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The Origin of Bagpipes

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Bagpipes 101

Bagpipes are now so strongly associated with Scotland that it's not unreasonable to assume that's where the instrument was invented. But, bagpipes are an import. Read on and you'll discover more than you ever wanted to know about what my family, with a Scottish heritage, used to call “agonybags.”

Bagpipe Basics

Unlike the violin or oboe, the word bagpipes tells you what the instrument is made of—a bag and a bunch of pipes. Traditionally, the bag was made from a whole animal skin—goats, sheep, dogs, and even cows were pressed into service. The pipes were attached where the legs and neck would have been on the live animal. Today, modern fabrics, such as Goretex, are frequently used.

The bag is filled with air puffed in by the player through what is charmingly called the blowstick, a hollow tube. This creates a bag full of air; a windbag to some.

The player then uses his or her arm to squeeze the windbag located at the side of the body. This forces air through the pipes that are attached to the bag; there are two kinds of pipes—drones and the chanter.

Scottish bagpipes have three drones which, as the name suggests, drone. One is a bass and two are tenors but cast from your mind any thoughts of Andrea Bocelli. The drones emit what might charitably called a low moan.

In 1965, The Hartford Courant of Connecticut published what was termed a confession of a bagpiper: “I put my bagpipes in the closet where they belong, out of sympathy for my neighbors,” he is claimed to have said.

The real business end of the instrument is the chanter, this is where the “tune” comes from. It's a bit like a recorder with stop holes along its length so the piper can play different notes. Only nine notes are available with no sharps or flats.

The sound of bagpipes is universally referred to as “the skirl” that The Free Dictionary defines as “a high, shrill, wailing tone.” You have been warned.

Where Do Bagpipes Come From?

People have been hearing the noise of bagpipes for thousands of years, but tracking who invented the instrument is next to impossible. Some historians trace the origin to Sumeria, five thousand years ago, but the Oxford History of Music says it's quite a bit younger. The compilers of the reference book say the first appearance of the instrument is on a Hittite sculptured slab dated at about 1000 BCE.

Suffice it to say, the ancestor of the bagpipe is thousands of years old and may have originated in the Middle East. Or, maybe not. Historyscotland.com confuses everything by stating “Many experts believe (bagpipes) originated in India at least 3,000 years ago . . .”

Those early instruments were mostly just a chanter without the bag and drones; Pan pipes if you will. Music sleuths follow the trail through Egypt, Ancient Greece, and Rome, which is where we find the emperor Nero making noise with something called a tibia utricularis. Nero played his merry airs with the aid of the windbag, so the device has now taken on the look of the bagpipes we know today.

(Roman coins from Nero's time show him playing the bagpipes not the fiddle. The fiddle was not invented until almost 1,000 years after Nero died so he could not have fiddled while Rome burned).

By the Middle Ages, bagpipes appeared in many places in Europe. There's a carving on a pillar of The Monastery of Santa Maria de Santes Creus in Spain that resembles someone playing bagpipes (below). The monastery dates from the 12th century.

A sword appears on the right as someone seems ready to make a critical comment about the music.

A sword appears on the right as someone seems ready to make a critical comment about the music.

How Did Bagpipes Get to Scotland?

No country is more associated today with bagpipes than Scotland; the instrument is central to the country's culture. (There's a small body of opinion that says the top cultural icon of Scotland is the deep-fried Mars bar).

There are a few varieties of pipes but the one most familiar to everyone is the Great Highland bagpipe, known in Gaelic as the Piob Mhor. How it got to Scotland is a mystery.

There's a legend that Julius Caesar used bagpipes in the first century CE to scare the wits out of horses carrying Scottish warriors, but that's probably fanciful. The first written reference to bagpipes in Scotland appears to be in the 15th century.

Until about 1700, the primary musical instrument in Scotland was the Celtic harp. Then, the bagpipes nudged the harp out of the way in part because of its ability to warm up the blood of highlanders about to engage in battle. You couldn't send men into combat behind a Celtic harp and clan chiefs were frequently at war with one another.

Ben Johnson, (historic-uk.com) writes, ”It is said that the shrill and penetrating sound worked well in the roar of battle and that the pipes could be heard at distances of up to 10 miles away.”

It has been said that the definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes but chooses not to.

It has been said that the definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes but chooses not to.

The strategy didn't work too well at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 when Scots rebelling against English rule were slaughtered.

The English then passed a law banning the carrying of weapons, the wearing of kilts, and the ownership of the most dangerous implements of all—bagpipes. The act was repealed in 1785 after the English recognized the value of a piper leading soldiers into battle during the construction of its empire.

During World War I, extremely brave pipers were the first out of the trenches to lead the near-suicidal charges across no man's land. Their casualty rate was awful, of 2,500 pipers enlisted almost half were either killed or wounded. They put the fear of God into the Germans who called the kilted men Die Damen aus der Hölle (Ladies from Hell).

Nowadays, bagpipes have a purely ceremonial function. No wedding, funeral, Burns Night Supper, nor caber tossing in Scotland would be complete without bagpipes.

Traditional Scottish festival? No, St. Patrick's Day parade in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Traditional Scottish festival? No, St. Patrick's Day parade in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Bonus Factoids

  • Since 1843, the British monarch has had a personal piper. During Queen Elizabeth's 70-year reign her piper acted as an alarm clock, playing for 15 minutes under her window at whatever royal residence she was staying in. The wake-up call came at 9 a.m. Apparently, Prince Philip hated the sound.
  • James Reid was a rebel bagpiper at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. He was captured by the English and hanged. He is said to be the only person executed because he was a piper. It's likely that others have narrowly escaped the same fate.
  • A set of high-quality bagpipes can cost as much as $6,500, although Amazon has some on offer for $150 and up; probably not top of the line but you can get them tomorrow.
  • Every year, the Royal Military Tattoo is held in Edinburgh, the highlight of which is the parade of the massed pipes and drums with musicians drawn from all British armed forces services.

Sources

© 2022 Rupert Taylor