29 March 2016
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.
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.
Hugh Cheape, “Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Treasure”, National Museums Scotland (2008 with CD-ROM), re-published 2010, 2013 without CD-ROM.
Anthony Baines, “Bagpipes” Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford 1960
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