Happy December, friends! Is it really just over three weeks until Christmas? My goodness, where does the time go? 2018 is just a blink away.
Today we are going to take a quick look at the history of the bagpipe.
The bagpipe is quite unlike any other instrument in its ability to stir and penetrate the soul. When well-played, bagpipes can evoke a gamut of emotions; joy, sadness, excitement, determination, and for me personally, a profound longing – even a homesickness of sorts.
Scotland the Brave (first verse, lyrics written by Cliff Hanley)
Hark, when the night is falling
Hear, hear the pipes are calling
Loudly and proudly calling
Down through the Glen.
There where the hills are sleeping
Now feel the blood a-leaping
High as the spirits
Of the old Highland men.
If I asked you to imagine bagpipes, I suspect the picture that would come to your mind is that of the Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland (in Gaelic, ‘piob-mhor,’ meaning ‘the great pipe’). They are the loudest and grandest and are the most well-known and familiar to us. I would venture to guess that the Highland Bagpipes are, almost exclusively, the variety of pipes that you see in Scotland and here in the United States. But did you know that there are many other varieties of bagpipes as well? Did you know that bagpipes didn’t originate in Scotland?
The exact origin of the bagpipe is inconclusive; however, historians have strong evidence to support that they existed since before the first century and were probably born in the Middle East. According to Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr in their book “Wayfaring Strangers”, bagpipes may have come from Samaria (the region of ancient Israel). Others believe that they originated in Egypt. From wherever the exact location of their birth, historians do know that they eventually made their way into Greece, Rome, and the rest of Europe, along with the diffusion of early civilizations.
It was likely the Romans who introduced the bagpipe to Scotland. The Roman Emperor Nero (37-68 A.D.) is said to have been a piper himself. Others believe that invading Anglo-Normans brought the instrument to Irish shores and that it was the Irish that took them to Scotland.
Regardless of the exact route the bagpipe took, there were hundreds of years of evolution, cultural refinement, and adaptation of this fine instrument. The earliest versions probably bore little resemblance to the Great Highland Bagpipe that we see today. They were probably more similar to whistles and flutes, which are ancient cousins of today’s bagpipe chanter (the part of the bagpipe where the melody is fingered). Over time, drones (the pipes that produce a constant harmonizing note) and also bags were added, allowing for a continual flow of air when the bag is inflated and squeezed. Dozens of types of bagpipes exist in the world today, in nearly every corner of the globe. The consistency of these pipes is that they are either mouth-blown like the Highland Bagpipe or bellows blown like the Border pipes. They may have any number of drones and chanters.
A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne,
And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne.
–The Canturbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
Bagpipes have long been associated with the Scottish Highland clans, weddings, funerals, and have a long history in the country’s regimental life. When played alongside drums as a marching band instrument, the sound will make your heart leap out of your chest. Just Google a video of an Edinburgh Military Tattoo performance, and you’ll see what I mean. Goosebumps!
Friends, I’m so glad you stopped by today. I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about this most exciting and unique instrument. I will leave you with a poem I found by Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson. Until next time…
The Piper by Robert Louis Stevenson
Again I hear you piping, for I know the tune so well,
You rouse the heart to wander and be free,
Tho’ where you learned your music, not the God of song can tell,
For you pipe the open highway and the sea.
O piper, lightly footing, lightly piping on your way,
Tho’ your music thrills and pierces far and near,
I tell you you had better pipe to someone else to-day,
For you cannot pipe my fancy from my dear.
You sound the note of travel through the hamlet and the town;
You would lure the holy angels from on high;
And not a man can hear you, but he throws the hammer down
And is off to see the countries ere he die.
But now no more I wander, now unchanging here I stay;
By my love, you find me safely sitting here:
And pipe you ne’er so sweetly, till you pipe the hills away,
You can never pipe my fancy from my dear.