Bagpipes and Pipers


Without the bag, it is the most ancient of instruments.  Shepherd boys, duplicating the whistling effect of wind blowing over broken hollow reeds, most likely discovered that the length of the reed effected the pitch of the whistle.  From there it was a short leap to flutes and whistles as we know them today.  Can you picture the very first competition, between two shepherd boys, vying as to who could play the longest without taking a breath? Circular breathing provided an interim step, where one inhales through the nose while compressing the cheeks to force air out through the lips.  The physical strain of blowing reeds led to the leather cheek harness, and from that torturous contraption, necessity and invention gave rise to the bag, and thus the bagpipe was born.

And how long ago did that happen?  Let’s look at historical evidence...

Ancient engravings from biblical times, found in North Africa in 1818, depict a form of bagpipe.

In 385BC, Theocritus mentions the bagpipe in his pastorals writings.

A terra cotta vase dating to 200 BC was unearthed at Tarsus, showing a piper with a wind instrument.

In the Year 1 AD:  Singular tradition in the Roman Catholic Church to the effect that the “shepherds who first saw the infant Messiah expressed their gladness by playing on the bagpipes.” (If the Little Drummer Boy was there and performed at the same time, we might cite the event as the first pipe band !) German artist Albert Durer perpetuated this idea with a woodcut of the Nativity including a piper.  While touring Sicily, I purchased a wonderful creche, complete with a piper (with two drones).  The illuminator of a Bible at King’s College in Aberdeen took the further liberty of giving bagpipes to the appearing angels, who played a salute to the “Infant King.”

54 AD:  Cruel Emperor Nero was an accomplished musician.  There are pipes of sorts on his coronation coin, given away at sporting events of the time.  The pipes were probably not considered to be an honorable instrument, to wit Nero vowed that “if the Gods would extricate me from these problems I would play in public on the bagpipes.”  So.. it may be a historical error that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and pundits would quickly explain the rationale for the burning.

Roman infantry used bagpipes for certain.  In writings of wars with the Vandals, Persians, and Goths, the pipes are mentioned, and described as being of wood and skins.  Its name was the pythaula, strikingly similar to the Gaelic pio-vala.

500 AD:  The Greek historian Procopius mentions the “bagpipe” as the Roman Infantry instrument, the trumpet being that of the cavalry.

Saint Jerome, who lived in the fifth century, describes a simple species of bagpipe consisting of a leather bag and two pipes, one to inflate and one to emit.

1136:   In Melrose Abbey, there are two carvings representing bagpipes.  One is a pig carrying bagpipes.

1314:   Clan Menzies had their own piper at Bannockburn.  They claim that these very pipes are still in existence.

1406:   The first thoroughly authentic reference to pipes in Scotland.

1470:   Early story of piper bravery:  Coll Kitto (left handed Coll), a raider from Ireland planned to take the Islay castle Dunivaig.  His piper, part of the advanced party, was the only one left alive after an ambush by the Campbells.  Captured, he warned the main party by playing laments to honor his fallen comrades “We Are In Their Hands” and “Leave The Cattle.”  His efforts earned him a dirk in the ribs.  The Campbell Chief knew the p’broch as well.  A similar story,  The Piper of Duntroon has the MacDonalds attacking Duntroon Castle in Argyll in 1644.  Same story line with a similar ending.  The Piper had his hands cut off and can still be heard playing today in ghostly fashion.  His bones were unearthed at Duntroon Castle in a 1992 renovation--minus his hands.

1581:   Vincentio Galilei, Nobile Fiorentino writes:  "The practice of this instrument is widespread among the population of Ireland; to its sound these unconquered and fearsome warriors mount their campaigns and encourage one another to feats of valor in the midst of battle; with it, they also accompany their dead to the grave, making sounds so mournful as to invite, nay force the bystander to weep."

1642:   The first regiment to have pipers was the 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers.  Lord Lothian, writing from the Scottish Army at Newcastle put in a word for the pipers.

1745:   Prince Charles had a hundred pipers when he marched on Carlisle, England.  Perhaps the pipes' prominence in his rebellion caused them to be classified as “an instrument of war.”  Following the Battle of Culloden, the “Disarming Act”  banned the kilt and the bagpipe.  Showing tartan was considered extremely disloyal to the House of Hanover.  Removed in 1782, enthusiasm for “things Highland” appeared.  Piping resurged with competitions, books on how to play the pipes, and a proliferation of pipe tunes.


In 1870, a stone was unearthed in Bo’ness (a short bus ride from Stirling) depicting a party of Roman soldiers on the march, dressed in short kilts.  One was playing the bagpipes, he being dressed not unlike a modern highlander.

The oldest pipe music is said to be a piobaireachd from the Munro’s, used for the Battle of Bealach na Broige in 1350.  The piobaireachd “Desperate Battle (of Perth)” dates from 1395; and "MacIntosh’s Lament” from 1526.   “MacRae’s March,” commemorating the battle between the Lord of the Isles (the MacDonalds) , and the MacKenzies of Ross is from 1477.  The MacRae’s joined the MacKenzies, “defeating the MacDonalds with great slaughter.” The tune honors Duncan of the Axe, an orphan who slew many of the enemy.  Great guy to have on your side.       

The oldest known pipes, made in 1409, are owned by Messrs. J & R Glen of Edinburgh.  The pipes have two drones.

A second drone was added to the pipes about 1500.

The large (bass) drone was added in the early eighteenth century.

Popular in lowland Scotland through 1500, they then found general use in the highlands.

Pipers have accompanied fighting men ever since pipes were invented.   In World War I, 500 pipers were killed and over 600 wounded.  In this war, as in the Boer Wars (1880 - 1902) and the Northwest Frontier War (British India 1845 - 1849), pipers were expected to lead the attack as a matter of course.  Times have changed, and modern warfare does not allow such deeds, although pipers were seen in

WWII, Korea, and the Gulf War, Kenya, Cyprus, and the Falkland Islands war of 1982 (2nd Bn Scots Guard), and in the Iraq war.


We celebrate our piping heritage and honor those who have distinguished piping in war and in peace.  N'er a finer lot, na braver.  We are proud to be pipers.

 -- PM William Ferrigno, 1993

Back to A Wee Bit More page