Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Soul of the Highlands – Bagpipes!

Since it's Scottish/Highlander month on my blog, I’d best say a word about the pipes that play the music that expresses the soul of the Highlands. Most people assume bagpipes originated in Scotland, but in fact the Romans introduced them to the Scots.

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 to rouse the troops, and they are still viewed that way by some today. The resonating sound of the pipes can be heard up to 10 miles away so they were an effective call to arms. Unfortunately, after the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the English saw them as such and outlawed the use of bagpipes. Their haunting music was not heard for many years. (The piper pictured is Angus Mackay, piper to Queen Victoria.)

What are Bagpipes?

Bagpipes are musical instruments classified as aerophones, or 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 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, bones 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.

Regardless, the Romans are credited by most for bringing the bagpipes to Scotland and other parts of the world they conquered. And in giving them to the Scots, they provided a sound that will forever be associated with the Highlanders’ soul.


  1. I grew up in the 60's and 70's, and at one time there was a bagpipe band reached number one in the pop charts. I remember staying with my Gran and hearing the same music drifting down the street. I was so excited I ran outside to try and see the kilted men marching by...but the road was empty. It took me a while to work out it was actually someone playing the record on a high volume with the window open!
    Gullible? Me! Surely not.

  2. I LOVE the pipes. I listen to a lot of celtic music and bagpipes while writing. Very inspirational. ;o) My family knows, that when my time comes to meet my maker, there had better be bag pipes at my memorial service! lol

    Thanks for sharing Regan!