If asked to name something Scottish, many people will think of bagpipes. It may come as a surprise to learn that bagpipes originated far from Scotland. They have a history dating back at least 3,000 years and variants exist in many European countries.
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Although strongly associated with Celtic culture, the first bagpipes seem to have been played in Asia Minor and may have made their way to Scotland with the expansion of the Roman Empire. According to John T. Koch in "Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia," "bagpipes spread far and wide across Europe and similar types of pipes are part of the musical culture of many European countries, including Bosnia, Romania, Hungary, Sweden and parts of northwest Russia."
The bagpipes were an important part of Gaelic society in medieval times but, as Gaelic society declined, the pipes gained a new role as an instrument in the armies of the British Empire. Koch argues that “what we have now is as much a product of a recent as a remote past” and that the bagpipe of today “is the product of recent interpretations of ‘light’ music for entertainment, dancing and marching.”
Bagpipes in World War I
Bagpipes played an important role in Scottish regiments in World War I. Each Scottish regiment had several pipers who would play in concerts and on marches but who also sometimes played on the battlefields. Piper Daniel Laidlaw won a Victoria Cross—the highest decoration in the British armed forces—for playing his bagpipes to encourage his comrades in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers during the Battle of Loos in September 1915. Laidlaw recalled after the event that “I ran forward with them piping for all I knew, and just as we were getting near the German lines I was wounded by shrapnel in the left ankle and leg. I was too excited to feel the pain just then, but scrambled along as best I could. I changed my tune to 'The Standard on the Braes o'Mar,' a grand tune for charging on.”
The bagpipe most commonly played today is the Highland type. It is played by blowing air into the large bag, traditionally made from sheepskin. The tune is played on the chanter, a melody pipe with holes cut into it that the piper covers and uncovers with his fingers to produce the different notes. The chanter can be made from wood, bone, ivory, cane or metal. Three drone pipes sit on the player’s shoulder to produce the continuous droning noise associated with Scottish bagpipes.
Each year, the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association holds a competition to find the world champions. In 2009, Simon Fraser University from Canada beat off competition from bands from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Australia and the United States to win this prestigious title.
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