Pablo on the beach. A. M. Saanders
Gaitas, bagpipes in Spain
International Bagpipe Day 10 March

Gaitas, bagpipes in Spain

There are more than 130 different types of bagpipes in the world. Several of them can be found on the Iberian Peninsula, especially in Galicia

Alekk M. Saanders


Friday, 8 March 2024, 12:38


The bagpipe has a long and rich history that dates back to ancient times. These woodwind instruments originated in 400 BCE and are believed to be from Ancient Egypt, with the first players being known as 'bagpipers from Thebes'. However, the spread of bagpipes across Europe is usually attributed to the Ancient Romans.

Images of bagpipes began to be used in Western European art and iconography in the early part of the second millennium. They also became a popular subject for carvers of wooden choir stalls throughout Europe. After the 15th century, bagpipes were used for court music and as military instruments, but it never became part of a classical orchestra and remained being used for playing folk music.

Bagpipes on the peninsula

Although bagpiping is most closely associated with the rich musical traditions of Scotland and Ireland, these Celtic peoples are not the only ones who play thhis instrument. For Galicia and Asturias, commonly regarded as 'the Celtic nations of Spain', bagpiping holds a special place. The so-called 'gaitas' are part of their national identity and history. The Cantigas of Santa María, written in Galician/Portuguese and composed in Castile in the mid-13th century, depicts several types of bagpipes. It is believed that this instrument was very popular in the northern area of the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages, as early as the 9th century, but its popularity declined from the 16th century onwards, before reviving in the 19th century.

In the 1980s there was a great revival of interest in traditional Asturian and Galician music and culture, and the gaitas experienced something of a renaissance

Another decline occurred in the middle of the 20th century during the Francoist dictatorship when cultural diversity in the country was suppressed. Unsurprisingly, after Franco's death there was a great revival of interest in traditional Asturian and Galician music and culture and the gaitas experienced something of a renaissance and became a folk instrument again. The folk revival in Galicia peaked in the late 1990s. These days, the characteristic sounds of bagpipes both exciting and traditional, can be heard at festivals and gatherings, adding a unique musical flavour to the atmosphere of this Spanish region.

The word 'gaita' is used as a general term for bagpipes, although in Galicia and Portugal it refers to a type of horn, flute or oboe. So, 'gaita de fol' literally means 'pipe with a bag'. According to another version, the word most likely derives from the Gothic word 'gait' or 'gata', meaning 'goat', and the gaita bag is indeed made from a whole goat skin. As for pipes, they are traditionally made by highly skilled craftsmen from specially selected, locally grown boxwood.

Pablo García

The 'bagpipe beach'; Pablo in his favourite gazebo for practising; a Galician gaita. A. Saanders
Imagen principal - The 'bagpipe beach'; Pablo in his favourite gazebo for practising; a Galician gaita.
Imagen secundaria 1 - The 'bagpipe beach'; Pablo in his favourite gazebo for practising; a Galician gaita.
Imagen secundaria 2 - The 'bagpipe beach'; Pablo in his favourite gazebo for practising; a Galician gaita.

"One of the oldest versions of the Galician gaita consists of a bag, a blow pipe, a drone and a double reed conical melodic pipe. Secondary drones were probably added around the 17th or 18th century, as no iconography before this period depicts the bagpipe with more than one drone. The smaller secondary drones are placed on the bagpiper's free arm rather than on the shoulder and were originally found only on lower pitched instruments. In the centre of Galicia, gaitas with three drones were played and made until the mid-20th century. Nowadays, bagpipes with one drone are used in most of Galicia.", Pablo García told SUR in English.

Meeting this gaita-playing veterinarian occurred early Sunday morning on a beach in O Vicedo, Lugo province. Pablo comes to the gazebo to practice playing the gaita de fol just to avoid disturbing family members and neighbours in his house in the town.

"The old Galician bagpipes varied even geographically. There was a great variety of tonalities throughout the region, with a tendency towards higher keys as you moved northwards. Only bagpipes from the northernmost part went an octave higher," explained Pablo, living in Viveiro, located in the northern part of Galicia.

The same but different

Incidentally, gaitas in Galicia are smaller and higher pitched than Scottish bagpipes and even Asturian ones. Moreover, within Galicia there are subtle differences concerning the shape and size of the double reeds, and the manner of playing among others.

"Traditionally, most of southern and eastern Galicia played with open fingerings, while the northern and north-western parts of the region played with closed fingering. Today, however, the instrument is very much standardised and only a few people still play with closed fingering," added Pablo.

Gaitas in Galicia are smaller than Scottish bagpipes. Within Galicia there are subtle differences concerning the shape, size, and the manner of playing among others

Today, the gaita in Galicia is both a cultural and musical instrument and is taught in conservatories, schools and music colleges. Additional technological developments have taken the instrument in new directions, often with synthetic bags and melodic pipes tuned to modern scales. Classical bagpiping, nevertheless, is played at numerous events where bagpipers are often accompanied by drum and bass drum, sometimes joined by clarinets or small street bands. Some international music festivals and tours bring together Scottish, Irish, Asturian and Galician musicians.

Besides Galicia and Asturias, bagpipes can be found in Northern Portugal and even in parts of Castile and León and western Cantabria. On a much smaller scale, there is also an indigenous tradition of bagpipe playing in Aragón, Catalonia and the Balearic Island of Mallorca.

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