The bagpipe, in its most basic form, is one of
the most widely used musical instruments in the world. Variations on
the design can be found throughout Europe and the Middle East, and
while the Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland is the most well-known
in the U.S., the instrument is not from Scotland and is only
identified with that country out of ignorance. In truth, the bagpipe
goes back to other times and places, and only came to Scotland
rather late in its history.
The bagpipe is a technological improvement on earlier pipes or
flutes that relied exclusively on the breath of the player without a
bag. The innovation of the bag allowed the instrument to be played
in a more versatile manner and with less discomfort to the player.
The simplest form of bagpipe is composed of three elements: an air
source, an airbag and one or more pipes coming from the bag. The air
source, which may be either the lungs of the player or a bellows, is
used to fill the airbag, but the flow of air that actually plays the
pipes comes from squeezing the bag. Because of this, the player is
relieved of the necessity of blowing constantly, and is able to make
continuous tones instead of having to stop and breath. The use of a
bag also allows a more even airflow, resulting in a sound that does
not waver from slight variations in the player's breath.
Later bagpipes elaborated on this basic technology, adding drone
pipes and several melody pipes, called chanters.
The bagpipe also prevented a common physical problem that plagued
the players of non-bagged pipes, the distortion of the cheeks. Among
musicians who played the flute for many years, the cheeks eventually
become puffy because the player's face was actually being used as
the airbag. (Modern readers tend to think of this as the "Dizzy
Gillespie look.") This was regarded as unattractive, and discouraged
many people from playing the instrument.
Unfortunately, bagpipes by their very nature are always made of
organic material, usually leather and wood. Because of this, ancient
specimens have rarely survived and the early history of the
instrument must be filled in from ancient writings and
There is some uncertainty here. Some sources say that the first
representation of a bagpipe is from a Hittite inscription dated to
1000 B.C., while others will say that the earliest definite
representation is from the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history.
Archaeologists working in Alexandria, which was established at the
beginning of this period, have found a figurine of Greek style
clearly showing a player holding an instrument composed of several
pipes attached to an airbag held under the arm. It is possible to
identify both the drone and the chanter pipes, and therefore make a
positive identification. There are three slightly later figurines
depicting bagpipe players in the Cairo Museum.
The earliest written historical reference to a bagpipe is from the
Greek writer Chrysostomos in about 100 A.D., who tells of an
instrument that is played by blowing into an airbag held under the
The Romans played a bagpipe variant called Tibia Utricularis. We
know this because a figurine of a soldier playing the instrument has
been found at the Roman camp in Richborough, U.K., and also because
the Roman historian Suetonius wrote that Nero played it. The Nero
reference is contested by some historians, since we do not have a
description of the instrument and therefore cannot make a positive
identification. The figurine, however, provides more positive
Because the Romans used the bagpipe as a military instrument, it
spread throughout their empire. The Scots probably got it from the
Romans, as did many other peoples throughout northern Africa,
southern Europe and the Middle East. However, there is some
controversy here. It is true that the bagpipe can be found in many
variations all over this part of the world, but did all of these
come from the Romans? The instrument is so simple and logical, it
could easily have been invented more than once in different
locations. While it is true that the Romans spread bagpipes to many
places, it is impossible to say whether all of the variants we see
today are descended from the instrument played by the ancient
Egyptians and Romans.
The use of a bellows to fill the airbag is a fairly modern invention
probably dating to the 16th or 17th century. The best-known example
of this in the modern world is the Irish uilleann pipes.
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