The skirl of the pipes and the whirl of the kilt have been part of the traditional music and dance in the highlands of Northern Portugal since the 12th century. Records of the period 1750 to 1950 show that their use was indispensable for events such as weddings, funerals, anniversaries and religious ceremonies. Ensembles would consist of two or more pipers accompanied by percussionists (tamboril snare and bombo bass drums) and flautists. Folksongs were often sung in Mirandês (the second official language of Portugal) or in the Transmontano, Nortenho and Alto-Minhoto dialects while ritual dances (danças dos paulitos) were performed in styles similar to those of English mummers and Scottish flingers.

The Celtic association is as strong in Portugal as in the neighbouring Spanish provinces of Galicia, Asturias and Zamora where the pipes are known as gaitas galegas. Indeed, the frontier between the two Iberian countries has always been musically porous and many Galician migrants moved southwards to Lisbon and Coimbra taking with them their gaitas and traditions. At the same time cross-border family romances and exchanges have resulted in a natural musical fusion and the single drone pipe of Portugal has largely been replaced by the double or triple pipes of Galician manufacture.

Traditionally the pipes consist of an animal (usually goat) skin which is tucked under the left armpit and inflated through a mouth-piece which controls the pressure as air is expelled through the single reed drones and the smaller double reed chanter which produces the melody by using three fingers of the left and four fingers of the right hands to control the eight perforations. Another hole at the back is covered by the left thumb.

However, bagpipes are by no means exclusive to Celtic history. The Greek poet Aristophanes records that in Thebes of 400 BCE the pipes were made of dog skin and bones and Suetonius in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars describes the Roman Emperor Nero as being as adept with this instrument as he was with the harp! Mediaeval versions developed in Germany and England used sacrilegious bellows when puff was lacking!

The Associação Gaita-de-Foles with present HQ in Lisbon is vigorously promoting the revival of interest in “the pipes”. It holds courses for all levels of accomplishment and has a small workshop for repairing and tuning this fascinating instrument. Further information is also available on YouTube where numerous videos can be found; the best of which is probably .

Roberto Cavaleiro Tomar 01 May 2024