Bellowing an impassioned sound, the bagpipes often evoke an emotional response from listeners, which is why this instrument has historically been played at both celebrations as well as solemn gatherings like funerals. Though the bagpipes are often associated with Scotland and Ireland, it’s difficult to trace the exact origin of the instrument, particularly because so many different varieties still exist. Some believe that the ancient Egyptians were actually the first to play this woodwind instrument, while others argue that its beginnings can be traced even further.
Before bagpiping became a national symbol of Scotland, other countries integrated the instrument into their cultures. Historians are often split between the belief that the bagpipes arrived in Scotland via Roman or Irish influence. After the Middle Ages, the bagpipes’ global popularity began to wane, but Scottish bagpipers continued to incorporate its music into aspects of their culture and life. Today, the bagpipes still reign in the world of Scottish and Celtic music with players practicing the art throughout the globe.
Over thousands of years, the bagpipes have been modified and developed to make use of modern materials like drone reeds made from fiberglass and carbon fiber, though there’s a myriad of different types of bagpipes. The Highland bagpipes are the instrument that most people may recognize from parades and festivals, but the Uillean, Lowland, and Scottish Border versions are also commonly played. The scope of different bagpipes is impressive; varieties of this instrument can be found from the British Isles through the Mediterranean and into Scandinavia.
Mark Elliott, an engineer living in Clemmons, N.C., and the pipe major of the Clan Lindsay Pipe Band, has played for 32 years and uses a Great Highland bagpipe in both solo and band competitions. “The bagpipe has been around for a very long time,” says Elliott. “And, the reason it came about was to create a continuous sound. That’s one of the things that strikes people most about the bagpipe is that once you start playing, there’s no break in the sound when you stop to take a breath.” Elliott first became interested in piping after returning from a backpacking trip through Western Europe in 1987. “While I was over there, I heard a lone piper playing on the street in Switzerland and again in Paris, and I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s a really neat sound,'” he explains.
Once back in North Carolina, he sought out lessons from a bagpiper in Boone and has played ever since. Last year, Elliott was invited to compete in the Sandy Jones Invitational hosted at the Citadel and was the overall winner, receiving top marks in two of the three events. Although the event will not be taking place this year due to the coronavirus, Elliott still plans on performing in other competitions and events. “I try to look at these opportunities as performances. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing in front of a judge, on a street corner, or with a band on a stage, it’s a performance. And, ultimately, what we do should be about the music. The competition aspect should be secondary.”
Since Elliott began playing, he’s performed nearly every year at the Boone Hall Scottish Games & Highland Gathering, which highlights much of the culture surrounding bagpiping. This year, on May 2, he also plans on performing at the International Festival in Lexington, N.C., where he played last year with his 14-year-old daughter, a budding young piper herself.
Elliott has noticed that people who are unfamiliar with piping tend to draw conclusions about his personality and interests. “When I tell people that I play the bagpipe, they think that I’m eccentric,” Elliot says. “Or, they think, ‘he must wish he lived back in the 1500s when there was all this Romantic stuff.’ That is not the case. I would much rather live in the modern world. I don’t play because I’m eccentric, I play because I love the sound of this instrument and the music it creates.”