Bagpipes and Beyond

Ancient pipers can be traced to ancient Babylonia and Mesopotamia; but they used reed-blown pipes, not bag-blown pipes. These pipes permeated the ancient world, spreading to Asia and the Middle East as well as the Mediterranean, especially Greece. Homer's Iliad mentions the pipes around 700 BC. Bagpipes as we know them today are classified as aerophones or reeds with an air supply. Adding the bag to the pipes came around 37 AD, and the bagpipes didn't make landfall in Northern and Western Europe until after 43 AD.

Bagpipes: Culture and Ceremony

Different cultures used the pipes differently, some in song for recreation, some in street plays and some in grand amphitheaters. Much of the time, bagpipes, or as the ancients called them, "The Great War-Pipe of the North," and reed pipes were used in battle to spur on soldiers and to impart fear in the enemy. For centuries, the pipe and later the bagpipe was used and later declared to be an authentic instrument of war. Scottish Parliament banned it in 1747 as a war weapon, the only musical instrument to incur this notoriety. Reason? Clans didn't war without a piper. By banning the pipes (and the wearing of a tartan) Parliament hoped to end conflict.

On a somewhat gentler note, ancient pipe playing found a home in the amphitheaters of Greece and Rome. They were played during pagan religious ceremonies, funerals, as well as hailing the victor at chariot races and other public games. By the Middle Ages, the pipes took on a political tone, as the Emperor Nero played in political festivals. It became the favorite instrument of kings and magistrates, being played during official ceremonies and marches. The bagpipes made its way through Europe becoming the chief instrument of Scotland. It was played everywhere, from town minstrels to street bands, in weddings as well as in rural harvest fields.

Traditional Garb

Pipers wore different clothing dependent on their purpose as bagpipers were held in high standing throughout the ages. Mostly it was warring gear. Colorful costumes adorned Swiss pipers. Prussian pipers wore Turkish fezzes. Most associate Scottish kilts and tartan outfits with bagpipers and this remains the traditional costume of bagpipers in most western countries. Irish pipers had no traditional costume.

Today's bagpiper uniform consists of shoes or Ghillie Brogues, the socks or hose, flashes or sock flags, waist belt and buckle, sporran or pouch, Glengarry or a daywear hat, cap badge, kilt and kilt pin, Sgian Dubh or black dagger, Inverness cape, Argyle jacket, and of course, the bagpipes. An entire uniform will set you back around $2500-$5000 or more. Bagpipers mostly play in Scotland and around the United Kingdom with quite a few individual bagpipers hiring themselves to play around the world.

It takes quite a lot of practice to play the bagpipes and to play them well. With the advent of the electric bagpipes in the 1960s, the sounds were softer and players could practice more often. The only drawback is that the electronic version don't allow for breath to be controlled and the strength to play a manual bagpipe. Bagpipe music continues to draw fans throughout Scotland, although the pipes are played more for specialty groups and ceremony elsewhere. But with the sounds softer and the pipes being integrated into more contemporary music, a resurgence may be in the offing.

Everything you need to know about bagpipes:


Concise Bagpipe History All the different kinds of bagpipes, includes a page on the parts of the bagpipe and what they are used for.

How to Make a Bagpipe Instructions for turning wood into a bagpipe.

Great Highland Bagpipe A brief history of the GHB, the most common bagpipe today.

Bagpipe Makers Timeline of bagpipe makers from the Bagpipe Museum.

Bagpipe in the Life of Vermeer Discusses classification and etymology as well as history.

Celtic Pipes An overview of the various styles of bagpipes.

The History of the Kilt The history of Highland dress.

Piper's Lament A brief history and what it takes to be a bagpiper now.

Bagpipe Glossary Illustrated and complete basic terms.

How to play

Great Highland Bagpipe An introduction to the practice chanter and tutorials broken down into levels.

Finger Positioning Instruction for finger positioning on the chanter includes note breakdown and audio.

Learning to Play the Pipes Thirteen complete lessons from learning the first nine notes to scale exercises to your first songs.

Bagpipe Scores Lyrics and audio. Hear your music before trying to play it.

Amazing Grace Learn basic bagpipe with "Amazing Grace."

Instructors How to find the right bagpipe instructor.

Teaching Yourself the Bagpipes Beginning with the rudiments to transitioning to the bagpipe.

Tune Search Four-part bagpipe music by difficulty.

Lessons in Marching with Bagpipes Tips on handling 2/4 marches with the bagpipe.

Recording Index Bagpipe solo, group and band recording list.

Care and tuning

Shepherd Highland Bagpipe Care Highland-specific instructions on care that can be adapted to any bagpipe, includes troubleshooting.

Bagpipe Wood Care Bag seasoning and reed maintenance.

Drone Tuning Tips and principles of drone care and tuning.

Tuning the Bagpipe Remember that the scale does not match Western music scale, you will have to adjust.

Tuning Your Bagpipe Don't let it get sounding obnoxious! Basic principles and "random" advice."

To Carve or Not to Carve? Should you carve chanters or not?

Uilleann Reed Care Reed troubleshooting guide.