What They Don't Say About the Bagpipes
There s nothing more Scottish than the bagpipes. They stir the emotions, they raise the blood, they inspire bravery..., they ve even changed the course of battle... and they re a crowd pleaser with the tourists at Stirling Castle... but what do you really know about their history and origins? If you re interested in the people, places and events in Scottish history then click the subscribe button at the bottom right of the screen. In the meantime, let me tell you their story I m taking you down the hill to Broad St and Stirling Bagpipes, where we re going to see Alan Waldron making pipes...
but along the way let s talk a bit about their history When I say bagpipes the image you get is of our piper Danial Sweeny there in marching bands, or a lonely lamentation. My Videographer and right hand man Matt Ward reckons that you either love or hate bagpipes. Then again, he s English. Nobody hates the bagpipes. Yes they do... OK let s take a survey.
Tell me in the comments section. Are you a lover or hater. I bet I win. But bagpipes go back further than tartan clad broadsword wielding clansmen. The challenge is to separate myth form history. For example, some say that Noah had a piper as he went into the arc, and he danced to that music over two crossed vine plants...
Some argue the shepherds who went to meet the baby Jesus played the pipes..., and carvings of angels with bagpipes are numerous... There are references to Babylonians, Chaldeans, Persians, Egyptians, Ancient Greeks... but are they bagpipes..., a whistle, or a flute? From Neanderthal times humans have taken a bone hollowed it out, made finger holes and blown. As a child you probably used a piece of grass as a reed through which to blow and make a note.
Other than percussion, woodwind must be the oldest of instruments. So with the help of The Highland Bagpipe by W.L Manson a lovely little book called the Book of the Bagpipe by Hugh Cheape and a visit to Alan s shop down the street I ve put together a potted history. So what is a bagpipe? It has a chanter with finger holes to create various notes and a reed that air passes across in a constant stream.
Now that second bit s important. Because blowing a constant stream would mean finding a way to breathe in through your nose whilst breathing out through your mouth in a steady flow. They call it circular breathing and it s a similar technique to the one politicians use to talk out of their arse. That s a difficult skill to master. So back in the mists of time somebody said: Hold on... what if I used an inflated bag that I could squeeze the air out of in a steady flow, whilst blowing in intermittingly. That s when the bagpipe was born. So, when was that? Some say the first reference to a bagpipe was around 425 BC by the Athenian poet, Aristophanes...
but it seems the earliest corroborated record was... the emperor Nero. There s more than one reference to Nero playing pipes with a bag. In fact, as everything collapsed in the final revolt against his crazy rule, he promised the gods that if they would just get him out of trouble then as a penance come thanksgiving he would play on the bagpipe in public. Some have even said that it was the bagpipes that Nero played as Rome burned.
I wonder if Rishi Sunak can play. So bagpipes need a reeded chanter to play the tunes... normally with nine notes, ...a bag to control the flow of air, a mouthpiece to insert the air and also some drones. Tubes with reeds, but no fingerholes... to give a constant tone.
Now the shape and number of these drones has changed over time and place, but these are the component parts of a bagpipe. You can see how an instrument of the Roman Empire might spread throughout Europe... because you didn t only find bagpipes in Scotland. There was an instrument like the Scottish bagpipe called the volynka in the Russian Empire. The Finns had the pilai. At least five different kinds of bagpipes were known on the European mainland in the seventeenth century, each with subgroups: The cornemuse, the chalemie, the mussette, the surdelina and the Italian peasant s bagpipe.
You find them in Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Flanders... Eastern Europeans insist that they invented them... Poland, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Romania Bulgaria and Macedonia all have their own bagpipe histories. ... you even find them in England. Of course today you still get folk playing the Northumbrian pipes in the north of England, but way back in the 12th and 13th Century there are references to bagpipes in England. Edward II no less. The man sent homeward
from Bannockburn to think again when he tried to relieve the castle up there, was recorded as paying a musician at his court for playing the bagpipes. On our side there are those of Clan Menzies who claim that at Castle Menzies they have the remnants of bagpipes that were played to muster that clan before the battle of Bannockburn. It almost feels like there was a dark age between Rome and a renaissance in the 13th century. Had bagpipes been here all the time, or did they spread from continental Europe in medieval times? We know they were used as a processional instrument in church. They were a popular instrument for pilgrimage.
In Chaucer s Canterbury Tales "Robin with the Bagpype', leads pilgrims on their way. But the relationship between church and bagpipe wasn t always melodious. Some saw them as an instrument that gave rise to inner passions and desires: lusts and avarice. So you ll often see carvings of base animals like pigs playing bagpipes.
They might even be seen as instruments of the dark side... but we ll come back to that. Bagpipes must have been played in Scotland as early as 1446, because we see the carving of a piper in the beautiful stonework of Rosslyn chapel, and earlier still we have a bagpipe playing pig carved in the rebuilt Melrose Abbey... after Richard II s attack in 1385 Even earlier still there are records of payments of 40 shillings to pipers during the reign of Robert the Bruce s son David II in 1362. Although they tell me those pipers came from England, What? In the reign of James II there s a record of payment 'To Inglis pyparis that cam to the castel gate and playit to the king, 8 pounds 8 shillings.' Coming up here, taking our jobs. What need did we have of English pipers when even Scottish kings played the pipes? James I had a reputation as a gifted musician. 'Scotichronicon', written in his time says the King played the tabour, the psaltery, the organ, the flute, the harp, the trumpet, the small shepherd's pipe and of course the bagpipe. On the night of his murder in
the Blackfriars Monastery in Perth it s said that he passed his tyme in synging and piping, ' His great grandson James IV, born in that castle, reigned over a 'Golden Age' of Scottish Renaissance culture, and the Scots language. Piping was prominent at court. Like with those Canterbury Tales, when James went on pilgrimage to holy shrines, he took a piper... but they were also at the English Court at the same time. Henry VIII himself OWNED a set of bagpipes.
So bagpipes were pretty ubiquitous, not just in Scotland, but throughout Europe... and... they were played both at high court and by peasants in the fields...
Then with the development of municipal burghs they found another role... With the expansion of the burghs, market towns and the economic activity around them in 15th-century Scotland merchants were aspiring to the style and ostentation of the courts of king and nobility. They started to employ official town pipers, who would march up and down this very street at the start and the end of the day to raise folks from their beds or sing them back to sleep.
This wasn t in the Highlands, but in lowland commercial towns and burghs. It was in the border areas. It was here in Stirling. Back then Broad St here would have been the centre of the town around the mercat cross...
and just next to it is Stirling Bagpipes. The first time I went in here I felt like I was in an Aladin s Cave, a Museum, a library and an artisan s workshop all at the same time. It s run by a great character and bagpipe maker, Alan Waldron. If you re looking for anything bagpipe related I can t recommend better than Stirling Bagpipes. The pitch of chanters is just one of the things that s changed about the bagpipes over the years You might notice that some of the burgh pipers in Alan s print are playing a bellows-blown bagpipe, and last time I was here Alan showed me an example of one he d made. Instead of blowing into the bag under your arm, you pump air in with a set of bellows under the other arm. Even these bellows pipes come in numerous types:
Border, Northumbrian, Irish, Small pipes. Smaller than the Highland bagpipe as we know it. It also meant that the air didn t have the moisture from your breath and, apparently, that helps with the life of the reed. The 'cauld-wind' pipes were energy-saving, labour-saving; and were better indoors but they take a slightly different skill set. Of course bagpipes are made up of up to a dozen and more separate pieces like this that Alan turns on his lathe. All pipes have drones, and Alan explained how drones can be adjusted to tune their sound, also how the shape of the chanter affects the volume, with a cone that s narrow at the reed end and wide at the bottom producing the much louder sound of the phiob mor... which reminds me.
It s about time we got on to the highland great pipe. As the centuries passed bagpipes weren t as widespread as they had been for several reasons. Other instruments with wider range of pitch became more popular... and as society changed there wasn t the same need for portability as in pastoral life.
You can imagine how folk music and highbrow start to separate, and what had been instruments of high court might decline. Don t get me wrong bagpipes are still played across Europe in various forms,... They say Handel, having seen bagpipe players in Italy, included bagpipe music in his Messiah. The shepherds played them remember. ...but travelling troubadours destabilised the rigid social order of feudal Europe. Their lifestyle and morals could be seen as subversive. More and more bagpipes
were seen as a peasant instrument. Worse still an instrument of the devil. We mentioned the link with the sensuous, and we have presbytery records of pipers being censured for playing on a Sunday, thus profaning the sabbath. Some said they were supernatural. At James VI s, 17th century Berwick witch trials, women of Tranent confessed to dancing with the devil to bagpipe music. In Rabbie Burns s Tam O Shanter the witches dance to bagpipe music played by Satan, who d taken the form of a big black dog.
He screwed the pipes and gart them skirl, till roof and rafters a did dirl The bagpipes just weren t as respectable as they used to be. ...but they were gaining another role. In 1513 an hereditary piper from Jedburgh, in the Border lowlands, played at the battle of Flodden. At the Battle of Pinkie in 1547, the last pitched battle between Scotland and England, a French observer tells of a piper playing to encourage Highlanders in battle. Welcome to the era of the great Highland pipe. As enthusiasm for the pipes waned elsewhere their
importance had been growing in the Highlands. The prominent instrument of the Gaeltacht had always been the harp..., CR the clarsach, but that was changing. It might be helpful to focus on the Linn nan Creich, the centuries of raids, battles and strife. It ws during that period that the influence of the harp and of poets decreased... and the role of the great pipe increased.
We re told by the sixteenth century historian George Buchannan that in his time Highlanders used both. That feels like a transition period. Bards were a hugely important part of highland battle. The bard would roam the battlefield exhorting his clansman, reminding them of the glory of their forefathers and the triumphs of battles past. His voluble vehemence might turn to loquacious lamentation later, but in the midst of battle would spur clansmen on to greater valour.
I m told that the last bard we know to have acted officially in battle was Mac Mhuirich of Clan Ranald, who recited at the battle of Harlaw, in 1411. He was so disgusted at the growing popularity of the pipes, as his replacement, that he composed a set of verses denigrating their use... but you can see how the voice of a poet could never compete with the volume of a great pipe and you can see the path from MacMhuirich, so revered on the battlefield that he was safe from the sword slash or axe blow, to a lone piper on a Normandy beach who the Germans let live because they thought he was crazy.
Bard MacMhuirich at Harlaw and Piper Bill Millin on Sword beach five hundred years later... performed exactly the same role. Of course, after the din of battle both the bard and the piper would lament the lost, and for some time a clan chief would have both a bard and a piper in his retinue. ...but the great pipe replaced the harp as the iconic instrument of the Highlands... and it became a weapon of war every bit as much as the voice of the bard had been.
After Culloden... on 15th November 1746 piper James Reid was executed at York as a rebel. The judge waived aside his defence that he carried no weapon, saying that no highland regiment marched without a piper. Post Culloden those pipers marched for regiments in the British army rather than their clans..., Whether or not the Roman Empire brought bagpipes here, the British empire took the Highland great pipe across the world.
New Zealand, Australia, The US and, of course Canada, where Piper Bill Millin had grown up. But further still. Jordan, Oman, Nepal and more have military bands playing the Highland great pipe. In competition, some of them are even
beating us at our own game. ...but worldwide the pipes have become synonymous with Scotland If you d like a video of me trying to learn the pipes let me know in the comments. If you want to hear the story of MacCrimmen s Lament then there s a video coming up now. ...and support the channel by clicking top right to become a Patreon member or buy me a coffee in the description below. Tha mi an dochas