Pipes and Pibgorn

The Welsh Bagpipes and the traditional horn pipe

Bagpipes have been documented in Wales since at least the 12th century. The Welsh Laws of Hywel Dda, in the 10th century and later versions in the 12th and 13th centuries provide information about the status of music in Wales. The Law states that the king should recognise the status of master craftsmen in his service by giving each one an appropriate instrument, specified as harp, crwth, or pipes. A Christmas feast was held by the Lord Rhys at Cardigan in 1176, in the form of an eisteddfod, as we know it today.

“At Christmas in that year, the Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd held court in splendour at Cardigan, in the castle. And he set two kinds of contest there: one between bards and poets, another between harpists and crwthers and pipers and various classes of music-craft. And he had two chairs set for the victors.”

But, with the general decline of Welsh traditional music in the 19th century, the pipes disappeared from use. There are no definite surviving examples of bagpipes that were used in Wales, but there are drawings and carvings that show a style of bagpipe very similar to those used in Brittany and Galicia, sometimes referred to as the ‘Atlantic Bagpipe’.

There is also a description from Anglesey of what could be a bagpipe played by herdsmen, with a cow horn attached to the chanter, probably a pibgorn with a bag.

In the last 30 or so years there has been a revival of piping in Wales. A repertoire of Welsh piping tunes has been rediscovered and developed, along with the instruments, based on pipes from Brittany and Galicia, as well as using pipes from those regions.

The Pibgorn is the Welsh hornpipe. The chanter has a cow horn mouth piece to protect the reed and a cowhorn bell to amplify the sound. There’s a single reed, usually made of cane or synthetic material and there are a number of surviving examples dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. The pibgorn is probably the forerunner to the bagpipe and it’s likely that a bag was attached to the chanter to make playing easier as description from Anglesey above. This is called the Pibau corn/cyrn, or the horn pipes. It’s a mouthblown bagpipe with a single reed chanter, a horn to amplify the sound, and a bass drone. Gafin Morgan is currently developing a totally synthetic pibgorn for beginners, children, for use in school etc.

Instrument maker Gerard KilBride has developed a website which shows how to make your own elder-wood pibgorn, at www.pibgyrn.com

On the weekend of June 22-24th 2012, the first Pibgorn Festival took place in Pontsticill, Merthyr Tydfil – Gwyl Pibgyrn Pontsticill, organised by Gerard KilBride and local pipers Gafin Morgan and Antwn Owen-Hicks with volunteers from Bagad Pibau Morgannwg. We hope that festival will be held again at some point.


Below are some more quotes from various historical sources about bagpipes and piping in Wales.

Henry Balfour (1891) The Old British “Pibcorn” or “Hornpipe” and its Affinities.

“Both hornpipes and bagpipes had formerly a far more general distribution in Europe, the result of a gradual migration westward, surviving only in the more remote regions, amongst pastoral people, as, for example, in Brittany the Pibcorn and Biniou (bagpipes), in Wales Pibgorn and Pibau (bagpipes); in Scotland the Stock-horn and Scotch Bagpipes. It would seem that these instruments were brought to the British Islands with the Celtic immigration and they have survived particularly in those regions in which the Celtic blood has held its own.”

Theophilus Jones, Carnhuanawc

“What is known as the horse wedding took place in 1852. There was all the mirth and jollity of bygone days. But one feature was missing, that appealed to the ear as well as the eye; where was old Edward of Gwern, y pebydd (the piper), who, mounted upon his white steed and pouring forth the wild music of the bagpipe, had headed many a wedding party in their half frantic gallop over hill and vale.”

William Meredith Morris, Cwm Gwaun, Cwm Rhondda

“Mabsantau, neithioirau, gwylnosau, were their red-letter days, and the rude merrimaking of the village green the pivot of all that was worth living for in a mundane existence. I do not remember much about the gwylmabsant and the gwylnos – I came a quarter of a century too late for those wonderful orgies – but I remember the neithior with its all-day and all-night rollicking fun. We did not have the crwth, but we had the fiddle, and occasionally the harp, or a home-made degenerate sort of pibgorn. I myself am a tolerable player on the simplified bibgorn alas the pibgyrn are all gone today and I doubt whether there is one left of the old shepherd players.”

Peniarth 20 (c.1330)

Tri ryw brifgerd ysyd, nyt amgen: kerd dant, kerd vegin, a cherd dauawt.
Teir prifgerd tant ysyd, nyt amgen: kerd grwth, kerd delyn, a cherd timpan.
Teir prifgerd megin ysyd, nyt amgen: organ, a phibeu, a cherd y got.
Teir prifgerd tauawt ysyd: prydu, a dachanu, a chanu gan delyn.

There are three main crafts, namely: the craft of the string, the craft of wind, and the craft of the tongue.
There are three main types of string music, namely: crwth music, harp music, and dulcimer music.
There are three main types of wind music, namely: organ, and pipes, and bagpipe music.
There are three main crafts of the tongue: making poetry, and reciting, and singing it with the harp.

Iolo Goch (late 14th century)

To Sir Hywel of the Axe, Constable of Cricieth Castle
Did anyone ever see what I see
at night — do I not do well?–
when I, greatest pain that ever was,
am sleeping, ageing nature?
First of all I see, in truth,
a magnificent fort yonder by the shore,
and a marvellous fine castle,
and men at table , and light,
and blue sea against a fair stone wall,
and foam about the base of a grim dark tower,
and lively music of pipes
and bag, and fine-looking men
enjoying dancing and song …

Thanks to Antwn Owen Hicks and Gafin Morgan for the information – for more, see their website at www.welshbagpipes.co.uk