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History of the Great Highland Bagpipes

Celtic-instruments image of Scottish piper wearing a traditional kilt, playing the Great Highland bagpipes

When one thinks of Ireland, its national symbol, the Celtic harp, springs immediately to mind. In the case of Scotland, the same can be said of the Great Highland Bagpipes. Across all continents, more than 200 different varieties of bagpipes are being played today. In every corner of the world where Celtic people have settled, the bagpipes or Piob have been absorbed into and become an important part of the culture.

Over the centuries, as people have migrated from country to country along the major trade routes, the bagpipes made the journey with them. Reed pipes and bagpipes spread across the Middle East, and through Asia via the Silk Road, and then to points ever more distant. In each destination, the instrument took on a different form. Today, most European countries have their own unique type of bagpipes—including France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, Russia and Sweden, among others--and each type of bagpipes has its own distinctive sound. The reed pipe of ancient times underwent a process of evolution that would eventually produce not only the bagpipes, but also the orchestral woodwind known as the oboe, as well as the bombarde of French Brittany.

Earliest Origins

The earliest physical evidence for the existence of the bagpipes is an engraved rendering in Chaldean sculptures dating back to 4000 B.C. The oldest set of pipes was found in Panopolis, Egypt, by archaeologists who dated them to 1500 B.C. By comparison, the only Celtic musical instruments of an equivalent age are the bodhran, harp and feadan (whistle or flute).

The earliest forerunners of the Great Highland Bagpipes—simple, mouth-blown reed pipes—had emerged in the Near East and Egypt by 2500 B.C. The most popular of these reed pipes was the shawm, which retained its popularity for centuries.

Instrument of War

Throughout history, high-decibel, mouth-blown pipes have always been associated with the waging of war; and as an instrument of war, the Great Pipes certainly have no equal--or even any competition. The notes of the pipes have a shrill and penetrating quality that can be heard at distances up to nine miles, and are not easily drowned out even by the sounds of battle. Compared to the instruments they replaced on the battlefield—trumpets, horns, and harps—the bagpipes have a more warlike, aggressive sound. As a result of their chilling effect on opposing troops, bagpipes were the favorites of generals everywhere, and Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all led troops into battle to the wailing skirl of the pipes.

Among classical civilizations, the Romans are the best-known advocates of using pipes in battle. Pipes were a particular favorite of the Emperor Nero, and Roman coinage of his era features a likeness of Nero playing a bagpipe. Could Nero have played the bagpipes, and not the fiddle, while Rome burned? (Some historians think so.)

In the course of conquering the world, the Roman infantry helped spread the bagpipes far and wide. The Romans also are credited with first adding a bag to a reed pipe to make more air readily available to the instrument while playing, and eliminate breath-related pauses in the music. At the same time, the addition of the bag obviated the need to master difficult circular breathing techniques.

Playing for the Crowned Heads of Europe

After the collapse of the Roman empire the pipes remained a popular instrument in Europe for more than 1,000 years. By the Middle Ages, the bagpipes were arguably the favorite instrument of all of Europe; pipers played in the courts of the continent’s most powerful monarchs. With their popularity as high in other European countries as in Scotland, there was really nothing to indicate that the Great Pipes or Piob Mhor would one day be identified so strongly with Scotland. Later, it would be up to Scottish Highland clans to elevate the bagpipes to full prominence, to foster further development of the pipes, and to make them the kind of instrument the whole country could embrace, in peace as well as in war.

Scotland: The Early Centuries

The best guess of scholars and experts is that bagpipes arrived in Scotland sometime during the 1300s, settling in the Highlands regions circa 1400. Before becoming the Great Highland Bagpipes that we know today, however, these earlier versions of the bagpipes would need to sprout a couple more drones.

The first set of pipes brought into Scotland would have had only a single drone, if any at all. Around the middle of the 16th century, a second drone was affixed to the pipes. The third drone, the bass or great drone, made its first appearance in the early 1700s, completing the modern-style Great Highland set of pipes. At the same time the Great Pipes were increasing in popularity, over in Ireland, the older Irish warpipes—with only has two drones, tenor and bass—were falling out of favor.

Piobaires of the Lowlands and Highlands

As the bagpipes entered popular usage in Scotland, there arose the need for professional pipers to play on ceremonial occasions, festivals, and the like. The role of the piobaire or piper, however, grew to be vastly different depending on the piper’s location, whether in the Lowlands or the Highlands.

Lowland Pipers. Towns in the Lowlands of Scotland typically hired a town piper, financed by supplemental taxes levied on wealthy landowners in the area. Town pipers performed on special occasions of all kinds, including feasts, festivals, and weddings. The repertoire consisted of light tunes and dance music, the pipers arranging traditional Gaelic airs and dance tunes for the bagpipes. The people of the Lowlands placed no importance on expanding the narrow boundaries of the bagpipe repertoire or on composing new and original pieces of music written specifically for the pipes.

Until the time of the Reformation, the popularity of bagpipes grew steadily throughout the Lowlands; then came the Calvinists, with their strange notion that the bagpipes, as well as all other musical instruments, were somehow steeped in sin. Throughout the Lowlands, the playing of musical instruments of all kinds dropped to almost zero. Meanwhile, the more remote Highland regions remained insular, relatively immune to the twists and turns of Lowland politics. It was in the Highlands that the bagpipes and pipe music would find a safe haven in which they could flourish, distanced from Calvinist influence.

Highland Pipers. The Highland clans shouldered the responsibility of sustaining pipers and piping for centuries. The Highlands had their own breed of professional pipers, who were in the employ of the clan chieftain. Every morning, the piper awakened the clan with a special tune. He would play on important occasions involving members of the clan, to commemorate weddings, births, and funerals. When the chief wanted to hold a meeting, the piper played a gathering tune to call the members of the clan to assemble.

For a time, in the late 1500s, the harp and the pipes shared the musical spotlight, and were played side by side; during the 1600s, however, the harp entered a decline, while the pipes were taken up by the Highland clans as their instrument of choice.

Demise of the Highland Clans

The mid-1700s would see the demise of the clan system itself. After Prince Charles Edward Stuart, otherwise known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, lost a key battle to British forces at Culloden in 1746, the Loyalist government classified bagpipes as an instrument of war. Virtually any object of Scottish pride or symbol of Scottish culture was declared an “instrument of war” and banned—not only swords and bagpipes, but even tartan fabrics and kilts! This large-scale banishment of all things Scottish marked the beginning of the end for the clan system in Scotland.

The Great Pipes may not have flourished in every region of the British Isles during this period, but they remained indomitable in certain parts of Scotland, notably the Isle of Skye. There, a single family of pipers named the MacCrimmons were creating a revolution in pipes music that would take the Highland repertoire to new heights – piobaireachd.

Piobaireachd and the Ceol Mor Repertoire

Piobaireachd (pronounced pea-broch, with that gutteral ch sound) is another name for the Ceol Mor (or Great Music), the classical music of the bagpipe. The Ceol Mor repertoire consists of salutes, gathering tunes, marches, cumha (laments), and brosnachadh (incitements to battle). The other two categories of bagpipe music are the Ceol Meadhonach (Middle Music), consisting of slow airs and jigs; and the Ceol Beag (or Ceol Aotrom, the Little Music), comprising strathspeys, marches, hornpipes and reels.

Piobaireachd music follows a strictly regimented pattern and structure. The entire repertoire amounts to some 300 tunes, many of which were composed by the MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Skye, and regarded as the greatest players and teachers of their day, if not of all time. The MacCrimmons operated an academy to which chiefs or lords from all parts of the country would send their pipers for instruction; this school firmly established their Boreraig estate as the center of piping in Scotland. According to the MacCrimmons, in order to produce a competent piper, the student required not only seven years of study, but also seven generations of pipers preceding him.

Through the school at Boreraig, the MacCrimmons were also instrumental in developing and disseminating the oral tradition known as canntaireachd (pronounced can-troch), which has been used to teach pipers the piobaireachd repertoire for almost five centuries now. In canntaireachd, the teacher sings the tune using a system of vocables, consisting of combinations of vowels that represent the melody notes, and consonant combinations representing the grace notes and embellishments.

The Great Highland Bagpipes Today

The worldwide fame enjoyed today by the Great Highland Bagpipes is due ironically in no small part to the British, who recruited Scottish Highlanders into regiments that were pressed into battle in all corners of the Empire. Had the Great Pipes not persisted so strongly in the Highland regions--long after other areas of Europe had given them up for softer bellows-blown pipes—they would not be nearly as well-known as they are today.

The Great Highland Bagpipes are currently played all over the world. Musicians of many nations, even in countries having their own native form of bagpipes, are arranging traditional folk tunes for play on the Highland pipes. In a parallel development, some Celtic musicians have rediscovered ancient airs and piobaireachd tunes and arranged them for other Celtic instruments, such as the harp, fiddle, and guitar. The Great Highland Bagpipes and their repertoire continue to evolve, and research into all aspects of traditional music and styles persists. Many other cultures across the globe have abandoned the more traditional aspects of their arts and music; on the other hand, the Scots and the other Celtic peoples continue to celebrate ancient and traditional instruments, keeping them an integral part of their musical heritage.