Place of origin
Bagpipes are a wind instrument using enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air in the form of a bag. Though the Scottish Great Highland bagpipes are the best known in the Anglophone world, bagpipes have been played for a millennium or more throughout large parts of Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia, including Turkey, the Caucasus, and around the Persian Gulf. The term bagpipe is equally correct in the singular or plural, though pipers usually refer to the bagpipes as "the pipes", "a set of pipes" or "a stand of pipes."
A set of bagpipes minimally consists of an air supply, a bag, a chanter, and usually at least one drone. Many bagpipes have more than one drone (and, sometimes, more than one chanter) in various combinations, held in place in stocks—sockets that fasten the various pipes to the bag.
The most common method of supplying air to the bag is through blowing into a blowpipe, or blowstick. In some pipes the player must cover the tip of the blowpipe with their tongue while inhaling, but most blowpipes have a non-return valve that eliminates this need.
An innovation, dating from the 16th or 17th century, is the use of a bellows to supply air. In these pipes, sometimes called "cauld wind pipes", air is not heated or moistened by the player's breathing, so bellows-driven bagpipes can use more refined or delicate reeds. Such pipes include the Irish uilleann pipes, the Scottish border pipes and Lowland pipes; Northumbrian smallpipes, pastoral pipes and English Border pipes in Britain, and the musette de cour in France.
The bag is an airtight reservoir that holds air and regulates its flow via arm pressure, allowing the player to maintain continuous even sound. The player keeps the bag inflated by blowing air into it through a blowpipe or pumping air into it with a bellows. Materials used for bags vary widely, but the most common are the skins of local animals such as goats, dogs, sheep, and cows. More recently, bags made of synthetic materials including Gore-Tex have become much more common. A drawback of the synthetic bag is the potential for fungal spores to colonise the bag because of a reduction in necessary cleaning, with the associated danger of lung infection. An advantage of a synthetic bag is that they have a zip which allows the user to fit a more effective moisture trap to the inside of the bag.
Bags cut from larger materials are usually saddle-stitched with an extra strip folded over the seam and stitched (for skin bags) or glued (for synthetic bags) to reduce leaks. Holes are then cut to accommodate the stocks. In the case of bags made from largely intact animal skins, the stocks are typically tied into the points where limbs and the head joined the body of the whole animal, a construction technique common in Central Europe.
The chanter is the melody pipe, played with two hands. Almost all bagpipes have at least one chanter; some pipes have two chanters, particularly those in North Africa, the Balkans in Southern Europe, and Southwest Asia. A chanter can be bored internally so that the inside walls are parallel (or "cylindrical") for its full length, or it can be bored in a conical shape.
The chanter is usually open-ended, so there is no easy way for the player to stop the pipe from sounding. Thus most bagpipes share a constant, legato sound where there are no rests in the music. Primarily because of this inability to stop playing, technical movements are used to break up notes and to create the illusion of articulation and accents. Because of their importance, these embellishments (or "ornaments") are often highly technical systems specific to each bagpipe, and take many years of study to master. A few bagpipes (such as the musette de cour, the uilleann pipes, the Northumbrian smallpipe, the piva and the left chanter of the surdulina) have closed ends or stop the end on the player's leg, so that when the player "closes" (covers all the holes) the chanter becomes silent.
A practice chanter is a chanter without bag or drones, allowing a player to practice the instrument quietly and with no variables other than playing the chanter.
The term chanter is derived from the Latin cantare, or "to sing", much like the modern French word chanteur.
The note from the chanter is produced by a reed installed at its top. The reed may be a single (a reed with one vibrating tongue) or double reed (of two pieces that vibrate against each other). Double reeds are used with both conical- and parallel-bored chanters while single reeds are generally (although not exclusively) limited to parallel-bored chanters. In general, double-reed chanters are found in pipes of Western Europe while single-reed chanters appear in most other regions.
Most bagpipes have at least one drone: a pipe which is generally not fingered but rather produces a constant harmonizing note throughout play (usually the tonic note of the chanter). Exceptions are generally those pipes which have a double-chanter instead. A drone is most commonly a cylindrically-bored tube with a single reed, although drones with double reeds exist. The drone is generally designed in two or more parts with a sliding joint so that the pitch of the drone can be adjusted.
Depending on the type of pipes, the drones may lie over the shoulder, across the arm opposite the bag, or may run parallel to the chanter. Some drones have a tuning screw, which effectively alters the length of the drone by opening a hole, allowing the drone to be tuned to two or more distinct pitches. The tuning screw may also shut off the drone altogether. In most types of pipes, where there is one drone it is pitched two octaves below the tonic of the chanter. Additional drones often add the octave below and then a drone consonant with the fifth of the chanter.
The evidence for pre-Roman era bagpipes is still uncertain but several textual and visual clues have been suggested. The Oxford History of Music says that a sculpture of bagpipes has been found on a Hittite slab at Euyuk in the Middle East, dated to 1000 BC. Several authors identify the ancient Greek askaulos (ἀσκός askos – wine-skin, αὐλός aulos – reed pipe) with the bagpipe. In the 2nd century AD, Suetonius described the Roman emperor Nero as a player of the tibia utricularis. Dio Chrysostom wrote in the 1st century of a contemporary sovereign (possibly Nero) who could play a pipe (tibia, Roman reedpipes similar to Greek and Etruscan instruments) with his mouth as well as by tucking a bladder beneath his armpit.
Spread and development in Europe
In the early part of the second millennium, definite clear attestations of bagpipes began to appear with frequency in Western European art and iconography. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, written in Galician-Portuguese and compiled in Castile in the mid-13th century, depicts several types of bagpipes. Several illustrations of bagpipes also appear in the Chronique dite de Baudoin d’Avesnes, a 13th-century manuscript of northern French origin. Though evidence of bagpipes in the British Isles prior to the 14th century is contested, bagpipes are explicitly mentioned in The Canterbury Tales (written around 1380): A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, /And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne. Bagpipes were also frequent subjects for carvers of wooden choir stalls in the late 15th and early 16th century throughout Europe, sometimes with animal musicians.
Actual examples of bagpipes from before the 18th century are extremely rare; however, a substantial number of paintings, carvings, engravings, manuscript illuminations, and so on survive. They make it clear that bagpipes varied hugely throughout Europe, and even within individual regions. Many examples of early folk bagpipes in continental Europe can be found in the paintings of Brueghel, Teniers, Jordaens, and Durer.
The first clear reference to the use of the Scottish Highland bagpipes is from a French history, which mentions their use at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547. George Buchanan (1506–82) claimed that they had replaced the trumpet on the battlefield. This period saw the creation of the ceòl mór (great music) of the bagpipe, which reflected its martial origins, with battle-tunes, marches, gatherings, salutes and laments. The Highlands of the early seventeenth century saw the development of piping families including the MacCrimmonds, MacArthurs, MacGregors and the Mackays of Gairloch.
Evidence of the bagpipe in Ireland occurs in 1581, when John Derrick's The Image of Irelande clearly depicts a bagpiper. Derrick's illustrations are considered to be reasonably faithful depictions of the attire and equipment of the English and Irish population of the 16th century. The "Battell" sequence from My Ladye Nevells Booke (1591) by William Byrd, which probably alludes to the Irish wars of 1578, contains a piece entitled The bagpipe: & the drone. In 1760, the first serious study of the Scottish Highland bagpipe and its music was attempted, in Joseph MacDonald's Compleat Theory. Further south, a manuscript from the 1730s by a William Dixon from Northumberland contains music that fits the border pipes, a nine-note bellows-blown bagpipe whose chanter is similar to that of the modern Great Highland bagpipe. However the music in Dixon's manuscript varied greatly from modern Highland bagpipe tunes, consisting mostly of extended variation sets of common dance tunes. Some of the tunes in the Dixon manuscript correspond to tunes found in early 19th century published and manuscript sources of Northumbrian smallpipe tunes, notably the rare book of 50 tunes, many with variations, by John Peacock.
As Western classical music developed, both in terms of musical sophistication and instrumental technology, bagpipes in many regions fell out of favour due to their limited range and function. This triggered a long, slow decline that continued, in most cases, into the 20th century.
Extensive and documented collections of traditional bagpipes can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the International Bagpipe Museum in Gijón, Spain, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England and the Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum in Northumberland, and the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.
During the expansion of the British Empire, spearheaded by British military forces that included Highland regiments, the Scottish Great Highland bagpipe became well-known worldwide. This surge in popularity was boosted by large numbers of pipers trained for military service in World War I and World War II. The surge coincided with a decline in the popularity of many traditional forms of bagpipe throughout Europe, which began to be displaced by instruments from the classical tradition and later by gramophone and radio.
In the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Nations such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia the Great Highland bagpipe is commonly used in the military and is often played in formal ceremonies. Foreign militaries patterned after the British Army have also taken the Highland bagpipe into use including Uganda, Sudan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Jordan, and Oman. Many police and fire services in Scotland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and the United States have also adopted the tradition of fielding pipe bands.
In recent years, often driven by revivals of native folk music and dance, many types of bagpipes have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and, in many cases, instruments that were on the brink of obscurity have become extremely popular. In Brittany, the Great Highland bagpipe and concept of the pipe band were appropriated to create a Breton interpretation, the bagad. The pipe band idiom has also been adopted and applied to the Galician gaita as well. Additionally, bagpipes have often been used in various films depicting moments from Scottish and Irish history; the film Braveheart and the theatrical show Riverdance have served to make the uilleann pipes more commonly known.
Bagpipes are sometimes played at formal events in Commonwealth universities, particularly in Canada. Because of the Scottish influences on the sport of Curling, bagpipes are also the official instrument of the World Curling Federation and are commonly played during a ceremonial procession of teams before major curling championships.
Bagpipe making was once a craft that produced instruments in many distinctive local traditional styles. Today, the world's biggest producer of the instrument is Pakistan, where the industry was worth $6.8 million in 2010. In the late 20th century, various models of electronic bagpipes were invented. The first custom-built MIDI bagpipes were developed by the Asturian piper known as Hevia (José Ángel Hevia Velasco).
Types of bagpipes
Dozens of types of bagpipes today are widely spread across Europe and the Middle East, as well as through much of the former British Empire. The name bagpipe has almost become synonymous with its best-known form, the Great Highland bagpipe, overshadowing the great number and variety of traditional forms of bagpipe. Despite the decline of these other types of pipes over the last few centuries, in recent years many of these pipes have seen a resurgence or revival as musicians have sought them out; for example, the Irish piping tradition, which by the mid 20th century had declined to a handful of master players is today alive, well, and flourishing a situation similar to that of the Asturian gaita, the Galician gaita, the Portuguese gaita transmontana, the Aragonese gaita de boto, Northumbrian smallpipes, the Breton biniou, the Balkan gaida, the Romanian cimpoi, the Black Sea tulum, the Scottish smallpipes and pastoral pipes, as well as other varieties.
Traditionally, one of the purposes of the bagpipe was to provide music for dancing. This has declined with the growth of dance bands, recordings, and the decline of traditional dance. In turn, this has led to many types of pipes developing a performance-led tradition, and indeed much modern music based on the dance music tradition played on bagpipes is no longer suitable for use as dance music.
Usage in non-traditional music
Since the 1960s, bagpipes have also made appearances in other forms of music, including rock, metal, jazz, hip-hop, punk, and classical music, for example with Paul McCartney's "Mull of Kintyre", AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)", and Peter Maxwell Davies's composition An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise
Periodicals covering specific types of bagpipes are addressed in the article for that bagpipe