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The Modern History of the Bagpipe
Courtesy of Seumus MacNeill and Thomas Pearston
The bagpipe has a long and honourable history stretching back to the beginnings civilisation, for it is one of the oldest of instruments played by man from the earliest of times.
It probably had its beginnings in ancient Egypt where a simple chanter and drone were played together. These were later attached to a bag made of skin and fitted with a blowpipe making a primitive form of the instrument we have today. This kind of Bagpipe was played by the Greeks and the Romans, and eventually spread throughout Europe, carried first by the Celts and then by the Romans on their invasions.
It continued to be popular throughout the centuries, and during the Middle Ages, still in its simple form, was one of the most common instruments in the countries of southern, central and Western Europe, being one of the favourite instruments of the wandering minstrels who provided much of the music then played.
In more modern times many forms of the bagpipe, some with a wide range of notes, and blown by a bellows held under the arm, were developed in Europe, and remained popular until the eighteenth century. But when towns and cities grow up and more people ceased to live in villages and make merry in the open air, music became an indoor activity, and the elaborate instruments of modern times were invented. With their coming, the bagpipe died out over most of Europe, though traces of it still survive in Brittany, Southern Italy and the Balkans, where the original simple form has been little changed.
In Britain, its history and fate, except in the Highlands of Scotland, followed the same pattern as on the continent. It came with the Celts and the Romans and flourished for centuries as the instrument of the common people. It was played at fairs, weddings, open air dancing, pageants and all sorts of processions and merry makings. It is mentioned and described in books of all kinds, from the plays of Shakespeare to country ballads, and pictures and carvings of it are numerous. Elaborate forms of it became popular in Northumbria, Ireland and Southern Scotland. In the first two places they are still played though in all other parts of the country it disappeared about the beginning of the eighteenth century.
In the Highlands of Scotland, however, its history was different. Its martial music appealed to the warlike spirit of the people there and at an early date it superseded the harp in their favour. The original form with bag, chanter, blowpipe and one drone remained unaltered till around 1500 when a second drone was added. A third – the big drone – being added about 200 years later.
It fitted into the clan system then operated in the Highlands, the chiefs of the clan having their own – in many cases a hereditary office – and colleges, of which there were several, were set up for the teaching of bagpipe playing. In these colleges was developed the "Ceol Mor", or "Piobaireachd", the classical music of the bagpipe, music which stands comparison with the greatest compositions in the world of music.
The most famous of these colleges was that of the MacCrimmons at Borreraig, in Skye. They were the hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan, and flourished for over 200 years, training pipers from all over the Highlands and composing many masterpieces of Ceol Mor, much of which we still have.
After the rising of 1745, the playing of the bagpipe was forbidden in Scotland – the law being harshly enforced – and the colleges were broken up and the hereditary families of pipers scattered. At the time, and for many years afterwards, there was grave danger that the fate of the bagpipe, here as elsewhere, would be to decline and disappear, but fortunately, its playing was allowed again before the art of doing so had been forgotten. At this time, too, collection was begun of Ceol Mor, which had been handed on orally, and now there are several hundred pieces published.
Highland Societies were set up in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere for the purpose of keeping alive the traditional features of life in the Highlands, and they began bagpipe competitions. The bagpipes also became the favourite music of the Scottish soldier who in increasing numbers, were being enrolled in the British army. All this helped their revival and spread their popularity, so that survival was made certain. They have become more and more popular, and today they are known and played throughout the world wherever men of the Scottish race have travelled.
The young lad who sets out to be a piper should take pride in the fact that his is a noble instrument, with great traditions, and supreme in its own place – the open air. It is capable of playing great music, and much great music has been composed for it. It is worthy of his best efforts.
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