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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The tyrant Nero was a ruthless ruler, strategist, and persecutor of Christians. He was also said to be a skilled piper.
- 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.
- The Great Highland bagpipes have been played as a martial instrument at least since the 16th century.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.