The Story of Bagpipes and their Music

Meeting date

Dr David Hannay

Meeting report

The first meeting of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society had an excellent lecture by Dr David Hannay on The Story of Bagpipes and their Music.

He began by providing an interesting summary of the history of bagpipes from their beginnings as reed pipes in India, and they slowly spread west across Europe. Bagpipes could be found in many countries including Germany, France and Spain.

In Mediaeval Britain bagpipes are mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, and in Rosslyn Chapel the carved angels play bagpipes. In Tewkesbury Abbey bagpipes were used in religious music in the fourteenth century.

In Scotland by the fifteenth century there were bagpipes in the Highlands. The pipes were used to commemorate events and were meant to be used outdoors. They had no military marching use as there were no roads until General Wade's were built. The music was not written down, and learning the pipes was very skilled, taking about seven years; the actual teacher was very important. The pipes were banned after Culloden in 1745, but the need for highland soldiers meant that they were legalized again in 1782. Hereafter, music was written down, piping contests were encouraged and bagpipes became popular. A little local interest was provided by Angus Mackay from Raasay, who in 1835 won a piping prize, later becoming piper to Queen Victoria, but unfortunately ended up in the Crichton Hospital in Dumfries. He is commemorated by a memorial at Glencaple. The pipes diminished as providers of religious music (angels now used harps) but retained an important military function leading Scottish troops until the late twentieth century. Numbers have now declined and the pipes have a much reduced role.

Discussion then moved on to how bagpipes and bellows pipes diverged. Bellows pipes certainly existed by the seventeenth century, as a painting by Van Dyck showed, and a manuscript of music from 1733 was found in Perth. The pipes were more suited for indoor use, but were eclipsed in Scotland by the bagpipe; only in Northumberland were the bellows pipes retained. In the mid twentieth century an interest was revived particularly in the Lowland pipes. Even pop groups such as Runrig have adopted them.

Dr Hannay played both the bagpipes and bellows pipes and then provided recorded evidence of many types of pipes and music, this was much enjoyed although Highland bagpipes played in the day centre were quite deafening!

The lecture was much appreciated as shown by the large number of questions afterwards. The chairman summed up the talk as being like no other, with expert playing as well as giving us an excellent history.