The Bagpipe Pages
A Brief Introduction to the History of The Great Highland Bagpipe and Its Music

16th Century – The Gaelic clan society

The Scottish Highland bagpipe and the associated music and culture have their origins around 1500 in the Gaelic clan society in the Western Highlands. Around that time pipers were employed as part of some clan chiefs' political power structure. These few clan pipers, although servants to their clan chief, had a reasonably high standing in the clan. They played at important occasions such as to summon the clansmen, when the clan chief had guests and at weddings and funerals. During this time the early Highland pipers developed an intricate style of music for the pipes – ceòl mór (big or classical music) today usually referred to as piobaireachd.

18th Century – The Army and the British Empire

When the clan system declined in the 18th century the Highland pipe, which was associated with political power and warfare, was adopted into the Scottish army and thus became part of the power structure of the emerging British Empire. Gradually the Highland pipe was 'exported' with the army to all parts of the empire around the world. That is probably a major reason why the Highland pipe in many parts of the world, has got its, sometimes almost hegemonic, role as 'the bagpipe'.

In the army pipers also started to pick up march tunes in addition to the repertoire of piobaireachd and dance tunes such as reels and jigs. The already strict and elitist style of playing was further strengthened by the genre's incorporation into the army. Around the mid nineteenth century the practice of having pipers and drummers play together was started. This was the beginning of the pipes & drums or the pipe band.

18th Century – Piping competitions

Another important event for the development of the music of the Highland pipe was the start of piping competitions in 1781. The competitions were started to boost the interest for the instrument and the music. Similar competitions were started to preserve the interest in other folk instruments in for instance Ireland and later in Scandinavia.

Initially the competitors only played piobaireachd, but later competitions for marches and dance tunes such as strathspeys and reels were started too. Around the turn of the century 1900 competitions for pipe bands were started.

20th and 21st Centuries – Tourist industry, competitions and World music

The pipes and drums continued to be an important part of the ceremonial of the Scottish regiments during most of the twentieth century. With modern high tech warfare and less traditional regiments there are less pipers and drummers engaged in the army today.

Today there are three major arenas for pipe music. One is the Scottish tourist trade. The Highland bagpipe has acquired an iconic status as a symbol for Scotland. The second arena is the competition fields, in Scotland and elsewhere, where soloists and bands from many parts of the world meet and compete. The third, and the newest, arena is the world music scene, where various forms of music on the Highland bagpipe (from traditional to new experimental stuff) is mixed with the multitude of genres on the world music arena.

You can read more about the history of the Scottish bagpipes and drums in my thesis, Hermansson, Mats d (University of Gothenburg 2003) From Icon to Identity: Scottish Piping & Drumming in Scandinavia.

© Mats d Hermansson 2008
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