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History of The Bagpiper

The Bagpiper 1624 Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

Although Scotland is known around the world as the home of bagpipes they certainly did not originate here and, in former times they were played widely over Europe, Asia and North Africa. They receive a passing mention in the Old Testament, appear in Greek writings of around 500BC and may have been one of the Emperor Nero’s favourite instruments. The earliest carving of bagpipes found in Eastern Turkey may date from as long ago as 1600BC.

Where did the Bagpipes come from?

Some say that the Celts brought the pipes with them in their travels as they spread out from their original homelands in the middle east. Other sources simply see the pipes as the standard folk instrument of Europe and the middle East for centuries that stayed in favour in the Celtic lands when other cultures made different choices. Either way there is little or no mention of bagpipes in European literature until the 13th century, perhaps because, up to that time, only the doings and possessions of the Church and nobility deserved a mention.

Why are the Bagpipes considered Scottish?

After perhaps a thousand yeas of dominance of the harp as the signature instrument of the bards to Celtic nobility, in Scotland by the mid 1500s the Great Highland Bagpipe began to take over and every Laird and Chieftain worth his salt kept his own personal Scottish piper.


Legend has it that it was one family of pipers who elevated the art of piping to its refined level of near magical significance, the McCrimmons of Skye, who were the hereditary pipers of MacLeods of Dunvegan. A memorial stone in Gaelic at Borreaig near Dunvegan translates as "The Memorial Cairn of the MacCrimmons of whom ten generations were the hereditary pipers of MacLeod and who were renowned as Composers, Performers and Instructors of the classical music of the bagpipe. Near to this post stood the MacCrimmons' School of Music, 1500–1800".

What about bagpipe music?

Some musical historians say that the signature music of the Highland pipes, the Pibroch (Pìobaireachd), if fact derives from the musical forms of the bardic harpers (Clàrsach) that were probably developed in pre-christian times. The intricate permutations and variations, particularly of the Technical type of pibroch, are very similar on both instruments.


Some Pibrochs were composed around the name of a person, place or event and others had the purpose of gathering a clan together. There are records at the time of the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745 mentioning traveling pipers playing tunes that were instantly recognisable and conveyed obvious meaning to their Scottish listeners while the occupying Hanoverian authorities only heard "the screeching of cats".

The prohibition of the bagpipes

After the calamitous defat at Culloden in 1746 the Loyalist authorities prohibited the use of the Highland pipes along with the carrying of arms and the wearing of the plaid. During the decades before the pipes were permitted again, the people kept the memory of their traditional tunes alive with mouth music (Puirt a Beul), singing often fairly nonsensical lyrics in Gaelic or Scots to mimic the intricate rhythms and embelishments of the pipe tunes. The pipers who carried the tradition had a secret way of communicating the details of the tunes already, known as Canntairaechd, so despite the absence of actual pipes, pipe music lived on.

Scottish bagpiping today

Nowadays, of course, the music of the Highland Bagpipes thrills a much larger audience than it ever did in the days of the hereditary pipers. In fact CDs by Scottish pipers and bands can expect to sell as much as ten times the number of copies worldwide than those from even very well know Scottish folk musicians.


Always in demand for occasions as big as Tartan Day in New York to personal events such as funerals, weddings and christenings, the Highland Pipes have reached new heights of acceptance and popularity. The Piping World Championships 2011 saw 230 pipe bands from 12 nations competing for the honour of recognition for the perfection of their stirring ancient art.