6 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 34

Why the Loch Ness Monster decided to stay on the bottom

In summer, throughout Scotland, elderly men, usually with beards and in Highland dress, stand around with their bagpipes waiting for tourists to

pay them to play. I recall one who stood on the shore of Loch Ness, at Castle Urquhart. and the Japanese submariners who came in search of the monster asked him to perform in the hope that the noise would bring it out of its Stygian depths. Another, a real veteran, who told me he had played at the Somme, stood guard at Rosemarkie, the charming little resort on the Black Isle, and I paid him to play and sit for a sketch, which I still have. I like the Great Highland Pipes and the solemn men who play them. A scurrilous survey, published last week in the Scotsman, insinuates that 84 per cent of pipers drink too much. So they do, but I have never known one allow whisky to affect his playing, though many often pass out once the last drone dies away.

Those who say they hate bagpipes do not understand the principle of the thing. It goes back to prescriptive times and certainly flourished in ancient Greece. Nero played one, according to Suetonius. It is a reed instrument and works on the same principle as the organ. When I was a little boy, my sisters taught me how to make a screeching noise by joining together tall blades of grass. That is how a reed works. The organ comes in when you take the body of a lamb or goat, or the bladder of a bigger beast, and insert pipes, equipped with reeds, into the holes of the skin formed by its legs. Then you fill the skin with air and shove it under your arm, expelling the air through the pipes. With bagpipes you can either have a bellows under your arm, like a real old-fashioned organ, to replenish the air, or you can insert a windpipe into the skin and keep puffing more in.

A Highland bagpipe is now made of leather, dressed in the appropriate tartan, and has five apertures. Into these are inserted first a blowpipe, to keep the bag full of air, which is kept in the piper's mouth most of the time, then three drones, which sound single notes, two tenor and one bass, when the bag is squeezed under the piper's arm. This continual droning provides, as it were, the background chord to the music. The tune, such as it is, comes from the fifth insert, or chanter, a wide conical bore with eight holes, which the piper plays with his free hand, thus producing nine notes. The chanter is the bagpipe's voice, the drones the chorus. Each tenor drone is tuned to an octave below the chanter's 'a' note, and the bass drone to an octave below the tenors. But the chanter has such a piercing and powerful sound that it can soar above the droning without difficulty, like Kirsten Flagstad singing Briinnhilde.

Of course there are all sorts of bagpipes, played throughout Europe, but most of them have a windbag that needs to be held across the chest, which gives the piper a crouched and shrunken posture. The long Scotch windbag is held, as it should be, under the arm, and so the piper can square his shoulders and hold his head high, and if he is wearing a bearskin he becomes a tall and impressive figure. It is essentially a military instrument, and various types are known as war-pipes. The Romans were led into battle by bagpipes and it is a fact that a piper, and still more, several, marching at a steady pace at the head of a regiment and playing imperturbably above the noise of battle, has a wonderfully bolstering effect on men who are being shot at. They march proud and close ranks swiftly if comrades fall. I'm not surprised that Lord Lovat had his piper with him when he led the first fighting assault in Operation Overlord.

Why did the Highland pipers fail so dismally to inspire the clansmen at Culloden? Perhaps their bags were soaked. The best modern bagpipers use properly tanned sheepskin leather, preferably from Iceland, which is both thick and close-grained so as to make it airtight but absorbent of the moisture from the piper's lungs. An alternative is to use rubber or cloth with a rubber backing. But this is nonabsorbent, so the saliva has to be got rid of by a draining-plug. The 18th-century bags were often non-absorbent too, and the reeds became waterlogged and unplayable. There is, in the British Library's Luttrell Psalter, a striking drawing of a venomous bagpiper, fingering a chanter with a King's head and with a single, beflagged drone. His hair is wet and curly and his fury is due to his soggy bag. Bagpipe droning certainly has a suggestion of moisture. Shakespeare noticed this, as he noticed everything. He says, in The Merchant of Venice:

Some men there are love not a gaping pig; Some, that are mad if they behold a cat; And others, when the bagpipe sings i' the nose, Cannot contain their urine.

But he is also ambivalent about the effects of piping. Falstaff complains that he is 'as melancholy as a gibbed cat or the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe'. On the other hand Shakespeare says the pipes 'cause some to laugh like parrots'. Perhaps that was why Chaucer's uncouth Miller played one: no melancholic he.

In Shakespeare's day there were plenty of pipers south of the border. Henry jester, Will Somers, played the pipes to cheer the old man up. The Percys, up in Alnwick, led their men into battle against the Scots with a piper at their elbows, and I'm told that the present Duke of Northumberland still has a resident piper at the castle. I trust that his Duchess has a role for him to play in her new garden, though experience tells me that piping and horticulture are not congruous. You don't hear the pipes at Inverewe, do you? On the other hand, I once heard a piper in the grounds of Inverary Castle, possibly the old Duke of Argyll himself, in retaliation for his wife's infidelities with the Headless Man and others.

I heard last month that there are now more Highland pipers in Canada than there are in Scotland. And many in New Zealand, too, plus a burgeoning number in Japan. It was a Canadian magazine, the Piper & Dmmmer, which did the survey of pipers. Canadians were strongly represented among the 40,000 people gathered on Glasgow Green a fortnight ago for the world pipe championships. The cup was won by the Shotts and Dykehead Caledonian Band, the first Scots band to triumph for 12 years. They say the noise was heard in Edinburgh. The survey claims that a single chanter can notch 122 decibels, as opposed to a mere 110 at a rock concert and 120 near a jet engine. No wonder that it also reported that 10 per cent of male pipers admitted that their noise had broken up their marriages.