11 Traditional Scottish Musical Instruments you Should Know

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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.

Here are some of Scotland’s beloved and best-known musical instruments. 

1. Bagpipes

Bagpipes

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. 

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.

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 did.

This was the nation that weaponized the bagpipes. 

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 reed and 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.

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

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.

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

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.

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.