The Bagpipe in English Rural Communities

You may have seen Jez Smith, one of our Site Interpreters, playing the bagpipes on Mothering Sunday last week. With International Bagpipe Day this Thursday 10th March, we’ve taken a look back at the history of the instrument.

Today, in the British Isles, we think of the bagpipe as an instrument associated strongly with the Scottish Highlands and particularly within a military setting, but it is far from being a Scottish invention. Its origins date back to antiquity, and its use has been widespread across the world. It has evolved over time and taken many different forms, of which the Highland Pipes are the most well known.

Rural bagpipes

Historically in England, the bagpipe was an important instrument in rural communities, and it has commonly been associated with the peasantry, especially the roles of shepherds and herdsmen. Bagpipers have also been employed to entertain (and speed up) workers during harvest time, and  during sheep shearing. The popularity of the bagpipe in England can be seen from a variety of sources, including carvings in Beverley Minster and Exeter Cathedral. Smaller churches such as Altarnun near Bodmin show carvings depicting a style of bagpipe that was specific to the Cornish.

Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ mentions two bagpipe players, Nicholas in the Miller’s Tale and Absolon in The Reeve’s Tale. Pastoral poetry of the 16th century makes reference to the bagpipe as well. This evidence shows that the bagpipe was not an unfamiliar instrument and, alongside the fiddle, it was one of the most common instruments heard by the rural communities of England.

Bagpipes as a symbol of rebellion

But it is not an instrument without a chequered past; from the Reformation onwards it was used as a symbol of rebellion by Catholic recusants who refused to conform to the new order. As a result, we find a great deal of our evidence of the use of the bagpipe comes from presentations to court where bagpipers were charged with playing music in the ale houses on a Sunday rather than attending church. The pipers stand accused of tempting others to do the same and to indulge in dancing, music and drinking rather than observing their spiritual obligations. Areas such as Lancashire were hotspots where people collectively resisted the suppression of their faith, using the bagpipe as a symbol of rebellion.

Bagpipes as a means of celebration

It is clear that the instrument spanned across society and in many ways brought people together. Many great household records show bagpipers being employed for special occasions. Respected musicians such as the Wait (official town musician) of Liverpool in the late 16th century was a piper, as was Richard Woodward who was a royal court musician up to 1569. Henry VIII himself also owned several sets of bagpipes.

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The 10th March is International Bagpipe Day, which aims to raise awareness of the cultural diversity of the instrument. At midday on Thursday, pipers all across the world are encouraged to play their pipes in public. At the Weald and Downland Museum, Jez Smith will be playing medieval and Tudor music on the bagpipes around Bayleaf Farmstead from 12-2 pm, to highlight the importance the instrument would have played in the communities represented by the houses at the Museum. So come and visit us this Thursday and experience a touch of musical history.

To find out more about bagpiping, visit the Bagpipe Society.