A set of Highland Bagpipes consists of an air supply, a bag, a chanter, and three drones. Other forms of bagpipe also have additional drones (and sometimes chanters) in various combinations, held in place within stocks - connectors that fasten the various pipes to the bag.
The most common method of supplying air to the bag is by blowing into a blowpipe, or blowstick. In some pipes the player must cover the tip of the blowpipe with his tongue while inhaling, but modern blowpipes have a non-return valve that eliminates this need.
The bag is an airtight reservoir that can hold air and regulate its flow while the player keeps the bag inflated by blowing into it or pumping with a bellows, enabling the player to maintain continuous sound for some time. Materials used for bags vary widely, but the most common are the skins of local animals such as goats, sheep or cows. Recently, bags made of synthetic materials including Gore-Tex have become more common.
The chanter is the melody pipe, played by two hands. A chanter can be bored internally so that the inside walls are parallel for its full length, or it can be bored in the shape of a cone. Additionally, the reed can be a single or a double reed. Double reeds are used with both conical- and parallel-bored chanters while single reeds are generally (although not exclusively) limited to parallel-bored chanters. In general double-reed chanters are found in pipes of Western Europe with single-reed chanters found elsewhere.
The chanter is usually open-ended; thus, there is no easy way for the player to stop the pipe from sounding. This means that most bagpipes share a legato sound where there are no rests in the music. Primarily because of this inability to stop playing, grace notes (which vary between types of bagpipe) are used to break up notes and to create the illusion of articulation and accents. Because of their importance, these embellishments (or ornaments) are often highly technical systems specific to each bagpipe, and take much study to master.
Most bagpipes have at least one drone. A drone is most commonly a cylindrical tube with a single reed, although drones with double reeds exist. The drone is generally designed in two or more parts, with a sliding joint ('bridle') so that the pitch of the drone can be manipulated.
Depending on the type of bagpipes, the drones may lay over the shoulder, across the arm opposite the bag, or may run parallel to the chanter. Some drones have a tuning screw, which effectively alters the length of the drone by opening a hole, allowing the drone to be tuned to two or more distinct pitches. The tuning screw may also shut off the drone altogether. In most type of pipes, where there is one drone it is pitched two octaves below the tonic of the chanter, and further additions often add the octave below and then a drone consonant with the fifth of the chanter.
Though popular belief sets varying dates for the introduction of bagpipes to Scotland, concrete evidence is limited until approximately the 15th century. The Clan Menzies still owns a remnant of a set of bagpipes said to have been carried at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, though the veracity of this claim is debated. There are many ancient legends and stories about bagpipes which were passed down through minstrels and oral tradition, whose origins are now lost. However, textual evidence for Scottish bagpipes is more definite in 1396, when records of the Battle of the North Inch of Perth reference "warpipes" being carried into battle.