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A Brief History of Bagpipes

photo credit: Lyon College,

All students at Lyon College are familiar with the shrill, droning music of bagpipes. Regardless of our musical tastes, we recognize them as a fundamental symbol of Scottish culture, and by extension, a vital component of Lyon’s proud Scottish heritage. However, many of us are unaware of the long and unique history of this distinctive musical instrument.

The bagpipes are one of the oldest known instruments. They emerged independently in some form in almost every civilization in the ancient world. The earliest documented reference to bagpipes is a sculpture found in the ruins of an ancient Hittite city in the Middle East, dated to approximately 1000 B.C. Other notable references can be found in ancient Chinese, Indian, and Greek records, and they are even mentioned in the Bible (in the book of Daniel). They were the favorite instrument of Roman emperor Nero, who often played them before a battle to raise soldiers’ morale. In fact, he loved them so much that Roman coins from the time of his reign actually depict Nero playing them. They gained popularity and spread throughout the Western world through Roman conquests, eventually finding their way to Celtic lands.

By 1500, the bagpipes had become the most culturally significant instrument in the Scottish Highlands. Because they could be heard over the deafening chaos of combat, they were used in battle to regulate marches, communicate soldiers’ positions, and lead charges. In historical documents recording the items recovered from battles, bagpipes were listed among swords, guns, ammunition and other weapons, while drums and bugles were listed as musical instruments. The bagpipes were so strongly linked to Scottish pride that after the Jacobite Rebellion in the 1740s, playing them in public was actually considered a deliberate act of defiance against the British crown. One British court ruled in 1746 that since “no highland regiment ever marched without a piper,” bagpipes should legally be considered weapons of war instead of mere musical instruments. This ruling was not reversed until the 1990s, when they were finally reclassified.

During World War I, many unarmed pipers lead charges out of Allied trenches into No Man’s Land, exposing themselves to gunfire and shelling. In World War II, a piper landed at Normandy during the D-Day invasion wearing a kilt and armed with nothing but a knife and his bagpipes. He played songs throughout the invasion and survived without a scratch, later learning from captured German snipers that he was not targeted because they thought he was crazy. Today bagpipes are used in many military ceremonies and events in several countries, though their role in actual warfare has been significantly diminished.

The history of bagpipes is extensive and incredible. Next time you hear Lyon’s pipe band practicing or performing, remember that they’re carrying on a cultural legacy centuries in the making.