29/03/2016
Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Five things you (probably) didn't know about bagpipes - bagpipe facts

e3c6c600-b2a0-46aa-8e73-7e33d5db3a06

Bagpiper Andy Letcher of the Bagpipe Society presents five fascinating facts about bagpipes and their history.

1) There is nothing uniquely Scottish about the bagpipes

Scotland has a proud and venerable tradition of bagpiping, and the Great Highland Bagpipe was taken round the globe by the British Empire. Nevertheless, bagpipes are found right across Europe, North Africa and as far east as India. There are about 130 distinct ‘species’ of bagpipe in the world: France, alone, has eighteen. Although we cannot be certain, bagpipes probably originated in Antiquity in what we now call the Middle East. They have always been associated with shepherds, and their traditional role was in providing music for dancing, especially at weddings. They were the Fender Stratocaster of their day.

2) Bagpipe bags are sometimes made out of animal bladders

The bag of the bagpipes provides a reservoir of air that allows that distinctive, continuous sound to be made. As the player takes a breath, he or she squeezes air out of the bag and so keeps the reeds of both chanter and drone speaking. In Western Europe bags tend to be sewn from a piece of seasoned cow hide, though rubber and Goretex have been used. In Eastern Europe, the Balkans, North Africa, and the Middle East, bagpipe bags are made from whole goat skins, giving the instrument a dramatic, if grisly, appearance. Less commonly, the natural elasticity of animal bladders has been employed on so-called ‘bladder pipes’.

3) The earliest manuscript of bagpipe music in Britain dates from 1733

This manuscript was written down by one William Dixon. Little is known about him, other than that he was Christened in Stamfordham, Northumberland, in 1678, and that he had two sons, Parsivall and John. Many of the forty tunes he notated are still played in the North today, but in his collection they exist as sets of extended variations, probably for dancing. They were designed to be played on Border Bagpipes or some kind of smallpipe. They require a high level of virtuosity.

4) England has bagpipes too!

The fact that there are hundreds of carvings of bagpipers in English churches, dating from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, suggests that bagpipers were once commonplace south of the border, all the way down to Cornwall. There are literary references too: the solution to one 10th Century Anglo-Saxon riddle may be a bagpipe, and Chaucer’s Miller definitely played the pipes on his pilgrimage to Canterbury.

Henry VIII owned five sets of bagpipes, but it seems the Reformation he helped instigate put paid to English piping. The instrument became indelibly associated with rude or lascivious behaviour, and, perhaps, the vernacular festivities of Catholicism. Falling from favour, it was gradually replaced by the more versatile fiddle. The bagpipe only clung on in pockets, such as the North East of England, where Northumbrian pipes are played to this day. There is, however, a vibrant English piping revival underway.

          MORE: Beginner's giude to playing the bagpipes

5) 10 March is International Bagpipe Day

International Bagpipe Day was inaugurated by the Bagpipe Society, and is a grassroots celebration of all the world’s bagpipes. Celebrations happen across the UK, but also in Greece, America, Kenya, and even Iran. Pipers of every kind gather, put on concerts, visit schools, play on the streets or for dancing. This ancient instrument, with its bombastic sound and wild associations has, in spite of everything, survived to the modern era. It shows no sign of disappearing!

Andy Letcher is a writer and musician, and Publicity Officer for the Bagpipe Society. He plays English Border Pipes, made by Jon Swayne.

 

The Bagpipe Society was founded in 1985 with the aim of promoting interest in all the world’s bagpipes. It has spearheaded the English bagpipe revival, and organises the Blowout, an annual piping festival. To find out more about the society, visit the website.

Images: bagpipe parts © Klearchos Kapoutsis; chanter and o rings © James F Perry; Bagpipes © Jebulon

Back to "Features" Category

29/03/2016 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Recent Updates

Scottish conductor and composer James Muir Mathieson was born - On this day in history

Conductor and composer James Muir Mathieson was born on 24 January 1911.


James Stewart Earl of Moray was assassinated - On this day in history

James Stewart, Earl of Moray, regent for James VI, was assassinated by a firearm on 23 January 1570. ...


Margaret of Denmark: an enigmatic queen - exclusive free read from History Scotland

Dr Amy Hayes explores the life of Margaret of Denmark, wife of James III, mother of James IV and possibly the ...


Scottish MP Joseph Hume was born - On this day in history

Scottish MP Joseph Hume, who founded the memorial to the Scottish Political Martyrs in Edinburgh, was born on ...


Other Articles

Scottish theologian George Gillespie was born - On this day in history

Church leader George Gillespie was born on 21 January 1613 in Kirkcaldy.


Inventor and engineer James Watt was born - On this day in history

James Watt, inventor of the condensor, which helped make the Industrial Revolution possible, was born on 19 ...


Sir John Pringle died - On this day in Scottish history

Sir John Pringle, President of the Royal Society and physician to King George III, died on 18 January 1782. ...


The Duddingston Curling Society was founded - On this day in history

On 17 January 1795, the Duddingston Curling Society became the first formally organised curling club in the ...