• Keith Mathison

The Origin of the Bagpipes


Because I have a Scottish heritage and am interested in all things Scottish, I have always been fascinated by bagpipes. Because it is such an odd looking musical instrument, I always wondered who came up with that idea and how. Determined to find the answer, I spent years digging through old dusty books in the libraries of Scotland. My research led me all over that beautiful country. The legends of the locals led to many dead ends, but occasionally nuggets of truth had been maintained. In one case, I found an important old diary in the dungeon of a ruined castle. On another occasion, in the attic of a normal looking house in Aberdeen, I found an old trunk containing a scroll with important early illustrations. After decades of research I discovered the truth. I have learned that the origin of the bagpipes is a tragic tale, but it is also a tale of hope. . . .


In the third-century B.C., there lived an inhabitant of ancient Caledonia (Legend says he was named Alasdair, but this is difficult to prove). Alasdair, if that was his name, was an explorer. He sailed the seas, looking for new lands, new peoples, and new adventures. He often succeeded. It is a well-known fact among his descendants, for example, that he discovered the fjords of Norway. On one of his voyages into the Mediterranean Sea, he landed in Greece during their Olympic games. He was allowed to attend the games, and he watched with some interest.


Upon his return to Caledonia, he gathered with the chieftans of several local clans and told them about these games. The Caledonians were excited by the stories of these competitions and decided they wanted their own games. They were not as impressed, however, by the specific competitions themselves. When Alasdair told them about the javelin competition, they mocked the Greeks and said that throwing such a wee stick was hardly a real competition. One burly old man proposed that in their games, they would toss an entire tree trunk. And instead of using one hand to push a small stone off of one’s shoulder, he proposed using both hands to hurl a real boulder. The old man’s name was Gàidhealtachd, which being translated means “Highlands.” They decided to name the games after him, but since no one could pronounce Gàidhealtachd, the Highland Games were born.

Several years later as the clan elders met over a hearty ale, the subject of the games came up again, and someone asked whether anyone had any suggestions for a new feat of strength that could be featured at the games. There was silence for a few moments, and then one young man stood up and spoke. His idea was received with great excitement, and the world would never be the same.


At the next Highlands Games, the new event was introduced. The rules were not very complicated. Each competitor brought his milk cow to the line, picked it up, aimed the udder forward and squeezed as hard and as fast as he could (According to ancient drawings, this looked very much like an awkward Heimlich maneuver. . . if you can imagine performing the Heimlich maneuver on a choking cow). Whichever contestant shot milk the greatest distance won.


Several years after milk shooting was introduced into the Highland Games, a local farmer’s son entered the competition for the first time. He was enormous and incredibly strong. He easily won the caber toss by throwing two tree trunks simultaneously – one with each hand. He then broke the record for tossing the heaviest boulder. When the time arrived for the milk-shooting event, the onlookers were eagerly anticipating something special. They would not be disappointed.


The farmer’s son arrived with his favorite milk cow, Scooter. The cow had been born when the farmer’s son was a young lad. He had raised her, and they had shared many adventures together and had fought in many wars together. In ancient days, the Scots rode heavily armored milk cows into battle. When Scooter was fully decked out in her armor, she was quite fearsome. The farmer’s son, like all Scottish warriors, had to ride his cow into battle side-saddle because of his kilt. Legend has it that in one battle against invading Vikings, Scooter sunk three Viking warships. The farmer’s son had fashioned some makeshift flippers out of the hide of a dead seal and taught her to hold her breath and swim underwater. She snuck out into the water, dived, and used the armor-plated helmet covering her horns to smash holes in the bottoms of the Viking warships. She was an amazing cow.


But I digress.


The farmer’s son had brought Scooter to the milk shooting contest. On this day, she was a sight to see. The farmer’s son was extremely loyal to his family colors and had painted Scooter from head to hoof the colors of his clan tartan. He was the only competitor with an entirely plaid cow.


The first competitor came to the line, picked up his cow, squeezed as hard as he could, and shot milk 25 feet. The crowd applauded vigorously. The second competitor shot milk 40 feet. The crowd clapped and shouted with excitement. The farmer’s son slowly walked to the line with Scooter by his side. The crowd grew silent. He picked up his plaid cow, wrapped his massive arms around it, and squeezed as hard and as fast as he could . . .


The sound of the explosion was sickening.


Children screamed.


Women covered their eyes.


Grown men shed tears.


The farmer’s son had squeezed Scooter so hard that he had blown her hooves off, and the hooves had taken the leg bones with them in a storm of skeletal shrapnel. One of Scooter’s horns had also blown sky high and was never found. What was left of the plaid cow’s legs looked like four empty flannel shirt sleeves. Yes, the farmer’s son had shot milk over 375 feet and had easily won the contest, but he was in no mood to celebrate. Scooter was a mess.


The farmer’s son faced a serious problem from that point on when it came time to milk Scooter. Because she had no legs, she was forced to lay on her back. Those of you who have attempted to milk a cow that is laying on its back with its udder facing up know from experience that this is no easy task. Most cows do not regularly practice balancing on their spine, so when they do this for the first time, they tend to tip over from side to side. If you are milking them while they are on their back, the milk goes everywhere. You have to move the bucket around to catch the milk. It is a most tedious procedure.


In order to overcome this problem, the farmer’s son took some old table legs and inserted them where Scooter’s legs used to be. He stood her up on her new wooden legs, which immediately splayed apart causing her to come crashing down on her belly. This would not do, he realized. So, he stood her up again, and tied a rope connecting all four legs to hold them in place beneath her body. This allowed her to remain standing while he milked her, but it meant that she could walk only in tiny rapid little clippity-clop steps.


Because the farmer’s son had to travel from village to village to sell his father’s vegetables, and since he always brought Scooter with him, he needed her to be able to move at a faster pace. If he wanted to take her with him, he had to carry her. As they journeyed, he would rest her head on his shoulder. Long journeys could be boring, so on one trip, he took an old wooden flute and glued it to her head where the missing horn used to be, and to pass the time, he played it as he walked along. The sound of the flute unfortunately caused vibrations in Scooter’s skull. This annoyed her and caused her to emit an almost continuous, melancholy, droning “Moooooooooo” any time the farmer’s son carried her and played the flute that was glued to her head.


On one journey to the market, a near-sighted musician from another town saw the farmer’s son at a distance. He saw him carrying the plaid cow with the wooden legs sticking out. He heard him playing an old Celtic melody on the flute while the cow droned on and on with its endless sad “Mooooooo.” The musician thought the farmer’s son was playing some unusual instrument and loved the sound so much that he determined to build his own version of it. It was a difficult effort because he had not seen the cow up close, but after many years of tweaking and refinement, that which emerged from his shop was an early version of what he had seen the farmer’s son carrying and playing. His instrument was the first version of the bagpipes.


This, however, is not the end of the story. The instrument’s popularity exploded throughout the nation, and years later the people decided to rename their country to honor the invention of the bagpipes. Ultimately, they decided that the best thing was to name the country after the cow that had inspired the invention of the bagpipes. So, ever since that day, the nation where the bagpipes were invented has been known as Scootland.


*A special thanks to a former student, Jessica Hiatt, for the fantastic watercolor painting!

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