Origins and History of Bagpipes

By: Jessica Veksler

It is a common misconception when one thinks of the bagpipe to automatically assume the instrument originated in Scotland. What with the years upon years of commercialization in movies, advertising, television, and more, it’s no wonder people are mistaken about its true origins.

There is a great deal of confusion concerning where the bagpipe truly originated. The bagpipe is rumored to have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. There is even a type of ancient bagpipe mentioned in the Old Testament; it references musical instruments that can today be translated to words such as “piper” and “pipes,” such as any basic reed instrument. Some theorists trace the bagpipe as far back as snake charming pipes in the Middle East, while others believe they originated with the ancient Celts as they journeyed and migrated across Europe.

By far one of the most popular and commonly accepted beliefs about the bagpipe is that it originated with the Romans. There are Ancient Greek writings that date back to the fifth century B.C.E. that discuss the Roman Emperor Nero playing a “tibia utricularis,” which is believed to be a bagpipe because it is described as being played “with his mouth as well as his armpit.” It was quite common for the Romans to carry bagpipes around with their other instruments, such as drums and trumpets. They gradually spread the popularity of the instrument throughout Europe, where it eventually ended up in the British Isles. It was here, in Scotland and Ireland in particular, that the bagpipes reached their full popularity by the Highlanders. By the fourteenth century, they could be found in almost every single village, and were involved in every type of event, from battles to festivals.

It was after the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s that hundreds of thousands of Irish natives migrated to the New World in hopes of a better life and escape from the sickness, where they consequently spread the popularity of bagpipes to the Americas.
The bagpipe is now used all over the world, more often for formal ceremonies than anything. In places such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand, the military incorporates the instrument into their ceremonies and services. Militaries in countries such as Uganda, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka model their bagpipe usage after the ancient Highland bagpipe used by the British Army. Additionally, the bagpipe has more recently been featured in both the police and fire forces of Scotland, Australia, Hong Kong, and the United States.

For a short time, the bagpipe lost popularity and it was much less common to see one included in a band or ritual. However, there has since been a resurgence of the instrument’s popularity because of sporadic restorations of ancient traditional folk music and festivals. Concerning the instrument’s more modern history, its popularity has grown even more since it was featured in highly popular movies, such as “Braveheart,” and by the end of the twentieth century, an electric bagpipe had been invented. Nowadays, the bagpipe’s popularity remains constant, and one can still find the instrument in just about every country and in every type of special, formal, or traditional event.


Ancient Bagpipe


Modern Bagpipe



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