English Bagpipe Music



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What people played in the early centuries of English piping is open to a wide interpretation and very little has come down to us.  Also, as an instrument (with the drum) of the lower classes, knowledge was passed on first hand, with communication and record only being made easier well into the age of printing

As with most aspects of English culture, music also tended to be imported from Europe, where (circa mid 16th century) various Continental composers, such as Susato and Arbeau, were compiling and publishing collections of tunes for dances. some of which (brawls, for instance) were pan-European.  Appearing about the same time, is the hornpipe, it bears little resemblance to the familiar  “sailor’s hornpipe” we know today and the steps to its dance have not yet come to light.  In fact an example of a Hornpipe is playing now, Mr. Preston's Hornpipe, early C18th.

In the 17th century the English family, Playford, performed a similar feat to their continental counterparts, writing down both tune and dance of those popular in their day, leaving a wealth for the generations that followed. 

But at the same time as the Playfords recorded, the bagpipe in England was an instrument in decline. Although English composers, such as William Byrd and Purcell, were creating music inspired by what they heard about them (Byrd calling one piece “Bagpipe and Drone”) the music was set to be played on more “refined” instruments.

However, from the 13th to 17th centuries there remains a sizeable body of music that is relatively pipe friendly and where the English piping tradition is largely unbroken (Northumberland and the Borders) the music has developed up to the present day.


A Brief History of the Bagpipe


It is difficult to know for how long a simple reed instrument has been attached to a bag.  Images of people possibly playing bagpipes are said to be carved into various works of stone across ancient lands of the Middle East.

Depending on to whom you talk bagpipes arrival in the British Isles is due to the Romans and, if not them, then right up through to the Crusaders bringing them back as part of their prize.  And then, if talking to  a fervent follower of the "Celtic Fringe", then bagpipes bypassed most of England entirely!  Argument is rife, fact hard to find.


However, bagpipes were certainly well know in England by the time of Chaucer, for his character (Robin the Miller) played as the pilgrims set off from Southwark in “The Canterbury Tales” (1387).  And, even before his time, there is reference to a piper playing at the court of Edward I; “To a certain young man with a bagpipe piping before the King, the King gave him two shillings” (Household Accounts for the year 1285/86).  If only the pay was relatively as good now!

By the 16th century we have James IV of Scotland paying for an English bagpiper to play; Henry VIII, a noted musician, owning 5 sets of ivory bagpipes, and there were town pipers, such as Henry Halewood, playing in Liverpool in 1571, well, actually, being hauled up in front of the local magistrate for playing on a Sunday!

Sir Thomas Browne wrote of his "tour into Derbyshire" in 1662:  “when wee had viewed this famous towne of Bakewell, wee returned to our inne to strengthen ourselves against what encounters wee should meet with next; where at our entrance wee were accosted with the best musick the place could afford, an excellent bagpipe; and breakfast being ready, I think our meat danced down our throats, the merrylier.”

However, even as he wrote, the bagpipe, as a popular instrument in England, was in decline and the fiddle ascendant.