Bellowing about a history of bagpipes

Love them or hate them, you can't get away from bagpipes in Scotland. Picture: Michael McGurk
Love them or hate them, you can't get away from bagpipes in Scotland. Picture: Michael McGurk
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Scotland wasn’t the first place to have the instrument, but we perfected it, writes Vivien Estelle Williams

Bagpipes have been described as the Marmite of musical instruments: you love them, or you hate them. And yet the love for them must indeed outweigh the hate, if they still survive – and thrive – worldwide more than 3,000 years after their creation.

Theories about the bagpipe’s origins are all down to conjecture: before Gore-Tex, Wind Tex and plastic, the whole instrument was necessarily made entirely of perishable material, from the skin or bladder of the bag to the cane of the reed and the wood or bone of the chanters, drones, and mouthpiece. This means that we have no surviving ancient examples of a bagpipe. What can we base our conjectures on, then?

All we have is the analysis of current bagpipe distribution, literary and artistic documentation, and connections with music history. This kind of study links the bagpipe to India, where it is thought to have originated. In their enormous area of distribution, bagpipes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes – from the Sicilian zampogna gigante which is so big that it needs to be played sideways with the drone attached to the player’s wrist, to many examples of the Hungarian duda, essentially carved to resemble the shape of a goat.

They all also sound strikingly different with their specific scales, note range, number of chanters and drones, and method of inflation (mouthpiece, or bellows).

The French musette is so dainty and polished that it can be found as part of the orchestra in a number of art music compositions by, for instance, Lully, Rameau, and Campra.

The scale of the Libyan zokra shows that bagpipes in Northern Africa have a personality of their own, while the Great Highland bagpipe creates musical worlds and meanings from a span of nine notes only.

For the bagpipe to reach Scotland, where it is today the national instrument par excellence, it has had to travel all the way from India through the Mediterranean, Europe, passing through England with the Roman invasions.

Giraldus Cambrensis, 12th-century Welsh monk and archdeacon of Brecon, wrote that Scotland has three instruments: “cythara, tympano et choro” (harp, tympanum and chorus). Chorus was a term sometimes used in Medieval Europe to define a droneless form of bagpipe; such is the case, for instance, with the 9th-century epistle “De diversis generibus musicorum” addressed to Dardanus, dubiously attributed to St Jerome, in which the author clearly described a chorus as a bagpipe. In the case of Cambrensis, the translation of the term as “bagpipe” is not universally accepted, and therefore the first certain, irrefutable references we have to a bagpipe in Scotland date to the 15th century, with the carvings of a pig-piper in Melrose Abbey, and an angel-piper in Rosslyn Chapel.

The instrument therefore established itself in Scotland relatively late, compared with other parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia; and yet no other country is associated with the bagpipe as deeply and strongly. What is certain is that in Scotland the military side of the instrument, which is so prominent to this day, soon became one of the most iconic features. The bagpipe quickly supplanted the clàrsach (the Celtic harp) which until the 16th century had been the national instrument Scotland shared with Ireland, and it developed into an icon of Scottish national, patriotic pride more than in any other nation. Currently there seems to be a very welcome revival of interest in the bagpipe.

The phenomenon is not ascribed to Scotland alone, but can be noted worldwide. From a performative point of view, bagpipes are being employed more and more in revivalist folk bands, or in cross-contaminations with “unexpected” genres from punk to heavy metal, and even jazz. There is also a greater interest in analysing traditional repertoire, with the complexities of pìobaireachd and other geo-specific categories of bagpipe music being uncovered. Pipe-makers have recently been specialising in recreating lost or rare bagpipes or instrument parts, and events or special concerts are organised yearly across the globe to celebrate International Bagpipe Day on 10 March. Scholarly interest is also increasing, with valuable contributions and publications appearing on topics ranging from art history to organology, literature, repertoire, and cultural significance.

If ever there was a time to get interested in the bagpipe, this is it.

• Dr Vivien Estelle Williams is a Research Assistant at the University of Glasgow. She is a co-organiser of the third International Bagpipe Conference, at the National Piping Centre, Glasgow, February 26-28. The conference welcomes both experts and the curious. For programme and ticket details, www.internationalbagpipeorganisation.com/2016---glasgow.html

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