When most Nova Scotians think of the bagpipe, the first thing that springs to mind is the numerous pipe bands seen at various festivals, highland games and parades during the year. Originating in Egypt as a simple reed pipe, the most popular form – and the one most familiar to people – is the Great Highland Bagpipe developed in the Highlands of Scotland over 500 years ago. Pipe bands and written music are in fact relatively new phenomena considering the long history of the bagpipe. While the first civilian pipe bands made their appearance on Nova Scotia's musical landscape at the turn of the century, most people are unaware that any other piping tradition exists.
For the tens of thousands of new world Gaels who settled in Nova Scotia between 1773 and the 1840's, music had a paramount role. Gaelic songs and stories, violin and pipe music all played an integral part in the day-to-day lives of these early settlers.
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 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 much longer than in Scotland.
These immigrant musicians 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 the classical music of the bagpipe. This was developed in the Highlands of Scotland beginning sometime in the 16th century. These long pieces of music, resembling an Italian Rondo, require a good memory and great 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 here.
The sheer volume of the bagpipe made the piper an attractive purveyor of dance music, especially in open fields or halls. In Nova Scotia there was a tradition of pipers playing for stepdancers for both solo and group dances. During the two World Wars more and more pipers entered bands and the older style gave way to standardized, competitive piping. Dance rhythms gave way to marches and, coupled with the development of amplification and the popularity of the violin, the bagpipe has slowly been pushed aside as a social dance instrument. Many of the older pipers trained in the oral tradition became part of a parallel piping culture. They retained their individual styles of playing, the old tunes and the ability to play for stepdancers. Their playing did not conform to pipe band or competitive style. Linked inextricably to a dance tradition, the bagpipe served as a medium for the expression of Gaelic culture in Nova Scotia.
Barry Shears is a Cape Breton piper (preferring to play in the dance tradition), a recording artist, and author of several books on piping.