Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bagpipes

By Michael Kurek
Michael Kurek
Michael Kurek
American composer Michael Kurek is the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com
November 6, 2021 Updated: November 6, 2021

Perhaps, like me, you have been fascinated, even thrilled, when a bagpiper showed up in a kilt at a wedding or funeral you attended. Or perhaps you have heard the raucously festive sound of row upon row of bagpipers in a parade, accompanied by snare, tenor, and bass drums. That ensemble is properly called a “pipe band.”

Perhaps you also think that bagpipes are rather mysterious because they always seem to come and go too quickly, before you have a chance to really get a good look at them or figure out how they work. Let’s explore this intriguing instrument and its history and role in culture.

First, though, must come the question of how a bagpipe works and makes its characteristic duck-call tone. (No offense is intended, either to lovers of bagpipes or ducks.)

The Pipes Are Calling

The most commonly seen “Scottish Highland” bagpipes combine a few pipes connected to a bag. I’ll get back to the bag. All the pipes are technically in the woodwind family. The main melody pipe, called the “chanter,” is usually in the same family as the double-reed instruments, like the oboe and the bassoon, while the other pipes often have a single reed, like the clarinet and saxophone. However, any of the pipes can use either a double or single reed. Reeds were traditionally made from cane but are now often plastic.

The chanter pipe that plays the melody is pitched in a certain scale by covering holes, like a recorder or song flute, while the continuous tone of one or more “drone” pipes is each pitched on one note. The first drone pipe is at a pitch two octaves below the home note of the chanter pipe’s scale. The second drone pipe, in the same key, may play the fifth tone above the first drone; if a third drone is present, it is at an octave above the first drone.

Caught Holding the Bag

So what is that plump and floppy bag for? It actually serves as a “third lung” to store air, or acts like a buffer in computer terms. The player doesn’t blow directly into the pipes but into the bag, or in a few cases uses his arm to pump air into it. In turn, he uses arm pressure to squeeze air out of the bag and into the pipes. He can keep refilling the bag with air faster than the air is going out of the bag, so it always remains inflated and can play an unbroken, continuous tone. The bags were traditionally made from skins, but they can also be made with synthetic materials now.

Judging by ancient and medieval art and sculpture dating from 1000 B.C., forerunners of the bagpipe existed in Middle Eastern, Egyptian, Roman, and Grecian cultures. The earliest appearance in the British Isles, from where we most associate the instrument now, particularly Scotland, was sometime in the 14th century. Chaucer mentions it in “The Canterbury Tales” in 1380: “A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne.”

Santes_Creus_Bagpiper
Bagpipes have a long history and were found throughout Europe and the Middle East. Medieval bagpiper at the Cistercian monastery of Santes Creus in Catalonia, Spain. (Public Domain)

An extensive collection of historical bagpipe-like instruments under several different names can be found in the musical instrument collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There remain today several different types of bagpipes, but the one familiar to most Americans is the Scottish Highland type. It has three drone pipes on the top of the bag and a nine-note chanter pipe, with a bag made of sheep or elk skin.

Just as much a part of the spectacle of a piper is his fabulous uniform, called the “full highland dress No. 1,” which would require a whole article here to fully describe, but some essentials of it are the tall, ostrich feather bonnet; a highly decorated jacket and plaid kilt, including a dirk (or short sword) at the side; a large bejeweled brooch; horsehair tassels called a “sporran”; and white spats.

scottish bagpiper
A bagpiper on Edinburgh’s “Royal Mile.” (Courtesy of Michael Kurek)

The Bagpipes in Modern Scottish Tradition and Culture

From the bagpipes first days in Scotland, a tradition developed that each town had an official, tax-funded bagpiper to play for formal occasions, country fairs, weddings, and in some cases at churches lacking an organ. In 1549, the first mention was made of bagpipes used as instruments to spur on the troops at the Battle of Pinkie. In 1746, they were used that way at the Scots’ famously failed Battle of Culloden, after which the British banned the instrument for 40 years.

By World War I, the British had adopted 2,500 of their Scottish comrades (distributed in various places) to bravely lead the troops into battle from their trenches, playing the bagpipes; they were paid an extra penny a day for their service. Despite not carrying any weapons, 500 of them were mowed down and killed by the Germans and another 600 wounded. Because of this slaughter, pipers were forbidden from the front lines in World War II, but one brave Scottish piper, called Private “Mad” Bill Millin, could be heard on D-Day through the gunfire on Normandy Beach. He miraculously was able to play on through the battle without being shot because the Germans took pity on him, thinking he had gone mad.Epoch Times Photo

The instrument has become known worldwide today and is synonymous with Scotland. A piper’s image is even found on the tin lids of two of the best-known brands of Scottish shortbread. In America, it is thrilling to hear a single bagpiper in full uniform playing “Amazing Grace” or a Highland Reel at a wedding. But on a recent trip to Edinburgh, I found it no less than breathtaking to hear the full power of hundreds of pipers marching in formation down the famed Royal Mile as they played in rich harmony.

American composer Michael Kurek is the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com