2011-08-14-glencoe-bagpiper-2-e1315714718954Imagine you are in the Scottish highlands! Gorgeous mountains surround a glistening lock with strange dark depths. A rainbow shines in the sky above a haunting castle ruin. The crisp air smells of pine forests and peat smoke while in the distance is the evocative sound of…a mastodon with bronchitis? Swans being murdered? An eldritch spirit caught in an industrial machine? No! You listen more carefully and the screech swells into splendid martial music and suddenly your heart is filled with bravery and your eyes with tears. The bagpipes can somehow produce a horrible grating rasp while simultaneously shaping it into the most dulcet melody. The sweet yet troubling dichotomy lies at the core of Gaelic music. Yet bagpipes probably do not originally come from Scotland or Ireland (although you probably should not bring this up to drunken Scots or Irishmen).

If you are wondering where bagpipes originally came from, you are not alone. For a long time musical scholars, nationalists, historians, and classicists have argued about the origins of the distinctive woodwind instrument. The great Scottish bagpipes have been famous since the eighteenth century (and are now nearly synonymous with British marshal might during their ascendant era of world empire). The Scottish bagpipes evolved in a logical progression from a medieval antecedent, the smallpipes, which were played around Europe, the Mediterranean basin, North Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India for centuries. The smallpipes are recognizably bagpipes: a reed instrument is connected to an air reserve in the form of an animal skin bag. Various bones with holes hang from the bag for the purpose of adjusting tone and pitch. You can listen to some pretty musical samples of these medieval smallpipes here. The issue of where these pipes originated, however, becomes more contentious. Various groups proudly assert national origin or fight over obscure textual or visual references. At present, the question has no certain answer, but by going back further and further into history a plausible outline takes shape.

Medieval smallpipes (modern recreation from wood-n-bone.co.nz)

Medieval smallpipes (modern recreation from wood-n-bone.co.nz)

From the 12th century on bagpipes appeared frequently in art and sculpture from across Western Eurasia. We even have some of the actual instruments! Before that time, during the dark ages, the bagpipes appear to have been largely a peasant instrument and, as such, they are not referenced in the exiguous writings of that era. Unfortunately skin sacks, bellows, and reeds quickly deteriorate but a number of bone pipes have been found in Scandinavia and Western Europe which could have been parts of bagpipes (I have heard Viking re-enactors at the American Museum of Natural History, attach these pipes to bladders and play whistle-ghost tunes on them).


An illumination of a droneless bagpipe

A monastic illumination of a droneless bagpipe

It seems certain that the Romans had a version of the bagpipe, the tibia utricularis, which was a woodwind instrument played from an air-reserve bag made of hide (although it is not clear how close it otherwise was to the medieval smallpipe). The legions carried this intimidating instrument around the empire and it is even referenced in the history of Emperor Nero’s life (it seems the dark autocrat played the instrument and may even have called upon it to save himself from a mob), however we have no pictures or examples of the Roman instrument—only textual citations.


A modern interpretation of a Roman bagpipe (by David Marshall)

A modern interpretation of a Roman bagpipe (by David Marshall)

Most Roman musical instruments came originally from Greece, and it seems the tibia utricularis was no exception. In his 425 BC play The Archarnians, Aristophanes (apparently) references a bagpipe-like instrument. One of the bombastic characters orders the band to play by shouting, “Musicians from Thebes, pipe with your bone flutes into a dog’s rump.” Seemingly this device consisted of a sewn-up dog skin which was attached to a reed and to various bone chanters (“flute” being a famous translator’s shorthand for the ubiquitous woodwind reed pipe of classical antiquity). Classics scholars generally agree that this was a reference to a bagpipe and not just a ribald insult to Thebans and dogs.


Whereas the contemporary Greek bagpipe is made of a sheep...

Whereas the contemporary Greek bagpipe is made of a sheep…

The very first (possible) references to the bagpipe however long predate 5th century Greece and go back to the Fertile Crescent where civilization itself first rose from the mud. The Hittites, the bellicose masters of the chariot, may have been the first people to leave a record of the bagpipes. A weathered Hittite carving from Eyuk appears to show a musician blowing into a sack. Additionally there are illustrations of military divers breathing from skin sacks which date back to that era. A clever reader will note many conditional words strewn through the previous paragraph—the evidence is not 100% compelling—but it is what we have.

Hmm? Surely that poor Hittite isn't just blowing into a stomach?

Hmm? Surely that poor Hittite isn’t just blowing into a stomach?

Before their empire collapsed in the great crisis of the 12th century, the Hittites got around. They could have appropriated the bagpipes from Sumeria, Egypt, the Mycenean palace kingdoms, Persia, or even the Harappans. Maybe they invented it themselves when they were thinking up the chariot. We have gone as far as we can without more archaeological evidence. The mystery of where bagpipes come from goes cold about three (and a fraction) millennia ago. Considering how dismissive literary sources have been about the peasant instrument, perhaps bagpipes were being played before civilization arose—or maybe the Greeks invented them (like so many things). What is certain is that the plangent music of the bagpipes has appealed to people for a long time. Relax, think about the mysterious vicissitudes of history and enjoy some bagpipe music!