Today sports a number of holidays. Three separate entities celebrate their independence day holidays today (Liberia, Maldives, and Peru) while Cuba has a holiday for the anniversary of their revolution, marked by the July 26th, 1953 attack on the previous power’s military base. As with the independence days, their actual dates were yesterday, so today is a day off in those countries.
It is also an observed holiday in The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, (DPRK), or North Korea, where they are celebrating the end of the Korean War. Details of what celebrations this entails are hard to find, and frankly, the history surrounding these events are much more depressing than I wish to get into this morning. So, in flagrant violation of my hitherto-unspoken guidelines about what types of holiday I cover, I’m doing something entirely different.
I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but someone somewhere declared that today is National Bagpipe Appreciation Day! That wonderful, derided, consternation of an instrument, the sack full of air. Ah, how they play my favorite: John’s Tune, by the Tartan Terrors.
Bag Pipes: How do they Work?
Bagpipes are played by adding air to the bag through a mouth piece, then squeezing the bag to push the air through reeds. This has the distinct advantage over other instruments in providing uninterrupted sound for extended periods of time. When a piper plays a bagpipe, their mouth blows air through the mouthpiece as their lungs allow, their arms cradle and squeeze air out of the bag as the music requires, and their fingers cover and open holes on the exit reed, called a chanter, providing the changes in sound – but that’s only half of it. The other, more obvious sound is the ever present droning coming from the other stick-like protuberances frequently found on the top of the bag – aptly named, drones. They add the background accompaniment most easily associated with the instrument.
The fact that you can blow into the instrument at a different rate from the music blew my mind as a child. It still blows my mind today. (Maybe that means I’m still a child.) Regardless! High Road to Linton
Bagpipes: Where do they come from?
No seriously, historians place it possibly in the Middle East 1000 years B.C.E., definitely in the Roman Empire during its identity Crisis/Brand dilution to the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantines (300 CE to ~1200 CE). Pipes with attached bladders were prevalent enough that a Persian geographer listed the Τὸ ἀγγεῖον (Ancient Greek, anglicized as Dankiyo), a bagpipe-like instrument, as typical of the Byzantines. By the 1300’s, the pipes had made it to western Europe with wide enough acceptance that they featured in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That jump from east to west is widely accepted as the Roman’s fault.
The first known reference to the Scottish variety of bagpipes, the Highland Bagpipes, are by a Frenchman observing the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, during which he claimed the bagpipes had replaced the trumpet as the musical instrument for the Scottish army. The instrument’s propensity for laments proved unfortunately apt, as the Scottish suffered a devastating defeat.
And Lastly, Why are they everywhere?
Bagpipes found there way to every english speaking country, frequently by way of the military. For this we blame the next imperial power in the story, the United Kingdom. Once they captured Scotland, they found they had a rather war-hardy people on their hands. Better to pit them against external enemies then let them foment rebellion at home, so off the Scottish regiments went – and with them, their bagpipes. The otherworldly solemnity of the bagpipe’s drone quickly linked it to formal occasions in the wider consciousness, and now we almost expect to see them at every martial ceremony.
Go forth! Celebrate National Bagpipe Appreciation Day! And do know that bagpipes are used for more than “Amazing Grace.”
All music samples credit: The Tartan Terrors.