bag under left arm

    (R) circa 1830 ? John Campbell of the CC family
    Bag under right arm
    Painting Bowmore on Fair Day by Wm Heath

    (L) circa 1830’s Highland Piper
    Bag under left arm
    engraving by Walter Geikie (pencil original)

    1. I find this astonishing.
      When did the switch to the left arm become dominant?

      1. This side of 1800 is out of my comfort zone but I would guess over the course of the 19th C, probably helped by the effects of military standardization. There were though still in my younger days, even in the army, a number of pipers who as it was put ‘stood on the wrong side of their pipes’. It was probably still quite common in the early 20th C, for example a picture from the Glasgow Archives, (it is available somewhere online but following the host body internet site being ‘upgraded’ its not where it was). clearly shows the pipes are ‘borrowed’ and are set up for a right side player. A similar picture exists across in Canada where the current owner of the pipes has a picture of their great great grandfather playing on the left shoulder although the instrument is set up for the right. In that case following genealogical work both sides of the pond we established that he was the first child born after the family had arrived from Scotland in the late 1840’s and had probably become so used to sharing his fathers pipes did not bother to reconfigure them after the fathers death. Since the family traced back to Islay and the original owner would have likely been a pupil of one of Campbell of Islay’s pipers, either Angus MacKay or John Campbell, it was probably the latter as the painting in which he features showed that he played on the ‘right’ shoulder.

  3. Keith I used “dominant” and “passive” to indicate “everyday” usage. I’m not a piper and know very little about the pipes, so I would not like to speculate on whether the upper and lower hand have different ways of working. But on the harp, the treble hand and bass hand clearly have very different roles and techniques int he old tradition (just look at the tables of techniques in Bunting’s 1840 “Ancient Muic of Ireland”, most of the techniques are quite different for left and right hands, with only a couple common to both)

    On the harp, the orientation swapped in the 19th & early 20th century I would think. In Ireland and Scotland the old Gaelic harp traditions died out, and so the old left orientation died out. The revival harp traditions that started in the 19th century are based on European classical harp traditions and so use a right orientation. In Wales the old native harp traditions continued right through, and they retained a left orientation into the 20th century (and I believe one or two players still have a left orientation). I am guessing it was a cosmopolitan European “norm” that made the right orientation become most common, and I wonder if the same is true for pipes, that the influence from oboe and flute etc. made pipers want to swap?

    Against this idea is tht in the older European tradition, people seem to have been less bothered by orientation. Check out Virdung’s 1511 illustration of recorder fingering in Musica Getutscht (p. 170 in Beth Bullard’s translation)

    I’d be interesting to hear of any historically-minded pipers who have experimented with left orientation , and if there is anything interesting about it.

  4. He says that the two lowest holes in the recorder are for either orientation, so you close one hole with your bottom hand pinkie and you plug the other with wax.

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