Galician bagpiping comes to Celtic Connections

Galician piping star, Carlos N��ez. Picture: Contributed
Galician piping star, Carlos N��ez. Picture: Contributed
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BAGPIPES – didn’t we invent them? Or did they march north with Roman legions or drift in with migrating Celts?

Or what if they arrived from Spain, via ancient maritime routes, and the closest relation to the great Highland bagpipe is the gaita, the bagpipe of Spain’s culturally distinctive north-western region of Galicia?

That’s the theory Galician piping star Carlos Núñez will explore in what promises to be an exuberant but also thought-provoking Celtic Connections show at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday. He’ll be joined by musicians from Scotland, Wales and Latin America, as well as support from the fast-rising young Highland band Rura.

No stranger to Celtic Connections, Núñez, who plays the Highland bagpipe as well as his native gaita, was intrigued by a hypothesis put forward by Professor Hugh Cheape, former curator of National Museums Scotland’s bagpipe collection, in his book Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Instrument. Cheape flagged up “the interesting possibility that the bagpipe arrived in Scotland by way of an Atlantic corridor, and that its closest relation is the Spanish gaita which itself seems to represent the archetype bagpipe of the European Middle Ages”.

Núñez was “thrilled”, he tells me. “I met Hugh in one of my first visits to Celtic Connections. He showed me some very old Highland pipes that really looked like Galician pipes to me. Later I got his book and when I read that quote about the Atlantic corridor I felt that somehow it was a scientific confirmation of that impression I had had.”

The influence might have been mutual, continues Núñez: “The Atlantic corridor would have certainly been a two-way sail. In my first album, nearly 20 years ago, I recorded with an old set of Galician pipes and the sound was much more powerful than modern gaitas. Even the fingering, the scale, reminded me of Highland pipes. People here said it was perhaps due to Scottish regiments fighting Napoleon in the area where that particular instrument comes from.”


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The Galicians were here as well. Last month Núñez visited Skye to reacquaint himself with Cheape, who now holds a chair at UHI Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. On the way he was told about a Galician regiment that fought on the Jacobite side in the Battle of Glen Shiel in 1719, and was taken to Eilean Donan Castle, which they briefly occupied. He was told of landscape names such as Bealach-na-Spainnteach – “the Pass of the Spaniards”, while Highland piper Angus MacDonald played him a piobaireachd commemorating the battle.

Talking about his hypothesis, Cheape explains, “I don’t have any real evidence for that. The book was simply meant to throw ideas around. However, using musicological analogues, you cannot escape the hypothesis that the gaita was in a way some sort of ancestor of the Highland bagpipe.”

The theory fits naturally with current scholarly thinking about what Cheape describes as “the most extraordinary sustained links emerging between Spain and the west of Scotland, a sea lane which takes us either through Ireland or directly to western France and northern Spain and on beyond into the Mediterranean”.

Backed up by archaeological finds, scholars now conclude that Scotland’s islands and western seaboard, far from being “peripheral”, were historically – indeed prehistorically – connected to a wider European culture by seaborne traffic. “The current buzzword just now in archaeology is not migration or diffusion, but connectivity,” he says.

“Trading patterns were replicated in the movement of people and ideas. Gaels fought in Irish and continental wars and went to the Continent for education. Which is why,” he adds, “It is said that Clanranald chiefs bred Spanish horses.”

Then there was the matter of 2,000 guns the Spanish brought with them for the Jacobites, at least some of which remained. The renowned Gaelic bard Duncan Ban MacIntyre celebrated his Spanish hunting musket in his poem Oran do’n Mhusg, while it is said that a Spanish gun discharged the fatal shot in an affair which has engendered a centuries long debate of its own, the Appin Murder.

It’s also tempting to speculate whether the bagpipe might have been brought here by pilgrims returning from Santiago de Compostela. “Who knows?” responds Núñez. “I’ve also heard that it might have gone with the Armada. Do you know what the first European instrument played in Brazil was? The bagpipes, in 1500.

“Those ships were full of pipes, and so will the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday, full of pipes and of stories brought by the sea, back and forth though the Atlantic corridor.”

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