History of the Scottish Bagpipes

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The Ancient Bagipes of Scotland

~~Otherwise Known As The "Great Pipes"~~

by Nancy A. MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot USA

The audience suddently grows quiet, their is a wail in the background, it gets closer, and closer, the wail becomes a skirl, the audience breaks out in wild applause, it's the 'pipes', the Scottish Highland Pipes!!! ........

The pipes have captured audiences all over the globe. Bagpipes are among the oldest of musical instruments, so old that their true age and origin are unknown. It is said, by some, that "Emperor Nero played the "Pipes" not the fiddle, while Rome burned." (This remark is attributed to the Black Watch, not me.)

Some 'form' of bagpipes are used in France, Ireland, Italy, India, Spain, Greece, Persia, and Russia, (and more) but in Scotland they have become an integral part of the country's culture. Scotland is the ancestral home of the "Great Highland Bagpipes" known to all as the "GreatPipes". "Pipers" play the bagpipes, not Bagpipers.

The Great Highland Bagpipe comprises of an air bag, usually made of sheepskin, into which are bound five pipes: a bass drone, two tenor drones, the mouthpiece and the chanter on which the tune is played. The chanter is a short pipe with eight holes, one for the players's thumb and eight for his fingers. The player can produce nine notes from low G to high A.

Making the limited range of the pipes sound more attractive, the player introduces grace notes or trills, which, with the wailing of the drones, makes the familiar "skirl" of the pipes.

Before the sixteenth century the strolling bagpipe players had to improvise their music or play variations on folk-songs. It was not until the Scots adopted the bagpipe that music began to be composed for the pipe, and the strathspeys, reels and pibroch that now make up a piper's repertory.

Most of the written music for the bagpipe can be traced to the MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Skye, and the greatest family of pipers ever known. They had a school at Dunvegan and believed firmly in the formula that it took seven generation of pipers and seven years of study to produce a good player.

In the "olden" days, each clan maintained its own piper who played a morning tune to awaken the family, piped for dancing and composed special selections on the birth; death; marriage etc., of important clan figures.

In the 1830's pipers first began to write down their music in staff notation, using the regular musical symbols. Before this, each piper used his own symbols.

The leading bagpipe school in Scotland today, was (at least in the 1960's) in Edinburgh Castle where the modern piper is taught the pibroch, the true classical music of the pipes. The pibroch makes severe demands upon the player's technique and the pibroch repertory is comprised mostly in tunes composed by the MacCrimmons and, in later years, regimental pipers.

[This may have changed since I visited the Pipers School in Edinburgh Castle, but I doubt it. I must go again, and make sure it is still there.]

Each Highland regiment of the British Army has it's own pipers and pipebands. Each regiment has it's own repertory of marches, reels, strathspeys and retreats. Each regiment is very particular about what it's pipers play and jealously preserves it's own tunes.

In the days of the great and smaller Clans; The Camerons, for instance, would never allow their pipers to play "The Campbells are Coming." and the Seaforths banned "The March of the Cameron Men." [You will have to read your history of Scotland to learn why, I am not sure if *Robert Gunn Historian, has written the history on that yet, but I have written the history of the clans, and it does not go into the pride of the Clan's own pipers.]

When the Black Watch as first formed in 1739, each Company maintained its own individual pipers. Scotland was at this time still Scotland. The Black Watch, was formed by the English Hanovarian King, of companies of men from the Highlands to "Watch" the Highlanders. Thus the name "Black"- for dark use, and" Watch" - for watching the Highlanders.

It was not until the Napoleonic wars that drummers were introduced and together with the pipers formed what is now know as the Pipes and Drums of the Black Watch. Throughout the history of the Black Watch, pipers and later the Pipes and Drums have remained an integral part of the Regiments and as such, have played an important part in it's victories and battle honours. Pipers were to be seen leading the Black Watch and other Regiments into action many times since their inception. **[More on the Black Watch in my article on the History of the Black Watch.]

The Black Watch Pipers now wear the Royal Stuart tartan, the official tartan of the Royal Family, an honor bestowed on the Regiment by Queen Victoria in 1889. Nowadays they also wear the Blackwatch Tartan. The Blackwatch tartan is an adaption of the Campbell tartan!

The bagpipe itself is a carefully made instrument, requiring expert skill in the selection and carving. The drones are made from African blackwood or ebony which must be flawless. The wood is matured for more than 15 years before it is carved and drilled, and even then the drones and chanters are kept for several years more and periodically examined for warping. The slightest warping will mar the tone.

The most costly, and considered best pipes, mounted with ivory and silver will cost over $900.00 - $1500.00; an average good set may be purchased as littles as $500.00. The invention of plastic used instead of ivory had helped the price of the pipes to be more reasonable. However, a really 'good' set of pipes will still run quite high in price.

Most all bagpipe manufacturers warn perspective buyers that six to seven year of intensive practice is the only way to become a good piper, but this does not deter buyers. Also the manufactures are behind on their orders, so they tell me.

It is no longer unusual to find an American who plays the pipes and, indeed, several units of the American Army and Navy and Airforce have their own pipe bands, and have had for more than 40 years.

My sister Bonnie Jean was a championship piper, at Grandfather Mountain Games in 1958. She played a MacCrimmon pibroch.

In fact, the off shore Scots in United States and Canada are so active, that the bagpipe competitions at the games are very extensive now. Almost every large city police department has it's own Pipe and Drum Corps. Individual Scottish Societies, Caledonian Societies, St. Andrews Societies, and many towns have their own Pipes and Drummers, all competitive, all active, and all very dedicated to their own band. If you miss the bagpipes playing, it won't be in the United States or Canada.

Alba Gu Brath!!

Nancy MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot,
Author, Poet
Historian of the ancient clans of Scotland
"All rights reserved 05/01/1997 thru 2003 inclusive, N. MacCorkill"


A Friend Wrote This Article on the Workings of the Bagpipe

Here is a little history on the bagpipes,I love listening to them, thought I would pass it along.

Never has an instrument been so loved by a people and yet so feared by their enemies as the Highland Bagpipes. The pipes are a symbol of strength, the salve of the soul, and the prize of the Clans.

The Scottish Bagpipes are thought to date back to about 100 a.d. Their true origin is uncertain, but the Scottish Highland bagpipe is the most familiar throughout the world. They became popular in Scotland during the 15th century.

The English crown so feared their stirring effects on the Scottish population after their defeats in the 18th Century that the playing of the bagpipes was forbidden upon pain of imprisonment or death.

Bagpipes consist of a leather bag from which five pipes protrude. The piper uses one of the five tubes (the blowpipe) to force air into the bag. To produce the music,he forces air out of the bag through the other pipes with pressure from his arm on the bag. One of the tubes through which the air exits has eight openings on which the piper uses his fingers to play the melody, covering and uncovering the holes. This tube is called the chanter. It produces nine notes. Each of the remaining three pipes produce a single note, one bass (called the drone pipe) and two tenor pipes.

The bag is covered by the tartan of the piper's family clan or pipe band.

Traditionally a solo instrument that inspired Scottish warriors and terrorized their enemies, Bagpipes are often used in bands accompanied by tenor and bass drums. Pipers refere to the Bagpipes as just the word "the pipes".

Andrew Bays
Thank you Andy!


Now more from Nancy......

Here are a few more types of pipes:


The Specifications:
in D/E Chanter in high D (double reed) 11 inches
Drone in D or E (single reed) 24 inches (open) incl. stock (also available a tone lower in C/D).

This is based on the instrument illustrated in The "Grandes Heures" of Anne of Brittany, Queen of France. The work, commissioned from Jean Bordichon around 1500, resulted in one of the finest Books of Hours ever made.

Although illustrated at the close of the 15th. Century, such bagpipes must already have been a familiar sight. A similar instrument appears also in a 'Book of Hours' from Normandy, this time dating from the third quarter of the century.

Despite its moderate proportions, the Brittany instrument is a loud and strident pipe. The tone is bright and penetrating and especially suited to a florid style of playing. It is easy to play and very stable. Finger holes are well spaced and sit nicely under the fingers - not always the case with chanters of this size!

The chanter, high D (= 6 fingers) plays an octave above the D drone, which is also adjustable by slide to sound a note higher - E. This means that tunes using the keynote E may also be had from the chanter - an arrangement particularly suited to medieval piping. The chanter, uses open fingering with both upper and lower leading notes of c sharp. The upper, flattened leading note (c nat.) is also easily obtainable. Additionally, the chanter readily plays f flat, g sharp and b flat. There is the usual top thumb hole.

The chanter may also be played separately as a small shawm or ombarde - a pirouette can be supplied at a slight extra cost. The pipes are turned from suitable, available "native" woods - i.e. Holly, Thorn, Pearwood, etc. The bag is of handsewn cowhide and the blowpipe is fitted with a protective horn tip. A woven carrying bag is also provided, together with full maintenance and playing instructions and fingering chart.



The Picardy Bagpipe (circa 1480)

Chanter (double reed) 14ins.
Drone (single reed)  29ins. closed (incl.stock)
Horn-tipped blowpipe
Cowhide bag
Instrument in G/A
Open or half-closed fingering system.

Copy of the bagpipe from a French illuminated manuscript. In keeping with the biblical texts, shepherds are a traditional ingredient of every self-respecting Nativity scene. In this particular instance, very similar in many ways to the Brittany one, the bagpipe shown is considerably larger. Therefore I have chosen to show this as an alternative for those requiring a French instrument at this lower pitch.

The instrument has an imposing drone ending in a rather splendid thistle-shaped bell and in keeping with the original, is fitted with a large bag. The tone is rich, full and well-projected. It has been called a chanter with a lovely tone! All the normal semitones are available. The drone sounds G at an octave below the chanter but can be raised to A by using the slide, thereby making both six and five finger keynote tunes available. The chanter plays a major scale - G A B C D E F sharp g. There is a lower leading note of F sharp for the seventh finger. Additionally, B flat, E flat and an upper f natural are also easily obtainable without resorting to complicated fingering or half-holing. For an extra cost, a shorter drone section can also be supplied, allowing 3 finger keynote tunes in C. With the choice of 3 different keynotes, the Picardy Bagpipe is a particularly versatile instrument.

Pitch can be varied somewhat to suit requirements but for the sake of authenticity, It is better to have the instruments reproducee at approximately original sizes.

As with the Brittany Bagpipe, the chanter (pirouette added) may also be played as a small shawm or ordered seperately as an instrument in its own right.



The Shepherd`s Bagpipe

A smaller, more compact version of the enormous Great Bock (Grosser Bock) bagpipe illustrated by Praetorious in Syntagma Musicum (1619).


In D/E. Chanter in D (single reed) approx. 16 ins. (incl. horn bell).
Drone in D/E (single reed) approx. 32 ins. closed (incl. horn bell and stock).

Bagpipes of one sort or another have a long and ancient history. There are clear references to them in Classical Greek literature and they were certainly known to the Romans. The first bagpipes were probably (I am not positive about this fact) Islamic, using whole animal skins (hair included) for the airbag. The bagpipe eventually spread to become a familiar instrument throughout Europe in an amazing diversity of forms. By the Middle Ages, it was a popular instrument.

The Shepherd`s Bagpipe uses the sound of the single reed in both chanter and drone, amplified by carved oxhorn bells, The result is a instrument, rustic in appearance and distinctive in tone - strong, full and rounded, but also mellow. If you are looking for a pipe that would be for a wide range of periods, then such an instrument would be excellent.

The chanter, using open fingering to give a major scale, plays an octave above the low D drone. The drone can be adjusted by slide to play a note higher. With the drone adjusted to this alternative note, 5-finger (e) keynote tunes can be also played on the chanter, as well as those on the 6-finger D. The upper, flattened leading note (c nat.) is also easily obtainable and there is the normal top thumb hole.

We can also supply a chanter using closed or covered fingering, an arrangement where only one finger is raised at any given time to produce the note, thereby causing the chanter's bottom note to sound briefly between each note change. The resulting sound is most attractive to many ears and lends a distinctive texture to the piping!

The chanter may be removed from the bag to be played separately as a hornpipe - simply add a mouthpiece. A little higher priced, they can supply this - two instruments for the price of one! Also, you may wish to order a complete Hornpipe so that someone can accompany your bagpiping!

The Shepherd`s bagpipe is turned from suitable, available fruitwoods, holly or sycamore and has carved and decorated bells in oxhorn. The bag is of handsewn cowhide and there is a protective horn tip to the blowpipe. The pipes are supplied with a woven carrying bag. Instruments in other sizes and keys are available.



The Goatherd`s Bagpipe
( fitted with Goatskin Bag Cover)

Specifications: Chanter (single reed) 11 ins. Plays in G using a 5-finger keynote. (other tunings available upon request). Two Drones at 8ve (single reeds) 20 ins. & 33 ins. open (incl. stocks). Horn-tipped blowpipe. Cowhide bag.

A characterful, rustic instrument of good volume with the two drones carried over the left shoulder and right arm. The three single reeds bring a distinctively different sound to the piping which is very clarinet-like, especially in the chanter`s upper register. The drones of course can be adjusted by slide to allow 5 as well as 6 finger keynote tunes. The sound is rounded and mellow yet strong. The drones, sounding lower and upper G give a beautiful tonal quality to the playing.

NOTE: To bring an alternative sound to the piping, various pitches of Double Reed Chanters are supplied. A high D chanter playing against the two drones (3 finger keynote) sounds excellent and clear, whilst a G chanter (6 finger keynote) gives a different texture, less strident but still a strong rich sound!

In keeping with its name, such an instrument is offered with the instrument having a carved Goathead Chanter Stock. The head is carved from limestone with leather and horn additions. The pipe can also be supplied with a Goatskin Bag Cover. The cover is closed by leather lacing.

Scone Nancy MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot, Author, Poet Historian of the ancient clans of Scotland "All rights reserved 05/01/1997 thru 2003 inclusive, N. Mac/Corkill"

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