A Brief History of the Uillean Pipes

The uillean pipes are the most complex of a long line of bagpipes, probably originating somewhere around India, several thousand years before reaching Scotland. In some cases, wind players would employ their cheeks as a reservoir for the air, in an attempt to sustain the tone, maintaining air pressure with their cheek muscles while inhaling through their nose. This circular breathing is still used in many traditions, including jazz trumpet and saxophone. Sometimes more than one pipe is inserted in the mouth enabling harmonies. The Sardinian Launeddas has two melody pipes and additional drones pipes, each with their requisite reed, creating a virtual hive of swirling harmonies, all in one mouth. The strain on the player’s physiology is significant, especially with the high pressure associated with many of these instruments. Some industrious piper implemented a goatskin as a convenient replacement for his own face allowing for the sustained tone and simultaneous playing of several discreet pipes.

Until the industrial revolution and, more recently, mass media contributed to the subordination of rural culture, bagpipes were common throughout the Middle East, India, parts of the Far East, Northern Africa, Western Russia and Europe, varying widely from place to place. In urban Italy, the beautifully mellow, low-pitched Zampogna is associated with Christmas, since that is when the hill people, who still play them, come down from their mountain villages and play door to door. I actually ran across some little plastic Zampogna playing figurines as part of a Christmas display in a local Iowa flower shop; made in Italy, of course.

We have British colonialism to thank for saving the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe from the obscurity enjoyed by these other forms. After the battle of Culloden in 1746 sealed the fate of the Scottish people, the British government outlawed the Gaelic language and way of life including the pipes, killing many pipers and other innocent highlanders. A hundred years later Queen Victoria, made tartan, the kilt and Scottish bagpipes fashionable, sending the Scottish regiments, pipes and all, throughout the world in the name of the empire, making bagpipes synonymous with Scotland.

The British having imposed this same sort of cultural genocide in Ireland a century before, the old Piob Mor, a somewhat similar instrument to the Highland Pipes, was quite literally killed out. Around this time, the Uillean Pipes were evolving from this older form. Being a new fangled thing, they had no political significance and consequently were saved from the same fate to inherit the cultural mantle.

The word uillean or uilleann usually is understood to refer to the elbow, which pumps a bellows to inflate the bag, replacing the lungs. This use of relatively dry air, as opposed to moist breath, enables the reeds to be made more delicately, imparting a sweeter tone, a friendlier volume and the ability to “over blow” to encompass a second octave. The mediation of the bag, although affording a constant sound, usually precludes stopping the sound for articulation of individual notes, necessitating the use of grace notes, little notes inserted around the melody notes for separation and emphasis. As well as making ample use of grace notes, the Irish pipes are distinguished by their ability to play staccato by closing the bottom of the chanter or melody pipe on a leather pad on the thigh and closing all the finger holes between the notes. Three drones, in octaves of the tonic, provide a harmonic bed in which the melody may recline. As if this weren’t enough, three other pipes called regulators, similar to the chanter but with permanently stopped ends and closed levers, are bundled with the drones such that they lie across the thigh, making their keys convenient to the wrist. When depressed in a row they accompany the tune with organ-like chords, sometimes rhythmic, other times sustained. The sweet yet richly vibrant concordance of all this has inspired the nick-name, The Irish organ and perhaps the other name they are known by The Irish Union Pipes.