Pipe Band History

Figure 1.--The uniform of pipebands is largely derived from the uniforms that the largely English Army established for regiments recruited in Scotland. For years after the battle of Culloden, Scots except in the army were prohibited from wearing the kilt or playing the pipes. Penalties could be severe.

The bagpipe and pipe music is virtually a symbol of the Scottish people. Ironically, this symbol of Scotland is inextricably tied to Scotland's two historic foes, the Romans and the hated sassenachs--primarily the English. (Actually sassenachs refers to anyone not born a Highlander, but it is the English that it is most used for because the English have been the foreigners most present in Scotland.) It was the Romans who probably introduced the pipes to the Scots. It was the English Army, however, which created the modern pipe band. (A HBC reader suggests that this sentence should read the "British" Army. After the Act of Union in 1707 the English Army did indeed become the British Army. The Army was, however, dominated by the English and many in Scotland especially in the Highlands as well those Scots forced to emigrate viewed it for many years as the English Army.) The history of the bagpipe is largely lost in recorded history. It appears to have originated outside of Scotland. There are references to the pipes in Roman times and the pipes appear to have been introduced by the Romans. It was in Scottish highlands, however, that the modern great pipes were developed. Some historians believed that the pipes were used in Scotland as early as 100 AD and the piper came to be held in higher esteem in Scotland than anywhere else. By the year 1000, the bagpipes were popular throughout Scotland and by 1500, every clan chieftain worthy of the name had a piper who would stay with his family. The pipes were banned along with the tartan and the kilt. The English feared the stirring effect of the pipes on Scots as a martial symbol of independence and resistance to foreign rule. The pipes might have been lost to the modern world after the disaster at Culloden and the subsequent suppression of the Highland clans by the British Army. The suppression was a major factor in Scottish emigration to America and other countries, effectively spreading Scottish culture and music, including the pipes, around the world. The English while prohibiting clansmen to wear the kilt or play the bagpipe, recruited Scottish regiments and these Scot soldiers were allowed to both wear kilts and play the pipes. This was not new as from the time of the Civil War (1639-49) there have been Scottish Regiments serving first the Parliamentary forces then latter the King against rebel forces in Scotland. What was new is that the suppression of the Clans created wide-spread destitution throughout the Highlands. Joining the army was one of the few options opened to many clansmen to prevent their families from starving. In addition the Scots were now an integral part of the British Army, not involved with temporary alliances with English allies. The modern Scottish and Irish pipe band is in effect thus a creation of a largely English British army, created to accompany and add martial spirit to the Scottish regiments. Both the kilt and the pipes became instantly recognizable symbols of these units. Indeed the Highland regiments and their blaring bagpipes were to become the shock troops of Empire as the British extended their imperial dominions around the globe in the 17th and 18th century. Interestingly the English also played a major role in the modern Scottish kilt.

Early History

The origin of the bagpipe is lost to recorded history as is its development in ancient times. The bagpipes are a very ancient instrument and there are references to them in Chinese, Persian, Greek and Roman folklore dating at least as far back as 2,000 years. There are a variety of historical references suggesting that the bagpipe was well established in the Roman world. One of the earliest historical references to specifically mention the bagpipes is from Dio Chrysostom, a Greek writer, in 100 AD. He wrote, presumably describing Nero (8AD): "They say that he can write, carve statues, play the aulos both with his mouth, and also with the armpit, a bag being thrown under it." Early in the 6th Century Procpius, a Greek historian, mentions that the bagpipe was the instrument of the Roman Infantry while the trumpet was used in the Cavalry. Some support for this statement can be found in a sculptured bronze excavated at Richborough Castle, Kent. The image is a Roman soldier in full marching order with bagpipes.

Appearance in Scotland

Considerable controversy surrounded the origins of the pipes in Scotland. Some believe it is a Roman import, brought to Britain by the invading Roman Legions. Other scholars believe that the instrument came from Ireland as the result of colonization, the first in 120 AD under Cairbre Riada, the second in 506 AD under Fergus Lorne, and Angus, the sons of Erc. Either or both explanations may be correct, or the pipes may have been invented independently but speculation is largely futile as the instrument is so ancient as to be beyond the means of establishing whether it was indigenous or not.

The bagpipe in the 18th century was played throughout in Europe. This included the courts of some of the most powerful monarchs. No one at the time could have foreseen that the PIOB MHOR or "great pipe" of the Highland clans was destined to become known world wide. It is sufficient to say that the Highlanders were the ones to develop the instrument to its full extent and make it, both in peace and war, a national instrument.

Development in Scotland

The original pipes in Scotland probably had no drones, or at the most, a single drone. Records exist indicating that a single drone was used prior to the 1500's and an entry from Scotland's Exchequer Rolls states that a payment was made to "English piper with the drone.

The second drone was added to the Scottish pipes in mid to late 1500s. A set of pipes do exist that have two drones and they are marked with the Roman date of MCCCCIX (1409), but most experts believe that these are Victorian Era fakes or at least the date is in error and should be 1709.

Bagpipes are mentioned with some frequency in Scottish historical records. In the Exchequer Rolls of 1362, a payment of 40 shillings was "paid to the Kings Pipers." An inventory of instruments in St. James palace conducted in 1419 specifies "four bagpipes with pipes of ivory" and another "bagpipe with pipes of ivory, the bag covered with purple velvet." In 1486, Edinburgh rejoiced in a band consisting of three pipers, and any household who declined to billet these "city musicians" in rotation was liable to be fined 9 pence in accordance with a town council decree. Surpassingly in the accounts of the Lords High Treasurers of Scotland there is a reference to pipers being "INGLIS." In the years 1489 and 1491 payments were made to "the English piper that came to the castle and played to the King," and to "four English Pipers."

The first written mention of the "Great Pipes" was in 1623 when a piper from Perth was prosecuted for playing on the Sabbath.

Figure 2.--The English suppression of the Scottish highlanders played a major role in spreading Scottish people and music around the world. This is a pipe band at an Australian school--as far away from Scotland as one can get.

The third drone or the great drone came into use early in the 1700's. A painting of the piper to the Laird of Grant shows three working drones and is dated 1733. Some evidence suggests that the great drone was in use earlier and that the last drone to be added was the second tenor drone. This was disputed by Joseph MacDonald in 1760. (This is interesting because it was during the period in which the kilt and pipes were proscribed.) He is quoted: "Besides the smaller drones of the Highland bagpipe there was and still is, in use with pipers in the north highlands particularly, a great drone, double the length and thickness of the smaller, and the sound, just an octave below them, which adds vastly to its grandeur, both in sound and show."

Another important development in the Highlands was the use of the small pipes. Again from Joseph MacDonald we find "through the reels and jigs peculiar to the pipes are in large companies as at weddings, etc. played to good effect on the Great Pipes. Yet, they have besides, through the Highlands in general a smaller bagpipe, complete, the same in form and apparatus with the greater, differing only in size and used for dancing music alone, although all other music peculiar to the instrument may also be played on it truly, though not so grandly as on the large pipes." Also the name "Great Highland Bagpipe" does in itself imply that there existed smaller pipes in the Highlands.

The primary advantage of the Great Highland Bagpipe was in producing a much more martial effect than horns, trumpets or harps. The pipes stimulate the highlander when playing war-like compositions or make them remorseful when playing the lament.

Pipe Band History

Two Scotlands

The popular image is that the valiant Scottish highlanders fought the English for centuries with the bagpipes by their side. A Scottish reader tells HBC that this is a inaccurate, romantic version of the actual situation. He tells us, "Scottish Highlanders basically fought amongst themselves. It was the Lowland Scots and the Scottish Borderers who fought against the English for centuries." The pipes during these struggles had such an unsettling affect that the English came to think of them as the heart of Scottish resistance. It must be stressed that in the early 18th century, Scotland was deeply divided. The Lowlands in the south had become in many ways Anglicized. They tended to view the Highlanders as uncivilized barbarians, noted mostly for fighting among themselves and cattle rustling. Many Lowlanders after the Act of Union saw many advantages resulting from political and economic association with England.

Bonnie Prince Charlie

Prince Charles Edward Stewart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, returned to Scotland from France, obstensibly to convince the Scottish to drive out the English. In reality his goal from the beginning was the Jacobite desire to seize the British crown. Support came primarily from the Highland clans. The Stewarts had been replaced on the British throne by the Hanovarians--a German dynasty. The Jacobite Rebel Army penetrated to the heart of the English Midlands, but when little support materialize from English Catholics and English troops were brought back from Europe, the Highlanders retreated, losing an important part of their men along the way--principally to desertion. The culminating battle of the Prince and the Highland clans was at Culloden Moor in 1746. The clan forces were decimated with great loss of life, primarily occuring in masacres after the battle.

Suppression of the clans

The Jacobite rebels after Culloden were hunted down and killed by the English and their lowland allies, in many cases without trial. The English proceeded to prohibit the wearing of kilts and the possession, let along the playing of the pipes. These provisions were brutally enforced by the English and their Lowland allies. The clans were further devastated by the Highland Clearances as absentee landlords continued to drive people off the land in order to devote huge estates to sheep, requiring only limited labor. Clearances of people off the land had actually started about 50 years previously and not by absentee English landlords but by Highland Chiefs and Scottish nobles themselves. Curiously it was the suppression of the Highland clans that not only created the modern pipe band, but spread it around the world.

Creation of the pipe band

The pipes accompanied Scottish warriors for centuries. They never, however, had pipe bands in the modern sense. The pipe bands were created by the largely English British Army. (A Scottish reader advises us that a British Army had been in existence in effect from 1660, meaning the restoration of the Stewarts--Charles II. This was formalized in 1707 with the Act of Union. Beyond the legalities the point at which the English Army became the British Army also had to take into account the perceptions of people in Scotland and England.) After the suppression of the Highland clans, Scots gravitated to the Army, which as a result of the Act of Union in 1707 had become the British Army. Modern readers may find it strange that the Highland clansmen would join what was in effect an occupation army. There are a number of reasons for this.
Military defeat : The Jacobite defeat at Culloden and resulting suppression of the Highland clans was so devastating and complete that most Highlanders gave up all hope of an independent Scotland free of the English. Most saw few options than to cooperate with the English, not matter how bitter that may be. It should be remembered, however, that Highlander does not equate with the Scottish people. At the time of the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite Rebellions the vast majority of the Scottish people supported the British Hanovarian Government and not the Jacobites (Stewart claimants). As the Lowland population greatly exceeded that of the Highlands, the great majority of the Scottish people had not supported the Jacobite and Highland quest for an independent Scotland.
Economic devastation : The economy of the Highlands, was devastated by the English and Lowland suppression of the clans as well as a continuation of the Highland clearances. The desperation in the Highlands was in sharp contrast to developments in the Lowlands. After the Union of Parliaments in 1707, the Scottish Lowlands for the first time in 200 years started to flourish, economically in terms of commerce, farming and industry. There were, however, few economic opportunities in the Highlands. The Highlanders thus had limited opportunities. Many emigrated to America and were a factor in the future American Revolution. (Canada at the time was still French.) Some sought jobs in the booming economy of the Lowlands. Others joined the still largely English British Army. HBC does not know about the motivation of the Highlanders who joined an army that had just defeated and suppressed their clans. Partly lack of alternative employment was a factor. Another factor may have been the appeal of military life.
Highland regalia : Some clansmen may have been drawn to the Highland regiments because they were entitled to wear proscribed Highland regalia. The English allowed the Scottish regiments to wear the kilt as a uniform and be accompanied by bagpipes. It was in these Highland regiments that the modern pipe band was created. A Scottish reader informs us that this occurred after the end of the Napoleon Wars around about 1830.

Spread of the bagpipe and pipe bands

The English and Lowland suppression of the Highland clans and the continuation of the clearances created such dismal economic conditions that many Scoots found emigration as the only alternative to starvation. The English response to the Potato Famine in Ireland had the same impact on the Irish. Large numbers of Scots emigrated to America and after Britain gained Canada in the French and Indian War to Canada. A few wound up in the Caribbean. In the 19th century Scoots emigrated to Australia and New Zealand as well. A even larger Irish emigration occurred in the 19th century. With them they brought their cultural heritage including their music and dance. Most of these emigrants, especially the 17th century emigrants had never heard of a pipe band, but they had heard of the bagpipe. It was their grandsons and great-grandsons, interested in their heritage that decided to form and participate in pipe bands in places as remote from the Scottish Highlands and Ireland beyond the Pale as one can imagine. It is an irony of history that the pipe bands in which they participate are the creation of a largely English British Army.


HBC greatly appreciates comments received from Bill Woodcock who kindly pointed our errors in the original draft of this page. He suggests that Tom Steele's History of Scotland gives a very good concise account and perspective for those interested in more information.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: December 31, 1998
Spell cecked: March 8, 2002
Last updated: March 17, 2002