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Some Notes
on the
History of the Bagpipe
~ Page 1~

From the Cantigas de Santa Maria, 13th century A.D.
From the Cantigas de Santa Maria, dating to the reign of Alfonso X "El Sabio" (1221-1284 A.D.)


A great deal of uncertainty, conflict and controversy surrounds the questions of the origins, evolution and distribution of bagpipes. At risk of throwing gasoline on the fire, the following opinions and speculations (with stress on those words) are offered here. The objective is not to present a history so much as to convey a general sense of the great diversity and the antiquity of the bagpipe and its predecessors.

There are several probable reasons for the lack of historical information about bagpipes. The instruments themselves, made entirely or almost entirely of organic materials, are not durable in any long-term sense. With certain relatively modern exceptions, they were instruments of the "common" people - they were used, probably somewhat roughly without concern, outdoors. People did not collect them, or hang them on a wall - and even if someone tucked away grandpa's pipes, poor storage conditions would have been the end of them before long.

Because in most times and cultures bagpipes were peasant instruments and associated with persons of low social status such as shepherds and farmers and even (gasp!) Gypsies - not much seems to ever have been written about them. Writers tended to concern themselves with matters of interest to their more sophisticated audiences - courtly concerns, politics, philosophy, warfare and of course religion. Bagpipes, unlike some other instruments, played little or no role is these arenas and so were no more likely to be chronicled than was peasant footwear. (This has been the case until very recently, by the way - when this writer first became interested in bagpipes, about thirty years ago, the total known works ever published on non-Scottish bagpipes was a small number indeed.) Furthermore, music historians could (and still do) conveniently all but ignore bagpipes when tracing the development of other wind instruments, because most of those instruments do not seem to have passed along the same paths as bagpipes, which can be viewed as offshoots of the apparent main branches of woodwind evolution - it is possible and common to trace the development of, say, the oboe from the earliest one-piece cane reed-pipe through the modern orchestral version without ever stumbling across a single bagpipe.

Nevertheless, there they are and here we are, wondering where these marvelous instruments came from. As is the case all too often with investigations of history, many theories have been held forth that rely on interpreting what little early evidence there is in a way that bolsters a pet idea, rather than developing theories from the evidence. Thus we commonly find speculations - interesting, useful and entertaining though they may be - presented as fact. For example, there are a few references in biblical passages and other classical writings, images on stone and pottery of uncertain provenance and so on by use of which one could probably spin a tale having God (or the devil) Himself blasting away on a bagpipe. Unfortunately, it is not until much later that any solid and detailed written evidence appears, and even then much of it is barely descriptive enough to be positively identified as referring to bagpipes. So, the writers have left us in the lurch, for all practical purposes, until early modern times.

The situation is not much better when one looks to the early graphic arts. There are numerous wind instruments visible in very old Mediterranean and Asian art and some of the simpler instruments depicted have in some places survived virtually unchanged.

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But bagpipes are just about invisible, until the late middle ages when suddenly, as if out of nowhere, they appear in all sorts of artwork, beginning with the illustrations in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, shown at the top of this page. Perhaps during the hundreds of years of the "Dark Ages" these peasant instruments continued to develop locally and even spread to some extent, without being recorded. This is of course speculative, but it would account for the apparently sudden appearance of many quite different forms of bagpipes as Europe emerged from that dismal period. But alas, some of the depictions are obviously fanciful (for example the instrument on the left in the Cantigas group) and nowhere is there any sort of graphic record that gives a clear picture of types, distribution, origins and so on.

To find anything with a bit of detail and variety and that also inspires confidence, we must skip forward about 350 years to 1619, to the famous illustrated book on organography by Preatorius

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Here at last, after all those centuries, are some definitive descriptions. It might be expected that perhaps from then on there would be a usable record up to the present - but that is not at all the case. In fact, it is quite possible that Preatorius knew more about the bagpipes of his time than anyone subsequently knew about those of their own times, at least until very recently. All of this is somewhat nettlesome to those of us interested in these instruments, but it also adds a dash of mystery and romance to the subject and makes the search for information an adventure rather than a dry academic exercise. In the next installment of these notes we will be looking down some of the interesting byways that lead to clues about the development of some of the bagpipes of the world.


Continued on Page 2


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