Sounds of Scotland

Instruments made and played in Scotland

By The University of Edinburgh

A story from the Centre for Research Collections

Inchcolm Antiphoner (1340) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

Music is a vibrant part of Scottish culture and history. From courtly entertainment and religious services to working songs and village dances, music permeates all aspects of Scottish life.   

St Cecilia's Hall: Concert Room and Music Museum (2017) by Digital Imaging Unit University of EdinburghThe University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh looks after an internationally important collection of musical instruments from across the globe, over 400 of which are on display at St Cecilia's Hall.  

Instruments made or played in Scotland give us insight into traditions and influences which are still very much alive today. 

Highland Bagpipes (1895) by Duncan MacDougallThe University of Edinburgh


Few instruments are more synonymous with Scottish culture than the bagpipe. Bagpipes first came to Scotland around 1400, developing for 300 years into the style we now know. 

Great Highland Pipes were once instruments of war but today they welcome tourists and feature in Scottish festivals and celebrations. 

The bag itself, traditionally made from animal skin, is normally covered with the clan tartan of the owner.  

This instrument, made by Duncan MacDougall, is made from ebony with silver and ivory decoration and a Royal Stewart tartan cover.  

Border Bagpipes (1850) by George WalkerThe University of Edinburgh

These iconic instruments are not the only bagpipes in Scotland.

A smaller kind, the Borders Bagpipe is often played for dancing.  

Scottish Smallpipes (1825) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

The compact Scottish Smallpipes are popular for indoor use.  

They can be played while singing because they use bellows to fill the bag with air.

Clarsach (1933) by Henry BriggsThe University of Edinburgh


A national symbol much older than the bagpipe is the harp. Known in Scotland as the clarsach, the harp is depicted in carvings by the Picts, a group of Celtic-speaking peoples who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland in the 8th century.

These small instruments, which rest on the floor or on a small support, were the primary instrument of the Gaelic courts until the introduction of the bagpipe in the 15th century. They remained an important part of Gaelic courtly music until the middle of the 18th century.

This harp is a more modern design. Henry Briggs (1879-1963), a violin maker, was asked to make it and others by the newly established Clarsach Society in 1932. The society aimed to generate renewed interest in the instrument and continues to preserve its place in the national life of Scotland.

Violin making mold and templates (1925) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh


Scottish violin makers have been producing instruments for traditional and classical musicians for over two hundred years.  

The modern violin has been popular in Scotland since at least the 17th century. First imported for the gentry, the violin eventually became a central part of Scottish musical traditions as fiddles.  

Violin (1805) by Matthew HardieThe University of Edinburgh

While instruments owned by Scottish fiddlers are technically violins, their use defines them as fiddles.  

This 19th-century violin belonged to the Scottish fiddler James Scott Skinner (1843-1927), a prodigious composer of a uniquely Scottish tunes for folk dancing known as strathspeys.

Spinet (1784) by Neil StewartThe University of Edinburgh

Keyboard instruments

Domestic instruments, like the spinet and piano, were an important part of Scottish life. They were vital to the education of upper- and middle-class women and their popularity caused an explosion of music stores and instrument importers to open in Scotland during the 18th century.  

Music publishers popped up throughout Scotland as well and began publishing pieces for the keyboard which featured Scottish melodies.

Spinets are smaller and less expensive. This example is from the workshop of Neil Stewart, one of the largest music retailers in Edinburgh in the 18th century.

Square piano (1813) by Andrew RocheadThe University of Edinburgh

By 1800 pianos were the keyboard instrument of choice. Square pianos were the most popular. When this instrument was sold, its maker Andrew Rochead had opened a store in the new spacious Georgian New Town.  

He still made his instruments in Edinburgh's cramped, Medieval Old Town, but his clientele preferred to shop in the elegant surrounds of the new part of the city.

Long drum: military model bass drum (1808) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

Military instruments

Throughout history musicians have been raising the morale of fighting troops. What began with unofficial pipers taking to the battlefields during the 1400s culminated in official bands for the Highland Divisions of the British Army in 1854, known today as the Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. 

Bands comprising orchestral instruments grew in importance in British Army ceremonial events in Scotland throughout the second half of the 19th century.

Large bass drums signal information to the other musicians and are emblems of their regiments. From the decoration, we can tell that this one probably belonged to one of the Highland Volunteer Regiments who were based in Edinburgh between 1797 and 1808. 

Keyed Bugle (1825) by J MacDonaldThe University of Edinburgh

Keyed bugles, like this one, were developed around 1810 from the military bugle which had also been a signaling instrument of the army.  

With a rich tone suitable for vocal melodies, bugles were used in bands and for evening entertainment.

Serpent (1820) by Joseph TaylorThe University of Edinburgh

Brass instruments came into mainstream culture through military and civilian bands. This unusual left-handed instrument is a Serpent.  

This was the bass instrument of wind and military bands before the tuba took over. They are usually carved from wood with leather binding but this copper example was probably better suited to playing outdoors in Scotland.

Letter from Robert Burns to James Johnson (1796) by Robert BurnsThe University of Edinburgh


Perhaps the oldest and most universal musical instrument is the human voice.  

Robert Burns remains one of the most famous Scottish song writers and collectors. He collaborated with James Johnson between 1787 and 1803 to publish the Scots Musical Museum, a collection of the most famous Scottish folk tunes. 

Women Singing at a Table (Waulking the Cloth) (1930) by Keith HendersonThe University of Edinburgh

Singing has always been an important part of Scottish musical culture, from church music to folk and working songs.  

An excerpt from 'An robh thu sa bheinn?'

This picture shows women waulking cloth, beating the rolls against the table to soften them, while singing together. 

St Cecilia's Hall: Concert Room and Music Museum (2017) by Digital Imaging Unit University of EdinburghThe University of Edinburgh

You can discover many of these objects and more in the museum at St Cecilia's Hall, the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Scotland. 

Audio excerpt from An robh thu sa bheinn? sung by Mary Morrison and chorus, recorded in 1965 in Barra by Thorkild Knudsen and Donald Archie MacDonald for the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh (SA1965.63.4).

Credits: Story

Story by Dr Jenny Nex, Curator, Musical Instrument Collection University of Edinburgh

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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