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The Bagpipes

The Scottish Highland (Great) Pipe – contemporarily played in the U. K., former Commonwealth countries, the U. S. and other English-speaking countries is, in its present form, barely 300 years old1. However, few realize that even today, local varieties of bagpipe can be found in nearly every country of Europe – from the Atlantic Coast to the Urals and from Northern Sweden to Tunisia. More specifically, bagpipes were common in Germany and the Low Countries until the 18th century (H. Boone, 1893). In England, the disappearance of the bagpipe can be precisely charted (R. D. Cannon, 1971), when it receded northward century by century from Chaucerian times in Kent, eventually to Northumbria in the 19th century. The height of bagpipe popularity was in the 13th century, when it was found all over Europe.

The origins of this diverse instrument may be traced back thousands of years to the ancient city of Ur, the home of Abraham, and also to ancient Egypt.

In the Book of Daniel, committed to parchment 500 years before Christ was born, six Babylonian instruments are listed (Daniel 3:5, 10, 15). Included in this list is the Aramaic word sum-pon-yah’, translated as ‘bagpipe’ in many different language renditions of the Bible.

The Roman Emperor, Nero, in the 1st century A. D. was quoted by the Roman historian, Suetonius, that he (Nero) would play "successively a water-organ, flute and bagpipes". Even prior to Nero’s birth (in 37 A. D.), Virgil mentions in a poem, "the pipe, which twitters sweetly".

The bagpipe’s introduction to Great Britain has been ascribed to migrating Celts ca. 500 B. C. The Oxford Compendium of Music even suggests that "the bagpipe was popular in England some centuries earlier than in Scotland". Roman infantry had their own pipers, but it is not clear whether the Romans introduced a bagpipe following their conquest of the British Isles in 43 B. C. or simply augmented what was already there.

It should be mentioned that in 1746, an English court decided that since "A Scottish Highland regiment never marched without a piper… therefore, the bagpipe, in the eyes of the law, was an instrument of war".

For details of bagpipe history and the generation of its distinctive sound, the reader is referred to R. D. Cannon’s, The Highland Bagpipe and Its Music2, which, in addition to remarkable detail in the text, is accompanied by an exhaustive bibliography.

1 ___________:  “The Bagpipe – Traced to Antiquity” in Awake! Great Britain, 8 DEC 2002
Cannon, R D: The Highland Bagpipe and Its Music, John Donald Publishers, LTD, Edinburgh, 1998

Last Update: April 2005