Bagpipes are a class of musical instrument, aerophones using enclosed reeds. The term is equally correct in the singular or plural, although pipers most commonly talk of "pipes" and "the bagpipe".
The bagpipes consist of an airtight bag, which can supply a continuous stream of air. Air is supplied either by a set of bellows or by a blowpipe; the inlet to the bag has a one-way valve which prevents air from returning via the supply.
Every bagpipe has a chanter, upon which the melody is played, and most have at least one drone, although there are a few (relatively) important exceptions to this rule. All these pipes are attached to the bag by a stock, a small, usually wooden, cylinder which is tied into the bag and which the pipe itself plugs into. The bag usually consists of leather, but in more recent times many other materials, such as rubber and Gore-Tex have become popular amongst many pipers, particularly Highland pipers.
The history of the bagpipe is very unclear, and worse, many of the secondary sources from the nineteenth and early twentieth sources are misleading or verging on fantasy (the works of Grattan Flood are particularly bad in this respect, but continue to be quoted and referenced to the present day). For example, an oft-repeated claim is that the Great Highland Bagpipe was banned after the '45 Rising.
This claim is untrue; there is no mention of the bagpipe in the Act of Proscription, and the entire myth seems to stem from the letterpress of Donald MacDonald's Martial Music of Caledonia, written by an unknown Romantic. However, it seems likely they were first invented in pre-Christian times. Nero is generally accepted to have been a player; there are Greek depictions of pipers, and the Roman legions are thought to have marched to bagpipes. The idea of taking a leather bag and comdining it with a chanter and inflation device seems to have originated in Turkey.
Where they were first introduced to Britain and Ireland is debatable, though Ireland has references going back to the Dark Ages. An explosion of popularity seems to have occurred from around the year 1000; the tune used by Robert Burns for "Scots Wha Hae", "Hey Tutti Taiti", is traditionally said to have been the tune played as Robert the Bruce's troops marched to Bannockburn in 1314.
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