Bagpipes: The Inside Story on Scotland’s Signature Instrument

Most everyone has heard the unmistakable sound of the bagpipes at one point or another, and the image that is conjured up is one of a kilt-wearing, argyle-socked Scotsman merrily piping away on what looks to be, naturally, a skin bag festooned with a number of pipes. It may surprise many to know that the bagpipes or instruments much like it – there are many variations on the basic concept – are neither exclusive to Scotland, nor did they originate there! In actual fact, historians can trace the origin of the bagpipes to somewhere in the Middle East.

The bagpipes are mentioned in the Book of Daniel, and there are references by ancient Greek sources of bagpipes made of dog skin with bone pipes being played by the inhabitants of Thebes. Even the Roman emperor Nero, who supposedly “fiddled while Rome burned”, was a bagpipes player, though perhaps not a very good one: it is said that he offered to play the bagpipes in public as a penalty for losing a poetry contest. It is thought that the bagpipes found their way to Scotland around 2,000 years ago when the Romans occupied England and made several attempts at conquering Scotland.

That said, just how do the bagpipes make their characteristic sound?

If we can imagine several flutes (the pipes) attached to a constant source of air (the bag), things become a little clearer. The trick is to manipulate the bag so that the air flow is both constant and controlled.

Classic European bagpipes are made from the skin of a small goat or sheep, with the natural openings in the skin for the legs being used to attach the pipes. Leather, pigskin and synthetic materials are also used to make the bag. Whatever materials are used to make a set of bagpipes, sooner or later the instrument will no longer be playable even if rigorously maintained. The combination of natural construction materials and moisture from the player’s breath is simply not conducive to a long life, but the upside is that bagpipes craftsmen will always be kept busy making new sets of bagpipes!