REMARKABLE images have emerged of the weird and wonderful way bagpipes have been depicted in art throughout history – including as genitalia, a self-playing instrument and a sign of Christmastime.
A project led by bagpipe expert Dr Vivien Williams has aimed to explore images of the instrument appearing in the University of Glasgow’s famous Hunterian Collection.
The images show an unseen side to the history of nation’s now revered national instrument over its unique centuries-old history, both in Scotland and across the world.
The images shown often reveal the bagpipes little-known association to Christmas, owing to many artworks depicting a bagpiper at the birth of the baby Jesus.
Discussing this, she shows a Rembrandt etching from 1654, showing a bagpiper as one of the most prominent figures visiting the newborn Christ.
Another etching by Cornelis Cort – from the 1560s – shows the shepherd, with a bagpipe at the foot of the nativity scene.
According to her work, this religious association of the bagpipe continued from there – not always with positive connotations.
An engraving from the 1560s – a parable of Christ’s second coming, called “The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” – shows a split between those going to heaven, and those barred from entry thanks to the bagpipes.
Dr Williams explains: “On the left are the ‘wise’ virgins, who toil laboriously under the light of their lamps and are admitted into heaven, while on the right are the ‘foolish’ virgins who frolic about dancing to a bagpipe and find the door of heaven closed.”
“One can see that the elements which populate the world of the ‘foolish virgins’ are a broomstick, cast aside as the girls are too busy dancing to use it; then there are many cups standing about, and a big vase on its side.
“Cups, vases, and jugs are representative of the female organ; a tilted vase, such as the one in this engraving, stands for the loss of virginity.
“The bagpipe, a ‘male’ symbol, is what makes the virgins dance and stray from their honest path: it stands for debauchery and vice. The bagpipe is portrayed as such a negative icon that it is essentially the cause of the virgins’ not being admitted into heaven.”
According to the images, bagpipes were often associated with “bawdiness” in a rural context as well.
Dr Williams points to one 1782 Dutch print showing a bagpipe and fiddle duet, as a sign above their heads shows a jug.
She said: “A man looks at them as he smokes, and seems pleasantly entertained. The appearance of a jug or vase in an artwork would often be symbolic of the female sexual organs; the bagpipe would represent the male.
“The fact that both appear in this piece is an allegory for sexual intercourse, thus alluding to the debauchery and low morals of the characters. The bagpipe does not enjoy very high status in this print.”
Other engravings from the time depict the bagpipes in scenes of rural dancing – where the bagpiper is a “conductor for the merriment” – including scenes of “fondling”, “bawdiness” and “a general lowliness of morals.”
Another Rembrandt image from 1635 shows a vagrant playing for a family.
Dr Williams explains: “There is no joy in the piper’s eyes, no merriment surrounding him: only the baby seems entertained, but poverty and destitution prevail.
“Even the dog, held by the lead and sitting underneath the bagpipe chanter, seems miserable with his head hanging low – possibly disturbed by the loud sounds. The bagpipe in Rembrandt’s eyes in this scene functions as a rustic symbol, the instrument of peasants and poverty.”
Discussing the way bagpipes have been used as a symbol throughout history – she moves on.
One engraving by polymath Robert Fludd shows a “self-playing bagpipe.”
She writes: “It appears in a treatise about motion, and symbolises the marvel of a self-functioning instrument. It shows how the elements – in this case air and water – interact.
“The instrument is made up of a cow-shaped container, a cylindrical base, a bagpipe, and a dented wheel much like the ones we find in music boxes. As water fills the cow’s belly, air is pushed out of its mouth. This air fills the cylinder. When the pressure in the cylinder is right, the bagpipe would start playing.
“At the same time, the dented wheel would change notes on the chanter according to its movements. Devising objects which would trigger marvel in the viewers was very common amongst the intellectuals of his time.
“They would not necessarily work, but they exemplify the intellectual curiosity of the time.”
In some British artworks the pipes are seen as a symbol of the Jacobite uprising.
One engraving – by John June – depicts Dr William Hunter, who founded the Hunterian Gallery, marching on the Royal College of Physicians in London to demand that they admit those not educated only at Oxford or Cambridge.
His march is led by a bagpiper, which Dr Williams says was “the instrument of the Jacobite risings”.