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Ten fun facts about the bagpipes

Depending on your tastes, bagpipes are primal and evocative, or crude and abrasive. Adore or despise them, they are ubiquitous across the city centers of Scotland (for tourists or locals?). In anticipation of St Andrews Day, and your Robert Burns poetry readings with a certain woodwind accompaniment, here are 10 facts you may not have known about the history of the bagpipes.

  1. Traditionally, bagpipes were made from the skin of a whole animal, turned inside out, with the pipes attached where the legs and neck would be.
  2. For the Great Highland bagpipe, the chanter is never silent, so there can be no rest between notes and its volume cannot be changed. This is why variation is created with grace notes more than through dynamics.
  3. Far from being a Scottish invention, bagpipes have a lengthy history. References to them exist in Suetonius, Martial, and Dio Chrysostom. Even Aristophanes has a character joke about pipers from Thebes who sound like dogs in distress.
  4. The tyrant Nero was a ruthless ruler, strategist, and persecutor of Christians. He was also said to be a skilled piper.
  5. Across Europe bagpipes have been in continuous use for centuries, especially in Great Britain, Ireland, and north-western Spain. In Bulgaria, the instrument is called a Gaida.
  6. The Great Highland bagpipes have been played as a martial instrument at least since the 16th century.
  7. Following the 1745 Jacobite rebellion overt signs of highland culture were driven underground, which may have resulted in the suppression of the instrument, although no law explicitly banned it.
  8. Following this clampdown, a piper fell afoul of the authorities as “no highland regiment ever marched without a piper” and that therefore in the eyes of the law, his bagpipe was an instrument of war. He was executed on 6 November 1746.
  9. The song “A Flame of Wrath for Patrick MacCrimmon” is a piping standard. It gets its name from the story of a piper from Glenelg, near The Isle of Skye. The musician set a whole village alight in order to avenge the murder of his brother, the eponymous Patrick. It is said the piper overlooked the blaze from a hill, playing this relentless chant.
  10. In April 2015 the bagpipes came unstuck again when busking regulation introduced by Boris Johnson sought to limit performances which involved instruments with “loud repetitive sounds.” Apparently the bagpipe fell afoul of this regulation.

Any other fun facts to add?

Headline image credit: Bagpipes at the Strawberry Festival by Virginia State Parks staff. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Bill Walderman

    An opera about a piper:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwanda_the_Bagpiper

  2. Don

    More/less to say a good article for the uninitiated, however it could use some touch-ups.

    RE #1 – To say that bagpipes were made from the whole skin of an animal is akin to saying that whole cars are made of steel-belted radial tires. Remember, the instrument started as a pipe (mouth blown) and became bagpipes (essentially mechanized blowing) — so it is always right to say pipe/s, but it is not ‘bags’ — think of it like saying ‘air compressor’ — you would say ‘compressor’ for short to refer to such equipment, but you wouldn’t say ‘air’. So, in this case, you’re talking about the bag on a set of pipes, or all bags as they were on pipes. However, as said, they did not start as bag+pipes.

    RE#2 – Again, clarify that you are writing about (Great) Highland Bagpipes — not all types of pipes work the same as them — Uilliean pipes can be paused (for ex).

    RE#4 – It wouldn’t hurt to add that the ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’ that fiddles hadn’t been invented yet.

    RE#5 – With reference to this type of pipes, saying ‘skins’ may be correct, I don’t know the specifics of their terminology — however, it would still be better written to state that the skins used to make bags (note not ‘the bags’) are so treated.

    RE#7 & 8 – There is some debate about the ‘outlawed pipes & outlawed tunes’ thing. Part of what this is based on is that aledgedly there were a number, albeit small, of top level piping schools in Scotland in operation (teaching pipes that is) after 1745 (moreover 46 when that went into effect) …… so the thought is if it were illegal how is it that that those schools remained in operation (or to say, why didn’t English troops march on them and raise them to them to the ground).

    RE#10 – This entry lacks context.

    And finally …..
    Call it a personal preference, but saying “the bagpipes” has never made sense to me. ‘The’, which includes meaning one/only, given that pipe history ranges 4500-500+/- years starting from the mid-east traveling 26 countries ultimately reaching Scotland in relatively recent times (compared to the possible 5000 year lineage), and now there are countless types of pipes, I fail to see how ‘the’ can be used — particularly if only referring to Highland Bagpipes (as pictured above). It’s like saying ‘the vehicles’; do you mean blimps, snowmobiles, skateboards, trains, etc? ‘The’ = one …. hardly! French pipes, Turkish pipes, Irish pipes …. be specific, drop the ‘the’ (IMO) and say what types of pipes you are talking about with their specific name …… unless you are talking about the world’s bagpipes, but still, then just say ‘bagpipes’. Get to the point (and now you’re thinking “Hypocrite!”).

  3. Simon McKerrell

    Seriously?

    This is on the OUP blog? Self-titled “academic insights for the thinking world”? This is about as much use to the thinking world as a hangover.

    It is precisely this sort of lazy content that perpetuates stereotypes about the pipes and many other instruments. Pipes were never banned, most brass instruments are louder, tuning them requires far more skill than most diatonic instruments, ‘dogs in distress’???

    I am very much hoping that OUP removes this blog or at least gets someone to replace it with something worth the reputation of the institution–OU has had fantastic ethnomusicologists as part of the dept. for years, this is a bit of a surprise.

    yours

    Simon McKerrell (piper and Head of Music at Newcastle University).

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