We are all so used to thinking of bagpipes as Scottish – about as quintessentially Scottish as haggis. So the thought that these most iconic of Scottish objects have a different genesis seems impossible. But are bagpipes Irish, and why doesn’t anyone mention this is a thing?

The Irish have just as much a right to claim the bagpipes as the Scots. If you want to be pedantic, you could (correctly) say that Irish bagpipes are better known as uilleann bagpipes. 

If you’re thinking about taking up piping, check out the Celtic Croft’s selection of practice chanters. You’ll love connecting to your Celtic roots with traditional music.

Bagpipes, A Symbol of Scotland

A young man playing a bagpipe in a field in Scotland.

Bagpipes may well be the most famous Scottish icon, but their origins are more likely to have come from elsewhere. Some indications are that bagpipes originated in Egypt, others that they were first heard of in Rome during empire times. But, whoever invented them, the Scots have pretty much made this instrument their own over the years.

However, the Irish also lay claim to playing an instrument that is similar to the Scottish version. The national bagpipe of Ireland is as much a tradition as their Scottish counterparts. However, what they are made of and how they are played differentiates the Irish bagpipes from the Scottish bagpipes. 

While Irish bagpipes are commonly referred to as “uilleann pipes,” another term used is the easier to pronounce “union pipes.” It’s tempting to think that the word “union” represents the union of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. 

That seems unlikely, though. Instead, “uilleann” derives from the Irish word for elbow. When you play the uilleann pipes, you do so using your elbows.

 Similarities Between Irish and Scottish Bagpipes

  • Both sets of pipes are traditionally made from animal skin. They’re more likely to be made from artificial fabric these days, though.
  • As indicated in the name, the “bagpipe” has a bag, and it is into this that the player blows air.
  • The player uses a chanter to create a melody. If you are familiar with wind instruments, you will know that you “close” the holes to play a particular note. Bagpipes are no different in this regard.

Differences Between Irish and Scottish Bagpipes

  • The Scottish piper traditionally stands while playing and usually plays outside, as the instrument is quite loud. The Irish piper will sit, and the pipes can be played indoors, as they are quieter.
  • The piper creates sound by blowing into the bagpipes in the Scottish version. Irish pipers create sound by pressing the bellows with their elbows.
  • Irish bagpipes have a wider range than Scottish ones, including allowing for half-notes, or chromatic notes, to be played. 
  • Scottish bagpipers hold the bag under their elbow, whereas the bag lies across the lap in the Irish version. 
  • Because the Irish types of bagpipes are played indoors, they were never seen as weapons of war. They have never been banned for this reason.

The History Of The Bagpipes

Three men in a black and white historical photo wearing sporrans and bagpipes.

As mentioned, these may well have originated in ancient Rome and brought to Ireland and Scotland when the Romans invaded. Although there are mentions of a similar instrument, the first recognized pipe playing was around the 14th century. Marchers played the bagpipes while leading military parades, and today, few military parades would be complete without the pipes. 

As the bagpipes were most often played in Scotland, they became associated with Scottish nationhood. Consequently, and like so many other symbols of Scottish nationalism, the pipes were banned following the Jacobite rebellion of 1746. 

The most common variant of bagpipe is the Great Highland Bagpipe. You can also see smaller versions, like the Parlour Pipe.

What Are Bagpipes Made Of?

As noted above, animal skin was traditionally used as the bag, but this is less common these days. The chanter and pipes are usually made of wood, and the drone contains a single or double reed. The reeds themselves may be made from cane, synthetic material, brass, or metal. 

There was a time when bagpiper manufacturers used ivory as decoration, but this is no longer the case. Instead, plastics or other artificial materials like celluloid are preferred.

Fun Facts About Bagpipes

Piper playing traditional Scottish / Irish bagpipes

  • He’s often said to have “fiddled while Rome burned,” but the emperor Nero loved playing the pipes. He is said to have played an early form of the bagpipes as his city burned around him.
  • The most commonly played song on the bagpipes is “Scotland the Brave.” 
  • The bagpipes’ popularity grew in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly in former British colonies. In the United States, bagpipes have become so popular that there are more bagpipe bands in the USA than in Scotland. 
  • Pipes are thought to have once been used to scare people off the battlefield. Now, of course, they are mostly associated with leading people into battle, as the piper will often lead the march. 
  • There is even an International Bagpipes Day – March 10. 

The Beginner’s Guide To Playing Bagpipes

A simple, easy-to-follow lesson book with a play-along CD. You’ll learn everything you need to know to graduate from your practice chanter to real bagpipes! Softcover, spiral-bound, 93 pages.

If you are starting to learn this instrument, you probably shouldn’t rush in to buy the full set of pipes. Simple sets of pipes will suffice at this stage as a practice set. Instead, learn the basics on a “practice chanter,” an instrument that allows you to practice your finger technique.

It’s often a joke that no one wants to live near the person learning the bagpipes. You could say the same about learning any musical instrument, of course. However, the beauty of learning uilleann bagpipes is that they are traditionally quieter and designed for playing indoors. 

If you learn the bagpipes for no other reason than the pleasure of their sound, you are in good company. It’s alleged that Queen Elizabeth II uses bagpipers rather than an alarm clock to wake her in the morning. There is something about the music of bagpipes that stirs the blood and makes you want to march.

 Are You Convinced?

Are bagpipes Irish? Yes! Two Irish bagpipe players in a parade.

So, are bagpipes Irish, or is that a myth? They are certainly not exclusively Scottish, as you might have believed. They are one of the few instruments that are almost global in their appeal and popularity. 

Start with a practice chanter, and move onto the real thing when you’re proficient. Pick up some Celtic music for inspiration. The bagpipes are an instrument that will always be in fashion.

Celtic music, Ireland, Irish bagpipes, uilleann bagpipes
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