Bagpipes: What is a Bagpipes? (Definition and History of Bagpipes Musical Instrument)


What is a Bagpipe?

A bagpipe is a musical wind instrument with a number of pipes and a bag that is, reed melody pipes and several drones with air supplied endlessly either by a bag or a bellow.

The bagpipe has been a famous musical instrument across the globe especially in Europe, Western parts of Asia and Northern Africa for many centuries, with its popularity being epitomized by the popular Great Highland Bagpipe in Scotland. They are a very respectable instrument but often come at a relatively higher cost, which can make it not affordable to most people.

History of Bagpipes

Bagpipes are alleged to have existed in Europe since the ninth century, the evidence before this time is rare. However, there are Greek and Latin references of around one hundred AD and perhaps an Alexandrian terra-cotta of circa one hundred BC. Earlier forms of bagpipes had the bag made out of whole goatskin, sheepskin or bladder (without the hindquarters)

Bagpipes have a very long history. They are alleged to take their roots in pre-Roman times. Although there’s yet to be substantial evidence to validate this claim, a number of clues have been recommended. These clues (both visual and textual) tries to substantiate the pre-Roman heritage of bagpipes. For example, The Oxford History of Music reports that a sculptural illustration of bagpipes,  dated to 1000 BC. was discovered on a Hittite slab at Euyuk (Euyuk is found in the Middle East).

A number of authors have also associated the ancient Greek askaulos with the bagpipe. Although earlier evidence of the existence of bagpipes is rare, they began to show up more frequently in Western European iconography in the early phases of the second millennium.

Although there’s yet to be a consensus on the existence of bagpipes in the British Isles before the fourteenth century, they can be found explicitly mentioned in a fourteenth-century text, The Canterbury Tales.

By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, bagpipes had become a regular subject for artisans specializing in the design of wooden choir stalls throughout Europe. Although real examples of bagpipes from this era are rare, a great number of carvings, manuscript illuminations, paintings, and engravings live on. These visual and textual illustrations of bagpipes substantiate the claims that they greatly varied throughout Europe.

This folk instrument would, later on, be employed to more uses and gain global popularity. In the middle ages, bagpipes began to be used in music and were even part of court music. Their more effective use was in the military where they replaced the trumpet. Their use in military settings continues to this day.

The first explicit reference in relation to Scottish Highland bagpipe comes from French history which indicates the use of bagpipes at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. Historians say trumpets were replaced by bagpipes on the battlefield. It was also in the middle ages that the bagpipe began to be used to create music.

As the use of bagpipes began to spread, piping families began to show up. It was not until the mid-eighteenth century that a study on the Scottish Highland bagpipe was done. This study came in the form of Joseph MacDonald’s Compleat Theory.

However, the popularity of bagpipes began to go down with the increased sophistication of western classical music. The advancement in instrumental technology surpassed the bagpipe in range and function. This induced a steady decline in the use of bagpipes as musical instruments.

Features of Bagpipes

Some of the common features that must be present for a bagpipe to work properly are as listed below:


An impermeable reservoir that holds air and adjusts its flow through arm pressure, enabling the user to retain an endless even melody. The player, when using the bagpipe, keeps this reservoir inflated by blowing air into it via a blowpipe or using bellows. These bags are usually made from local animal skins such as those of goats, cows, and dogs, as well as from synthetic materials such as Gore-Tex.

Nonstop Air Supply

Supplying air into the bag is often done by blowing air into a blow stick. In current times, there has been a development of lots of instruments which aid in creating a clean air supply to the instrument’s pipes, and assisting in the collection of condensation.


This is the melody pipe, which is commonly played with both hands. Almost each and every bagpipe consists of at least one chanter, with the exception of those used in Northern parts of Africa which consist of two chanters. These chanters are usually open-ended, thereby producing a continuous sound that is hard to stop.

Types of Bagpipes

Here you will find a list of some of the best well-recognized bagpipes that exist around the globe which include:

Great Highland Bagpipe

This is the most famous bagpipe, originally made in Scotland, which has been in use for a lengthy period of time. It acquired more fames via its use by the British military and in most musical bands. It is actually one of the oldest variety of bagpipes, its creation dating back to around the 13th Century in Scotland and other parts of Europe.

Uilleann pipes

Commonly referred also as Union pipes or Irish pipes. This type of bagpipe consists of bellows with 2-octave chanters, 3 regulators as well as 3 drones. This variety is famous in Ireland, especially in the nations traditional music.

Border pipes

It is also known as Lowland Bagpipe, which is commonly played in the Scottish Lowlands and in England near the Scotland-England border. It is a conically-bored bagpipe with a loud sound, which makes it more chromatic than most of the other varieties of this musical instrument.

Scottish Smallpipes

This is an example of a modern type of bagpipe, which is an upgrade of the traditional bagpipe instrument. It is derived from Northumbrian pipes built by Colin Ross and several others. They are ideal for playing indoors on their own, or simultaneously with other musical instruments. Most Scottish smallpipes consist of a three drones; a bass, baritone and a tenor drone. This results in the production of an exquisite harmonic sound.

Northumbrian Smallpipes

Commonly used in England, Northumbrian smallpipes are played by blowing air into the bag using bellows with a chanter with a closed end, played in staccato. The instrument consists of a single cylindrically bored chanter, with four drones. Since this type of bagpipe has narrow bores, it produces a much quieter and smooth sound in accordance with most other varieties.

Great Irish Warpipes

Famous in the 1960s and was used by war troops of Britains Military. However, its use declined drastically around that time, since the Great Highland Bagpipe was declared the standard bagpipe instrument. This type of bagpipe usually has a one tenor drone as compared with the Great Highland Bagpipe.


Widely used traditional bagpipe in Estonia with more than one drone- about 1 to 3, with a single-reed chanter.


This type of bagpipe has been in use in several northern parts of Spain and Portugal for many years. The Gaita usually has a conical chanter with a partial second octave, acquired by overblowing. These musical instrument has been widely used by folk groups and pipe bands due to its ability to produce quality sound at a suitable tone.


It is mostly used in northern regions of Italy as well as several parts of Switzerland. This type of bagpipe possesses several components which include; one chanter and one drone, with two reeds.


This is the most popular variety of Maltese bagpipes with two chanters, one reed and a hornpipe without any drones.


This is the type of bagpipes commonly used in Romania. Two major varieties of bagpipes have been in use for a long period of time; one with twin chanters and one with a single chanter. Both of these types have one drone and a straight bore chanter and it is less noisy compared to other types of bagpipes.

Bagpipes in Recent Times

It was in the period the British Empire has expanded that the Scottish Great Highland bagpipe gained global popularity. This was because, the expansion was initiated by the British military forces, (which included Highland regiments). The increased popularity was also enhanced by the huge number of pipers trained to serve in the military in the first and second World Wars. This rise in popularity also coincided with the fall in popularity of more traditional types of bagpipes.

The United Kingdom as well as Commonwealth countries like New Zealand, Canada, and Australia regularly use the Great Highland bagpipe in the military. The Great Highland bagpipe is also regularly played in official ceremonies. Also, other countries whose military structures are modeled after the British have also adopted the Great Highland bagpipe.

Countries that have adopted this tradition include Pakistan, Uganda, Oman, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Jordan, and India. Police and fire services in the United States, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Hong Kong have also taken up the practice of fielding pipe bands.

Recently, there’s been a resurgence of bagpipes in music. Many attribute this resurgence to the renaissance of native folk music and dance. The impact of the renaissance of native folk music and dance also went beyond the revival of bagpipes to the resurgence of musical instruments that were on the verge of extinction.

To depict moments from British history to a contemporary audience, movie makers have also integrated bagpipes in various films. Films such as Braveheart and theatrical shows such as Riverdance have introduced the bagpipe to a contemporary audience.

At Commonwealth universities, (mostly in Canada), Bagpipes are also played at some official events. Due to the Scottish influence in curling, bagpipes are played at the ceremonial procession of teams prior to Curling championships. Bagpipes are also considered as the official instrument of the World Curling Federation.

At one time, the making of bagpipes was a craft that involved the production of instruments with several distinctive and traditional variations. Today, with an industry worth $6.8 million, Pakistan is the world’s leader in the production of bagpipes. The twentieth century witnessed the invention of several models of electronic bagpipes.

Modern Use

Today, various types of bagpipes are spread across the Middle East and Europe as well as Britain. The best-known firm of the instrument is the Great Highland bagpipe, which has become synonymous with the name bagpipe. This is because the Great Highland bagpipe has overshadowed the many variations of the more traditional forms of bagpipe. Although these traditional forms if bagpipes experienced a huge decline through the centuries, the revival of native folk music and dance, has led to their revival.

However, not every aspect of the traditional bagpipe experienced a revival. Originally, the bagpipe was also meant to provide music for dancing, however, the decline of this aspect of the bagpipe traditional use has not seen a resurgence. This is expected with the decline of traditional dance and the rise of dance bands and recordings.


So if you are ever interested in learning to play or to purchase an exquisite bagpipe, today is your chance. Get to acquire a new musical experience or if you are a professional, acquire the best variety of this musical instrument to enhance the quality of your musical harmony. The above-mentioned types of bagpipes are some of the most famous, and used in different countries hence coming with different features and styles., hence a wider variety for you to select from.

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