Type: Aerophones > Reeds > Hornpipes.
Hornbostel Sachs No#: 422.211.2
Region: Western Europe.
Description: The pibgorn is a Welsh heteroglot reed idiophone. The name translates literally as “pipe-horn”. It is also historically known as cornicyll and pib-corn. It utilizes a single reed [Welsh: “cal”, or “calaf”] cut from elder [Sambucus nigra] or reed [Arundo phragmites], like that found in the drone of a bagpipe, which is an early form of the modern clarinet reed.
Early History: The pipes in Wales, of which the pibgorn is a class, are mentioned in the laws of Hywel Dda [d. 949–50]. The earliest transcription of these dates from 1250 and specify that “the King should recognize the status of a Pencerdd.
The second in importance of the three court musicians, namely; Bardd Teulu, Pencerdd and Cerddor in his service by giving him an appropriate instrument – either Harp, Crwth or Pipes.” In modern Welsh orthography these three instruments are called telyn, crwth and pibau. Peniarth 20 [Brut y Tywysogion] c 1330, states that there are three types of wind instrument: “Organ, a Phibeu a Cherd y got”, “organ, and pipes and bag music”.
However, the instrument itself is older than these references, and is part of a pattern of distribution of similar idioglot reed-pipes, hornpipes and bag-hornpipes throughout Asia, Europe and North Africa that includes the “Old British pibgorn or hornpipe” alboka, arghul, boha and others.
William Morris writes in a letter to his brother the folklorist Richard Morris in 1759: “[Translated]How pleasing it was to see the young farmworkers with their pibau cyrn [horn pipes] under their arms….gathering the cows and piping ‘Mwynen Mai’ and ‘Meillionnen’.
According to Daines Barrington, who presented the pibgorn specimen shown at the Museum of Welsh life to Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of London, an Anglesey landowner called Mr Wynn of Penhesgedd, offered an annual prize for pibgorn playing towards the end of the eighteenth century.
One such competition at Castellior Farm attracted 200 players. There is a further description by Siôn Wiliam Prichard [1749-1829] of Christmas celebrations on the Castellior farm where the pibgorn and other instruments were played. Barrington described the tone of the instrument as played to him: “by one of the lads [who had obtained the prize]… considering the materials of which the pibgorn is composed is really very tolerable”
David Griffith Clwydfardd [D. 1894] recalls his father telling him that “playing the Pibgorn was a common thing in those days in the South and that farmers’ servant men were in the habit of carrying them with them when driving cattle to the fairs.”
Construction: The single chambered body of the elder pipe has a naturally occurring parallel bore, into which are drilled six small finger-holes and a thumb-hole giving a diatonic compass of an octave. The body of the instrument is traditionally carved from a single piece of wood or bone. Playable, extant historical examples in the Museum of Welsh Life have bodies cut and shaped of elder. Another, unplayable instrument at the Museum, possibly of a later date, is made from the leg bone of an unspecified ungulate.
Contemporary instruments are turned and bored from a variety of fruitwoods, or exotic hardwoods; or turned from, or moulded in plastics. The reed is protected by a reed-cap or stock of cow-horn. The bell is shaped from a section of cow-horn which serves to amplify the sound. The pibgorn may be attached to a bag, with the additional possibility of a drone, which is then called pibau cwd; or played directly with the mouth via the reed-cap.
Citations: Bibliography: Bagpipes by Anthony Baines. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, Occasional papers on technology series, 9 ISBN 0-902793-10-1 ; The Old British “Pibcorn” or “Hornpipe” and its affinities. By Henry Balfour, Esq., M.A., F.Z.S © 1891 Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland ; Harper, Sally. “Instrumental Music in Medieval Wales.” North American Journal of Welsh Studies, Vol. 3, no. 1. Flint, MI: North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History, 2004 ; Websites: