Think you know bagpipes? Think again!

That melodious instrument, which summons to mind visions of tartan-clad Scotts on wind-blown highlands, actually began as a folk instrument that can be traced across European history, going as far back as the Roman Empire (and beyond).

This brief history will tell everything you need to know (and some things you didn’t even know you needed to know) about where bagpipes originated, and how they came to be the instruments we know today.

Origins

Contrary to popular belief, bagpipes did not originate in Scotland. Their exact origins are hard to pin down—and are actually a topic of hot debate in certain circles—but they can be traced back to the most ancient civilizations. A Hittite slab found in the Middle East provides proof of their existence as early as 1000 B.C. By the 2nd century A.D., rumors emerged of Roman emperor Nero’s ability to play the bagpipes. (Maybe he didn’t fiddle, but rather piped, as Rome burned…?)

The first regular appearances of bagpipes in historical records started in the 13th century, where they crop up in European art, text and illustrations. One of the more famous mentions of bagpipes during the medieval period was in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century, which has this in the description of one character: A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, / And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne.

Throughout history, folk instruments resembling bagpipes cropped up all across Europe, ranging everywhere from France to Italy to Spain. The first notable mention of Scottish bagpipes didn’t occur until 1547, when French history references the use of Highland bagpipes in the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. By the mid to late 1500s, bagpipes had become widespread on the battlefield (with Scottish historian George Buchanan going so far as to claim they’d replaced the trumpet). This period also saw the rise of “piping families” throughout Scotland, including such familiar names as the MacArthurs and MacGregors.

As the British Empire expanded, so did the world’s knowledge of the bagpipes. While traditional bagpipes became less popular in Europe due to the advent of other classical instruments and technology such as the gramophone and radio, the use of bagpipes in World Wars I and II brought the bagpipe to new fronts and continued to grow their mark across the world.

The Bagpipe Today

Due to this military background, the Great Highland bagpipe today is often associated with the military and with formal government ceremonies. The U.K., Canada and New Zealand often use it in their official ceremonies. Countries like India, Pakistan, Uganda, Oman and Sri Lanka—who were modeled after the British Army—incorporate the Highland bagpipe into their ceremonies as well. Even fire and police organizations have adopted the bagpipe in countries like the U.S., Canada, Australia and Hong Kong (and, of course, Scotland).

Bagpipes today are enjoying a renewed popularity thanks to the resurgence of folk music and dance, including appearances in such popular phenomena as the movie Braveheart and the smash Broadway show Riverdance. Instruments ranging from the native folk forms once bordering on obscurity to the more newfangled electronic bagpipes are now available to the musician or wannabe musician looking to pick up something unique and different for their repertoire (or just to annoy the neighbors). Bagpipe music for wedding is also very popular these days. You may contact Blue Sky Atlanta Music and Entertainment Company to hire a professional bagpiper for your upcoming event.