Bagpipes: a National Symbol of Scotland

Eloise Madigan

Hello my wonderful readers,

When you think of Scotland, you might think of strong Highlanders…Gaelic…kilts! But also, about one of my favorite instruments: the bagpipes! 

One of the national symbols of Scotland, the bagpipes have been around for a long time…and all over the world too! For example, you can find similar instruments in:  Albania (gajde), Romania (gaidã), Bulgaria (гайда) (gayda), Greece (γκάιντα) (gáida), Italy (zampogna), etc. 


Angel playing bagpipes  in the Thistle Chapel, Edinburgh. Image source: wikipedia.

Origins and History

Then, you have the Great Highland Bagpipe (Scottish Gaelic: a’ phìob mhòr, meaning “the great pipe”). It was actually used by the British military as well! It was first found in Scotland in 1400s, and went into decline around the 19th-20th century. Such a sad waste of a beautiful instrument!

One clan still owns a remnant of a set of bagpipes said to have been carried at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314! However, it is not a proven claim, so I wouldn’t put my hand in fire for it! 😛 

After the horrific Battle of Culloden in 1746, and the defeat of the Jacobites, King George II attempted to assimilate the Highlands into the Great Britain, by weakening both the Scottish clans and the Gaelic traditions. One of those traditions were, of course, the bagpipes! 

Actually, since the Highlanders made for excellent troops, they were used for battles by Britain for many years – and they usually took with them their pipers! Many say that this tradition with the bagpipes was used even during the early start of World War I, but had to stop due to the high casualty rate. You can’t fight and play the bagpipes altogether, unfortunately! 

Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe. Image source.

How does it work?

The three pipes that rise out of the instrument create a constant sound, with a fourth pipe holding nine holes for chord and pitch changes. The bags are usually made of sheep or elk skin and fill with air, which is then pressed by the arm to push the air through. 

Highland pipes were originally constructed of such locally available woods as holly, laburnum, and boxwood. Later, as expanding colonisation and trade provided access to more exotic woods, tropical hardwoods including cocuswood (from the Caribbean), ebony (from West Africa and South and Southeast Asia) and African blackwood (from sub-Saharan Africa) became standard in the late 18th and early 19th century.

The sound is undeniable when heard and evokes a sense of time-honored tradition for those who love the music of the Scottish Highlands.

“Pipe music” in Scottish Gaelic is  pìobaireachd, but it has been adapted into English as piobaireachd or pibroch. In Gaelic, this, the “great music” of the Great Highland bagpipe is referred to as ceòl mòr, and “light music” (such as marches and dance tunes) is referred to as ceòl beag. Different words for different feelings, huh! 

Of course, bagpipes have played a significant role in many genres of music actually, such as rock and pop music. There was actually a type of work, where you could be a “Piper to the Sovereign”, tasked to perform for the British Queen or King. It is dated back to Queen Victoria! 

Traditional bagpiper. Image source.

When I hear bagpipes, I am instantly thrown back into Scotland of the 1500s, looking outside my castle window, haha!

Tales with bagpipes and pipers have circulated all around Scotland, and of course, the world! Maybe we can explore them in another article? What do you think, my bonnies?

Let me know in the comments!

Until next time…

Written by Eloise Madigan

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