Irish Uilleann Pipes Compared to Scottish Highland Bagpipes

Copyright 1998 David C. Daye, all text, image and sound files presented here.

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Created January 1998

> I have played the Scottish Highland (Irish War-) Pipes
> for many years and was wondering if the fingering
> is similar?

Click Here for an introduction to both bagpipes with photos, text and sound samples.

The chanter is held the same way as the Scottish chanter, gripped by the flats of the fingers instead of the tips. The fingers are moved the same way. Also there is the bag under the top-hand arm. Beyond this, most everything is different.

The chanter is not hung upright from the bag. Because of the requirement to reach around the bag, the bellows and other pipes, the chanter is rested on the bottom-hand thigh and leaned at an extreme angle forwards and towards the bag. This allows comfortable playing as well as good protection for the wrists against bad posture and irritation from over-use.

The uilleann pipe chanter plays 2 octaves and can play a chromatic scale (with "half steps" in between many of the notes), so there are more than twice as many notes to learn.

The bottom of the chanter is normally sealed against a leather pad on the leg (except when playing the bottom note). Any time all the fingers are covering their holes, the chanter is silent. This feature is used to create short silent gaps between notes such as other woodwind players (flutes, whistles, saxophones etc.) can do, so that the sound does not need to be continuous as the Scottish pipe sound.

You can try this on a practice-chanter by sealing the bottom end on your leg and deliberately attempting to make crossing noises. With the bottom sealed, instead of noise, there is a brief silence. It takes a while to learn to do this without squeezing the fingers very hard or cramping and getting tired.

Uilleann pipers refer to this as 'stacatto,' and it is optional. Most pipers play some notes stacatto and others continuous. The skill does not require great finger-speed like Highland doublings, but the lengths of the silences are optional, so there is much experience needed to give a smooth flow and sensible interpretation to the playing.

Most of the notes have acceptable alternative fingerings, especially for use with the chanter lifted up off the leg, which allows the piper to vary the pitch, tone and loudness of the notes. This again does not require great speed or dexterity but there is much musical interpretation to learn.

Then there is the bellows. The right arm must be taught to pump the bellows but of course, like blowing, the pumping does not control the instrument but merely feeds the bag.

The bag work is quite different since there needs to be variable pressure. The lowest note has 2 pressures, the higher one giving a special harmonic edge to it, but generally these are the lowest pressures of the instrument. Pressure is always lower than Highland pipes but it increases slowly as the scale goes up, especially onto the 2nd octave. Here there is more skill needed than on the fixed-pressure Highlands. Also it is essential to play well by ear since the bag pressure and the alternate fingerings create an important imprecision in the pitch of each note. The piper is responsible for the final pitch of each note as it is created.

Since the uilleann pipe has so many features of more conventional musical instruments, there is much less reliance on embellishments than in Highland piping. All the embellishments are optional so that each player finds his own best way with the instrument, and with the continous or the stacatto playing. If you can finger the melodies fast enough then you can be a decent piper as far as the fingers go, since the embellishments are rather simple and are tolerated when fairly open and slow compared to the faster Highland players.

There are no fixed "settings" since there are no massed choruses playing in contests or for military manouvers. This means that there is also a great reliance upon learning by hearing rather than reading music. THere is a large amount of music available for the uilleann pipes, and the exact versions tend to change from one place to another, so it is often expected that players will adapt to the exact version others are playing.

Mechanically of course the uilleann pipe is far more complicated than the Highland. It has 3 drones but on 3 rather than just 2 different octaves. These have a valve on/off switch. Then there are the 3 "regulators" which are really harmony-pipes--actually they're 1-octave chanters normally shut off. The wrist or hand is leaned against the keys and then notes or chords will play. So there is 1 2-octave chanter, 3 drones, and 3 more chanter type pipes for 4 double reeds (all different) and 4 single reeds (all different).

Because of this it is routine to start with a "practice set" which in reality has a real chanter and real bag & bellows. Drones can be added later, and regulators later still.

Since the chanter is wood but plays 2 octaves, the tuning is critically dependent upon the shape of the reed being absolutely matched to the shape of the bore. Any tiny change in the reed, such as caused by a gust of dry air blowing past for a few minutes, will throw off the 2 octaves from each other. It is common to find a single hole having its 1st octave note flat while its 2nd octave note is sharp. As an attempt to control this complexity, the reed is usually adjustable with a sliding metal bridle, and the bore itself can be adjusted by inserting and removing thin stems of grass rush or guitar string etc. according to changes percieved in the reed. All the double reed pipes use such "rushes" as they are termed. The 3 "regulators" have them built in, and you can see them as thin wires sticking out the ends with decorative metal or ivory knobs.

These reeds are all very thin, and not being mouth-blown, are very liable to change as the air around the instrument changes or sunlight comes & goes etc. Therefore the pipes play best in oceanic climates or even in deserts so long as the humidity does not change greatly.

In summary, the pipe itself is more compicated and tricky to set up than the Highland. The fingering is much less demanding of speed but more complicated musically. The bag & blowing are more complicated as well.

If you have rather ordinary fingers but a good head and ear for music, and a love of mechanical tinkering, the uilleann pipe can be a rewarding lifelong musical choice. If you don't have much of an ear, the Scottish Highland pipes would be best because the options are limited and in the big bands the leaders usually set up the instruments so that everyone sounds matched.

David Daye Columbus, Ohio USA CLICK HERE

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