Celtic Culture



Scottish Bagpipes

The bagpipes have existed in some form for longer than we have historical records. The earliest pipe melodies that have been passed down to us date back to the early twelfth century. During the Middle

Ages and the Renaissance, bagpipes became very common throughout Europe. During the latter days of the knights in shining armor on through the eighteenth century, the clan chiefs in Scotland, with their great kilts and huge claymore swords, carried the responsibility of supporting a piper for local festivities and for playing for the chief's own enjoyment.

Over this period of time three general types of music evolved:

  • Piobaireachd, the great music of the highland bagpipe;
  • The music we call "light music,". This was played for dances - jigs, strathspeys and reels. Most of the Scottish clans adopted tunes of both types to use as their own.
  • Battle Tunes - Warring clans would be led into battle inspired by the pipers playing their battle tune.


The Scots fought long and hard against domination by the English. They soon discovered that the noise of the pipes together with the fierce war cries of the kilted "savages" of the north struck fear into the hearts of the English soldiers. However, the Scots were finally disastrously defeated at the famous battle of Culloden in 1745.

The English were determined to rid themselves of this thorn in their sides forever and passed a death penalty law prohibiting playing of the bagpipe or wearing of the kilt. It was not until the 1800s that this ban was to be lifted by the English.

Much of the musical piping tradition was lost because the tunes were never written down, but some music was carried through those times in three ways. First there was the oral tradition - piping tunes were sung without words as "mouth music". A style of singing still preserved by a very few in Scotland today.

Second, many piobaireachd were preserved with a special language called cantaireachd. This represented the notes and grace notes using syllables which could be written by anyone who knew the alphabet. Lastly, there were a few people who preserved the skill by playing the pipe - despite the threat of death.

By the time the English lifted the ban it had done its job very well. By the 1800's the Scots had been fully integrated into the British Empire. In the nineteenth century, as part of the powerful British military force, famous Scottish regiments such as the Scots Guards, the Gordon Highlanders, the Black Watch, and the Fraser Highlanders were raised. The Scottish regiments earned themselves very strong reputations as some of the bravest and fiercest of His Majesty's Army.

In battles from Waterloo where Napoleon was defeated to the Boer Wars in South Africa to the defeats of the independent rajahs of India the Scots became well known for their fighting capabilities. But where ever they went the Scottish regiments ALWAYS brought their beloved bagpipes. Even though by this time they were using the "modern weapons" of the British army the soldiers continued to be inspired by their highland bagpipes on the battlefield.

As always in the past the pipers continued to lead the charges. In the early days of World War I the pipers leapt from the trenches and lead charges against the German machine guns leading their troops right through the hail of bullets.

After a period of time an order was sent out - the pipers had to remain behind in the trenches and not lead. It seems their colorful dress made them ample targets and they were being killed faster than new pipers could be trained. Yet their courage remained steadfast and Scottish regiments today still proudly maintain their pipe bands.

Musical competitions, of individual pipers playing against each other, go back for centuries. Detailed records of piping competitions at the highland gatherings have been found dating back to the mid-1800s. However, the bagpipe band is a much newer phenomenon that rose in the British army - where pipes were combined with the drum corps for ceremonies.

In fact, it was not until a little over one hundred years ago that the Scottish bagpipe became standardized into its modern form called  the Great Highland Bagpipe. This bagpipe has three drones and a chanter.

During the 1800s, another form of pipe music became very popular with individuals and the pipe bands. It was music which required masterful finger work to perform. These marches, strathspeys, and reels, referred to in Gaelic as "ceol mor," are now commonly played in modern competitions.

During the 1900s the pipe band tradition spread outside the British military into the small towns throughout Scotland. Each town began their own bands striving to be win top honors at the several dozen highland games held throughout the summers.

In the mornings the individual pipers would compete and then the bands would play in the afternoons. The largest competition in Scotland, at Cowal Highland Games, now has pipe bands playing all day both days. They play at two or three different locations and are literally scheduled back-to-back for non-stop playing.

The Great Highland Bagpipe has now spread throughout the world. New Zealand, Australia, and Canada all have very strong piping traditions. In the US it is growing at a very steady pace as well. Currently the largest highland gathering in the world is held in Pennsylvania. Over 200,000 people converge there to hear pipe bands from all across the United States.

In the 1980s, for the first time the major solo piping awards were won by pipers who were born, and raised, abroad. Then in the 1990s, the greatest pipe band championships went, for the first time, to bands from outside Scotland's borders.


The Scottish Small bagpipes are bellows blown, with three drones, bag, bellows and chanter. The fingering is the same as the Highland bagpipes and in Bb.

The spacing is the same too, but this is a sweet sounding quieter alternative - which is very popular with Scottish pipers. They are a versatile folk instrument, and a set pitched in D, is an ideal session instrument.

It is perhaps the youngest bagpipe having only existed in its modern form since the early 1980s. It is extremely popular, particularly with Highland pipers, many of whom keep it or a set of Border pipes as a second instrument. Though it has somewhat supplanted the musically unsatisfactory Highland practice chanter as a relatively quiet rehearsal instrument for Highland pipers, it has gained wide currency as a session instrument, for both the Highland and Border pipe repertoires.

The Scottish smallpipes were the first widely available instrument to allow Highland pipers to participate in musical sessions with fiddlers, flautists and other instruments, as well as to accompany singers. However, modern Scottish Border pipes, many of which are becoming quieter and more reliable than their predecessors, may slowly be replacing the Scottish Smallpipes in A as the highland piper's session instrument of choice.

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