Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Origin of Bagpipes

How could I have a Highlander month on my blog without talking about bagpipes? Well, here's the article you've been waiting for! Most people associate bagpipes with the Highlands of Scotland (though the fellow pictured at right is Angus Mackay, piper to Queen Victoria), but in fact bagpipes were introduced to Scotland by the Romans. The early Romans used them as outdoor instruments during the building of roads or gathering of the harvest. Pipers would march through the village to announce the beginning of the workday. They also used them during religious ceremonies for the sacrifices to the gods and for funerals.

Early Roman soldiers, and later Scottish soldiers, used the bagpipe as an instrument of war, hence they are still viewed that way by some today. The resonating sound of the pipes could be heard up to 10 miles away. Unfortunately, after the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the English outlawed the use of bagpipes for many years.

What are Bagpipes?

Bagpipes are musical instruments classified as aerophones, reed instruments that utilize an air reservoir. The reservoir allows an uninterrupted stream of air to be directed through the reeds. The bagpipe arose from the desire to make reed instruments easier to play, especially for lengthy spells. An early version of the bagpipes was constructed using animal skin. The hollow leg bones of small animals were attached to the instrument with holes drilled into them. These holes gave the player the ability to play various pitches and tones

Ancient Origins

While there several theories about the first bagpipes, many scholars believe they originated somewhere in the in the Middle East before the time of Christ, in Mesopotamia, Sumeria, or perhaps even India or Persia – in the form of a crude instrument comprised of reeds stuck into a goatskin bag.

Various forms of bagpipes appear in ancient records in many parts of the western world, including a textual reference from 425 BC, in the play The Acharnians by the Greek playwright Aristophanes. The Oxford History of Music claims that a sculpture of bagpipes was found on a Hittite slab at Eyuk in the Middle East, dated to 1000 B.C.

While there is strong evidence that the Romans and Greeks had early versions of bagpipes, the exact form isn’t well documented. The instruments themselves were made entirely or almost entirely of organic materials (wood and skins) and not durable in the long-term. They tended to be instruments of the "common" people, and were likely used outdoors and without concern for their preservation. Being an instrument of the common people, bagpipes didn’t get much “press” since few wrote about the peasants.

Regardless, the Romans are credited by most for bringing the bagpipes to Scotland and other parts of the world they conquered. Another thing to think of when you hear the music of the Highlands.


  1. I love stuff like this! Thanks again, Regan. I just came from an afternoon concert of the Rose Ensemble in St. Paul, Mn. They play ancient/historical music and talked about the history of various instruments like the bagpipes, so this just tops off my day.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this post, Amanda. For me it makes the historical romances richer if I understand more about the Highlanders, their history and their music.

  2. Regan,

    My husband's favorite rendition of Amazing Grace is with bagpipes. They make just about anything haunting, stirring the soul.

    Sigh. Love them myself.


    1. I agree, Pam. I love bagpipes. Thanks for following me on Twitter and for commenting on the blog. You're now entered in the contest.

  3. Bagpipes are one of the most unique, recognizable instruments!!! Very otherworldly...

    Very cool info Regan!!

    Lisa :)

    1. I am so glad you liked the article, Lisa. I love bagpipes and the music always reminds me of Scotland. I agree they are otherworldly.