It seems fair to say that most people associate bagpipes with Scotland. But there may be more to this instrument than meets the eye…
Whilst Scotland may be the home of the bagpipes now their origins stem back thousands of years. Texts in both Roman and Greek make mention of bagpipe like instruments and it is believed that the were in existence even before these well known empires were around making the bagpipe one of the oldest known musical instruments. Indeed in Ancient Egypt it is believed that as early as 400 BC the ‘pipers of Thebes’ would blow pipes made from dog skin with bone chanters.
The bagpipe probably didn’t become quite so established until the middle ages where many places in Western Europe including Spain, France and Italy all have reference to instruments similar to bagpipes though every country seems to have slightly different characteristics. It is safe to say there is more than one type of bagpipe around but regardless of the many different forms they all seem to comprise of a basic construction with an air supply, a bag with a chanter and one or more drones.
In Italy people still play pipes known as Zampogna which are smaller than the traditional Great Highland pipes you may think of. In France meanwhile there is a pipe called the Musette which has been around for hundred of years.
Within Scotland there are different types of pipes. The Great highland pipes are the ones most recognisable but there are the Border pipes, which are slightly smaller and use bellows rather than a mouthpiece, and further south there are the Northumbrian small pipes, which are again similar to the Border pipes. Many other types have existed over the years but these are probably the main ones still around today.
In Scotland the original Highland pipes probably comprised a single drone with the second drone being added in the mid to late 1500’s. The third, or the great drone, came into use sometime in the early 1700s and this is when they really started to find their popularity.
Region also had an effect on pipers status. Those in England and the borders who played the pipes were generally part of the minstrel class, playing at feasts and fairs throughout the country. In the Highlands however pipers held a higher more honoured position perhaps due to the influence of the Celtic background. Indeed by the 1700’s the piper began to replace the traditional harpist as the musician of choice within the clan system.
Bagpipes have not had a simple history and today many associate the pipe with the military,with many military units throughout the world having pipers within them to this day. This tradition, at least in Scotland, dates from the 16th Century where pipers replaced trumpets in order to help inspire men as they went into battle. The sound from the pipe worked well with all the noise of the battle with the sound carrying for miles around, some say up to 10 miles away.
After Culloden the Government considered Jacobite pipers guilty by association. One piper, James Reid was a taken prisoner and held at Carlisle in 1746. He tried to argue that as a piper he had not played an active combative role against the government but still he was arrested and imprisoned. As the Government saw it, no Highland regiment would have marched without a piper and therefore he was guilty with some even considering the bagpipes an instrument of war. This is a well known tale that has been retold many times but it must be remembered that bagpipes were not the only instrument to be targeted. Drums and horns were given the same status as all these instruments were used to incite a riot and stir up the men to battle.
Luckily today bagpipes are not used to incite riots but are still a big part of military culture and there are many military pipe bands throughout the world. Now though they play to entertain and to showcase the skill of the piper with annual pipe band championships, highland games and military tattoos to demonstrate the power of the bagpipes.
We hope you enjoyed this little look at bagpipes. As always please like, share, tweet, comment and why not pick up a set of pipe and give them a go yourself.
All the best, K & D