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Issue 32 - Everything you need to know about Scottish bagpipes

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 32
April 2007


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Everything you need to know about Scottish bagpipes

Roddy Martine reveals the history of the humble bagpipe

Among the carvings within Rosslyn Chapel on the outskirts of Edinburgh is the image of an angel playing a set bagpipes. The carving dates from the late 15th century, and at Melrose Abbey, in the Scottish Borders, there is another quirky carving, this one of a pig playing the bagpipes which, during the 20th century, inspired a similar image to be carved within the interior of the Thistle Chapel of St Giles’ Cathedral.

The earlier carvings, it is believed, were a tribute to local characters, since pipe music had become an important feature of medieval life in Scotland. However, they do raise questions as to the origins of Scottish bagpipes, as similar instruments are known to have existed in the Middle East several centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Bagpipes in general are closely associated with the Celtic race which more than a thousand years ago began to colonise the Basque country in Spain, Brittany in France, Cornwall in England, Wales, Ireland and, by the sixth century, had reached Scotland. In mythology, these people were known as the ‘Lost Tribe of Dan,’ one of the 12 tribes of Israel, dispersed in 722 BC when the Assyrians swept in to conquer the region. It is thought that the first musical instrument of the type was similar to a hornpipe, but when the bag was attached remains a mystery.

In 400 BC, pipers in ancient Thebes had bagpipes made of dogskin with chanters made of bone. In a later century, the Roman Emperor Nero is reputed to have played them. Thereafter, evidence is slight, except that they are alleged to have been in evidence in Scotland in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn. In The Miller’s Tale, a profoundly English work, Geoffrey Chaucer refers to his hero playing the pipes.

In 1760, the first serious study of the Highland bagpipe and its music appeared in Joseph MacDonald’s Compleat Theory.

However, with the growth of the British Empire and the bagpipes a feature of every Scottish regiment, they soon became known the world over. One of the most stirring moments at the end of the annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo in August is the sight and sound of the Lone Piper playing on the battlements of Edinburgh Castle.

In the Gaelic language, pipe music is known as ‘piobaireachd,’ after the sounds created by a piper, or ‘piobair.’ This music is also known as ‘Ceÿl Mhor,’ which means ‘the Great Music,’ to distinguish it from the other kind of pipe music which is known as ‘Ceÿl Beag,’ meaning ‘the Little Music.’ The Great Highland bagpipe (A’ Phiob Mhÿr) is essentially a wind instrument consisting of two or more single or doublereed pipes, the reeds being set in motion by wind fed by arm pressure on an animal-skin or cloth bag.

The pipes are held in wooden sockets fixed into the bag, which is inflated either by the mouth through a blowpipe with a leather one-way valve, or by bellows strapped to the body.

Tunes are played on the finger holes of the melody pipe, known as the chanter, while the remaining pipes, or drones, provide a continuous background sound. A major innovation since the 1990s has been the addition of a moisture control system to the bag for mouth-blown pipes, preventing moisture from the piper’s breath from condensing on the pipes, drones and reeds.

There are more than 30 known variations of bagpipes in use worldwide. The Highland bagpipes, however, remain the most common. The instrument’s popularity in the 21st century knows no bounds. Pipe band associations are continually reporting new interest, and the number of commercial recordings of bagpipes continues to grow year on year.

In 2000, 8,000 pipers marched down 6th Avenue to celebrate America’s Tartan Day.

One of the most moving aspects of the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy in New York in 2001 was the number of pipe bands who subsequently attended the many funerals.

In 2005, the World Pipe Band Championships took place in Glasgow with 230 pipe bands and 9,000 pipers from 24 countries competing.