Lindsay Davidson 
Driving 'piping forward

Writing for Borderpipes

(description, role, sound)
RangeBasics of playing
Extended techniqueGuidebooksExamples


When we say 'bagpipes', most people think of the great highland bagpipes of Scotland. There are, however, other kinds of bagpipes in common use in Scotland.

Borderpipes are effectively, but imperfectly,  chromatic.

Borderpipes have a tone similar to a highland bagpipe, but less piercing and less powerful. They balance perfctly with a tring quartet or a small chamber orchestra. The sound carries far better than smallpipes and for anything other than very delicate ensembles, these should be the bagpipes of choice. 

Like highland bagpipes, borderpipes have drones. These are usually tuned to the bottom note of the chanter, and an octave beneath that. These can be turned off with the help of corks. Some newer instruments have special levers which allow the drones to be turned off together, but you should always check if your piper has this or not, as this is not standard.

As with highland bagpipes, the melody is played on a 'chanter'.

Important to note is that borderpipes sound continuously and that repetition of notes happens by short, sharp movements of the fingers called 'gracenotes' (they differ in reality a little from other traditions' gracenotes). Gracenotes are also grouped together systematically to form a whole method of playing. This method gives bagpipe music grammar and nuance and without gracenotes bagpipe music can sound senseless. With irregular and unusual gracing, it an also sound senseless and it is worth to be aware of this and refrain from prescribing extensive gracings if they can't changed by the performer. Often as with other instruments, unplayable combinations can be, and often are,  presented.

Borderpipes typically use a both the standard highland gracings, and the variety of other possibilities from smallpipes. It should be noted though that the vast majority of borderpipers started off as highland pipers, went through smallpipes and finally came to borderpipes, which is why the whole gamut of Scottish bagpipe gracing can be called upon. Borderpipes are the most difficult to play of all of the Scottish bagpipes, by a long margin. 

For a complete listing of all the basic gracings used by highland pipers please go to the author's teach yourself bagpipes website where there is a clear explanation of both the musical function and the method of playing each embellishment.

In addition to these, we can have mordents, trills, vibrato, short runs of a few notes up to a note and glissando between neighbouring pitches (upwards only).


Borderpipes are written at sounding pitch. The basic scale has two sharps, and all chromaticisms are gained by cross fingering. On account of the fairly recent addition of these notes to the scale, borderpipers have little familiarity with less standard fingering, and as a result the composer should bear this in mind when writing 

The basic scale is as below:

Borderpipes - chanterDrones

Basic scale

The most common deviations from this are C natural and F natural:

Next is G sharp. This can be taken in two different ways, and atmospheric conditions influence which method will be used.

Finally, we have D sharp and B flat.

This gives a total range as follows:

Borderpipes - chanter
Full scale

Basics of Playing

As noted above, bagpipes sound continuously and use a system of gracenotes as a kind of musical grammar. By far the safest advice is to leave gracing up to the performer, or to work closely with a piper when preparing your score. In the Teach Yourself  Method, each embellishment is described firstly with its musical 'reason to be' and then shown. It would be wise to read this thoroughly.

Generally speaking, quickly repeated notes do not sound well on bagpipes unless they are one of the established embellishments. This is because gracenotes take time to play and this must be factored into the rhythm.
Other than that, there are no jumps between notes which are unplayable, nor any which are particularly difficult to play. Caution should be exercised when jumping between the less standard fingerings, and also when jumping between hands (there are reasons why changing between hands is more difficult than on other bagpipes). Extreme caution should be exercised when jumping between two non standard fingerings.

Borderpipes are played with bellows, as  opposed to being mouthblown. As a result, there can sometimes be pumping noises when blowing. This is not always an issue, but when you write for borderpipes you should be aware of it. Additionally, as the players elbows move before the sound begins, it can be very difficult for a borderpiper to lead a chamber ensemble. If you wish the piper to lead, then leaved extra time for the others to learn to read his or her movements.

The conductor, if you are writing for an ensemble, needs to be told to give the piper early notice to get ready. Just like highland pipes, border pipes start the drones before the chanter.

Unlike highland bagpipes, borderpipers can mostly hear what is going on around them, and the pipes are made at the standard concert pitch of A=440Hz. They will tune up to A=443 and down a little although this is trickier. Tuning a borderpipe chanter takes  time, but less than the smallpipes need.  The piper cannot allow any moisture on to the reed. The pitch alters a little after warming the instrument up, and it is best to have the other musicians tune to the bagpipes after about 15 minutes of playing.  Borderpipes can fairly easily be tuned to a piano, although the chromaticisms may not work out perfectly.

Like smallpipes, borderpipes are extremely stable in tuning, once they have settled.

However, as with highland and smallpipes, if something is going to go off, the performer has no contact with the reed and cannot correct problems in situ. A borderpiper has about 20 seconds warning of most problems...

Staccato effects are not possible. 

Vibrato is only used on the highest notes, from F sharp to high A. Any other vibrato will result in a trill, and not a pretty one. 

Extended technique

It is possible to sound the drones without sounding the chanter. This achieved by playing with a lower pressure which can result in the tone being unstable, or at worst, can result in the pitch changing altogether and being unsteady. Unfortunately this is often a question of atmospheric conditions, but is more stable and reliable than with smallpipes.

Microtones are available as a portamento going upwards from a note one hole lower. The pitches will be uncertain but the effect works.

Overtones, or harmonics depend upon the individual piper and bagpipe (and weather). It is theoretically possible to go into a second octave with borderpipes, but the tuning is unstable, and the effect is less than ideal. This is achieved by pinching the thumb into the top hole, and overblowing. You should only use this effect in consultation with the piper.


As with highland bagpipes, there are very few guidebooks available which can tell you anything about writing music for borderpipes. By far the best thing to do this direction is to get a hold of some bagpipe music and listen to recordings, together with reading through the teachyourselfbagpipes site to understand what a 'piper really does.

Writing for Great Highland Bagpipes

Writing for smallpipes

Contact details:
skype: lindsay.davidson1973