Wednesday, June 24

Origins of the Bagpipes

Although the early history of the bagpipe is unclear, it seems likely that the instrument was first developed in pre-Christian times, evolving from an instrument similar to a hornpipe or shawm. Where and when a bag was attached to one of these instruments is likely to remain a mystery.

When the pipes were first introduced to the British Isles is debatable. Statuettes of bagpipers in Roman era archeological digs in England indicate a possibility that the Romans may well have spread the pipes through the Roman Empire, but there is little evidence for this. The Dark Ages left us practically nothing regarding bagpipes or their position in societies, and prior to the 12th century, only a few Pictish and Irish stone carvings record the existence of bagpipes during this time.

The role of the bagpipe varied naturally from place to place. In Britain, pipers became part of the traveling minstrel class, acting as carriers of news, gossip and music around the country. In the Scottish Highlands, around the 16th century, the pipers started to displace the harpers, the chief Celtic musicians since Roman times.

Today, thanks to the growth of the British Empire, often spearheaded by Highland regiments of the British Army, and because of the huge numbers of pipers trained for the two World Wars, the Great Highland Bagpipe has become well-known world-wide as a Scottish icon.

The pipes consist of an airtight bag (made of hide, or more modern materials) to which are connected five pipes: the blow pipe, three drones and a chanter. The blow pipe is for supplying air to the other four pipes and is equipped with a valve at the end of the bag, so that air, once blown in, keeps inside the bag to supply the other four pipes. Two of the drones are tenor and one is bass, for tuning they have slides to adjust their length, hence pitch. Each has a tubular reed, with a tongue in it to produce the sound- the lovely steady tone that is one of the hallmarks of the bagpipe. The final pipe is the chanter, with eight holes and two sound holes. It takes a very strong double reed, similar to that of a bassoon reed. It’s this reed that gives the pipes their volume, sharpness and unique sound.

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