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History of bagpipes, St. Patrick’s Day and Irish culture in America

In March of 2018 as the band was gearing up for our annual St. Patrick's Day events the local news recorded a short piece on our group. Above is the full video interview from Bluff City Weekend with piper Derek Stine.

What would a St. Patrick's Day Parade be without the sound of bagpipes leading the way? Take a second and learn about the history of this fascinating instrument, as well as the background of St. Patrick's Day and Irish/Scottish culture in America.

A Brief History of the Bagpipes

Research shows that some of the earliest sets of pipes are dated back as far as 1500 B.C.  A set of pipes was even discovered in an ancient pyramid in Egypt!  While the use of the instrument has changed over the centuries, it was originally used as a shepherd’s instrument.  Eventually, the Romans would add bagpipers to their infantry, as their enemies at the time were fearful of the power of it sound.  You may have even have heard the old saying about Emperor Nero: that he “fiddled while Rome burned.” While Nero did play music as Rome burned around 64 A.D., it is actually believed that he played the bagpipes.  Historians have even noted that this is illustrated by ancient Roman coins that have been found.

Irish and Scottish History of the Bagpipes

History shows that the Irish and Scots both adopted the bagpipes in their culture centuries ago.  Not only did they use them in wartime with their infantry, they used them to command soldiers in battle.  They would use them to signal movement of troops, and would even use them to signal a retreat from battle.  The bagpipes were even banned in Scotland for a period of time after an uprising, one of the only instruments to ever be banned during war.

Two Kinds of Bagpipes

When it comes to Irish and Scottish culture, there are two kinds of bagpipes: the Uilleann bagpipes and the War Pipes, also known as the Highland pipes.  The Uilleann pipes were played mostly by they Irish, and have a much softer, melodic sound to them.  These are the pipes you will most often hear played indoors.  The War Pipes, or the Highland pipes, are the instruments played by the Scottish, and they are so loud, they can be heard for up to several miles away.  Not only were these pipes perfect for war (as the name insinuates) but they were also used for funerals and ceremonies.

Irish and Scottish Culture in America

When the Irish and Scottish people began to immigrate to America, they brought much of their culture with them.  However, when they arrived, it was hard for many of them to find jobs.  They began to take jobs that no one else wanted at the time, like policemen and firemen.  If you’ve ever wondered why it seems there is so much Irish and Scottish culture, or so many families with their heritage in those lines of work, there’s your answer!  Because of this heritage and culture, the tradition of playing bagpipes at funerals and ceremonies has become commonplace, especially when it comes to the police and fire departments.

A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Day

Saint Patrick was the Patron Saint of Ireland, and he passed away on March 17th.  Thus, the people of Ireland began to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day annually, and they brought the tradition with them, not only just to America, but all around the world.  Every year around the world, there are St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, and in most places, parades.  Traditionally, parade attendees will wear either green or orange: green if you’re Catholic, orange if you’re Protestant.  Either way, if you’re Irish, Scottish, or just want to pretend to be one of the two for a day, St. Patrick’s Day is your day to come together and have some fun.

More on the Shelby County Sheriff’s Pipes and Drums

Derek Stine is the retired Pipe Major and current bagpiper of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Pipes and Drums, and he is extremely knowledgeable about Irish and Scottish heritage, especially when it comes to the bagpipes.  The Pipes and Drums group formed around 2014, and consists of current and former law enforcement and fire department members, as well as a number of civilians, and even high school students.  They not only get the privilege and honor of playing at funerals and ceremonies of fellow servicemen and women, they also get to lead the St. Patrick’s Day parade every year down Beale Street in Memphis.

- For more from Bluff City Weekend be sure to check them out at:

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