There is no doubt that the bagpipes are a fascinating instrument. There are several different types of bagpipes, but perhaps the most common are found in Scotland and Ireland.
They are not the same instrument, though. So, what are the differences between Irish bagpipes and Scottish bagpipes? Before we take a look at that, let’s just have a brief look at the history of the instrument.
Not What It Seems
It’s considered the national instrument of Scotland, and if you were to ask most people, they might say that is where its roots lie. But, the origins of the bagpipes lay elsewhere in a different time.
“What have the Romans ever done for us?” A question asked in a classic Monty Python film. Well, bagpipes were certainly missed on that list. They were around in Roman times, and we can see their depiction on the coins of the time.
Some of these coins have an inscription of Emperor Nero playing them. But, the first bagpipes we have any record of date back further to about 1000 BC in the Middle East.
These were what we would call Folk bagpipes today. They were spread over a wide area of Asia and Europe. But, there was no conformity in the design and construction. Additionally, they included local customs and traditions included in that design.
They are still around to be seen today in museums, especially in New York at the Metropolitan Museum.
The design of the musette from France began what we might call the definitive design. Their use grew, and they became very popular in the north of England and Ireland before the reformation. Therefore, it is clear that they were commonplace in England before they arrived in Scotland.
What British evidence do we have for their use at this time?
- In “The Miller’s Tale,” about 1380, Chaucer makes mention of them.
- Shakespeare mentions the drone of the bagpipes from Lincolnshire in Henry IV, written about 1590.
- Churches from the Middle Ages in England depict carvings and drawings of bagpipes.
- We know that Kings Henry VII and VIII liked their bagpipes.
When Did They Arrive in Scotland?
Difficult to know exactly. The Irish played the bagpipes for Edward the First at Calais in 1297 and 1298 at the Battle of Falkirk. But, exactly when they arrived is not so important. The important thing is that they have become one of the symbols of Scotland.
Along with the Kilt and Shortbread, Scotland has a cultural link to this fascinating instrument. But, let’s not forget, so do the Irish. Although, not in such a prominent way.
Before we get into looking closely at the differences between the Scottish bagpipes and Irish bagpipes, let’s summarize some of the more obvious.
The Basic Differences
- Irish bagpipes are generally more expensive.
- Irish have bellows; Scottish bagpipes do not.
- The range of the Scottish bagpipes is one octave plus one note; the Irish can play two octaves.
- Scottish bagpipes have three drones, but the Irish only have two.
- Irish bagpipes can play various scales, but the Scottish only the Mixolydian and scales associated with it.
- Irish bagpipes are played seated and have a softer, sweeter sound.
- Scottish bagpipes are played standing or marching, and they sound much harsher.
The main differences revolve around how you play them and, to an extent, the sound created. With Irish bagpipes, you inflate the bellows, whereas the Scottish are blown by mouth. But, even with those two generalized bagpipes, Scottish and Irish, there are differences.
As most do when considering both types, we shall look at the Great Highland Bagpipe for the Scottish. For the Irish, the Uilleann. So, let’s take a closer look.
The Scottish Bagpipes – A Cultural Treasure
That is probably the most popular way the bagpipes are considered in Scotland. In British Military history, the bagpipes are associated with great feats of bravery. And this was, in many cases, above and beyond what was known as the “call of duty.”
World War One
On the battlefields of the Somme and other places in World War One, the pipers often led the men out of the trenches. There were over 2500 pipers used for that purpose. Losses were terrifying as they were first over the top.
Orders came down to cease sending the pipers over first. They were often ignored. The pipes were also used to send messages about tactical deployments.
Normandy – World War Two
The D-Day invasion of the 6th of June, 1944, saw many heroic acts. But, possibly none like that of Private Bill Millin.
Wearing a Scottish ceremonial dagger…
…and his father’s first World War kilt, he waded ashore on Sword Beach under heavy fire. On reaching the beach, he took up his bagpipes and played.
Marching up and down the beach, playing “Hielan Laddie,” a regimental march, encouraging the men forward. Astonishingly, despite the carnage, he survived.
These are just two of the reasons the bagpipes and their history are written into Scottish folklore. There are plenty of others, going back to at least the 1400s when it is known they were used in a military context.
What Does This Iconic Instrument Consist Of?
The Bagpipes are a member of the woodwind family of instruments, and they are double-reed instruments. It has a set number of constituent parts that make up its design and construction. Let’s look at each of those parts and understand its purpose.
The Scottish bagpipes are played by using the air in the bag. Air is moved into the bag from the mouth via the blowpipe. The majority of modern blowpipes have a system called an ‘airlock mechanism.’ This prevents any air from leaking back to the blowpipe.
Something that you can’t help but see when you look at the bagpipes. You could say it is the ‘lungs’ of the instrument. It is the reservoir for holding the air, which allows you to play. It used to be made from animal hide, either from sheep, cows, or goats. Indeed, some manufacturers still use those materials. Others prefer to use synthetic materials.
The synthetic bag seems like a good solution, but there is a health and hygiene concerns. To counteract that, they are often fitted with a zip to allow internal cleaning.
Inflating The Bag
Playing the bagpipes entails you blowing through the blowpipe constantly to keep the bag inflated. The pressure inside the bag is controlled by compressing the bag under your arm. This in itself is a skill that needs to be acquired for all those learning to play.
When you compress the bag, the air is expelled and passes through the drone and the chanter to produce the sound.
This might be a confusing term to some, but it is how you create the notes on the bagpipe. You might call it a melody pipe as it is fitted with several finger holes. In many ways, it resembles a very basic flute and works similarly.
Notes are created by covering the finger holes. It is fitted with a reed and is connected to the bag. The design of the internal bore can be either cylindrical or conical. Scottish bagpipes are usually the latter.
Conical chanters have a much louder, percussive sound which is what we associate with Scottish bagpipes. A cylindrical chanter produces a quieter and softer tone.
A Continuous Sound
Applying pressure to the bag will produce a continuous sound because the ends of the Chanters are open. Therefore, bagpipe music does not have any rests. Legato, or changing from one note to the next without a break, is the musical term.
There are techniques that very technically gifted pipers use to give the impression or illusion of having breaks. These take many years to master correctly.
The Great Highland Bagpipe has a range of one octave and is in the Mixolydian mode, characterized by the flattened seventh note of the scale.
The chanter has a total of nine notes. These notes are from low G to low A – B and C – D – E, and F. And finally a high G, and a high A. The C, when played, sounds like a C#, and the F sounds like an F#.
Drones also have reeds for producing sound. Although, drones do not have holes for creating notes, so there is no pitch. Their job is to produce a constant humming sound. You’ll recognize the drones as they sit over the shoulder of the piper.
Most Scottish bagpipes have three drones, a bass, and two tenors. The tenor drones have a pitch that is set at an octave below the low A of the Chanter. The bass drone is set two octaves lower.
The Irish Bagpipes – A Different Instrument
The Irish bagpipes, while going under the same name, are a completely different instrument from their Scottish counterparts.
There are several different types of Irish bagpipes available. But, the most common form is the Uilleann Bagpipes. These were once called “Union Pipes,” although it is hard to know exactly why.
So, What Are the Differences Between Irish Bagpipes and Scottish Bagpipes?
First, they are not played in the same way, and they play different styles of music. Furthermore, they don’t have the same constituent parts, and the sound is vastly different. Let’s take a look…
Scottish bagpipes use a blowpipe, but the Uilleann bagpipes use a form of bellows. These are placed under the arm and are controlled using the elbow. Hence the term that is sometimes used… “elbow pipes.”
Irish bagpipes have a double reed design, which is another way they are different from the Scottish version. The Chanter rests on the pipers’ thighs. This is why Irish bagpipes are played while seated.
The Irish chanter is more versatile than the Scottish as it can play two octaves and not just one. You can also play all the accidentals. An accidental is a note that is not included in the scale; this could be a flat or a sharp. So, extra fingering techniques are needed to play those notes.
They can be tuned to various keys, but the most commonly used is D. There is also what is known as flat set tuning for C#- C- B and Bb. The tuning will depend on the length of the chanter.
The Chanter Bore
We have already seen that there are two types of bore, cylindrical and conical. The Irish bagpipes have a cylindrical bore which produces a much softer, in some ways, sweeter sound. Not as loud, percussive, or as penetrating as the Scottish version is.
Another difference in the design of the Chanters is the end. Uilleann pipe chanters can open and close. This allows you to play Staccato as well as the Legato of the Scottish bagpipes.
Therefore, this allows you to play every note separately and not joined or linked to the previous note. Also, you can create tremolo or vibrato effects. This is another difference between Scottish and Irish bagpipes and one that has a big effect on the sound created.
Unlike the Scottish bagpipes, there are two drones. They are tuned to the chanter’s lowest note and are bass and tenor. They perform the same function as the Scottish drones, but the Irish drones can be tuned.
Also, you have the option to turn them off or on, courtesy of a control slider or switch.
A unique feature of Irish bagpipes is the regulators. They are best described as being similar to chanters, and usually, each set of bagpipes has three. These also have note holes with sprung keys on the ends.
When you are playing the pipes, the regulators also sit on the lap of the piper. They give you extra options like chords and some basic rhythmic or melodic accompaniment.
Some Other Differences
Irish bagpipes cannot be mass-produced because of the special features they have. For example, the double-reed in the chanter. The consequence of that is that there are fewer instruments around, and they tend to be more expensive.
You may find that occasionally they have tried to manufacture them cheaply, but the sound always suffers.
The Instrument ‘Sets’
You can buy different what they call ‘sets’ of the Irish bagpipe. That just means that not all of the instrument is included, just what you need at a certain level. Here are some common sets of Irish bagpipes.
Practice Or Student Set
Ideally suited for the beginner or basic practice. Included will be just the basic requirements. This will be the bag, chanter, and bellows.
This set allows you to practice control over the bellows while you are playing the chanter. An important technique to master. You will still find experienced players using these sets.
Next up, the next level is the Half Set. This includes all the pieces included with the Practice Set but also includes the drones.
Includes everything. That is the Practice and Half Step sets and then adds on the regulators. The price will rise depending on which set you choose.
What Are the Differences Between Irish Bagpipes and Scottish Bagpipes? – Quick Summary
That is quite a lot to take in. Both Scottish and Irish bagpipes have their plus points and their negatives. Let’s summarize them.
- More readily available.
- Usually cost a little less.
- There are likely to be more tutors available.
- Not much in the way of tuning is needed.
- Limited to just one octave.
- You will require healthy lungs.
- Can be difficult to coordinate playing and blowing at the same time.
- They tend to be very loud, so you will need a suitable practice room.
- Need to be played standing up.
- Can be played seated.
- Require less physical effort to play.
- Two octaves and multiple scales of tonal range.
- Finger positioning is usually easier despite there being more notes on offer.
- More suited to people who prefer softer music.
- Can be practiced at home as they are much quieter.
- Regulators that offer melodic and rhythmic options.
- More expensive to buy.
- Fewer instruments in the marketplace for purchase.
- A tutor will probably be harder to find unless you live in Ireland.
- They take a little more maintenance.
If you are interested in learning to play the Bagpipes, here are some things that may interest you:
Interested in the Bagpipes or Similar Instruments?
We can help with that. Take a look at our comprehensive articles on How Hard Is It to Play Bagpipes, How Do Accordions Work, The Difference Between Brass and Woodwind Instruments, and A Guide to Musical Instruments of the Medieval Period for more information.
Also, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Bagpipes, the Best Melodica, the Best Ocarinas, the Best Tin Whistles, the Best Blues Harmonicas, the Best Flute, the Best Student Flute, the Best Alto Saxophones, and the Best Tenor Saxophones you can buy in 2023.
What Are the Differences Between Irish Bagpipes and Scottish Bagpipes – Conclusion
Well, that’s it, I’ve covered the differences between Irish Bagpipes and Scottish Bagpipes, and it may have surprised you that there are so many. If you are considering buying some bagpipes to learn, you can now see the differences between these two options. But, there are some things to consider.
- You may find the Irish bagpipes more expensive, although you can buy the instruments in sets.
- You may find tutors harder to find.
- Whichever you choose, get the best set you can afford.
I hope that may be of some assistance. It is a great instrument with a rich and meaningful history. But, one of the great things about this instrument has nothing to do with playing it. They both have thriving piper communities where you will be warmly welcomed and offer you plenty of help.
Until next time, the pipes are calling.