Well, it’s that time of the year again. March 10th marks International Bagpipes Day! I know most of us are (obviously) great bagpipe lovers already, but for anyone out there who has ever thought, “Wow, bagpipes are totally amazing, but I wish I knew more about them!” this post is for you.
Let’s start with some basic bagpipe facts.
- Bagpipes were invented in the Near/Middle East, evidence suggests some time before the Roman era. The exact timeline is unknown, but references to bagpipes and bagpipers are made in ancient Greek plays and Roman writings. There are sporadic mentions of the instrument in earlier texts.
- Although the Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland is the most widely known bagpipe in the English-speaking world, bagpipes are actually fairly common across all Indo-European countries, with most every region sporting several examples. In addition to the Great Highland Bagpipe, pipes from the British Isles include the Scottish Smallpipes, the Border Pipes, the Irish Uilleann Pipes, and others. In Europe, instruments include the zampogna of Italy, the biniou of France, and the Dudelsack (yes, really) of Germany. There are also bagpipes indigenous to India, Iran, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Poland, Norway, Sweden, and pretty much every other European country you know.
- Bagpipes were used on the battlefields of Scotland and England as early as the 16th century. Bagpipes were used in a manner similar to the use of the bugle by the cavalries of Westerns, with different types of tunes to denote marching to battle, retreating, reveille, etc. The commonly known music of the Great Highland Bagpipes today comes mostly from the tradition of martial music; bagpipe competitions strongly emphasize marches specifically.
While different types of bagpipe vary greatly in their tones, the instruments have an underlying unity to their sound, which is due to the way they are played. Almost all bagpipes consist of a chanter, which plays the melody, and at least one drone pipe, which plays a single note in the background (hence the name). The piper fills the bag with air, either blown in by mouth or pumped in by a bellows, and then squeezes the bag, which forces the air through reeds in the pipes, which produces the notes of the instrument.
From Wikipedia (because I tried to say this as concisely and failed): “The chanter is usually open-ended, so there is no easy way for the player to stop the pipe from sounding. Thus most bagpipes share a constant, legato sound where there are no rests in the music. Primarily because of this inability to stop playing, technical movements are used to break up notes and to create the illusion of articulation and accents. Because of their importance, these embellishments (or ‘ornaments’) are often highly technical systems specific to each bagpipe, and take many years of study to master.”
- Bill Millin, personal piper to Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, piped British soldiers ashore at Normandy like a total badass. After the battle he asked some captured German snipers why they hadn’t shot him and they told him it was because they thought he had gone insane. What other instrument has a story like that?! None other.
That’s about enough of the educational stuff! Here are some bagpipes for you to listen to! Enjoy!
Pipe Major Brian Donaldson and Willie MacCallum, two of the best pipers living (and two of the nicest people you’d ever hope to meet!)
The late Pipe Major Alasdair Gillies, last Pipe Major of the Queen’s Own Highlanders, and possibly the greatest piper of the 20th Century. (Also a fantastic person.)
Here’s some Italian bagpipes! Wtf?!
Russian Bagpipes! Ah!
That’s all from your favorite bagpipe lover for today! Haste ye back! <3