How did the bagpipes become a symbol of Scotland?


24 February 2016
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Ahead of this weekend’s International Bagpipe Conference, we talk to Dr Vivien Williams about how this iconic symbol of Scotland came to be so strongly associated with the country.

Ahead of this weekend’s International Bagpipe Conference, we talk to Dr Vivien Williams about how this iconic symbol of Scotland came to be so strongly associated with the country. For history, heritage and archaeology news, sign up for our free e-newsletter.

The skirl of the Highland Bagpipes, perhaps played by the Lone Piper at the Edinburgh Tattoo, at Highland Games up and down Scotland, and even on the battlefield, has become a globally-recognised symbol of Scotland.

But despite the strong association between the bagpipes and Scotland, this ancient instrument, which many experts believe originated in India at least 3,000 years ago, reached Scotland relatively late in its history.

‘The bagpipes spread from India across the Mediterranean and into Eastern Europe, says Dr Williams. ‘The spread happened via traders and through general migration, as people and their customs were absorbed into other cultures.

‘The bagpipes probably arrived in Britain with the Roman invasion of 43AD and were gradually picked up as an English tradition, although there’s no reliable written reference to them in Scotland until the fifteenth century.’

BAGPIPE VARIANTS

Most people are most familiar with the Highland Bagpipe, which is so strongly associated with Scotland, however there have been hundreds of variations of the instrument over the centuries, possibly only a fraction of which still exist today.

Recently, the instrument is enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity in Britain and mainland Europe, a fact demonstrated with the presence of international bagpipe experts who will be giving presentations at this year’s International Bagpipe Conference in Glasgow.

Among the best known current-day bagpipes with a British connection are the Northumbrian Small Pipes, the Pastoral Bagpipes, Welsh Bagpipes, Cornish Pipes and Zetland Pipes. There are many bagpipe societies outside Scotland, including groups in Cornwall, London and Northumberland.

THE BAGPIPES AS A SYMBOL OF SCOTLAND

So how did this ancient instrument come to be so strongly associated with Scotland? ‘This is still something of a mystery, says Dr Williams. ‘However, there are two strong reasons for the popularity – the decline in the bardic tradition in Scotland and Ireland, and the growing trend for the bagpipes being associated with Highlanders.’

‘During the bardic era, the Celtic Harp was a common instrument in Scotland and Ireland but as this tradition began to die out, the bagpipes were growing in popularity and became associated with the great bagpiping families and with warfare.

‘The Highlander acquired an international visibility and renown on the battlefield and with this, the bagpipe began to be a recognised symbol – after all, the Celtic harp would never cut it as a battlefield instrument.’

For many centuries, bagpipe music was passed down through the generations via the oral tradition. Syllabic notation was one way of preserving the music, and canntairreachd is something which is unique to Scotland.

Dr Vivien Williams is a historian and bagpiping expert based at the University of Glasgow and has helped co-organise this year’s conference.

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Bagpiper image © Hartlepool Marine 2014; bagpipes © MacAlpine)