11 Pieces of Piercing Bagpiping Slang

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Dust off your feather bonnet and get out that kilt—today is International Bagpipe Day. While you're probably familiar with bagpiping, you might not be as up to speed with the particular language around this ancient tradition that's popular around the world. Here are 11 pieces of bagpiping slang to study as you get ready for the big day.


First up, the noise that bagpipes make. If it’s done well, it can be music to one’s ears—but if it’s not, it might be called skirl.

Skirl is a very old word. The Oxford English Dictionary says it originated around 1400 to mean scream or shriek. By the 1660s, it meant to produce the “shrill” sounds characteristic of bagpipes, and then, by the mid-1800s, the piercing sound itself. Skirl is a Scots word derived from a Scandinavian term and is probably imitative.


Pibroch is the name given to traditional or ceremonial bagpipe music. The word is a corruption of the Scottish Gaelic piobaireachd, which translates as the act of playing the bagpipe.

Pibroch also once referred to the bagpipes themselves, and might have first been used in English by the poet Lord Byron: “They feast upon the mountain deer, The Pibroch rais'd its piercing note.”


Ceòl mór translates from Scots as “great music,” and is another way to refer to pibroch. In contrast is ceòl beag, or “little music,” which refers to lighter tunes such as jigs, marches, and reels.


Such light music might also be preferred to as kitchen piping. The term seems to have a number of meanings, including non-traditional music used more for entertainment, radical bagpiping music that purists might not approve of, and casual jam sessions that might include other instruments not normally played with bagpipes and that, one might imagine, take place in a kitchen. Kitchen pipes are also a smaller, quieter version of bagpipes that are mostly used for practice.


Canntaireachd is a notation system that involves chanting symbols in place of notes and embellishments. The word translates as “chanting.”


The beginning of a bagpiping performance is called an attack, while the introductory note is an attack note. While it might be tempting to guess that it has something to do with bagpipers’ role in battle, or when the bagpipers hit the bag to start up the drones (a process known as striking in), the actual origin comes from the Italian attaccare, meaning to join.


Did you know bagpipers need to keep their bags well-seasoned? We’re not talking about oregano, but a lubricant that keeps bags supple and airtight.

Bags are generally either cow leather, sheepskin, or synthetic. Of the three, sheepskin bags need the most seasoning because they’re porous, and the seasoning closes up the pores. But the process is pretty involved, so modern pipers tend towards either cowhide or synthetic. Although cowhide still needs to be seasoned to keep the seams airtight, the frequency of seasoning is much less than sheepskin. Most manufacturers will tell you to never season your synthetic bag, and doing so might void the warranty.

So what’s in the seasoning? It’s generally proprietary, although some homemade recipes call for a combination of glycerol, alcohol, and honey.


Let’s say you’re a piper who needs a little help performing a birl, an embellishment that involves playing a Low A and then sliding your pinky over the bottom hole and back up again to produce two quick little pops of Low G. All you need to do is rub your pinky against the side of your nose. Voila: birl grease.

The word birl means to revolve or rotate rapidly, and is onomatopoeia, similar to words like whirl and twirl.


dirge is literally a funeral song or lament, but can also be used figuratively to refer to a bagpipe performance that’s overly gloomy.


In addition to being a great band name, trailing drones are when drones—those are the three large pipes coming off the top of the bag—slowly die out at the end of a song rather than go silent.


Kirking the tartan, also known as kirking of the tartan, kirkin’ the tartan, and kirkin’ o’ the tartan, refers to a procession of bagpipers entering a church. This Scottish-American tradition was started in 1941 by a Reverend Peter Marshall in Washington, D.C. at the suggestion of the local St. Andrews Society and would soon spread to churches across the country as a way to aid the war effort. While the tartan refers to the bagpipers, kirk is the Scots word for church or going to church.

Additional references: Andrew Lenz's Bagpipe Journey: Bagpiper's Dictionary/Glossary