The Bagpipe—Traced to Antiquity
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN BRITAIN
THE Scottish Highland bagpipe we know today—played in Britain, Canada, the United States, and other English-speaking countries—is barely 300 years old. We can, however, trace the origins of the instrument back thousands of years to the ancient city of Ur, the home of Abraham, and also to ancient Egypt. In both places simple reed pipes have been found that are viewed by scholars as forerunners of the modern bagpipe. But at what time and by whom the air bag was added is not known.
In the Bible book of Daniel, written more than 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, six Babylonian musical instruments are specifically mentioned. (Daniel 3:5, 10, 15) Included in this list is the Aramaic word sum·pon·yahʹ, rendered “bagpipe” in many Bible translations.*
Although we cannot be sure what this ancient Babylonian instrument was like, it probably resembled one of the bagpipes still found in the Orient. Records reveal that in Persia (Iran), India, and China, bagpipes were used in various forms, some of which still exist.
Roman Emperor Nero, during his reign in the first century C.E., promised that if he kept his throne, he would play “successively on water-organ, flute, and bagpipes,” wrote Roman historian Suetonius. Some 50 years before Nero’s birth in 37 C.E., a poem attributed to the poet Virgil mentions “the pipe, which twitters sweetly.”
From early times France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, and Spain all had bagpipes, as did the Balkans and Scandinavia. By what route did the bagpipe come to Britain? It is known that about 500 B.C.E., migrating Celts brought a form of bagpipe to the country and that many counties in England had their own different forms of bagpipe early on, as did Scotland. The Oxford Companion to Music even suggests that “the bagpipe was popular in England some centuries earlier than in Scotland.”
Roman infantry had their pipers, but whether the Romans introduced a bagpipe following their conquest of the British Isles in 43 C.E. or simply augmented what was already there, nobody can be sure.
If you visit Scotland today and chance to hear the sound of the Highland bagpipe echoing through the glens, you will agree it is an experience not easily forgotten.
In modern usage the bagpipe is often referred to in the plural.
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Thousands of pipers and drummers, described as “the biggest pipe band ever,” paraded down Edinburgh’s famed Princes Street in August 2000 to raise money for a cancer charity (shown above). To join with the Scottish pipers, players traveled not just from Europe, Canada, and the United States but even from as far afield as Hong Kong and the Pacific island of Guam.
The Scottish Highland bagpipe is the major survivor of the family of bagpipes credited to Scotland. These include the Scottish Lowland pipes and the Scottish small-pipes. The Northumbrian pipe is the only remaining English instrument. Its gentle tone is something between a clarinet and an oboe. Unlike the Highland bagpipe, each of the three pipes just mentioned has a small bellows, expanded and contracted by the motion of the player’s arm to fill the bag with air, rather than by the breath of the player, blown directly into it.
In The Bagpipe—The History of a Musical Instrument, author Francis Collinson records that in the year 1746, an English court handed down the following judgment: “A [Scottish] Highland regiment never marched without a piper,” and “therefore his bagpipe, in the eye of the law, was an instrument of war.” Since no clan ever went into battle without a piper, this led to the Scottish Highland bagpipe’s extraordinary distinction of being the only musical instrument “banned” as a weapon of war.
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The Scottish Highland Bagpipe
The blowstick: This has a nonreturn valve at the end and is connected to the bag by a stock, a hollow wooden socket tied to a hole in the bag. Through this blowstick the bag is inflated by the piper who, by squeezing the bag, then forces air through the chanter and drones
Reeds: The best are made from the reed Arundo donax, grown for this use in France, Italy, and Spain
The chanter: A musical pipe on which a melody is played by means of seven finger holes and a thumbhole at the back. The sound is produced through a double reed. The air for the bagpipe chanter comes from a bag tucked under the piper’s arm
The bass drone: Similar to the tenor drones but tuned to two octaves below the chanter
Mountings: These are mostly of ivory, whale tooth, or bone, but plastic is also used today
The tenor drones: There are two. A single reed vibrates in each, and they are tuned in unison, one octave below the chanter
The bag: Traditionally made of animal skins, usually covered in tartan material
Woods: In early days local light-colored woods—often boxwood—were used and stained black. Later, cocus or cocuswood (Brya ebenus), a heavy hardwood from the West Indies, became a favorite, but there are others, such as African blackwood, a species of Dalbergia melanoxylon
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Scottish piper in full Highland dress
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The practice chanter: A piper learns to play on this, a separate instrument