A Short History of the Bagpipe

(French Cornemuse; Italian Cornamusa; German Sackpfiefe)

The bagpipe is a musical instrument of great antiquity and was known under many different names.

It appears on a coin of Nero, who, according to Suetonius, was himself a performed upon it. It is mentioned by Procopius as the instrument of war of the Roman infantry. In the crozier given by William of Wykeham to New College, Oxford in 1403, there is the figure of an angel playing it. Chaucer’s miller performed on it – ‘A bagpipe well couth he blowe and sowne.’

During the middle ages the bagpipe was largely used both in England and on the continent, and may have served as an accompaniment to the chanting in monasteries and religious houses, for an illustration of an instrument of this kind of the 9th century is given by Gerbert, Abbot of St. Blaise, and called by him ‘Chorus.’

Shakespeare often alluded to it. He spoke of ‘the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe,’ of the antipathy some people had to its sound, and of some who laughed like parrots at a bagpiper.

Its essential characteristics have always been, first that it is a reed instrument, having a combination of fixed notes or ‘drones,’ with a melody of ‘chaunter’; secondly, the presence of a wind chest or bag. From these peculiarities, the Greek, and from the second of them the Latin names clearly come. The reeds in various pipes vary little from those described under Holland bagpipe.

The wind was variously supplied, either from the breath of the player, or from a small pair of bellows placed under one arm, the sac or bag being under the other.

In the latter form it contained all the essentials of the organ. It was somewhat remarkable that the use of the lungs themselves as the wind chest to reed instruments should have been adopted later and less universally.

There are two systems of supplying wind – from the breath, and from the bellows.

Bagpipes Blown from the Mouth

Historically, the varieties inflated by the breath have the first place, and in addition to the medieval instruments the following are also blown from the mouth.

German Sackpheife

Praetorius in his ‘Syntagma Musicum’ (1618) gives minute descriptions of four or five different varieties, ranging from the Grosser Bock with a single drone sounding in the sixteen foot G, to the little Dudey with three drones sounding e flat, b flat and e flat, and a chaunter gong up to c.


Formerly a popular rustic instrument in France and the Netherlands, the chaunter had eight finger holes and a vent hole not fingered. The drones were latterly two, tuned an octave apart, and known as le grand and le petit bourdon.

Bignou, or Breton Bagpipe

A small instrument having one drone, and a chaunter with seven finger holes.

Calbrian Bagpipe (Zampogna)

In this instrument four drones, two of them with finger holes, were fitted to one stock or base. The reeds were all double, and the melody was not given from the main instrument, but from a small rude chaunter or oboe with five finger holes played by a second performer.

Old Irish Bagpipe

Before the 16th century, the Irish pipe did not differ much from the Scotch pipe of the same period. The Irish had a chaunter with six finger holes, and two drones.

Highland Bagpipe

In this instrument a valved tube led from the mouth to a leather air tight bag, which had five orifices, into which were bound five short tubes or ‘stocks.’ Into these stocks were fitted the three long tubes or drones, the blow pipe, and the melody pipe or ‘chaunter.’

The chaunter and the three drones were fitted with reeds. The drone reeds were made by splitting a round length of ‘cane’ or reed backwards towards a joint or know from a cross cut near the open end; they thus somewhat resemble the reed in organ pipes, the loose flat of cane replacing the tongue, the uncut part the tube or reed proper.

Those were then set downwards in a chamber at the base of the drone, so that the current of air issuing from the bag tended to close the fissure in the cane caused by the springing outwards of the cut flap, thus setting it in vibration.

The drone reeds were only intended to produce a single note, which could be tuned by a slider on the pipe itself, varying the length of the consonating air column.

The chaunter reed was different in form, being made of two approximated edges of cane tied together, and was thus essentially a double reed, like that of the oboe or bassoon, while the drone reed roughly represented the single beating reed of the organ or clarinet.

The drone reed was an exact reproduction of the ‘squeaker’ which children in the fields fashioned out of joints of tall grass, probably the oldest form of the reed in existence.

The drone tubes were in length proportional to their note, the longest bing about three feet high. The chaunter was a conical wooden tube, about fourteen inches long, pierced with eight sounding holes, seven in front for the fingers, and one at the top behind for the thumb of the right hand.

Two additional holes were bored across the tube below the lowest of those merely regulated the pitch, and were never stopped.

Bagpipes Blow from the Bellows

Pipes blown with bellows appear to have come into use in Europe generally about the 16th century. In those instruments the reservoir or wind bag was under the control of one arm, and was supplied by a feeder worked by the other.


In France the bagpipe blown from bellows eventually took the form of the musette, which had double reeds throughout, and a chaunter with a narrow cylindrical bore.

To the original chaunter, known as le grand chalumeau, the elder Hotterre added a smaller one (le petit chalumeau) for the extension of the compass upwards.

The grand and the petit chalumeau had respectively seven and six keys, and the former eight finger holes.

The drones, four or five in number, were all fitted into one cylinder which was provided with sliding stops for tuning the drones.

The instrument became popular and fashionable in the reign of Louis XIV., in whose time it was one of the instruments included in the band of the ‘Grande Ecurie,’ and was played at court concerts.

It was introduced into the orchestra by Lully; but towards the latter part of the 18th century fell into disuse.

The musette mentioned here is not the same as the instrument of the same name played like an oboe from the mouth.

Lowland Bagpipe

The chief difference between this and the Highland form is the blowing from the bellows instead of from the mouth.

Northumbrian Bagpipe

The chaunter, which had seven finger holes and one thumb hole, was stopped at the lower end, as were the drones, so that when all the holes were closed the pipe was silent.

The drones were formerly three in number; but the more modern version of the instrument had four and chaunters fitted with seven keys. The tone was small and pleasant.

Irish Bagpipe

The Union pipes, was an elaborate and complicated instrument. The chaunter, with seven finger holes, a thumb hole, and eight keys, had a chromatic scale of two octaves.

In addition to the drones there were three pipes known as regulators, and fitted with keys worked by the elbow of the player. The drones were tuned to A in different octaves, and the regulators were capable of giving a rude harmony.