Bagpipes are considered Scotland’s national instrument and are a powerful symbol of Scottish culture.
They are a class of musical instrument known as aerophones. The instrument is filled with air, which is gathered in a bag and then expelled and controlled to create musical notes.
Various forms of bagpipes have been played for centuries throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa but the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe or GHB is native to Scotland and is probably the best known.
The GHB consists of a bag and five pipes: three drones, a blowpipe and a chanter or melody pipe. The piper blows into the blowpipe to inflate the bag, keeps pressure on the bag to push air into the drones and chanter, and fingers the chanter to make the tune.
It is the interplay of the melody notes against the steady tones of the drones that creates the distinctive sound of the bagpipes.
By applying pressure on the air bag with the arm as he or she draws breath, the piper maintains a steady pressure and an even tone from the instrument.
Lowland bagpipes differ from the GHB in that instead of blowing into a pipe to fill the bag, the piper uses his or her arm to squeeze bellows that blow air into the bag. Lowland pipers often play seated while Highland pipers always stand and often march about.
Today, bagpipes are mostly used in military and regional pipe bands and to accompany Scottish country dancing. They produce two main styles of music. Ceol Mor or pilbroch is considered the classical music of bagpipes and tends to be slow and stately. Ceol Beag refers to dance music such as reels and jigs.
The earliest references to bagpipes in Scotland are in a military context. Records of the Battle of the North Inch of Perth in 1396 mention “warpipes” being carried into battle. In the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1943, a piper led each attacking company.
Bagpipes would originally have been made of locally available wood, such as holly or laburnum, with the air bag made of thin, supple leather. As trade routes opened up, more exotic woods became popular, particularly ebony and African blackwood.
The ferrules, decorative rings around the blowpipe, chanter and drones, were once made of ivory but are now usually silver or plastic.
Although modern bagpipes are sometimes made with synthetic materials, particularly for instruments used in pipe bands where uniformity of sound is important, the traditional art of hand crafting bagpipes is still going strong across Scotland.
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