The Great Highland Bagpipe is most closely identified with Scotland but it didn’t originate there. It’s fairly difficult to identify the exact origins because it is made of natural materials and it has always been an instrument of the common people. It does appear in art, both in sculpture and painting, the earliest of which place it at least 800 to 1000 years B.C. and probably in that part of the world which is now Iraq and Iran. Some historians suggest Macedonia. Various forms of an instrument which incorporated a bag and reeded pipes are found in the Celtic countries. An annual festival held in Lorient in Brittany is attended by players from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, The Isle of Man, Brittany, Galicia and Asturia. The instrument as we know it predates the violin so there’s an argument to be made that Nero actually piped rather than fiddled while Rome burned in 64 AD.
The instrument itself is a woodwind with both single and double reeds. It differs from other woodwinds, like the oboe in the way the reeds are enclosed and not actually placed in the mouth of the player. The bag acts as a reservoir for the air and thus allows the player to make a continuous sound. Players of other instruments can achieve this by using the cheeks as a reservoir, breathing in through the nose while blowing out through the mouth (e.g. the Australian didgeridoo). The method is known as circular breathing and some bagpipers can achieve it when playing the practice chanter.
The Great Highland Bagpipe has evolved over the centuries to a standard conformation with a leather or synthetic bag and five pipes… the blowstick, chanter, bass drone and two tenors. The chanter, which plays the melody, has an octave plus one note, generally tuned to “A” or “B flat”. The two tenors are tuned an octave lower and the Bass an octave below that. The distinctive sound of the bagpipe (the skirl) derives from the way the three drones, which sound a continuous note, harmonize with each note on the chanter. The chanter plays a pentatonic scale in the mixolydian mode. The pipes can be played with other instruments, especially B flat and E flat, so it’s not uncommon for military bands and pipe bands to play together.
The bagpipe arrived in Canada with the first Scots settlers. One arrival is recorded in the famous painting by JD Kelly of the Landing of the Ship Hector in Pictou N.S. in 1773. The piper in the painting is a Fraser and that name is certainly well known in Canadian piping circles. There were pipers at the Plains of Abraham when Wolfe famously said it would be “no great mischief” if the Scots were killed, and gave the title to Alastair McLeod for his novel.
There are numerically more pipers and pipe bands in Canada today than there are in Scotland… not surprising when you consider we have seven times the population. Canadian pipers have achieved the very highest honours in piping competitions, frequently winning the gold medal at Cowal and Inverness. The first band from outside Scotland to win the world pipe band championship was from Canada and the Simon Fraser University Band and the 78th Fraser Highlanders have been winning regularly ever since.