A Brief History of the Bagpipe

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. 

An ornament of Santa playing a 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.

A bagpiper on a tea towel.
The Great Highland Bagpipe contains a bag, a chanter, a blowpipe, two tenor drones, and one bass drone.

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

A bagpipe Christmas ornament hanging on a tree.

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.



17 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Bagpipe

  • Very interesting. I was never a fan of bagpipes, having been put off by solo bagpipers on Edinburgh street corners deafening me with their droning, but when I went to the Tattoo my opinion changed. Hearing those massed pipes and drums got to me. It was really stirring stuff.

    • I could see that. Especially if you were blasted with the sound every time you went out. I guess I hear them play so infrequently that when I do it’s a big deal. My husband said he would remedy that if I would just let him get some pipes. Uhh, no. Haha

      • Oh no, don’t let him. I’ve got a neighbour who occasionally practises his bagpipes in the garden and it’s not something I’d recommend. I meant to say I liked your Christmas tree photos.

      • Oh no worries there, haha. As much as I love the pipes, I definitely don’t want to hear someone learning to play them. The neighbors would kill us! That’s hilarious about your neighbor.

  • I too love the bagpipes. I always tear up when they come along in a parade. I absolutely adore your Christmas tree ornaments! A great post.

  • My son is a bagpiper! And I happily follow the call of the bagpipes. There is a deep and profound resonance in the music that holds the stories of a wonderful land.

  • Such an interesting post, Wendy. I’d like to hear bagpipes more– and unfortunately, only heard them on the street in Edinburgh when I was there in September. I agree that they touch down deep. They’re especially moving when you hear them played at the funeral procession of fallen police officers. My mother loves the song, “Oh Danny Boy” and I think of the line, “the pipes, the pipes are calling.” Love your ornaments and the cloth of bagpipers– such rich images. Thanks for writing, Connie

    • Thank you, Connie. Yes, “Oh Danny Boy” is another one that certainly has the power to move. I heard James Galway perform it on his flute several years ago and blubbered the whole way through!

      • Yes, it’s a tea towel I purchased this past March when I was in Scotland. It has lots of images depicting Scotland. You’ll no doubt get to see more images in future posts. I try to post all my own photos if possible which means I have to get creative sometimes. 🙂

  • My dad is getting remarried this year and is trying to find ways to help make this wedding different and fun. I like that you said that the music of bagpipes can make your heart leap out of your chest. That sounds like a great way to celebrate a big day, so I’ll will have to tell my dad to start looking into hiring a bagpiper that can play at his wedding to make it even more special.

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