11 Traditional Scottish Musical Instruments You Should Know (2022)

For a wee country riddled with uprisings and uncertainty, Scotland has a rich and varied musical tradition.Its instruments range from the strung to the whistling, and while some, like the bagpipes, have violent beginnings, others are surprisingly serene and courtly.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at 11 of Scotland’s beloved and best-known musical instruments.Let’s get started with the most famous of all… The Bagpipes.

Table of Contents

1. Bagpipes

11 Traditional Scottish Musical Instruments You Should Know (1)

For most people, when they hear Scotland, they think of Bagpipes.

Like haggis, the kilt, or ceilidh dancing, bagpipes are quintessentially Scottish.But historically, bagpipes are about as Scottish as the English cornflower.

Not only is there a long tradition of bagpipe players all over Medieval English churches, but the instrument reaches back across Europe and even Africa.

What the Scots did with the bagpipe, that perhaps no one else thought to do with it, was weaponize it.

You can’t kill anyone effectively with a bagpipe, but you can put the fear of God into your enemy and for years, the Scots did.

Bagpipes overtook the trumpet as the military weapon of choice, and anyone who’s ever heard an out-of-tune bagpipe in full throttle can tell you why.

The bagpipe was outlawed in 1745 following the Jacobite rising as part of an ongoing effort by the crown to stamp out Scotland’s clannish culture.

But the bagpipe survived, and once the ban was lifted, it re-emerged in full force.

It even revived its military purpose and led soldiers over the top during the First World War.

Not only did the bagpipe make a resurgence, but it got an update.

While its parts – chanter, bag, drones, remain the same – these days, the bagpipe bag is made of fabric, not an animal bladder like it used to be.

And, of course, today’s players are more mindful of pitch and tune after all, there’s no longer an enemy to terrorize on the battlefield.

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2. Bodhran

The Bodhran is another instrument predominantly associated with Scotland but not necessarily from Scotland.

The bodhran is Irish, and it’s popularly believed that this percussion instrument was the early Celtic reinvention of the tambourine.

This may surprise some people, as to look at it, the bodhran has more in common with a drum.

But the main difference between bodhran and your average drum is that you can play not only the skin but also the sides of the instrument.

Expert bodhran players do this with their hands, but it’s equally common to beat a bodhran with sticks called tippers.

The other notable difference between a drum and a bodhran is that you can tune the bodhran.

That gives it musical flexibility when harmonizing with other instruments that drums don’t have.

3. Clarsach

One of Scotland’s oldest instruments, the Clarsach, or the Celtic Harp, was Scotland’s national instrument before the bagpipes subsequently displaced it.

But for years, the clarsach was a vital part of clan life in Scotland, and its players had appropriately high status.

Often the best players were nomadic and traveled from clan to clan, playing at feasts and grand occasions.

The clarsach’s history is old, and the stringed instrument shows up on ancient Pictish runes, cementing its place in Scottish history.

Perhaps the most famous example of a clarsach, the Queen Mary Harp, dates to the 1500s.

An earlier clarsach, the Lamont Harp, is estimated to date to the 15th century.

Regrettably, much of the clarsach’s oral tradition was lost during the Highland Clearances, and modern players struggle to learn because the clarsach technique is backward to traditional harp playing.

Instead of situating the treble clef in the right hand and the bass on the left, the clarsach flips them, causing no end of confusion for the aspiring player.

4. Fiddle

While Scots often talk interchangeably about Fiddles and Violins, there are marked differences in the instruments.This is partly because of the fluidity of fiddle playing.

The instrument is versatile and designed to play everything from wild ceilidh dances to classical music.

The fiddle has a flat-arched bridge to facilitate these changes in genre and playing style.

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This allows players to change fingering positions much faster than on a violin and makes bowing easier.

Both are necessary when you’re careening through a round of Orcadian Strip the Willow.

The fiddle is also the Scottish instrument that gave the world the Scotch Snap. This musical peculiarity, while not unique to Scotland, was perfected there.

In a Scotch Snap, you hear a short note on the beat followed by a longer, dotted note on the off-beat.

It’s popular in Strathspeys like Gang the Same Gate or James Skinner’s Our Highland Queen.

5. Accordion

While the Accordion isn’t Scottish in origin, it’s now an integral part of the Scottish music tradition.

Ceilidh bands love accordions for their versatility and volume.

Of course, they do. This was the nation that weaponized the bagpipes after all.

But that wasn’t the fate of the Scottish accordion.

Instead, it became an integral part of the Scottish folk tradition, in part because, like other Scots instruments of note, it was portable and partly because you didn’t need to tune it.

The accordion features keys that, when pressed, produce notes, but that’s all the keys do. It’s up to the bellows to control the volume, pitch, and sound clarity.

Perhaps the most famous of these ceilidh tunes for the accordion is Sarah, a waltz tune by notable accordionist Max Houliston.

6. Stock-and-Horn

Famously, the Stock-and-Horn’s best-known description comes from poet Robert Burns.

Writing to a friend, Bruns says the stock-and-horn has six or seven finger holes for playing across the front, one hole at the back, a single reedand a bell for amplifying sound.

In Medieval Scotland, the stock-and-horn had a double chanter, but this later became a single chanter.

The stock-and-horn impressed Burns so much that, despite its origins as a working-class instrument, he incorporated it into his coat of arms.

7. Dulcitone

In instruments like the stock-and-horn, the sound is produced by vibrating air through the instrument.

But the Dulcitone, which was invented by Thomas Machall in Glasgow, produces sound by vibrating on its own and using hammers to make the keys vibrate and produce sound.

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But unlike the piano, which uses strings to make its hammers resonate, the dulcitone uses a series of internal tuning forks.

Thomas Machall invented the dulcitone in the 1860s, and at the time, it was popular because it was lighter than a piano and easier to transport.

However, the instrument had a uniform volume that projected badly, and over time its popularity waned.

Today, many musicians couple the dulcitone with an amplifier to boost its sound and revive its place in popular consciousness and Scottish music.

8. Scottish Tenor Drum

11 Traditional Scottish Musical Instruments You Should Know (2)

If you’ve seen a Scottish pipe band play, then you’ve seen a Scottish Tenor Drum.

Unlike the bodhran, where the whole instrument is playable, only the topmost head of the Scottish tenor drum gets played.

But, like the bodhran, the tenor drum can be tuned to a specific pitch.

Because of the Scottish tenor drum’s long tenure as a military instrument, players typically tune it to match either the drone or chanter pitches of the bagpipes in the pipe band.

Alex Duthart revolutionized playing the Scottish tenor drum and turned it from an instrument you battened on with a stick to a virtuosic display.

Notably, he introduced back-sticking and stick-clacking to the pipe band tradition.

9. Tin Whistle

Sometimes called the Penny Whistle because you could buy one for a penny, the Tin Whistle was and is a popular woodwind instrument with children because it’s inexpensive, portable and easy to play.

While many parents may contest the musicality of the tin whistle, it has a long history and was most prevalent in the 19th century.

It has a whistle-shaped mouthpiece and six holes that players cover in different combinations to produce varying pitches.

Although the tin whistle is predominantly associated with children, professional whistlers do exist, and artists like Julie Fowlis even include the tin whistle in their Scottish folk playing.

Whimsically, instruments like the tin whistle with their distinctive mouthpiece are called ‘fipple flutes’ because of the way the whistle makes the incoming air vibrate.

10. Guitar

The Guitar, like the clarsach and fiddle, is another stringed instrument.

But, unlike the clarsach and fiddle, it’s more immediately recognizable to those not steeped in Scottish culture.

(Video) Traditional Scottish Music

But while guitar playing is a wider-ranging skill than clarsach playing, the Scottish style of guitar playing is as distinctive as any Scottish instrument.

To achieve it, the guitarist tunes the guitar so that the strings play perfect fifths.

This gives them an open-ended, almost Medieval sound and creates distinctive Celtic-sounding harmonies with other instruments.

The perfect fifth interval also makes bending guitar strings easier.

Bending the guitar strings is another aspect of Scottish guitar playing that gives it its distinctive sound.

It creates fluidity and smoothness both in the guitar’s counting, musical transitions, and flourishes.

11. Cittern

Popular in the Baroque era, the Cittern was a precursor to the modern guitar.

Played using a plectrum, the cittern has an elongated neck and rounded body.

It bears a close resemblance to the lute.

Typically the cittern is a 10-string instrument, and today it is significantly larger than its Baroque ancestor.

Unusually, it has no standardized tuning, though several common string tuning methods exist, including:

  • ADADA
  • ADGAD
  • DGDAD

As with the guitar, perfect fifths play a critical role with the cittern’s tuning, also.

Its most famous player was James Oswald. Oswald played extensively in Scotland, and Robert Burns revered his playing as the best there was.

Eventually, Oswald moved to England, where he published many books that revolutionized cittern playing.

Of particular note, Oswald combined Scottish folk technique with classical, creating melodies still beloved today.

Summing up our List of Instruments From Scotland

As you can see, the Scottish people have a rich history of music that has been passed down through generations over hundreds of years.

These traditional Scottish musical instruments are an important part of their culture and should be preserved for future generations to enjoy!

Have we missed any instruments? Let us know and we’ll add them to our list.

(Video) Scottish musical instrument

FAQs

What are traditional Scottish instruments? ›

Accordion. Pipes and chanter. Guitar. Clarsach, a Scottish harp.

What is Scotland's most iconic traditional music instrument? ›

Bagpipes are Scotland's National instrument and a large part of the traditional Scottish culture. You can enjoy bagpipe music across the country at celebrations such as weddings, during Highland Games, at Pipe Band Festivals.

What is traditional Scottish music called? ›

Scotland is world renowned for its traditional music – sometimes referred to as folk music – and its origins can be traced back thousands of years.

What is a Scottish drum called? ›

The bodhrán (/ˈbaʊrɑːn, baʊˈrɑːn, ˈbɔːrɑːn, ˈbɔːrən/, Irish: [ˈbˠəuɾˠaːnˠ]; plural bodhráin or bodhráns) is a frame drum used in Irish music ranging from 25 to 65 cm (10–26 in) in diameter, with most drums measuring 35–45 cm (14–18 in). The sides of the drum are 9–20 cm (31⁄2–8 in) deep.

What is the oldest Scottish song? ›

The music to Piobaireachd Dhomhnuill Dhuibh is in the Purser book mentioned in [4.21] and a recorded version is on the Clan Alba Album. This tune is thought to be named for Donald Dubh, 11th chief of the Clan Cameron, who led the clan from 1400 to 1460.

What is a Scottish flute called? ›

A fife /ˈfaɪf/ is a small, high-pitched, transverse aerophone, that is similar to the piccolo. The fife originated in medieval Europe and is often used in Fife and Drum Corps, military units, and marching bands. Someone who plays the fife is called a fifer.

What is regarded as the most distinctively Scottish musical instrument? ›

Bagpipes. This instrument is known to have been owned by a soldier who fought at the 1746 Battle of Culloden, where the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie met their final defeat.

Is Celtic music Scottish or Irish? ›

Often, the term Celtic music is applied to the music of Ireland and Scotland because both lands have produced well-known distinctive styles which actually have genuine commonality and clear mutual influences.

Are kilts Irish or Scottish? ›

Although kilts are traditionally associated with Scotland, they are also long-established in Irish culture. Kilts are worn in both Scotland and Ireland as a symbol of pride and a celebration of their Celtic heritage, yet each country's kilt has many differences which we'll explore in this post.

What are old Scottish songs called? ›

Two of the main collections of Scots song are known as the Child Ballads and the Greig-Duncan Folk-Song Collection. 'The Child Ballads' is shorthand for the collection of 305 narrative songs classified by Prof. Francis James Child of Harvard University in Boston, USA, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

What is a Celtic drum called? ›

What Is the Bodhran Drum? The Irish bodhran drum is a frame drum with a shallow body and a single-skin head. It is common throughout Irish traditional music and other forms of Celtic music.

Are the bagpipes Irish or Scottish? ›

Bagpipes, A Symbol of Scotland

But, whoever invented them, the Scots have pretty much made this instrument their own over the years. However, the Irish also lay claim to playing an instrument that is similar to the Scottish version. The national bagpipe of Ireland is as much a tradition as their Scottish counterparts.

What is a bodhrán stick called? ›

The stick is often referred to as a cipín, which is also the word for a small stick or piece of kindling. Other names include beater and tipper. They can be straight pieces of strong timbers such as ash and holly, but often are bulbous at one or both terminals.

What do Scottish brides walk down the aisle to? ›

Your Ceremony

The time comes for you to walk down the aisle to a beautiful Scottish song (Outlander or Braveheart themes or something traditional like Ye Banks and Braes.) The ceremony continues as you take vows and declare your love.

What is Scottish culture known for? ›

Scotland is internationally known for its traditional music, which remained vibrant throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, when many traditional forms worldwide lost popularity to pop music.

Who is the most successful Scottish band? ›

AC/DC were formed by Glasgow-born brothers, Angus and Malcolm Young, with another Scotsman – lead singer Bon Scott – performing with the band until his death in 1980. The band have sold more than 200 million records, with 'Back in Black' being the highest-selling album in the world by any band.

Is a fife a piccolo? ›

The fife, most accurately described, is any cylindrically bored transverse flute, usually in one piece (but sometimes two), usually somewhat longer than the piccolo and having only six fingerholes with no keys.

What is the flute of a bagpipe called? ›

The chanter is the actual part of the bagpipes that produces the melody for whatever tune you're playing. It operates similarly to a clarinet, with the player fingering the various holes along the shaft to produce different notes.

What is a Scottish wind instrument? ›

The Scottish Highland bagpipe has two tenor drones and a bass drone, tuned an octave apart; its scale preserves traditional intervals foreign to European classical music.

What are the key characteristics of Scottish music? ›

Melody and scale

Scottish melodies are written using a number of different scales, but many are commonly based on the five note pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale, starting on the note G would be G A B D and E. It is a scale commonly used in folk music but particularly in Scottish music.

What do Scottish people play? ›

Scotland's sporting traditions are legendary worldwide and our impact on the world of sport is truly massive. We can lay claim to the invention, or early development, of a number of the most popular international sports - including football, golf, hockey, rugby and tennis.

What is a Scottish air? ›

Scottish Airways was an airline serving most of Scotland, especially the Highlands and Islands. It was active from 1937 until 1947, when it was merged into British European Airways.

Who is the biggest Scottish band ever? ›

Perhaps the most influential Scottish band of all time, The Jesus and Mary Chain, are indie royalty and were the vanguard of the scene when it first exploded in the mid-'80s.

Are Snow Patrol Irish or Scottish? ›

Snow Patrol are a Scottish-Northern Irish rock band formed in 1994 in Dundee, Scotland. They consist of Gary Lightbody (vocals, guitar), Nathan Connolly (guitar, backing vocals), Paul Wilson (bass guitar, backing vocals), Jonny Quinn (drums), and Johnny McDaid (piano, guitar, backing vocals).

Are the Waterboys Scottish? ›

The Waterboys are a folk rock band formed in Edinburgh in 1983 by Scottish musician Mike Scott. The band's membership, past and present, has been composed mainly of musicians from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England.

What is a Scottish guitar called? ›

This beautiful artefact is the earliest known English guittar in any Scottish collection, dating from 1757. The English guittar was popular during the 18th century and up until the beginning of the 19th century. The instrument resembles a pear, in shape, and its' head at the end of the neck is bent backwards slightly.

What is a Scottish flute? ›

The Irish flute is a conical-bore, simple-system wooden flute of the type favoured by classical flautists of the early 19th century, or to a flute of modern manufacture derived from this design (often with modifications to optimize its use in Irish Traditional Music, Scottish Traditional Music or Music of Brittany and ...

What is Scotland's official animal? ›

You probably wouldn't think of a magical horned creature typically seen on children's lunchboxes! But it's true: the unicorn really is the official national animal of Scotland. And our love for this famous mythological creature dates back many centuries.

What Scottish instrument is a percussion instrument? ›

The bodhrán is a percussion instrument used to beat out the pulse or heartbeat of the music when accompanying other instruments. It originates from Ireland but it frequently appears in the Scottish folk group.

What are old Scottish songs called? ›

Two of the main collections of Scots song are known as the Child Ballads and the Greig-Duncan Folk-Song Collection. 'The Child Ballads' is shorthand for the collection of 305 narrative songs classified by Prof. Francis James Child of Harvard University in Boston, USA, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

What is a bagpipe song called? ›

The word 'piobaireachd' literally means pipe playing or pipe music, but is now used to describe the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Another name for it is 'ceòl mór' meaning the'big music', which separates piobaireachd from all other forms of pipe music (marches, reels, jigs etc. )

What is a Celtic flute called? ›

The simple system flutes such as those made by Martin Doyle are commonly known as 'Irish flutes'. The term simple system flute refers to the conical-bore flutes that were in use before Theobald Boehm introduced his cylindrical bore flute designs in the mid-nineteenth century.

What is regarded as the most distinctively Scottish musical instrument? ›

Bagpipes. This instrument is known to have been owned by a soldier who fought at the 1746 Battle of Culloden, where the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie met their final defeat.

What are the names of the 5 Scottish dances? ›

Scottish dances
  • strathspey.
  • reel.
  • jig.
  • waltz.

What is the national fruit of Scotland? ›

Apple | National Records of Scotland.

What is the national flower of Scotland? ›

The thistle flower

It is the native spear thistle, Cirsium vulgare, which is thought to have been used as the national emblem. They are abundant in Scotland, and the imagery on coins, flags and other symbols through history closely matches this particular variety.

Why are there two flags for Scotland? ›

The Royal Banner of Scotland, more commonly known as Lion Rampant of Scotland, was historically used by the Scottish Monarchs. This flag differs in use from the Saltire, as it can only be used by royalty. As there hasn't been a Scottish King or Queen since the 17th Century, it now belongs to Queen Elizabeth II.

What do Scottish people play? ›

Scotland's sporting traditions are legendary worldwide and our impact on the world of sport is truly massive. We can lay claim to the invention, or early development, of a number of the most popular international sports - including football, golf, hockey, rugby and tennis.

What are the key characteristics of Scottish music? ›

Melody and scale

Scottish melodies are written using a number of different scales, but many are commonly based on the five note pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale, starting on the note G would be G A B D and E. It is a scale commonly used in folk music but particularly in Scottish music.

Where did Scottish music originate from? ›

The origins of traditional Scottish folk music are lost in the mists of time. There are close links between the roots of much of Scotland's music and the Gaelic tradition that came from Ireland: and in some ways Scottish and Irish folk music are similar.

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