The Concise History of the Bagpipe
The Concise History of the Bagpipe in Ireland
A Clann Grant Piper (1714)
A Clann Grant Piper (1714)

The history of the Bagpipe in Scotland is not easy to trace. The Scots seem always to have played it and mastered it at an early date, almost as if they had contact with those Spartans of balance fame. The Scots are a quiet race, simply getting on with it and have never made any outlandish claims that they were the first to play a pipe or that their pattern was the best. Consequently, a start date is all but impossible.

The non-performing community is obsessed with the thirteenth or fourteenth century as a start date. The dangerous thing about the non-performing community is that they are almost the same incurable romantics as are the performing community. The one thing common with both communities is that they both dwell in Scotland, a land that created Hollywood and continues to ridicule much of piping history, holding it out as the music of the amadan or fool. One thing is for certain and this is that Scottish piping tradition seems to have come up out of England. Another is that Scotland is much embarrassed by the Bagpipe. So let us take a look at some of the myths and facts of Scottish piping and draw our own conclusions. Keep in mind that both communities have never been able to break with Victorian romance and that the accepted way to verify piping history in Scotland is the usage of the expression "said to have been" and "may have been," especially if said by a judge of the Indian high court.

Lowland Scottish Town Drummer and Piper
Lowland Scottish Town Drummer and Piper

The English used their pipe mainly as an outdoor instrument as the Romans did, building roads, bringing in harvests and forming town waytes or musical watch men. A town crier put to music, these were armed bands, accompanied by musicians whose function was to march through a town announcing the start of a work day and its close, etc. The concept of these English wayte or watch bands was copied with passion by the Lowland Scots and ere long, each town in the Lowlands had its own town piper. From that point, piping in Scotland really took off on its own. How it spread to the Highlands is anyone's guess, but anyone thinking that there was no communication between the Lowlands and the Highlands would be just playing into the romantic hands of both communities . Spread to the Highlands it certainly did, the Highland style exceeding in all of Scotland. An even stranger thing happened in the Lowlands. Here the hereditary piper seems to have been born. Not only would the role of town piper pass from father to son, but some towns actually provided housing for their pipers, a custom not unnoticed in the Highlands. By 1700, the Reverend David Kirkwood advised that "Pipers are held in great Request, so that they are train'd up at ye Expense of Grandees & have a Portion of Land assigned & are design'd such a man's Piper."

We must mention another romantic community forced on us, the Irish . Not content with the realization that they had no interest in mastering the pipe, they decided to claim, after giving it up, that it was they who introduced the mouth-blown pipe to the Highland Scots. We know that by the mid-fourteenth century, the Irish had absorbed the Anglo Norman piping tradition and began to branch out on their own. They certainly had very strong connections with their Highland cousins so this claim may actually have some possibility. The only problem is that there is not a shred of piping or fingering evidence to support the Irish claim. There is evidence of harp music but we must not confuse two instruments.

Let us now look at a few favourite Scottish romances that purport to tell the history of Scottish piping. The first, hot on the list, is that of persecution. The scourging of the piper and loss of the piping art. Both Scottish communities claim that the Bagpipe was banned by the 1746 proscription act or that it was dangerous to play for a "certain period" after it, and as a result, Piobaireachd began to be forgotten. However, the instrument was never mentioned in the proscription act and by 1781, thirty five years later, Piobaireachd was as strong as it probably ever was.

Another dinger, proposed currently by some very educated Scottish pipers, although there is much evidence to counter their claim, is that the ancient pipers refused to play anything but Piobaireachd. It is absolutely staggering that these people are unable to see the joke or mockery of their idiotic claims. This statement was first made during Victorian times when any fool, especially those of the religious caste, was elevated to the status of savant upon merely opening his mouth. Unfortunately, statements like this really ridicule piping in the eyes of other musicians and hold it up as a joke.

A real tear jerker is the case of one James Reid who was hung after the 1745 rebellion. Adjudged guilty of inciting riot or mutiny as a result of playing his pipe, this has led the way for Scottish romanticists to claim that he was hung because he was a piper and that his pipe was now a "war pipe" or "an instrument of war". The claims go tearfully on, but what the pundits fail to research further is that other musicians (fifes, horns, drums) were hung for the same reason. During the reign of Henry VI, a statute punishable by death was passed making it a felony to incite riot or mutiny with a musical instrument and this is just what Reid had done.

There is a great myth in Scotland that during the good old bad days of pre-1700, a clan piper did nothing but play pipes. Victorian writers gushingly claim that he was one of the most important people in clan society, second only to the chief. The reality however tells quite a different story. He was usually an illiterate domestic servant whose master got two talents for the price of one, a great Scottish pursuit that went on until the twentieth century.

Another great myth is in the amount of time a student studied with any great piping instructor. Both Scottish communities claim that it was for seven years and this has been deduced from the famous 1743 indenture between Lord Lovat and his domestic servant and piper, David Fraser. But the communities, not taking the proper time to study the indenture, fail to realise that the poor Fraser, due to the last vestige of feudalism in Western Europe, got a little over two months with his instructor Malcolm MacCrimmon and had to spend seven years, night and day, in penal-like servitude to his master Lovat, all of which had to be guaranteed by Fraser's brother William! However, this speaks volumes for the love of the instrument which these Highland pipers had and, at the same time, says a great deal for the real history of Highland piping. In no other country is this love and the patronage that made it happen reflected. Here the genius of Highland piping tradition is written.

A final example of the Scottish myth takes us back to 1800 or a little before, when London decided to create a new papacy for Scotland. This has been added to each year by both communities so that currently, it is such a part of Scottish piping life, that fact can no longer be separated from fiction by the masses. The myth of the MacCrimmons was created by the Highland Society of London, probably as a result of the mid-eighteenth century Gaelic poems of Alexander MacDonald and John MacCodrum. Why this family was chosen is open to thought because there were other equally famous piping families around at the time. The MacGregors of Glen Lyon and the MacArthurs of Mull were but two. By 1698, some Highland chiefs were sending their pipers to a MacCrimmon for perfection in the art of Highland piping. Around 1820, it became fashionable to claim that they were the composers of the ancient Piobaireachd and one piece was ascribed to them in Donald MacDonald's book. As of today, the list has grown so that some twenty or thirty pieces are ascribed to their authorship. By 1838, an entire lineage was also invented for them. One member of the non- performing community even insisted, ca. 1930, that he could tell a MacCrimmon sixteenth century composition through its note progression or "run down!" Sadly, there is not one Piobaireachd composition traceable to the MacCrimmons. Not one shred of evidence that they "invented" the Piobaireachd form. The first of them that can be positively named, dated and identified as a piper to the MacLeod chief is a Patrick of 1706. The next, a Malcolm (son?) of 1743, provides the first evidence of MacCrimmon instruction or tuition provided for a fee to pipers out with the MacLeod estates. Only thirty seven years of definite MacLeod association and forty five years of MacCrimmon teaching has created such a frenzy of belief or worship, that today people from Africa to New Zealand will go into a rage at the slightest suggestion of question as to their real historic contribution to piping.

Such then is the way piping history is presented in Scotland. However, it is at a loss to be written in a romantic, useless and immature fantasy. It is really written in genius and in love. It is written in the music.


The MacCrimmon Legend, The Madness of Angus MacKay
1980, Cannongate Publishing Ltd. by Alistair Keith Campsie

Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping 1745 - 1945
1998,  McGill - Queens University Press, by John G Gibson

The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750 - 1950
2000, Tuckwell Press, by William Donaldson

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