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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXVII — The Romans and the Bagpipe

MANY people to-day believe that the Romans were the inventors of the Bagpipe. Many people also believe that the Celt borrowed it from the Romans.

Both beliefs, fostered largely—I am sorry to say— by expert ignorance in the past, are erroneous.

The Bagpipe was first introduced to the Greeks in the early half of the second century, B.C.

Two hundred years later it was still unknown to the citizens of Rome; which fact settles once and for all their claims to its invention.

Granted that the Bagpipe came from without, its earlier introduction into Greece is what one would expect when the history of the two peoples is kept in mind. Greece was a mighty world-wide power, while Rome was still in swaddling clothes, and she naturally—pushing out her colonies, now here, now there—came first in contact with the Celt, and with the Celt’s instrument, the Bagpipe.

Her dominions extended from Italy—the southern half of which she occupied—and Sicily on the west, to India on the east; from the countries round the Black Sea on the north, to Alexandria and the Nile Valley on the south; and at every point she came in contact with new peoples, including three separate Celtic nationalities; civilising and being civilised; teaching and being taught.

It was not until hundreds of years after, and only when Grecian influences were on the wane, that Rome rose to greatness. Then, and then only was she able, largely out of the ruins of “Magna Grecice” to build up for herself that mighty empire, which at one time looked like lasting till the crack of doom.

It is no wonder then, that Greece first adopted the Bagpipe, or that the Romans, finding it in Sicily and Calabria after they became masters in these places, retained it in their service, but without improving upon it in any way, and have kept it even to the present day as the Greeks left it, and with the old Greek name of the harmonious one still attached to it.

But what of the Celt borrowing it from the Roman?

This contention is easily disproved by the following references to the Bagpipe, taken from Roman history.

Mr MacBain, of Inverness, quotes the Rev. Mr MacLachlan, of London—a well-known Gaelic scholar —as being on his side, when he denies that the Pipe was known to any of the early Celtic nations; but history is against Mr MacBain in this one, as in others of his many fallacies on the Bagpipe. We have a history of two events of different dates to help us in coming to a decision on this question.

The first event is one taken from the recorded life of the Emperor Nero, which makes it pretty certain that the Bagpipe was unknown to the citizens of Rome up to the year a.d. 67.

Nero’s reign was drawing to a close. The emperor had staged many a fine play for the Romans, but none so grand, from the spectacular point of view, as that upon which the tragic curtain had just been rung down. In this scene, Rome, the Empress City of the world, was to be seen in the background in flames, while in the foreground, illuminated by the glorious blaze of the doomed city, stood Nero, gloating over his own handiwork, and dancing as he fiddled. But now the curtain is being run up for the last time, and it is in connection with the closing scene in that pageant of horrors, that the Bagpipe as a Roman instrument first comes on the stage.

Utterly sickened by their ruler’s licentiousness and accumulated cruelties, the citizens of Rome at length rose up against him. Blood for blood, was their cry; and Nero, seeing that they really meant mischief, turned coward, and fled for his life to a friend’s house, some four miles out of the city. But the infuriated mob, thirsting for fresh excitement—the killing of an emperor was something new—were close upon his heels, and the conscience-stricken man, now half mad with fear, sent a trusty servant to meet his pursuers and give a message from him, in the hope of appeasing their righteous anger, and of staying their further advance. His message—a silly one at best ; a most unkingly message!—was in effect: “Give me another chance; spare my life this time, and I will provide you with a treat—a something quite novel, and which you have never witnessed before: I will play you a tune on the latest and most marvellous of wind instruments, the Bagpipe.”

Now, whatever else Nero may have been, he was no fool. He knew his people well, and he knew— none better !—that the love of novelty was a ruling passion with the lower Roman orders. Many a time and oft had he kept them in good humour with his rare shows, even when he had to make the streets of Rome run with blood. The one essential, however, to success in these old Roman days was the novelty of the display—it must be something new.

And so, when the poor wretch believed that he could buy the bloodthirsty crowd off with a tune on the Bagpipe, we may be sure that the Roman ear had not been tickled with it before. In short, that the Romans and the Bagpipe were complete strangers to each other up to the closing days of Nero’s reign. These events happened in a.d. 67.

But in 35 B.C., almost one hundred years before Nero’s death, one of the Roman historians tells us that he heard this instrument, still strange to the Romans, played upon by the Celts inhabiting the mountains of Pannonia. Which again disposes pretty effectually of the belief that the Celt borrowed it from the Romans, and also proves that it was a Celtic instrument long before it became a Roman one. As a matter of fact, the Bagpipe found its• way into Rome by two doors. It came in from the north through the Celts, and from the south through the Greeks. From the north through Pannonia and Umbria, and from the south through Calabria and Sicily.

The Celts of Pannonia and Umbria were both powerful tribes in their day. It took the Romans two long and hard campaigns to subdue the former. The latter lived in the mountains to the north-west of Rome, and although only sixty miles from the walls of the Eternal City, retained its independence for many a long day; and those two Celtic nations used the Bagpipe, while the Roman players were for many a long year after, blowing upon the tibia pares or impares, with painfully distended cheeks and paralysed lips—a butt for the jester’s wit.

This Pipe from the north was a one-drone Bagpipe with a chanter. The Romans called it Tibia Utricularis, but the Celts called it Piob, or, in full, Pivalla, and to-day, while the Roman name of Tibia Utricularis is forgotten, the Celtic name survives in the Italian Piva. The Romans called the piper in the old days Utricularius, but the Celt called him Piobaire (pron., Peeparuh), and to-day the Italians have dropped Utricularius and call their pipers Pifferari.

The Pipe, which came to the Romans from the south, was a many-drone Bagpipe without a chanter, the 1,vfx<p'jovla of the Greeks—the Zampogna of the Italians, and the piper was called Zampognatore. It was also called in the south the Coma-Musa, and the piper was then called Suonatore de Corna-Musa. To-day, however, the word for pipers all over Italy is Pifferari—the old Celtic word only slightly altered —and this is but right where a Celtic instrument is concerned, and is a good example of the survival of the fittest, for I do not suppose that the Umbrians ever used the name, Tibia Utricularis for Piob, nor did the Pannonian youth who were drafted into the Roman army.

These two Italian Pipes, both of which are shown in the illustrations which adorn the pages of this book, are as distinct now—the one from the other— as when different races inhabited the land. Their geographical distribution has remained the same for over two thousand years—so slow does the world move. And so conservative are the nations—even those which plume themselves upon their radicalism —that the old Celtic name of the Pipe survives in the north, and the old Greek name survives in the south of Italy, although the people to-day are of one race throughout the Peninsula—and that one a race neither Celtic nor Greek.

But, once more, we still find the Bagpipe flourishing in those countries where the old Greek and the old Roman found it. In Pannonia, now represented by Bosnia, Servia, and part of Bulgaria; in Roumania; round about Constantinople, where the Boii, a powerful Celtic tribe, once flourished; and in Umbria—from whence came my Tibia Utricularis— it is still kept alive by the shepherds in the hills.

Thousands of years have left it the same simple, rude instrument that it was in early days, and the stranger to those countries may still hear among the mountains the same simple, primitive strains which greeted the ears of the astonished Greek soldier when he first passed through the Straits of the Dardanelles or coasted along the shores of the upper waters of the Adriatic.

It is certain, then, that the Romans were not the inventors of the Bagpipe, and that the Celt did not borrow the instrument from the Romans, but lent it to them.

Quite recently, I heard the statement put forward in all seriousness, that we Highlanders got the Bagpipe from the Egyptians. I was spending a few days last summer at Culfail, and when there I had the pleasure of meeting the kind and genial Laird of Melford, Captain Stoddart M‘Lellan.

He displayed great enthusiasm over the Bagpipe, and all matters Celtic, and we became friendly for the day, owing to our tastes being in accord.

While discussing the Piob-Mhor, or Great War-Pipe of the Highlands, he suddenly asked me, “Where do you think the ‘Pipes’ came from originally ? ”

I answered cautiously, “Where?”

The ancient Tibia Utricularis ot the Romans—a very old Pipe, as the worn finger holes ot the hard walnut chanter shew. The gilt of Mr Sutherland, Solsgirth, Dollar.

“From Egypt, of course!” he replied. “It is the Sistrum of Egypt. I was at a meeting lately in London of pipers and one or two others interested in the Bagpipe, and we came to the conclusion that it came originally from Egypt.”

I did not tell him that the Egyptian Pipe was nothing more nor less than the Greek Suniphonia, a borrowed instrument, but I said, “You are acquainted, I believe, with Eastern peoples, and speak several of their languages, and you have also studied, more or less, Egyptian hieroglyphics? Have you ever seen a Bagpiper in hieroglyphic?”


“Then, why ascribe its origin to the Egyptians?” “Well, you see, we came to that conclusion in London,” which was no argument whatever, but the best which the gallant Captain could advance.

This craze, on the part of Highlanders especially, to find a far distant or outside origin for the Celtic Pipe, is more than puzzling to me. I cannot understand it at all. It was due at first, I think, to the mistake of the Lowlander, taking the old Highlander’s blarney about its Roman origin, or its Scandinavian origin, or its Egyptian origin, as his real opinion and belief, while all the time the blarney was invented for the amusement of the inquisitive stranger.

The Sistruni and the Sumphonia of the Egyptians are two distinct instruments.

The Sistrum consisted of a long narrow box bent in horse-shoe shape, with the two ends fixed into a carved handle. Three or four metal rods were run through the box in loose sockets. When shaken, this instrument produced a harmonious jingling quite pleasant to the ear.

There is, I believe, one reference to this Sistrum in Greek, under the title of Sumphonia, although I cannot at this moment recall where the reference is to be found. The Greek writer who gave this name to the Sistrum, must have used the word before it was applied to the Bagpipe, and when it meant only a harmonious combination of sounds such as the Greek instrument gave forth when struck. There is no other connection between Sistrum and Bagpipe that I am aware of, and if the Egyptians invented the Pipe for themselves, history and tradition are silent on the matter. The Greek Bagpipe was introduced into Egypt and was made familiar to the dwellers in Alexandria and surrounding districts by Antiochus among others, and Prudentius, the historian (b a.d. 300) informs his readers that the Egyptians of his day used this same Pipe to lead the soldiers on the battlefield.

In a magazine article which appeared lately, called “Arcadia, the Home of the Bagpipe,” the writer claims the invention of the Bagpipe for the Greeks. This is entirely opposed to the teaching of the Greek myth which we have been considering.

There, the Bagpipe was the invention of one not originally a Greek : it was played on by an outsider, the Satyr, Marsyas; and if Marsyas, as many good scholars say, is no other than our old friend Pan, the Pipe judge—Midas of the long ears—was also an outsider, and Arcadia was certainly not the original home of the Bagpipe.

From what race was the Greek likely to borrow the Bagpipe? The Greeks themselves tell us—and who should know so well?—that they borrowed their music largely from the Celt. The very fact that both Greek and Roman had various designations for Pipe and piper, while the Celt had only one, seems to me also to point to the latter as the inventor.

But while I hold, as much more than a “pious opinion,” that both nations got the Bagpipe from the Celt, it would be unfair to say that the Greeks and the Romans did not make any attempt to invent it for themselves.

The severe strain upon the piper’s cheek and lip muscles was realised to be a serious drawback by both peoples from a very early period, and the “faces” made by the poor players was for long a favourite butt with the court jesters.

To remedy this defect, both the Greeks and the Romans hit upon the same plan. Support was given to the tired muscles by means of an ingeniously arranged combination of leather straps, which were fastened to the head, and was called by the Romans the “ little cap.” The remedy, however, proved worse than the disease. The straps on the face were held to be more ludicrous than the blown-out cheeks, and, as a matter of fact, the female players, who were the best judges in a question of beauty, refused to wear the “little cap,” and one cannot help sympathising with them.

The invention, then, of this cap, was the two great classical nations’ sole contribution towards the solving of the problem, which the Celtic shepherd accomplished by putting the Pipe in a bag.

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