History of Bagpipes

History of bagpipes A great deal of uncertainty, conflict and controversy surrounds the questions of the origins of bagpipes. The earliest possible reference to a bagpipe occurs around 400 BC, when Aristophones, the Athenian poet jibed that the pipers of Thebes (an enemy of Athens) blew pipes made of dogskin with chanters made of bone. Several hundred years later, Suetonius described the Roman Emperor Nero as a player of the tibia utricularis in Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Nero is reported to have said he would play the bagpipe in public as a penance for not winning a poetry contest. Dio Chrysostom who also flourished in the first century, wrote in Orationes about a contemporary sovereign, probably Nero, who could play a pipe ("aulein") with his mouth as well as with his "arm pit". From this account, it has been deduced that a true bagpipe was used - having a blowpipe, bag and a chanter (probably a double chanter since double pipes were used at this time). A coin of Nero depicts a bagpipe, according to the 1927 edition of Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Actual examples of bagpipes from before the 18th century are extremely rare; however, a substantial number of paintings, carvings, engravings, manuscript illuminations, and so on survive. They make it clear that bagpipes varied hugely from set to set. It seems likely that bagpipe makers at that time would have mostly been primarily woodworkers or turners with an incomplete grasp of the art of pipemaking.

The role of the bagpipe would have varied naturally from place to place, but in Bulgaria it was said, "A wedding without a bagpipe is like a funeral," and in Britain they were a common adjunct to religious festivals. In Britain, pipers became part of the travelling minstrel class, acting as carriers of news, gossip and music around the country. In the Scottish Highlands, the pipers started to displace the harpers, the chief Celtic musicians since Roman times, by about the 16th century. In 1760, the first serious study of the Highland bagpipe and its music was attempted, in Joseph MacDonald's 'Compleat Theory'. Further south, we have a manuscript from the 1730's by a William Dixon from Northumberland. This contains music which fits the Border pipes, a nine-note bellows-blown bagpipe whose chanter is similar to that of the modern Great Highland Bagpipe; however the music is quite different, consisting mostly of extended variation sets of common dance tunes. Some of the tunes in the Dixon MS correspond to tunes found in early 19th century published and MS sources of Northumbrian smallpipe tunes, notably the rare book of 50 tunes, many with variations, by John Peacock. The Northumbrian sources give a view of a separate and very distinct piping tradition from that of the Great Highland Pipes.