The Joy of Sacks

by Dave McKenzie

Ask anyone, “Where are bagpipes from?” and you’ll probably get what seems to be the obvious answer: Scotland. However, as truth is more often stranger than fiction, it is not. To be sure, the bagpipe has a long and distinguished history in Scotland and is most often immediately associated with that country but no one has ever claimed to have invented, conceived, or contrived it there or anywhere else for that matter. Myth No.1!

The myth is an easy one to assume and perpetuate, but the origins of the bagpipe lay deep in the past, going back 3,000 years or so and probably longer. It is often said that the bagpipe was known to the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians. It is the only instrument that can claim to be at least as old as the harp or lyre, and the drum.  

Aristophanes is recorded as having lodged a complaint in ancient Greece about the “…waspish droning of the pipers from Thebes…” and bagpipes have been documented in one form or another in Hungary, Transylvania, Russia, Austria, Romania, Germany, where they were often associated with superstitious folklore, especially witchcraft, the occult, and, most intriguingly, vampires; in France, Belgium, and Holland; three modern countries comprising the ancient Celtic region known to the Romans as Gaul; where, it is said that over 100 different configurations of bagpipes can be found today; in Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, the Balkans and of course, the British Isles. 

Some of the first written references to the bagpipe are to be found in the Bible. One of the first is in Genesis 4:21 after the story of Cain and is part of the lineage of Cain’s son, Enoch- “…His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.”  The juxtaposition of lyre and pipe in the passage is noteworthy in that it reflects the musical politics of 17th and 18th century Highland culture that saw the pipers and harpers as the premier musicians in Gaelic society.

A second reference is found in Job 30:31- “…My lyre is turned to mourning and my pipe to the voice of those who weep.” Again, pipe and lyre are mentioned together an addition to the fact that this verse mentions their use in lamenting the dead, a primary occupation of pipers to this day. 

In the book of Daniel, chapter 3, verses 5, 7, 10, and 15, all of which are worded very similarly in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo- “…that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.”  It is here in these verses that the bagpipe is most clearly mentioned by name. It is also the unfortunate association with idol worship that tainted its reputation with the church during the middle ages and has persisted to this day among certain literalist Christians. Believe it or not, I have been asked not to play in certain sanctuaries for scriptural reasons, which is how I came to know about this passage. 

A mention is also found in the very last psalm, Psalm 150:4- “…Praise Him with timbrel and dance; praise Him with strings and pipe!”   

In the New Testament in both Matthew 11:17 and Luke 7:32, in the story of Jesus and John the Baptist- “…We piped to you and you did not dance…” Taken in proper context, the passage implies that piping and dancing occurred together.  

The bagpipe is mentioned in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” in William Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, and by Dante.  

Some of the most persuasive support for the antiquity of the bagpipe is linguistic evidence itself. Variations on the Indo-European root Gaid- are found in nearly every language on the Continent: La gaita in Spanish, Ghaithes in Greek, gajdy in Serbian, and gaida in many non-European languages like Hungarian and Finnish.  

All verses cited here were taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. There are alternative translations of the word used for “pipe,” among them are “flute” and “reed”. Authorities on Bible translation are notorious for splitting hairs on the historical and linguistic accuracy of a given word or term in scripture, and make great efforts at semantic and lexical precision; conversely they are not musicologists and often are at a loss to make an accurate, single translation on which they all agree, hence editors often rely on words that have a more general meaning and a common usage for those seeking spiritual guidance and not historical or musicological accuracy. This is why even the word “organ” is found in some translations of these verses referring to something like a harmonica. The most common word, found in scripture and, most accurate I believe, is the Greek word symphonia, from which our modern word “symphony” comes from. Rather than its more common meaning of  “a group of classically trained musicians playing in unison, lead by a conductor;” it is its more precise, original meaning of “the union of two or more sounds in harmony” that is the source of this lack of consensus and actually supports the fact that some sort of multiple “reed-flute” or “reed-pipe” is referred to – something we know was in use in the Middle East that was an ancestor of what we know today as the bagpipe. It is interesting to speculate whether the sound of the bagpipe was familiar to Jesus. We know from history that it was at about this time that the bagpipe was experiencing widespread popularity in the Mediterranean and we even have a specific term – mashrowgiy – in Aramaic, the vernacular of Jesus and Jews at the time. It was the instrument of common people at all sorts of occasions and was especially used by shepherds to pass the long hours tending flocks, a tradition that continues to this day in many places in the piping world. This is where the bagpipe has its beginning of being traditionally associated with Christmas. 

All this seems to suggest, on the surface anyway, that the bagpipe has slowly migrated from southeast to northwest and fanned out all over Europe from some Mediterranean or Middle Eastern point of origin, perhaps as far east as India itself.

All bagpipes have several features in common. They all consist of a bag or air reservoir. This may be mouth-blown, as is the case with the Highland Bagpipe, or bellows blown like the Irish Uillean pipes, of “The Cheiftans” and “Riverdance” fame. They consist of one or, often more, drone pipes or “drones”  that create that constant hum or background sound and unchanging harmony. In addition, all bagpipes have a “chanter”, or melody pipe that allows the piper to formulate the tunes.  I have come to think of the drone sound as a canvas, and the chanter the palette of colors. I guess that makes me the assortment of old brushes. For a more complete description of the bagpipe, please refer to The Nature of the Beast.

It is important to mention at this point that the instrument we call the bagpipe today has evolved from simpler origins. We must expand our definition of what bagpipe instruments are. The bagpipe has not always been a “bag-pipe”, that is, an instrument with an attached air reservoir that enables the piper to maintain an unbroken output of sound. This alone, more than anything else, is the defining characteristic of the bagpipe. There are older surviving “reed-pipe” or “reed-flute” instruments that are the simplest form of bagpipes known. Examples from India are well known such as the snake charmers’ “pungi” or “gourd pipes” as are the mouth blown “shepherds’ pipes” from Sardinia, an Italian island in the western Mediterranean to the north of Sicily. These instruments use a technique called “circular breathing” to maintain the droning and continuous melody. Circular breathing is a method of using the piper’s own mouth as a bag or air reservoir. The technique consists of puffing the cheeks out, closing off the back of the mouth and inhaling through the nose while the air supply in the mouth is depleted to replace the flow of air coming directly from the lungs, and then refilling the mouth again with the new lungful of air, repeating this process over and over as long as needed. Although circular breathing is not needed to play bagpipes with their own bag, obviously; the technique continues to be taught as a skill among Scottish pipers for playing the “practice chanter”, a miniature version of the pipe chanter on which all of the correct fingering and execution is learned and has no bag of its own. At some point in the distant past though, with the addition of a bag, circular breathing was largely abandoned as a piping skill.

Circular breathing is also essential to playing the Australian Aboriginal “Didgeridoo”, a branch, root or small trunk of a tree hollowed out naturally by termites. It also is sometimes made from giant bamboo. This is arguably the first and simplest form of the bagpipe known, having been played in Australia by some scientific estimations as recently as 20,000 years ago and as far back as 150,000 years ago based on recent archaeological discoveries and new geo-anthropological evidence. Some musical encyclopedias and musicologists classify the didgeridoo as a simple tuba or “mouth embouchure” instrument, but I think that the essential droning sound maintained by circular breathing is what defines the didgeridoo and makes it more of a bagpipe than anything else.

One of the earliest images we have of a bagpipe or a piper is found in the ancient land of Galatia, among the carvings of the Hittites, and Indo-European speaking people dating from around 1200 B.C. Galatia was the region of land from which the Bible gets its chapter called Galatians and is located in what is now modern-day central Turkey and was known from Roman and Greek historians to be inhabited by ancient Celtic people. It was, incidentally, in ancient times that Celts were the most widely spread all over Europe than at any time in history since. A Roman coin from the first century A.D. features an engraved image of a bagpipe and the image of Emperor Nero (37-68 A.D.). The Roman historian, Suetonius, wrote about Nero’s avid bagpipe playing in his time and it has recently become an accepted historical fact that Nero played the bagpipe, not the fiddle, when Rome burned (the fiddle hadn’t even been invented yet). It is known that a form of the bagpipe was the instrument of the Roman infantry from the writings of the Roman historian Procopious, and that they carried it with them everywhere they expanded their empire. This is what accounts for the similarity of names of the bagpipe in what were formerly Roman occupied territories all over Europe. It seems that the Romans not only spread their language all over Europe giving up the modern Roman languages descended from Latin, but also the bagpipe. In Spanish we have “La Gaita”. In Greek “o Gaidhes” or “I gaida”, also “gaida” is found in the Balkans among the Slavic languages such as Serbo-Croatian and Macedonian. The former Celtic territory of the Iberian peninsula, modern day Spain, came under Roman influence very early on in the conquests of the empire. The northwestern region of Galicia and Asturias have a strong tradition of folk music that includes bagpipes dating from at least medieval times. Bagpipes are found in the greatest variety of both keys and configurations in France and Belgium, the “Gaul” of Roman times.

This certainly begs the question of whether it was the Celts or the Romans who really were the first to carry and spread the bagpipe all over Europe. Did the bagpipe finally arrive in Britain with the Romans? Or, was it perhaps much later with the Norman invasion of William the Conqueror from his coastal kingdom in France in 1066 A.D.? We will probably never know for sure. The bagpipe certainly survived through the Middle Ages, but it was precisely the fall of the Roman Empire and the “Dark Ages” that lead to the breakdown of the infrastructures, historical record keeping, the eventual loss of knowledge, and collapse of society into a feudal, subsistence form of living. This is the primary reason we know so little about the evolution of the instruments and the development of the music from before 1100 A.D. Between the 13th and 17th centuries we have much evidence that the bagpipe was enjoying a period of immense growth and popularity in Western Europe at all levels of society, from commoners to kings. There are illustrations and carvings, references in literature by Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, and others, and historical records, suggesting very strongly that the bagpipe and its music was the premier instrument of the time, in much that same way the electric guitar has experienced a rise to first place in the contemporary and popular music of most of the 20th century. You might say the bagpipe was the world’s first Rock ‘n’ Roll instrument, just unplugged. Ironically, it was the Renaissance or “rebirth” of learning and culture that marked the decline in the playing of the bagpipe in Europe, as life began to move to the cities and became less rural. The bagpipe had always been for the most part an instrument to be played outside. In fact, the bagpipe has only survived in the rural and less accessible places in Europe – mountainous regions, islands, isolated valleys and forested areas – wherever day-to-day life has remained in a rural setting. Scotland was probably the last country to be introduced to the bagpipe due to the long northerly migration of the knowledge and technology needed to fabricate the instrument in a country where the Middle Ages ended much later than in the rest of Europe. This is, incidentally, another characteristic of Celtic culture – they are very slow to change. In the rest of Europe, the bagpipe became once again a folk instrument of the common people of the countryside – isolated, growing less popular, and becoming a rarity by the 20th century. The story of the bagpipe would take a decidedly different path in Scotland and later during the Age of Exploration and Colonization.


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