History of the Great Highland Bagpipe


Let's start by saying that the term "bagpipes" refers to a large family of instruments that includes hundreds of different examples, often quite distinct from one another based on historical period and country of origin. Without delving into all the bagpipes existing in the world, for obvious reasons, let's take, for example, the two countries that interest us the most: Scotland and Italy. Here in Italy, focusing on the instruments still in use, we have the Baghèt, the Emilian piva, the Musa delle quattro province and the Venetian baga, not to mention a substantial number of Zampogne that, although they cannot be classified as bagpipes for technical reasons which I may discuss in the future, share their origin and operating principles with them. As for Scotland, on the other hand, in addition to the famous Great Highland Bagpipe, we find the Scottish Smallpipes, the Border Pipes (also known as Lowland Pipes and Reel Pipes), and more recently developed bagpipes like the Highland Musette and the Folk Pipes. 

But where do all these bagpipes come from? Well, acknowledging that their history is at least somewhat obscure, to put it euphemistically, we can say with a degree of certainty that the most primitive forms of these instruments seem to have first appeared between two and three thousand years ago in the Mediterranean region, more precisely in the Middle East. Their ancestors can be traced even further back to Ancient Egypt and other cultures closer to us, such as the Sardinian Nuragic civilization and Archaic Greece. These were reed flutes equipped with single or double reeds, played directly in the mouth, and therefore lacking a bag, which was added centuries later, giving rise to the first bagpipe in history.

Even in the Bible, in the book of the prophet Daniel, similar instruments are probably mentioned. This is a text written over five hundred years before the birth of Christ, in which the author mentions instruments referred to by the Aramaic term "sumponyàh," translated as "bagpipe" or "pipes" in many contemporary versions (cf. Daniel 3:5, 10, 15).

According to the biblical account, these instruments were played at the court of Nebuchadnezzar II, the well-known Babylonian ruler who reigned from approximately 634 to 562 BC. While there is no direct proof that these were indeed bagpipes, it is more logical to assume that they were instruments more or less similar to their Mediterranean counterparts. From some bas-reliefs, we know that the Babylonians played flutes similar to those used in Egypt, while in the same sources there is no trace of any bagpipes, not even rudimentary ones.

The first real bagpipe, of which we have definite records, appeared during the Roman Empire. It was called the Tibia Utricularis, an instrument that seems to have been played even by Emperor Nero. However, we know that the Romans themselves believed their bagpipe had Greek or Etruscan origins, so the birth of these instruments certainly predates the Roman civilization. Over a process spanning several centuries, possibly aided by Roman expansion, the use of bagpipes spread from the Mediterranean region to all of Europe, much of Asia, and North Africa. 

Egyptian flute player. Instruments like this one are likely to be counted among the ancestors of today's bagpipes. 

Medieval bagpipe players and, higher up, players of flutes similar to the Sardinian launeddas. These images are from the "Cantigas de Santa Maria," a collection of over 420 compositions dedicated to the Virgin Mary dating back to the reign of Alfonso the Wise (1221-1284).

At this point, I would like to open an important parenthesis and talk to you about the introduction of drones. I must tell you that it is not at all clear when they began to be used. Drones are indeed present in the flutes of many ancient cultures, such as the Sardinian launeddas, which have Nuragic origins. However, at least according to the "usual" iconography, they seem to have been added to bagpipes only from the Middle Ages, the period of the greatest diffusion of these instruments. This should not surprise us too much, as it is interesting to note that even today various bagpipes are found without drones both in various parts of Europe and in Asia and Africa.

But what led to the creation of the first bagpipe? Who had the idea of adding an animal skin bag to existing instruments? And, most importantly, why did they do it? Unfortunately, as you may have already guessed, the name of the inventor of our beloved instruments has been lost in the mists of time and will remain unknown for centuries to come. Of course, unless "Doc" Brown and Marty McFly decide to travel back in time in the legendary DeLorean to provide us with insights!

Until then, we must rely on hypotheses, and the most credible one suggests that adding a bag to existing flutes was a way to avoid the circular breathing technique, which was widespread in the ancient world but presented a series of problems not only due to its difficulty but also to aesthetics, because over time circular breathing could disfigure the performer's face, altering their facial features.

If you'd like to get a more precise idea of how this technique works, you can search on YouTube for videos of Sardinian launeddas or Australian didgeridoo players, perhaps the two most well-known existing instruments that consistently use circular breathing.

Well, so far I've talked about the origin of bagpipes in general, but what do we know about the Scottish bagpipe, or more precisely the Great Highland Bagpipe, to distinguish it from other types of bagpipes born in Scotland? As its name suggests (in Scottish Gaelic it's called Pìob Mhòr, which means the "Great Bagpipe"), it is the original bagpipe of the Scottish Highlands and is certainly the most widely recognized type of bagpipe in the world, having become an icon for all bagpipes.

Also in this case, however, its origins are lost in the mists of time. According to some historians, bagpipes seem to have arrived in Scotland with the Celts or the Romans. Unfortunately, we have no concrete evidence of these instruments being present on Scottish soil in such ancient times. The first clear mention of them dates back to 1396, in an account of the Battle of the North Inch of Perth, a staged battle to settle a dispute between rival clans.

A controversial legend from the Clan Menzies suggests that the remains of a bagpipe, now preserved at the West Highland Museum in Fort William, date back to 1314, the year of the famous Battle of Bannockburn. This instrument is said to have been played during the battle by a MacIntyre, at the time the hereditary piping family of the Clan Menzies. It is a very different instrument from the modern Great Highland Bagpipes and has been partially reconstructed with recent additions to give it a complete appearance. An interesting tidbit: according to the legend, this bagpipe is even said to be enchanted, which is why it was never played in battle on the losing side. Legends, of course, can be fascinating and may contain a fragment of truth, but determining that truth after so much time and in the absence of any evidence can be challenging...

To obtain somewhat a more solid evidence regarding the presence of bagpipes in Scotland during the medieval period, we need to fast forward to the mid-15th century. During this period, the famous Rosslyn Chapel was constructed. Inside the chapel, on the capital of a column, there is a carving of an angel playing a bagpipe with a single drone, which is very different from modern instruments. However, it should be noted that even until the 17th century, iconographic sources are both scarce and sparse. The few things we can glean from them mainly pertain to the structure of the instrument, which until the mid-17th century had only one drone. The second drone seems to have been added in the latter half of the 17th century, while a few decades later, in the early 18th century, the third drone was introduced, giving the instrument a more or less similar appearance to the one we know today.

Regarding the period before the 17th century, in addition to the instrument's form, we know that each clan chief had one or more professional pipers under their employ, whose role was to provide musical accompaniment to every aspect of clan life. This role, which was essentially a formal title to the point that the piper ranked second only to the clan chief in the hierarchy, was often hereditary. This led to various piper dynasties, such as the MacCrimmons of Clan MacLeod of Skye, who played a fundamental role in the development of bagpipe music at least from the 17th century onwards. Other important dynasties included the MacArthur pipers of Clan MacDonald of Sleat, the MacGregor pipers of Clan Campbell of Glenlyon, and the Rankin pipers of Clan MacLeans of Coll, Duart, and Mull.

Starting in 1746, the year of the tragic defeat of the Jacobite army on the battlefield of Culloden Moor, the English authorities imposed a ban on anything related to Scottish national identity. This marked the beginning of the end for the ancient clan system. The wearing of tartan and kilts was prohibited, carrying weapons was banned, and although not officially, even the bagpipes suffered consequences as a result of the rebellion. It was allowed to maintain active pipers only in Scottish regiments within the British army. 

Culloden Moor Battlefield today

The site where the Rough Castle Fort once stood, and below, the informational panel which, among all the other things, also commemorates the competition of 1781. 

The situation persisted until 1781 when, thanks to the enormous efforts of the Highland Society of London, a legal bagpipe competition could be organized again at Rough Castle Fort, located near Falkirk and once a powerful Roman fort along Hadrian's Wall, though today only earthworks remain. Anyway, despite the competition in 1781, the ban was officially lifted only in July 1782.

Since then, the Great Highland Bagpipe continued to spread. Numerous schools emerged, not only civilian but also military, as it gained more prominence within the British army. Thanks to British colonial policies, our bagpipes, following Her Majesty's army, were exported around the world, from America to Asia, from Oceania to Africa, gradually achieving the widespread presence that characterizes them today.

Around the mid-19th century, by the desire of Queen Victoria, who was notably enamored with Scotland, the first pipe bands were formed. They originated in the military but were soon embraced by civilian society as well. Starting from 1843, Queen Victoria even wanted a personal piper, a tradition that continues to this day, as modern monarchs also have their personal pipers in service.

He is known as the "Piper to the Sovereign" or "Queen's/King's Piper," with the name changing depending on whether there is a king or queen on the throne. It is the highest position that can be awarded to a piper in the armed forces. Their role essentially involves greeting the reigning monarch with music every morning, with a performance lasting about fifteen minutes starting at precisely nine o'clock under the monarch's windows. It must be quite satisfying to ensure that the crowned heads are wide awake, refreshing their royal ears (any reference to the physical characteristics of the current monarch is purely coincidental, I'm not that cruel...) with the bagpipes! 

But let's return to the instrument's history, arriving at the 20th century. After the period of the two World Wars, which was particularly tough for pipers in the military (almost half of the pipers in service died during the First World War), the instrument underwent significant changes in many of its characteristics throughout the rest of the 20th century. Tuning, with an improvement process spanning decades and still ongoing, became much more stable, while the pitch was raised increasingly higher, reaching today's standards.

In general, the entire instrument became easier to manage, thanks to the introduction of numerous innovations such as plastic chanters (more stable than wood), synthetic reeds for the drones, hybrid or synthetic bags, various moisture control systems, valves that outperform traditional ones, and so on. There's almost an endless array of products, both major and minor, aimed at improving the management of an instrument that remains one of the most complex to handle correctly.

Personally, I find that the Scottish bagpipe is also among the most rapidly evolving instruments, with substantial investments of time, money, and energy dedicated to continually searching for new solutions to simplify the life of the performer. The proof? Take a look at our website, and you'll see how many products are centered around this instrument. Keep in mind that what we offer is just a selection of items that we consider to be of high quality and genuine utility. From our twenty years of experience, we've learned that not all products introduced to the market are worth the investment and often quickly turn into a waste of money. That's why we carefully select what we present to you, always remembering that the Scottish bagpipe, as we've seen, has its roots in the distant past but is also profoundly forward-looking. So, welcome innovations, as long as they truly deserve it!

The bagpipe that belonged to James Cleland Richardson (shown in the photo below), a soldier and war hero from British Columbia who fell in combat in France in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, when he was only twenty years old.