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Updated on February 14, 2009
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Although bagpipes are now universally associated with Scotland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they were in common use in England and Germany, and even earlier in Asia. The characteristic sound is produced from three wooden pipes, called drones, which provide a continuous base. The melody is produced from the chanter, a reeded pipe with holes.

To play the pipes the player holds the bag under one arm and blows air into it, his arm forcing the air out again through the four sounding pipes. The bagpipes are played on many different occasions, being equally suitable for sounding tragic laments and the gaiety of a highland reel. The clan piper is an important figure in Scottish functions and each Highland regiment has its own piper.

History of the Bagpipe

A bagpipe is simply a bladder, inflated by mouth or by a bellows, into which one or more reed pipes have been inserted; the main pipe has finger-holes cut in it, and the others are known as 'drones', since they hold a fixed base note.

The instrument, in fact, is a primitive hand-blown organ, the bag acting as windchest and maintaining a continuous supply of air to the pipes. The ancient history of the bagpipe is obscure. Some writers have maintained that the Greek word sumphoneia (which means literally an 'agreeing sound') referred invariably to the bag-in modern Greek and Italian is called tsanmim and zampogna.

Greeks did, in fact, know the bagpipe as phusalis (a 'bladder') and askaulos. The Romans knew it as the tibia utri-cularis. Suetonius the Roman historian says that Nero was an accomplished performer on the bagpipe (a coin of his bears a picture of a bagpipe), and this is confirmed by Dio Chrysostom, who wrote that Nero 'knew how to play the pipe with his mouth on the bag thrust under his arm'. There is also evidence that bagpipes were used in the Roman army; and a bronze figure of a Roman soldier playing a bagpipe was found at Richborough, in Kent.

It was popular without any doubt through the Middle Ages and up to about 1600. The fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the high noon of its social success. It was taken up by the court and the church; it appears again and again in paintings and carvings of the period in the hands of celestial orchestras - yet all the time retaining a folk atmosphere. There were superstitions of its uncanny power over animals, the association of reed pipes and the skin of a goat carrying echoes of beliefs older than Christianity. Indeed the Devil himself is more than once seen in pictures slyly inflating the bagpipe; and it seems more natural to himUian to the chubby angels clutching it under the white folds of their clothing. In Germany and in the Low Countries - witness Diirer's engraving (1514) of the bagpipe player, or paintings of Bruegel or Teniers - no jollities were complete without bagpipe or dudelsack; in France an elegant silk-clad musette was played by ladies of the court in their unconvincing efforts to imitate the pastoral idyll; in England royalty, nobility and clergy, as well as commons, took it to their heart on the wave of fashion; whilst in Scotland the first hints of the later fierce possessiveness seem to stir with a proclamation that piping was a royal prerogative on Sundays.

English medieval carvings in churches, on bosses, corbels, misericords and bench-ends, show merry playing of the pipes; and there are numerous references to its use (and abuse), frequently in connection with dancing bears and other animals. Chaucer's Miller was an expert and played to the pilgrims as they left for Canterbury:

"A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, And ther-with-al he brouglite us out of towne."

According to an early-fifteenth-century manuscript, such music was necessary on pilgrimage: 'I say to thee that it is right well done that Pyle-gremys have with them both singers and also pipers, that when one of them that goeth bare-foote, striketh his too upon a stone, and hurteth hym sore and makyth hym to blede, it is well done that he and his fellow begyn then a Songe. or else take out of his bosom a Baggepipe for to drive away with soche myrthe the hurte of his felow.'

The English bagpipe was a quiet instrument: Spenser writes in his Shepherd's Calendar '... is thy bagpipe broke that sounds so sweet?', and Falstaff is once described (in Henry IV, Part 7) as being 'as melancholy as the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe'. It should be noted, though, that Shakespeare's reference to 'woollen pipes' in The Merchant of Venice does not describe their tone or composition, but is intended for the Irish Uilleann or elbow pipes (also misrendered as 'Union' pipes). The Scots probably got their pipes from this Irish version in the course of the early colonizations of Scotland. English pipers still appear in paintings by Hogarth, but there is now no trace of bagpipes in the south of England, and even the gentle bellows-blown Northumbrian pipes are less known than the wild instrument from the other side of the Tweed.

From 1600 onwards the popularity of the bagpipe gradually declined; it was killed very largely by the development of music which could not accommodate its unremitting skirl. Yet serious music learnt from the characteristics of the bagpipe. Not only do we find the great composers using the drone bass as a 'truly rural' effect, but, more importantly, the language of music has been enriched by the harmonic device known as the pedal, whereby a note is held for some time (usually in the bass) regardless of the passing harmony.

It is in mountain districts now, especially in the Balkans, that the bagpipe holds its ancient popularity. It is not for a refined age; it has strength, it has an odd stirring beauty of its own, plucking at the feelings, as all will admit who have heard Scottish pipers playing The Flowers of the Forest or Over the Sea to Skye; but it gives, as Pepys put it, 'at best mighty barbarous music'.


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