A MacCorkill - The Uillean Pipes

Scottish History and Culture

"The Uillean Pipes"

"Scone's Scottish and Celtic Internet Book

Scottish Highlands and Islands Partnership


"The Uillean (Irish) Pipes"

~~by N. MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot



by Nancy MacCorkill

Whilst many think of bagpipes as a strictly Scottish instrument, history records that the Irish had pipes very early on in history.

The existence of bagpipes in Ireland is depicted by a piper shown on the High Cross at Clonmacnoise, dated 910 A.D. A picture of the instrument is given in a manuscript bearing the date 1300. Some two centuries earlier, an Irish piper was awarded a prize by King Griffith for his efforts! And various other records from that time until 1367 - when Irish bagpipes; the wearing of the green National colour, together with the national dress, were banned by the Statute of Kilkenny - are still in existence.

Banning of the pipes hardly fazed the Irish, however. Greatly in demand as mercenary soldiers they took their pipes to Calais in 1346, Harfleur in 1415, Rouen in 1518 and Boulogne in 1540. In Austria there existed an oil painting of an Irish piper bearing the date 1514.

Although Elizabeth banned the warpipes - or Piob Mor - the Irish cleverly introduced a bagpipe which could be played only when seated and thus escaped the ban. This was the Uillean, or elbow pipe, and Shakespeare makes mention of them as "woolen pipes."

These pipes, however, require years of apprenticeship before a player reaches even a moderate degree of performance. It is said that their music can convey the "breath of the mountail furze in bloom, the song of the blackbird in the clear sunshine of an April day on Slievenamon, or the wild call of grey-lag geese battling with a westerly wind on a winter's night."

You may have heard these pipes played, hauntingly in the movie "Braveheart", and more recently in the Irish production of Riverdance I. Where, in Riverdance I, it showed the actual Uillean pipes being played by an artist, sitting down, and the bellows under the left arm constantly being pumped with the left elbow and arm to the reserve bag on the right side of the player. No air is blown into a chanter as is the case with the war pipes and the Great pipes of Scotland. The air being pushed thru the bag, forces the air out of the chanter, which lies sideways on the lap of the player and the fingers fairly fly over the holes on the chanter and many lovely grace, and double grace notes can be played, giving the pipes a lovely sound.

It was many years before the Irish Warpipe emerged from the penal ban, as its introduction into the British Army was a process of gradual and unofficial infiltration.

Given credit for breaking the ice are the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers -- one of the three regiments, making appearances in Canada and USA as well as N. Ireland. Their 4th Battalion had a pipe band in 1880. This was followed by many other regiments, including the 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers at Dover ten years later. By 1908 almost every Irish batallion possessed it's pipe band -- although it was still unofficial.

Following the first World War, the right of Irish soldiers to march behind their traditional music was acknowledged and the Warpipes which had left Ireland in 1691 -- but had sounded all over Europe for a hundred years with the Irish Brigade of King Louis' army - returned to their homeland.

In 1908, the pipe-major of the London Irish Rifles introduced a patent chanter know now as the Brian Boru chanter. It was made in the key of E as opposed to the traditional A -- and to increase its range from the nine notes of the Warpipe he added keys top and bottom.

Keen-eyed members of the audiences will note a difference between the bagpipes played by the French-grey-jacketed Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and those of the Royal Irish Fusiliers -- the former use the Brian Boru chanter. And they'll argue for hours over its merits.

Regardless of the pipes used, however, the audience can be certain that these men of the Brigade are experts - and the quality of their music testifies to their proficiency.


These Irish Brigades have a long and lusterous career as fierce fighting men as well as expert pipers. One need only the hear their names to recognize that fact. The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, The Royal Ulster Rifles, The Royal Irish Fusiliers (Princess Victoria's). Proud, Irish, and excellent!!

Article by Nancy A. MacCorkill, Lady, F.S.A. Scot
Historian of the Ancient Clans of Scotland
Author, Poet



©Page designed by Created by
Dreamspinner©, Webmaster
"©All Rights Reserved for page ©Scone's Scottish & Celtic Internet Book 01/01/2001, 2002, 2003 N MacCorkill©"

Free Hit Counter