About the Pipes

Introduction to Scottish Highland and Irish Uilleann Pipes

Copyright 1996 David C. Daye, all text, image and sound files presented here.

Feel free to copy this work for desktop use and/or your individual study of piping. You may not republish all or any portions of this work in any form, or distribute it in any form, without permission. You may establish electronic pointers or links to this page. Questions, problems, comments or requests for permission to reprint may be e-mailed to me at CLICK HERE

Latest Update July 1996

Lots of photos now added - sound files of individual parts of pipes coming in first 2 weeks of June 96.

Is it "pipe" or "pipes?" Both or either. For any bagpipe or bagpipes.

The Scottish Highland Bagpipe

This is by far the best known and most common bagpipe in the world. It was developed from roughly the 1500's to 1800's in the mountainous, Gaelic- speaking regions of the Highlands and western islands of Scotland.

The modern form consists of 1 loud, high-pitched pipe or "chanter" plays the tune from a small fixed scale of 9 notes, 3 big, loud upright pipes or "drones" which play a single constant bass/treble tone, all connected to a bag held under the arm and filled with air blown by mouth through a "blow-pipe." In the following photo you can clearly see the blow-pipe held in the mouth, the chanter hanging from the front of the bag, and the 3 drones leaning upright over the left shoulder. Click here to see a small (38 KB) close-up photo of the Scottish Highland bagpipes. Or see a large (250 KB) version of the same photo.

The drones are tuned approximately to B-flat, with the scale being roughly a Mixolydian mode scale having "normal" or major-key notes except for the 7ths ("ti" in the "do-re-mi" scale), which are flat or minor-key. The chanter notes are not called by these names. They are named for notes which are actually 1/2 step lower than this, that is the B-flat is termed by pipers an "A." The scale runs one octave from A to A but also includes one note below the scale, a 7th or G. The exact tuning between each of the notes has varied over the years but has never been a tempered (orchestral) scale, but rather is meant to blend best with the ever-present drone.

Evidently this scale was developed to play 5-note or pentatonic music against the fixed drone in several modes.

More photos:

The Bag 32 KB
The back end of the pipe bag showing the leather bag sticking out from the decorative velvet cover.
Stocks 58 KB
Top of the bag showing the "stocks" or short wooden sockets into which all the pipes fit. At the right is a drone removed from its stock (just to its left) with its reed in view.
The Chanter 16 KB
A detached chanter, showing the finger holes. There are several dark bands on the chanter. They are small pieces of tape which are used to tune certain notes by partly covering their holes.
Chanter Reed 20 KB
Top of the chanter showing its double-reed in place.
Top of Drones 35 KB
A view of the top of the drones, showing the sound-holes.
Practice Chanter 26 KB
The small practice-chanter which is the learning and study instrument. Its top is removed to show the small plastic reed.
All Reeds 70 KB
A view of Scottish pipe reeds alongside some Irish uilleann pipe reeds. Scottish chanter reed (double reed) small reed at top left (red mark), bass drone reed big tube near bottom. Small copper tube at top center is "staple" or tubing upon which blades of chanter reed are tied. Other reeds are uilleann pipe reeds. Inch/millimeter measuring stick is shown for scale.

Why is it built this way?

People in many cultures have long been fascinated by continuous sound, and bagpipes are among the earliest inventions capable of producing it. The unchanging drone accompaniment is also an ancient aspect of the music of many cultures. To this day it is used to express strong emotions in passages of popular music, jazz, orchestral music and background music for TV and motion pictures.

The bagpipe is loud because of its long history of use first in the medieval clan society of the Highlands and later in the British military, playing outdoors to announce gatherings and to inspire soldiers in battle. It can be heard for 1 or 2 miles over land or sea under some conditions. However it is very quiet compared to modern amplified instruments, and usually requires amplification when playing in small folk or rock bands.

Anciently the pipes played slow, lengthy pieces now known as "piobaireachd" or pibroch (PEE-brock) or piper-stuff. The pipes were always played solo in those times. With the collapse of the Highland clan society the original utility and audience for this music vanished and so it lives on primarily as a classical form rarely heard except among pipers and small numbers of pipe music lovers.

Just as the clan society was ending, and the bagpipe might have become rare or extinct, large numbers of Highlanders were recruited into the British army which found the pipes useful with a new repertoire of work songs, folk songs and dance tunes adapted for marching, signalling, and inspiring & entertaining troops. This newer music had predictable form and tempo, allowing numerous pipers to play together and to be accompanied by drums for marching. Thus was born the modern pipe band or pipes-and- drums.

Today bagpipes, like many ancient instruments from many cultures, have been incorporated into stage bands with a variety of modern instruments and are adopting new forms of music and new styles of playing. The Highland pipes are becoming popular so quickly now that most pipers who have ever played are alive and playing today.

The Irish Uilleann Pipes

This is probably the most elaborate bagpipe in the world. It was developed from roughly the 1700's to the present time in Ireland, with contributions from the U.S. and European countries. Today it is widely known as the "uilleann" (ILL-en) pipe from the Irish word for "elbow" but it has earlier been called variously the "union" pipe and the "organ" pipe. Some writers believe there to be only one correct term for the instrument but language and usage change with time, and such a restrictive attitude seems pointless to me.

Unlike many types of bagpipe, the uilleann pipes are not blown by mouth but, like numerous types of bagpipes, are inflated by a bellows. Perhaps the most important feature of the instrument is its melody-pipe or chanter, which plays more than 2 complete chromatic octaves (most forms of bagpipe can play little more than one octave).Click here (129 KB) to see a view of the full set of uilleann pipes showing the bellows, bag and all its parts.

The chanter is essentially a primitive oboe and is very quiet, about as loud as 1-2 fiddles. Like the Scots Highland bagpipe the uilleann pipes have 3 drones but they are very quiet. One of the most unusual features of the instrument is the set of (typically) 3 more oboes in the form of 1-octave, 4- or 5-note stopped harmony pipes with keys operated by the wrist (while the piper fingers the melody on the chanter) to provide several simple chords for accompaniment. These pipes have the peculiar name of "regulators" although they are purely musical and do not in any way "regulate" air pressure or behavior of the instrument.

The most commonly-heard or "concert pitch" pipes are tuned in the key of D. The drones are all tuned to D and the chanter plays 2 chromatic octaves (or more) starting with a D. Anciently the pipes were set to lower pitches, and a small number of instruments are regularly heard in keys of C#, B and B-flat. These are generally quieter and are most often played solo since it is somewhat difficult for other common Irish instruments to tune to them.

The instrument must be played seated with one leg lowered. The chanter bottom is placed onto this leg to seal the opening shut, so that the piper can play either continuously or, as desired, can stop the chanter to play interrupted or stacatto notes. Click here (84 KB) to see a photo of a full set of Irish uilleann pipes being played.

More photos

Pipes Being Played 59K
A view from the bag side of the piper.
The Chanter 34 KB
A view of 2 chanters. The chanter on the left is complete and attached to the pipes; the chanter on the right is detached from its metal cap so that you can see its reed at the top.
The Bellows (64 KB)
Closeup view of the bellows.
The Mainstock (64 KB)
Every pipe, except for the chanter, connects to one main "stock" or socket. This is a closeup of the mainstock with all the pipes in place. The drones cannot be seen since they connect to the stock below the regulators, which are the 3 pipes with keys seen here on top.
Drone (14 KB)
The smallest drone removed for view. The reed is at the left of photo. The white section in the middle is a sliding joint for tuning.
Small Regulator (40 KB)
The smallest regulator removed for view. The reed is at the left of photo. The wrist-operated keys are seen along the top. At right and just below are the end-cap with a pin for tuning. A slender piece of grass is taped to the pin. The pin slides the grass in and out of the bore of the regulator to lower (in) and raise (out) the pitch of this pipe.
Big Regulator (82 KB)
2 big regulators, the top one dissembled for view. It is in 3 parts. The protective reed-cap is at the left of photo. The center portion is in the middle with the reed at in its left. This wooden part is normally inside the metal covering shown just above. The wrist-operated keys are seen along the top on the right section. At right and just above are the end-cap with tuning pin and thick tuning-grass or "rush" attached to pin.
All Reeds 70 KB
A view of uilleann pipe reeds alongside some Scottish Highland pipe reeds. Uilleann chanter reed (double reed) large reed at top right (edge view, with white wrapping around stem), face view of chanter reed center above measuring stick, showing sliding brass bridle (adjuster). Brass tube at upper right is "staple" or tube around which the chanter reeds are tied. Tiny cane tube at bottom center is reed for small (soprano) drone.

Why is it built this way?

The chanter of the uilleann pipes (or their ancestor) seems to date to about the time of invention of the modern oboe. Whereas most varieties of bagpipe retained their traditional form as classical music evolved, uilleann pipers embraced a great deal of innovation in their instrument. The oboe's 2nd octave and full chromatic scales were first adopted. The drones were fitted with a stop-valve so that they could be turned off when playing in keys for which they would be undesireable.

The regulators provided a simple but much wider variety of harmonic accompaniment than the drones. Uilleann pipes have continued to evolve in the modern era, responding to the needs of stage playing in the days of Vaudeville with louder sound and higher pitch. Increasing demands for precise tuning in the modern era of digital music have produced instruments which can hold their own very well in music other than traditional Irish music.

End of "About the Pipes"