John Murdoch Henderson (1902-1972)
The John Murdoch Henderson Music Collection
Menu > Pipes & Pipers > A Piper's Notes > History of the Great Pipes Search | Contact Us

History of The Great Pipes
From "The Pipers' Assistant" edited by John McLachlin (piper to Neill Malcolm Esq.) and published in 1854 by piper and bagpipe-maker Alexander Glen, Edinburgh.

If the simplicity of a musical instrument be the greatest criterion of its antiquity, the GREAT HIGHLAND BAGPIPE must be allowed to be of a very early invention. It is founded on the oaten pipe of primitive times. The chanter made of wood, the most sonorous of all substances, seems to have been the first step towards the improvement of the instrument. The bag and drones were at some subsequent period added; and in that improved state it has been handed down to us by a very remote generation, as is evident by the impressions we see on old coins. "There is now in Rome a most beautiful bas relievo, a Grecian sculpture of the highest antiquity, of a Bagpiper playing on his instrument, exactly like a modern Highlander. The Romans, in all probability, borrowed it from the Greeks, and introduced it among their swains; and the modern inhabitants of Italy still use it, under names of Piva and Cornumua.

"That master of music, Nero, used one; and had not the empire been so suddenly deprived of that great artist, he would (as he graciously declared his intention) have treated the people with a concert, and among other curious instruments, would have introduced the Utrcularius or Bagpipe. NERO perished; but the figure of the instrument is preserved on one of his coins.

"The Bagpipe, in an unimproved state, is also represented in an ancient sculpture, and appears to have had two long pipes or drones, and a single short pipe for the fingers."

Some think that it has been introduced into Scotland by the Romans; but the most probable conjecture is, that the Gauls, when they poured their tribes over the North, brought it into that kingdom; and that the Gaelic, and the "Garb of old Gaul," or Highland dress, were neutralized here at the same time.

MR PENNANT, by means of an antique found at Richborough in Kent, has determined that the Bagpipe was introduced at a very early period to Britan; whence it is probable, that both the Irish and the Danes might borrow the instrument from the Caledonians, with whom they had such frequent intercourse.

ARISTRIDES QUINTILANUS informs us, that it prevailed in the Highlands in very early ages, but is silent as to its having been brought in at the Roman Invasion. Indeed, people seldom choose to adopt the music, dress and language, of their conquerors. OSSIAN makes no mention of it in his beautiful Poems. The harp was the favourite instrument of his days.

So much for its antiquity. Now for its utility - The Attachment of the Highlanders to their music is almost incredible, and on some occasions it is said to have produced effects little less marvellous than those ascribed to the ancient music.

"Its martial sounds can fainting troops inspire
With strength unwonted and enthusiasm raise."

At the battle of Quebec, in 1760, while the British troops were retreating in great disorder, the General complained to a Field Officer in FRASER'S Regiment, of the bad behaviour of his corps. "Sir," said the Officer, with some warmth, "you did very wrong in forbidding the Piper's to play this morning; nothing encourages the Highlanders so much in the day of battle; and even now they would be of some use." "Let them blow like the devil, then," replied the General, "if it will bring back the men." The Pipers were then ordered to play a favourite martial air; and the Highlanders, the moment they heard the music, returned and formed with alacrity in the rear.

In the late war in India, Sir EYRE COOTE made the Highland Regiments a present of fifty pounds to buy a set of Bagpipes, in consideration of their gallant conduct in battle of Porto Nuovo, where the British troops had to cope with double their number. When the line was giving way, a Piper in Lord MACLEOD'S Regiment struck up Cogdah na sith, i.e., War or Peace; which so invigorated the Highlanders that they suddenly fell upon the ranks of the enemy and restored the fortunes of the day.

In 1745, when the Duke of Cumberland was leaving Nairn to meet the adherents of Prince Charles at Culloden, the clans Munro, Campbell, and Sutherland accompanied him-observing he Pipers carrying their Pipes preparatory to their march, he enquired of one of his officers, "What are these men going to do with such bundles of sticks, I can supply them with better implements of war? - The officer replied , "Your Royal Highness cannot do so, these are bagpipes,- the Highlanders music in peace and war-Wanting these all other implements are of no avail, and the Highlanders need not advance another step, for they will be of no service!"

When the brave 92d Highlanders took the French by surprise in the late Peninsular war, the Pipers very appropriately struck up "Hey Johnny Cope, are ye wauking yet;" which completely intimidated the enemy, and inspired our gallant heroes with fresh courage to the charge, which as usual was crowned with victory. Innumerable anecdotes of a similar nature might be produced, to prove the great utility of this ancient and warlike field instrument, and the expediency of its being used by all Highland Regiments; but the limits of a short Preface will not admit of it.

In times of peace the sound of the Pipe is heard in the halls of our Chieftains. The gatherings regale their ears while the feast is spread on their hospitable boards, and the merry measure of the reel invites them to the floor.

Than the sound of Bagpipe no other music is more grateful the Highland ear,and to the Scottish Dancer in general. - For him it is an influence, and bestows a vigour and enthusiasm which place all other instruments in the shade: And here let us pay a tribute of respect to one who, although perhaps the most exquisite violinist in Scotland, as a player of Highland Reels, and Strathspeys, exceeds in his attachment to the Highland Bagpipe - we allude to W****** B******, Esq, of Endinburgh: this gentleman at the venerable age of eighty-three, when in his walks he hears the sound of the Pipe, will hasten to the spot, and, after giving the itinerant Piper, or street player a handsome reward for this special performance, will withdraw to a passage or common stair to have what he styles "a wee bit dance to himsel."

On occasions of ceremony, as, for instance, on a visit to a neighbour, the chief of a Highland clan was attended by a retinue, called his tail. The tail was composed of the henchman; the bard or poet; the bladier or spokesman; the gillemore or bearer of the broadsword; the gillecasflue, whose business it was to carry the chief over fords; the gulleconstraine, who led the chief in dangerous passes; the gulletruishanarnish, or carrier of the baggage; the piper; and lastly the piper's gilley, who, as his master was always a gentleman, carried the pipes. But a writer on the Highlands, thus speaks on the piper's functions:- "In a morning when the chief is dressing, he walks backwards and forwards, close under the window, without doors, playing on his bagpipe, with a most upright attitude and majestic stride. It is a proverb in Scotland, namely, the stately step of a piper. When required, he plays at meals, and in an evening is to divert the guests with the music when the chief has company with him; his attendance in a journey, or at a visit.

His gilley holds the pipe till he begins; and the moment he has done with the instrument, he disdainfully throws if down upon the ground, as being the only passive means of conveying his skill to the ear, and not a proper weight for him to carry or bear at other times. But, for a contrary reason his gilley snatches it up; which is, that the pipe may not suffer indignity from its neglect."



In the Lowlands of Scotland the feudal system was firmly establised, and till this day all holdings of heritable property are feudal. There was a time when the feudal and patriachal may be said to have blended, and it is difficult now to say how the one ended and the other began. The patriarchal or clan system existed longest in the Border districts, Galloway, and the Highlands. Each of these had its own chief, and was a torment to the sovereign. A Scotsman of the present day can tell the names by which the clans of these districts were respectively distinguished. On the Borders there were Kers, Scots, Elliots, Armstrongs, Johnstones, Jardines, Grahams, &c. In Galloway (shires of Wigton and Kircudbright,) the clans were Celtic, and there were found McCullochs, M'Clumphas, M'Taggarts, M'Kellars, M'Lellans, &c. In the Highlands and Islands there were latterly about forty distinct clans with several remnants of tribes, called broken tribes. Each clan possessed three distinguishing tokens independently of its surname; these were its badge, its slogan or war-cry and its tartan. The following are the names of the principal Highland clans with their badges:
Buchanan, birch; Cameron, oak; Campbell, myrtle; Chisholm, alder; Colquhoun, hazel; Cumming, common sallow; Drummond, holly; Farquharson, purple foxglove; Ferguson, poplar; Forbes, broom; Fraser, yew; (some families the strawberry); Gordon, ivy; Graham, Laurel; Grant, cranberry heath; Gun, rosewort; Lamont, crabapple; M'Allister, five leaved heath; M'Donald, bell heath; M'Donnell, Mountain heath; M'Dougall, cypress; M'Farlane, cloud berry bush; M'Gregor, pine; M'Intosh, boxwood; M'Kay, bullrush; M'Kenzie, deer grass; M'Kinnon, St John's wort; M'Lachlan, mountain ash; M'Lean, Blackberry heath; M'Leod, red wortle-berries; M'Nab, rose blackberries; M'Neil sea ware; M'Pherson, variegated boxwood; M'Rae, fir-club-moss; Monro, Eagle's feathers; Menzies, ash; Murray, Juniper; Ogilvie, hawthorn; Oliphant, the great maple; Robertson, fern; Rose, brier rose; Ross, bear berries; Sinclair, clover; Stewart, thistle; Sutherland, cat's-tail grass. Sprigs of these badges were worn in the bonnet; but the chief of each clan was entitled to wear two eagle's feathers in addition.

Such is a pretty accurate list of the clans; some, however, are evidently Lowland; and it is difficult to say how these have established any claim to the Celtic connexion. The Sinclairs are Scandinavian. The patronymic Mac or its contraction M', which signifies son, will be observed to belong to about one-half the number.

The use of tartan or chequered woolen cloth is of great antiquity among the Celtic tribes. Originally, the costume of the Highlanders consisted of little else than a garment of this material wrapped round the body and loins, with a portion hanging down to cover the upper part of the legs. In Progress of time, this rude fashion was superseded by a distinct piece of cloth forming a philabeg or kilt, while another piece was thrown loosely as a mantle or plaid over the body and shoulders. In either case the cloth was variegated in conformity with the prescribed breacon or symbal of the clan; and hence the tartan was sometimes called cath-dath , or battle colours, in token of forming a distinction of clans in the field of battle.

back to the top of the page