The pre-medieval history of bagpipes is somewhat uncertain. However, references in texts written around 200 AD suggest that Roman Emperor Nero played an instrument called tibia utricularis which, judging by descriptions of the instrument, may have been an early form of bagpipe.
Bagpipes began to appear frequently in European art around the 13th Century, which suggests the appearance of bagpipes in Europe around that time.
Although there is some contest over whether bagpipes made their way to the British Isles before the 14th Century, a book called The Canterbury Tales, written around 1380 in Britain, clearly references bagpipes.
Actual examples of bagpipes from before the 18th Century are very rare, so one has to rely on paintings, carvings, engravings, etc. to get a sense of what bagpipes from that era looked like. From this it is clear that the design of bagpipes varied widely throughout Europe.
The first evidence of bagpipes in Ireland came in 1581 with John Derrick’s illustration, The Image of Irelande. The first serious study of the Scottish Highland bagpipe was done in 1760 in John McDonald’s The Compleat Theory.
As western classical music became popular and developed in both musical and instrumental sophistication, bagpipes fell out of favor due to their limited range and function. This started a slow decline for bagpipes that stretched into the 20th Century.
The Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe became well-known worldwide during the expansion of the British Empire, which was spear-headed by British military forces, including Highland regiments. The large numbers of pipers trained for military service in the two World Wars boosted the surge in the popularity of the bagpipe.
The bagpipe is commonly used in the militaries of the UK and other Commonwealth nations and is often played in formal ceremonies. Many police forces and fire fighting units in Scotland, Canada, the US, and several other nations have adopted the traditions of pipe bands.
In recent years, many types of bagpipes have become popular again, driven mainly by revivals in native folk music and dance. Bagpipes have also been used in movies, like Braveheart, and musical shows, like Riverdance, further boosting their popularity.
Various models of electronic bagpipes were invented in the late 20th Century.
Driven to the brink of extinction no too long ago, bagpipes are again extremely popular today.