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Actor Iain Glen playing the bagpipes in the CBBC TV adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Kidnapped'

To most people, the word 'bagpipes' immediately suggests marching pipe bands, kilts, thick socks, tassels and masses of tartan. But there are many types of bagpipes. It is only in Scotland that they are used in this military manner. Bagpipes in other countries are usually used for dance music.

What is a Bagpipe?

A bagpipe is a musical instrument which has two essential features: a reed pipe with fingerholes, similar in principle to an oboe, and a leather bag which provides a reservoir of air for the pipe.

The Reed Pipe

The pipe that plays the tunes is called the 'chanter'. In most types of bagpipe, it has a double reed, similar to the reed in an oboe or bassoon. This reed is positioned inside a chamber so that nothing touches the vibrating tip of the reed. Because of this, most bagpipes are unable to 'overblow', so they have a limited range of notes. In an oboe, in contrast, the reed can be held firmly with the lips and struck with the tongue to get into one of the overblowing registers, to give a much greater range.

The chanter has fingerholes along the length of it. By covering or uncovering these with the fingers, different notes can be produced and tunes played. Most bagpipes have an open end on the chanter, which means that they produce a continuous sound without a break. It's hard to get a bagpipe to produce silence.

The Bag

The bag is normally made of leather. It is held under one elbow and squeezed to provide a continuous stream of air to the chanter, even though the air goes into the bag unevenly.

There are two main ways of inflating the bag. In mouth-blown instruments, the player blows into the bag through a blowpipe. In bellows-blown instruments, the players has a bellows strapped to his or her other arm, which feeds air into the bag. Mouth-blown instruments are simpler and more common than bellows-blown ones. The bellows has the advantage that the air passing through the reed is dry, so the behaviour of the reed is much more consistent than in a mouth-blown instrument. A typical reed in a bellows-blown bagpipe may last years or even decades. Compare this with an oboe reed which is held in the player's mouth - it generally lasts a few weeks at most. The reed in a mouth-blown bagpipe is somewhere in between.


Most bagpipes have an additional feature: drones. These are extra pipes which play a continuous unchanging note. Simple bagpipes of Eastern Europe may have just a single drone. More advanced bagpipes may have two or three. The most elaborate have four.


Nobody knows exactly where bagpipes were invented. Hittite1 carvings show that they existed in some form as far back as 1000 BC. They probably originated in Asia and were brought to Europe by the Romans, but nobody is really sure. They were considered peasant instruments so nobody of any learning wrote down anything to do with them. There are passing references to them in various works of literature from the 13th and 14th centuries, but no detailed descriptions.

By the Middle Ages, bagpipes were common throughout Europe, Persia, India and China. In Great Britain, they were common throughout England, but ironically not popular in Scotland.

Around 1600, bagpipes started to die out in England, starting in the south and progressing northwards. Only Northumbria now retains a type of bagpipe. As the popularity of bagpipes waned in England, they became more popular in Scotland.

Scotland is unique in that there bagpipes became a military instrument. Armies had bagpipe bands and the instrument went from strength to strength. In other countries, the bagpipe was used as an accompaniment for folk dancing. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, more and more people moved to cities and lost touch with their folk music roots. By the end of the 19th Century, bagpipes were dying out in Europe, with the exception of the Scottish military bagpipes.

A folk revival at the end of the 20th Century brought about a renewed interest in bagpipes for dance music and many of the old bagpipes were revived and now have an enthusiastic following of makers and players.

The Great Highland Bagpipe

This is the Scottish Bagpipes that we all know and fear, the most famous type of bagpipe by far and the one that people will think of when you say 'the bagpipes'. It is designed for use out of doors in a military setting, for marching, playing at funerals and so on. As a result, it is designed for maximum volume.

It is mouth-blown through a blowpipe. There is one chanter which is open-ended. There are three drones, one low and two high ones which both play the same note. This duplication is to increase the volume. The chanter can play a scale of nine notes: this is basically a just-intonation major scale with a very flattened seventh, and one extra note which is the same flattened seventh an octave lower. This scale is admirably suited to old Scottish music but sounds out of tune to people brought up on Western music.

Because the chanter is open-ended, it produces a continuous note. Once the bag is under pressure, it is not possible to stop the sound to make breaks in the music. This presents a problem if the tune has the same note twice in a row. An elaborate series of 'grace-notes' are used to break up the notes and these are executed at extremely high speed. Standard sets of grace notes are used within pipe bands, so that all players use the same system and can play together. Most of the skill in playing the Scottish bagpipes seems to be in these grace notes.

The Irish Uilleann Pipes

The Irish Uilleann2 Pipes are probably the most complex type of bagpipe ever built. This bagpipe is bellows-blown and is played sitting down. The chanter is open-ended but can be closed by pressing it against a small piece of leather (the 'piper's apron') strapped to the piper's thigh. This allows the note to be stopped completely. Not only is it thus possible to play staccato notes (rapid notes with silence between them) but it is also possible to stop the pipe and build up the pressure. When it is released, the reed overblows and switches into a second octave. The Uilleann Pipes thus have a range of two full octaves, a much greater range than most bagpipes, and more than enough for dance music.

There are three drones, tuned to the same note in three different octaves. As well as the chanter and drones, there are an additional three pipes called regulators. These are fitted with keys. They are normally silent but play a note when a key is pressed. It is possible to play three-note chords by hitting these with the side of the hand while playing the chanter. This is one feature which is not found on any other bagpipe.

The Northumbrian Smallpipe

This bagpipe comes from Northumbria, as far as it is possible to go north without actually being in Scotland. But it is the complete opposite of the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe from across the border. It is quiet and plays with a very pleasant sweet tone. It is bellows-blown, with a stopped-end chanter and four drones. Each drone can be tuned to either of two notes, and the individual drones can be turned on or off. It is normal to set three of the drones to an appropriate chord and leave the fourth one silent. The chanter has a closed end, so when all the fingerholes are covered, it is completely silent. This means that like the Uilleann Pipes, it can produce breaks between notes. As a result, the common style of playing encourages many breaks. Most Smallpipes have an elaborate system of keys on the chanter which allows it to play a very great range and in many different keys, making it one of the most versatile of pipes.

The French Musette de Cour

This bagpipe enjoyed its greatest popularity in the period 1650-1750, during and shortly after the reign of Louis XIV. For the only time in history, the bagpipe became an instrument of high culture, with composers vying to produce works for it and performances being given in the noble courts of the king. Like the Northumbrian Smallpipe, it is a bellows-driven instrument with a stopped chanter and four drones. There is an additional chanter parallel to the first which is keyed and is silent until a key is pressed. Between the two chanters, the Musette has the biggest range of any bagpipe.

Another unusual feature is the four drones, which are combined together into a single cylindrical box. This has sliding panels on the side, which can be opened or closed to select a combination of different notes from the drone assembly.

The musette became suddenly very unpopular during the French Revolution, as it was associated with the aristocracy. It is now enjoying a revival.

Western European Two-drone Pipes

The Spanish Gaita Gallega, the French Cornemuse and the German Dudelsack all fall into this category. They are all simple mouth-blown pipes with one chanter, and two drones. The Dudelsack has the drones facing forward rather than thrown over the player's shoulder. You can see a good picture of a Dudelsack in Brueghel's picture, Peasant Wedding.

The Great Highland Bagpipe should really belong to this category too, since its third drone is only a duplicate of the second one for extra volume. It receives a separate section in this Entry due to its being very well known.

Italy - the Zampogna

The Italian Zampogna is unusual in that it has two chanters and two drones. All four of these point downwards out of the one piece of wood known as the stock, looking something like the four legs of a small wooden stool, although they are of course different lengths. One chanter is operated by each hand, so that a full scale of about an octave can be played between the two, but it is also possible to play a note from each chanter at the same time. The Zampogna comes in a number of varieties around Italy, but they all have the same arrangement of pipes.

Bagpipes of Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe has a confusing variety of different bagpipes. All of them are simple devices, having only one drone or none at all. Many of them have a name which is either a variation of 'Duda' or of 'Gaida'. Some are bellows-blown and some are mouth-blown.

An unusual feature of bagpipes from the more northerly countries of Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, is that the top of the chanter is carved into the shape of goat's head, complete with horns. This is probably because the bag is made from goat skin and may have superstitious overtones. They also use cow horns at the ends of the chanter and drone, or wood or metal shaped like a cow's horn.

Many Eastern European bagpipes have a multiple chanter with two or even three bores running along the one pipe, and two or three reeds. These can be played together by stretching the fingers across to cover both sets of holes simultaneously, or can be played separately like the two chanters of an Italian Zampogna.

Non-European Bagpipes

Bagpipes are common in North Africa, the Middle East and India. Although they were once common in China, they appear to have died out. There is no reference to bagpipes in modern lists of Chinese instruments.

Indian bagpipes are very simple, with a mouth-blown bag and a single chanter, with no drones. Bagpipes from the Arabic world, in North Africa and the Middle East, are only slightly more elaborate. They have a mouth-blown bag, a double chanter and no drones.

Electric Bagpipes

In the late 1970s, experiments were done with electrically-powered bagpipes, where the bag was filled by an electric pump. These instruments were not very successful - they sound the same as a normal bagpipes and are easier to play, but are not very portable, as they need to be plugged in.

In more recent times, a number of Celtic/Rock/Pop fusion bands have featured 'electric bagpipes' which are in fact electronic synthesisers connected to a chanter-like input device. The ultimate in these is probably José Ángel Hevia, the Asturian Spanish musician whose custom-built electronic MIDI bagpipe rocketed him to the top of the Spanish charts, selling half a million copies of his debut album. Such instruments bear as much relation to a real bagpipe as a MIDI keyboard does to a Steinway Grand Piano.

More Information

1The Hittite civilisation thrived in what is now Turkey about 3,000 years ago.2Uilleann is pronounce 'illen'.

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