On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me, eleven pipers piping…
Celebrating the eleven faithful apostles, the eleven pipers piping segment of the song historically refers to Jesus’ closest and most loyal disciples.
However, for a lot of today’s listeners the reference could be taken more literally, prompting images of the Pied Piper or a band of musicians proudly performing.
For me it’s the latter, with one instrument standing out more than any other – the bagpipes.
Creating one of the most distinctive sounds in music, the bagpipes are a woodwind instrument built by feeding enclosed reeds into a bag of air.
The Scottish Great Highland bagpipes are the best-known Anglophone in the world, while the instrument itself has been played for over a millennium across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Persian Gulf.
But where exactly did the bagpipes originate from?
The evidence for pre-Roman era bagpipes is uncertain, but there have been several visual and textual clues that suggest their early existence.
According to the Oxford History of Music, a sculpture of the bagpipes was found on a Hittite slab, dating all the way back to 1000 BC.
However, it was in the second millennium when the instrument’s popularity grew significantly, with the first clear reference to the use of the Scottish Highland bagpipes featured in French history, during the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547.
This popularity then waned as Western classical music developed, both in terms of sophistication and technology, due to the instrument’s lack of range and limited function. It was a long and slow decline that continued into the 20th century.
During the expansion of the British Empire, the Scottish Highland bagpipes became well-known worldwide, as large numbers of pipers trained for military service in the first and second World War.
Nowadays, the instrument is used by the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Nations within the military and is often played during formal ceremonies.
It’s a unique instrument and one that divides opinions in terms of listening enjoyment. However, no-one can deny it’s cultural importance, as one of the most recognisable instruments in the world.
Check out our previous instalments to read our takes on the 12 gifts