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A Brief History Of Bagpipes

The Beginnings

The earliest recorded reference to bagpipes may be on a Hittite slab from Asia Minor which has been dated to 1000 BC.  By the 1st century AD, bagpipes existed in many countries from India to Spain and from France to Egypt, and the bagpipes were popular throughout the rest of the British Isles prior to their documented appearance north of the border. The date and circumstances of the appearance of the bagpipes in Scotland is a much debated topic with competing theories claiming they were either a Roman import or that the instrument came from Ireland.


Types of bagpipe

Regardless of which country lays claim to the development, the basic bagpipe comprised the same elements: a bag with a chanter (on which the melody was played) and one or more drones (pipes which play a continuous note). Some examples were mouth-blown while others used a bellows attachment to supply the air to the bag. The bag provided a sustained tone while the musician took a breath and allowed several tones to be played at once. The original Scottish pipes probably had, at the most, a single drone. The second drone was added to the pipes in the mid to late 1500s while the third, or great drone, came into use early in the 1700s.

While different styles of pipe emerged in Scotland, it is the Highland bagpipe or the piob-mhor 'the Great Pipe', which has emerged as Scotland's national instrument. These are blown by mouth and the bags were traditionally made from the skin of a sheep; although currently leather, rubber or other synthetic materials are used. The pipes themselves were originally made of bone or ivory, but hardwood is the modern choice. The melody is played on a reeded chanter leading down from the bag while the three drone pipes sit on the piper's shoulder and provide a constant, steady sound as a background to the melody.


Music styles

There are essentially two types of music played on the Highland pipes: the march, strathspey and reel variety, which were composed for military or social events, and the piobaireachd (pronounced pee-broch) which is the 'symphony music' of the pipes. This classical music is an art form which can compare to the music of any other country and most of it was composed 100 years before the piano and without written notation.

So while they did not invent bagpipes, Scots can fairly claim to have made them their own through keeping them alive as part of their musical tradition and by making them one of the outstanding parts of their culture.


Recent History of Bagpipes: 

During the expansion of the British Empire, the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe was diffused and has become well-known world-wide. This surge in popularity was boosted by large numbers of pipers trained for military service in the two World Wars.  Police forces in Scotland, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, and the USA have also formed pipe bands.

In more recent years, often driven by revivals of native folk music and dance, many types of bagpipes have resurged in popularity, and in many cases instruments that were on the brink of extinction have become extremely popular. In Brittany the concept of the pipe band was appropriated, the Great Highland Bagpipe was imported and the bagad was created, a showcase ensemble for Breton folk music.  Members of Ipswich Thistle Pipe Band were lucky enough to witness great displays of Bagad bands at the Interceltique Festival de Lorient, France.

Recently various models of electronic bagpipes have been invented. Some models allow the player to select the sound of several different bagpipes as well as switch keys. As yet they are not widely used due to technical limitations, but they have found a useful niche as a practice instrument (particularly with headphones).


Bagpipes. (2008, July 31). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:40, July 31, 2008, from
The Bagpipes. (2008, July31). In The Bagpipes - Information on the History, Playing and Manufacturing the Scottish Highland Bagpipe.  Retrieved 18:47, July 31, 2008, from  http://www.visitscotland.com/guide/scotland-factfile/scottish-icons/the-bagpipes
Bagpipes Tips: Bagpipes Parts a.k.a. Bagpipes Anatomy (2008, July 31). In Bagpipes Tips: Bagpipes Parts a.k.a. Bagpipes Anatomy.  Retrieved 18:53, July 31, 2008 from http://www.bagpipejourney.com/articles/bagpipes_anatomy.shtml