Ah, Scottish folk & trad music – the rousing melodies, the foot-tapping rhythms, the unmistakable sound of bagpipes making the neighbourhood cats cry in agony. It’s a rich tapestry of traditions interwoven with instruments that have been driving family members mad for centuries.

If you’ve ever wanted to join in the rowdy fun of making traditional Scottish tunes, you’ll need to get acquainted with some essential instruments first. Strap on your kilt and prepare for a whirlwind tour of 10 wee noise-makers that are as Scottish as a deep-fried Mars bar.

1. Bagpipes

Let’s start with the iconic bagpipes, shall we? These infamous droning pipes have been used as an instrument of sonic torture on the battlefield since the 16th century. Legend has it, the first bagpiper was actually just a very talented belly dancer. With their ear-splitting drones and mind-numbing repetition, the bagpipes are pretty much Scotland’s ancient version of the vuvuzela.

2. Fiddle

If you’re looking for a more subtle way to torment your neighbours, might I suggest the fiddle? This humble stringed instrument has been the backbone of Scottish folk music since the days when plundering English villages was considered a wholesome family activity. Pro tip: For that authentic scratchy sound, be sure to rosin your bow with a piece of brick.


3. Accordion

Speaking of instruments that sound like a cat being strangled, let’s talk about the accordion. This squeezebox of joy has been a staple in ceilidhs for ages, providing the perfect soundtrack for aunties to pinch your cheeks until they’re red raw. Just don’t ask the accordion player to stop once they get going….

4. Bodhran

If you’ve ever seen a bunch of Scottish lads drumming on an oversized crisp, that was probably a bodhran. This hand-held drum has been around since the dawn of time, or at least since someone decided to stretch a goat skin over a pie tin. It’s the perfect instrument for those who want to feel included in the music but have absolutely no sense of rhythm.

5. Tin Whistle

For those who want to take their caterwauling to the next level, there’s the tin whistle. This humble little tube of misery has been tormenting eardrums since the days when “ringtones” were just old men whistling through their teeth. If you really want to master the tin whistle, just constantly inhale through your nose while playing – your neighbours will thank you.

6. Clarsach

If you’re looking to add a touch of elegance to your Scottish folk ensemble, might I recommend the clarsach? This beautiful harp has been plucking heartstrings since before most heart-related idioms were invented. Of course, learning to play it is a bit like trying to untangle a ball of wool the size of a Highland cow, but it’s worth it for that ethereal sound.


7. Smallpipes

Not to be confused with a set of very tiny bagpipes (although that would be adorable), the smallpipes are like the bagpipes’ scrappier little cousin. They’re smaller, quieter, and have a slightly higher-pitched sound that’s perfect for lulling unsuspecting listeners into a false sense of security before unleashing the full sonic assault of the Highland pipes.

8. Harmonica

While not strictly a Scottish instrument, the humble mouth organ has found its way into many a Scottish folk session, usually after someone’s had one too many drams. It’s the perfect instrument for those who want to make music but also want to keep their hands free for more important tasks, like scratching themselves or throwing stale crisps at the fiddler.

9. Jew’s Harp

This ancient instrument has been plucked by Scots of all creeds and colours for centuries. The Jew’s harp is essentially a tiny metal fork that you twang with your mouth, producing a sound that’s somewhere between a buzzing fly and a kazoo with a cold. It’s the perfect way to liven up any ceilidh, or to scare away potential door-to-door salespeople

10. Human Voice

Last but not least, we come to the most versatile Scottish folk instrument of all: the human voice. Whether it’s a rousing rendition of “Donald Where’s Yer Troosers,” a mournful lament about a lost sheep, or just a series of unintelligible grunts and howls, the Scottish voice has been bringing joy (and occasional property devaluation) to neighbourhoods for generations.


So there you have it, folks – 10 essential Scottish folk instruments that are sure to keep you entertained, your neighbours awake, and your dogs howling in confusion. If you’re feeling inspired to pick up one of these traditional noise-makers, might I suggest checking out the FRESH AYR FOLK FEST taking place this August? Not only will you be able to develop your own talents for human suffering but you can watch and listen to them being ‘performed’ by masters of their craft.