A history of Scotland's instruments
It is hard to say whether the clàrsach or the bagpipe can be called Scotland's oldest instrument. Both have long pedigrees. The clàrsach had a very important role in society - a nobleman’s retinue, or ‘staff entertainers’, included a harper, a piper, a poet and a fool - but gradually the instrument fell out of favour as the social structure of Scotland changed. The clàrsach was overtaken by the bagpipe, and the tradition of playing clàrsach died out completely in the early 18th century. As a result, we know relatively little of what music was originally played on the clàrsach. However, the instrument went through a revival from the end of the 19th century, and there are many clàrsach players and several harp makers in Scotland today. Some players try to re-create the kind of music that old harpers would have performed, while others adapt the tunes and styles of other instruments to create a new role for the harp in traditional music.
There have been different kinds of bagpipes in Scotland for many centuries, but a lot of the music heard today is connected to the instrument’s military background, especially from the 18th century onwards when pipe bands began to be formed in the British army. This happened after the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745, and was part of a political move designed to keep a tight rein on potentially rebellious Scots - this included things that might be an inspiration to them such as the rousing sound of the pipes. The music that you hear in modern pipe bands and in piping competitions with their strict rules is very much influenced by this part of the bagpipe’s history, but there are also many players who concentrate on music that connects to the instrument’s non-military roots, and in particular its connections with Gaelic singing.
The fiddle had some older ‘ancestors’ in Scotland, such as rebecs and viols, but when the modern violin arrived in the 17th century from mainland Europe, this became the favourite instrument. The fiddle is the name of this instrument in traditional music, but it is essentially the same instrument that classical violinists also play. It became a very popular instrument for dancing, for popular country dancing and for more formal dances. There were also several celebrity solo player-composers during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Presbyterian church in some parts of Scotland actually burned fiddles in the 19th century, because they thought that the instruments and their music were the work of the devil. But the fiddle today is probably the most popular instrument in Scottish traditional music, with soloists, fiddle bands, strathspey and reel societies and fiddle festivals all celebrating the instrument.