Celtic Culture




The Irish, or Uilleann pipes, have reached quite an advanced state of development. Unlike most other bagpipes, the reed will over blow, giving them a range of two octaves. The addition of regulators also gives them an extra dimension.

The regulators are closed ended chanters each of a different pitch and speak when a key is pressed. The keys are arranged side by side so chords can be played (this requires great skill).

Uilleann (or Elbow) pipes usually play in D. The full set has a chanter, three drones, and three keyed regulators. The half set has no regulators, and the practice set has no drones either.

Recently the first practice chanter for the Irish pipes was introduced. Previously beginners would usually start with a practice set, and later trade in for a half set with drones. However it is now possible to learn the fingering before you learn to operate the bellows.

It is best not to use the drones until you have good control of the bellows and bag. The drones use extra air, and make it harder to keep steady pressure for the chanter.

It is possible to add drones to a practice set. Some even come with the main stock fitted and the extra holes blanked off.

If you follow this route you will be without your pipes for a while when you upgrade. In the experience of those who know it is cheaper in the long run to either go for the half set at the outset and just don't use the drones at first. Or go with the half set and trade up when you are ready - that is what my older brother did.

In the early part of the second millennium, bagpipes began to appear with frequency in European art and iconography. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, compiled in Castile in the mid-13th Century, depict several types of bagpipes. Though evidence of bagpipes in the British Isles prior to the 14th Century is contested, bagpipes are explicitly mentioned in The Canterbury Tales (written around 1380): "A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, /And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne."

Actual examples of bagpipes from before the 18th century are extremely rare; however, a substantial number of paintings, carvings, engravings, manuscript illuminations, and so on survive. They make it clear that bagpipes varied hugely throughout Europe, and even within individual regions. Many examples of early folk bagpipes throughout Continental Europe can be found in the paintings of Brueghel, Teniers, Jordaens and Durer.

Evidence of the bagpipe in Ireland occurs in 1581, when John Derrick's "The Image of Irelande" clearly depicts a bagpiper falling in battle. Derrick's illustrations are considered to be reasonably faithful depictions of the attire and equipment of the English and Irish population of the 16th Century. In 1760, the first serious study of the Scottish Highland bagpipe and its music was attempted, in Joseph MacDonald's 'Compleat Theory'. Further south, a manuscript from the 1730s by a William Dixon from Northumberland contains music which fits the Border pipes, a nine-note bellows-blown bagpipe whose chanter is similar to that of the modern Great Highland Bagpipe.

However the music in Dixon's manuscript varied greatly from modern Highland bagpipe tunes, consisting mostly of extended variation sets of common dance tunes. Some of the tunes in the Dixon manuscript correspond to tunes found in early 19th century published and manuscript sources of Northumbrian smallpipe tunes, notably the rare book of 50 tunes, many with variations, by John Peacock.

In recent years, often driven by revivals of native folk music and dance, many types of bagpipes have resurged in popularity, and in many cases instruments that were on the brink of extinction have become extremely popular. In Brittany, the Great Highland Bagpipe and concept of the pipe band were appropriated to create a Breton interpretation, the bagad. The pipe band idiom has also been adopted and applied to the Spanish gaita as well. Additionally, bagpipes have often been used in various films depicting moments from Scottish and Irish history; the film Braveheart and the theatrical show Riverdance have served to make the uilleann pipes more commonly known.

In the late 20th century, various models of electronic bagpipes were invented. The first custom-built MIDI bagpipes were developed by the Asturian piper known as Hevia (José Ángel Hevia Velasco). Some models allow the player to select the sound of several different bagpipes as well as switch keys. As yet they are not widely used due to technical limitations, but they have found a useful niche as a practice instrument (particularly with headphones).

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