by David Papazian

There are many varieties of instruments known as bagpipes throughout Europe and in parts of Asia, but in the Celtic world of the British Isles, there are two main types, The Irish (Uillean or Elbow) and the Scottish (Great Highland or Small Border). How do we distinguish between them?

The Great Highland (Bagpipe) is probably the most prolific bagpipe worldwide today, due in no small part to the vast extent of the British Empire in the 19th century. The English military appropriated the ancient Scots use of the bagpipe as a tool of intimidation and inspiration in war, and developed military marching bands which accompanied their troops throughout 'the colonies'. Hence, the playing of the Highland Pipes is very widespread today from New Zealand and Australia, India and Pakistan, through to Canada and the United States.

The bag is blown full from the player's mouth through a blow-pipe and the pressure from the left arm on the bag sends and controls the flow of air to the melody chanter and three drones. The range of tones which can be produced from the eight small holes in the chanter is limited to only nine, spanning an octave and a tone or second. The sound is produced when the air is forced through a small double-sided reed made traditionally from cane and more recently from plastic. Because the pipe is mouth-blown, the air is laden with moisture and operates in a damp state. The tonic notes are pitched about B flat and the scale includes a flat 7th. The limited scale and melodic possibilities, as well as the ever-present drones, give the music both haunting and mesmerizing characteristics.

Historically the instrument was played outdoors for community dance music, in a solo or 'sean nos' style, leaving much room for individual interpretation. For the advanced player, the ancient repertoire of 'pibroch' remains the ultimate challenge for the solo piper, a canon of slow and mournful set pieces, demanding advanced technique and thoughtful expression. The military band appropriation necessitated a high degree of conformity of melody and gracings, providing solid training for the aspiring piper, but inevitably causing frustration of individual expression.The Highland piper usually stands while playing and often will walk slowly in a small circle, measuring his steps with the beat of the music.The Small Lowland or Parlour pipes are a scaled-down, indoor version of the Highland pipes and are blown from a bellows strapped to the right arm. They produce a much quieter and more refined sound, and have become popular in recent years with folk and traditional groups. These pipes are pitched in the more 'sociable' keys of A and D, making them ideal for ensemble playing.

The Uillean (elbow) pipes of the Irish tradition are quite a different matter. As the name suggests, they are blown from a bellows located on the right arm, and again, the air is collected and controlled from the bag under the left arm. Pressure on the bag feeds the air to the reeds of the melody chanter, as many as three drones, and three regulator stocks, each fitted with keys which can provide occasional or constant chordal accompaniment. These regulator keys are played with the inner wrist of the right hand, while fingering the chanter, thus necessitating masterful co-ordination. The player sits forward on a chair, the open end of the melody chanter placed on the right thigh and it remains there, effectively closing the chanter when all eight holes are covered. The notes are produced by lifting one or more fingers off the chanter to open one or more holes, or, in the case of the lowest tonic note, lifting the end of the chanter off the leg while covering all the fingered holes.

Thus we observe a major difference between the Scottish and Irish pipes.The Highland chanter is always open at the end and thus the melody is continuous. The Irish chanter operates principally in a closed fashion, making it possible to stop the sound, often imperceptibly. This allows for a vastly different fingering technique which can produce a wide variety of melodic and ornamental effects.

The range of the Irish chanter is two full octaves, and with the addition of several keys, can be played chromatically; that is sounding all the black and white notes of the keyboard. The pipes can be pitched in a variety of keys, based on the tonic 'concert' D, or the 'flat sets' in C#, C, B or B flat.The lower the pitch of the pipes becomes, the quieter and sweeter is the tone that results.

Concert 'D' pipes are popular in modern times because they can be played readily with most other instruments and they have a bright and present sound.The flat sets were more popular in times past, but are currently enjoying a revival, as players search for more tonal colours for their palette.

The full set of Uillean pipes were designed as a mini-orchestra, complete with melody, chordal accompaniment and drones. A lever allows the drones to be switched on or off as desired, and the regulator work is an individual style-choice, ranging from rhythmic hits to full chords. Because the fingering proceeds from a closed system, a wide variety of style and ornamentation is possible, giving the player much discretion in how he/she interprets the music. Laments and slow airs are especially effective and demonstrate the mature player's mastery of technique. A multitude of fingering options coupled with effects produced by lifting the chanter 'off the knee' allow a broad range of personal expression, a quality which is expected of the advanced player.

The chanter reed is also double-sided, made from cane, though longer and much more delicate then the Highland chanter reed. The Highland reeds are often bought by the dozen from suppliers and thus are quite disposable and somewhat interchangeable between sets. The Irish reeds, on the other hand, are very sensitive to humidity and temperature, and are almost always uniquely fitted to each chanter, often by the pipemaker himself. A good one, well cared-for, can last for many years.Irish pipers often must master the art of reed making, as well as reed adjustment and maintenance. Trust me, this is no simple task.

In conclusion, each of the traditions of bagpiping is replete with a body of repetoire, technique and playing opportunities. Of late, there have been more and more interchanges between the two, as it is quite possible to set Irish melodies on the Scottish chanter, and visa-versa. Bagpipers occupy a somewhat rarified world, inhabited by devotees and connoisseurs, as well as practitioners. Perhaps not surprisingly, the passion for bagpiping shows no sign of waning and is probably more widespread in today's world than at any time previous. Like fine whiskey, with one small taste, you may be hooked for life.


David Papazian is a musician and luthier.
He plays violin, concertina and Irish Pipes.
David Papazian papazianviolins @

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