Music

Artifact: Hear! Hear the pipes are calling!

The surprising history of the bagpipe

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Nothing says "Scotland" like the great Highland bagpipe, that unwieldy contraption of air, tubing, and hide. You can imagine a grieving piper playing "Scotland the Brave" in 1305 as word spreads across the glens of the death of William Wallace, that patriot with the face of Mad Max. You can imagine it, but it'll be fiction: In his forthcoming book Bagpipes, the historian and musician Hugh Cheape argues that the instrument didn't exist until the early 19th century.

Rich Scottish expatriates created the Highland Society of London in 1788 to preserve "the martial spirits, language, dress, music and antiquities of the ancient Caledonians." Preservation was the mother of invention: The society's annual pageants, The Guardian reports, "helped create the 'stage Highlander,' a largely invented character who played bagpipes designed specially for these events. The mythology surrounding the great Highland pipes increased when allegedly authentic pipes linked to great events in Scottish history were given to national museums."

It wasn't the first time romantic nationalists would devise their own traditions. But that's only part of the story. In the two centuries since then, Scots have embraced the instrument. The faux tradition became a real tradition, and the great Highland pipes are now as Scottish as Sean Connery in a kilt.

Note: The tartan kilt is a factitious tradition as well. But Connery, scholars report, has been a part of Scotland forever.

Credit:Jim Lowney