History and use of bagpipes

Because bagpipes are so linked to Scotland, many people are surprised to learn that their history actually goes back to ancient times. No one knows exactly who invented the first set of pipes, but speculation is that it was probably a herdsman who had a sheepskin or goatskin and a reed pipe and put them together.

A great deal of uncertainty, conflict and controversy surround the questions of the origins, evolution and distribution of bagpipes, notes Oliver Seeler on his Universe of Bagpipes Web site (www.hotpipes.com).

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.

Here's some of what is known about bagpipe history and use:

• A Roman historian wrote in the first century that Nero knew how to pay the pipe with his mouth and the bag thrust under his arm.

• Chaucer mentions the bagpipes in his Canterbury Tales.

• Henry VIII of England had a large collection of musical instruments including, as a contemporary account noted, wone with pipes of ivorie and a bagge covered with purple vellat.

• Bagpipes come in many shapes and sizes. The most common, and the one played by most pipe bands today, is the Great Highland Bagpipe, which reached its present form in the 1700s. Irish Uilleann pipes have become increasingly popular in recent years.

• Bagpipes were outlawed in Scotland following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, but, like the kilt, they continued to thrive underground.

• Bagpipes have long been used to call clans to war and to inspire troops in battle. This practice has continued in modern times. Bagpipes have been used in World War I, World War II and every war since, including Desert Storm, and have been assigned to units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bagpipe humor

Perhaps no musical instrument is more made fun of than the bagpipes, but bagpipers are among the first to tell and appreciate the jokes, so it's all in good fun. Here's a sample of bagpipe humor:

• If thy neighbor offend thee ... give each of his children bagpipes. — Scottish Proverb

• How is playing the bagpipes like throwing the javelin? You don't have to be very good to get people's attention.

• "I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made object never equalled the purity of sound achieved by the pig." — Alfred Hitchcock

• What's the difference between a bagpipe and an onion? No one cries when you chop up a bagpipe.

• A man realized that he had left his bagpipes on the back seat on his car and had left his window open. As soon as he realized his mistake, he rushed back to his car, but it was too late. Someone had tossed another set of bagpipes into the car.

• What the definition of a gentleman? A person who knows how to play the bagpipes — and doesn't.

• Why do bagpipers always walk when they play? Moving targets are harder to hit.

• Things you'll never hear: Oh, that's the bagpiper's Porsche.

• If you took all the bagpipers in the world and laid them end to end — it would be a good idea.

• Read in the newspaper: "At the end of the church service Sergeant McCrimmond played the bagpipes on the hillside above. Since that time, he has been stationed in Korea."