Published: The Piping Times
In Search Of the Old Irish Mouth Blown Bagpipe Chanter
Erroneously Referred To As "War Pipe"
By FJ Timoney
In his book, The Highland Bagpipe and It's Music, Roderick Cannon tells us on pages 21-22 that, regarding the Irish mouth blown bagpipe,
"there are some indications that it was essentially the same as the Scottish". I assume "Scottish" to mean the Great Highland Pipe. He goes on to say, "the most telling point
is that the new pastoral" [Border] "pipe which replaced it" [the Irish mouth blown pipe] "also had the major scale with the lowest note" [low G ?] "a whole new tone below
the keynote." A book of music "for" the new instrument [J. Geoghegan, 1746] included a number of tunes which feature this note in just the same way as the corresponding note
in Scottish pipe music."
But the Pastoral or Border Pipe is not Irish. The Irish based their new seventeenth century [originally mouth blown] bellows fed bagpipe on the English Northumbrian and
Scottish Border Pipes. The decline of syllabic verse in Ireland and the flight of the Earls O'Donnell and O'Neill in 1607, destroyed the traditional way of life in that country.
These men were two of the major patrons of the Gaelic arts and almost immediately there was a collapse of the ancient poetic colleges. The disappearance of their major patrons
left them with no economic support and without a discriminating cultured audience. With the decline of the Gaelic way of life in Ireland went the status of the mouth
blown bagpipe. It went into obscurity with the adoption of a less feudal social system. There was now no demand for a loud commanding sound. Social life went indoors, a more
passive and quiet sound was required. The Irish mouth blown bagpipe was not proscribed by any parliamentary stricture. The statues of Kilkenny having nothing to do with its
demise, it had begun to be supplanted in favour with the younger people in general. It simply disappeared in more or less the same way that the Great Highland Bagpipe will
soon disappear due to all the innovations in trick fingering and ever sharpening pitch that are being forced upon it.
But what did it sound like? Well, quite probably the only answer is to be found in the bagpipes of England because the Irish mouth blown pipe almost certainly was introduced
from England or France. It is generally felt that the Border Pipe had a more ancient origin then the Great Highland Bagpipe. Border pipers were stated to have marched through
towns and this would indicate a mouth blown pipe, certainly the bellows is a later introduction with origins in France. Perhaps the Border Pipe is a direct descendent of
the Roman bagpipe. The large Roman military complex of Trimontium was on the border area of England and Scotland. The Border Pipe chanter and drone tunings are the same as
the Highland pipe; it produced generations or families of famous pipers. The Hastie family in Jedbrugh, the Andersons of Kelso, and the Jaffreys of Hawick all achieved notoriety
during the MacCrimmon period.
Remember Geoghegan? Well, he produced a tutor for the bagpipe in 1746. However, it was not a tutor for the Uilleann Pipe, as many today
imagine. It was a tutor for, what else, the Border [Pastoral] Pipe or, as Geoghegan called it, "the new bagpipe". Of course it was new in Ireland, having been introduced
there in the previous century. It contained English, Scottish and Irish tunes and in it, Geoghegan reminds his readers that the pastoral instrument itself was ancient.
So we can safely assume that the tutor was not specifically aimed at an Irish market, nor did it seek to perpetuate any form of Irish mouth blown bagpipe chanter. If the
tutor succeeded in showing a major scale, with the lowest note a whole note below the key note, we can safely assume it copies no other bagpipe than the Border Pipe which
seems to have also copied in Highland Scotland as well as in Ireland. But things were changing. The Irish began to add keys and regulators dropping the foot joint of the
Border chanter which changed forever it pitch permitting a new finger system. Just like what is happening today! Perhaps Geoghegan's tutor was a warning or a protest over
It is strange that all of the dramatic changes in the Irish bellows Border Pipe began to occur in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. They seem to have developed
from people on the London scene. Equally strange is the high regard, almost awe, which the Highland Society of London held for the Irish instrument. They actually maintained
Irish bellows pipers on their establishment from 1788-1822. These were listed as Irish pipers to the society. They were appointed more or less
from the society's inception. One can almost guess that the well to do Anglo Scottish members must have pined for the soft Irish sound each time they were exposed to the
mighty Highland Piobaireachd. We certainly have evidence of this because that jack of all trades, Sir John Sinclair "designed" a new Highland Pipe chanter in 1810 which had
several keys, sharper in pitch, and reported to be "better adopted for many tunes" and considered an "improvement"! Apparently, Sir John had had it with Piobaireachd also
and wished to hear "Annie Laurie" and other more "authentic" tunes. Fortunately, it was broken by malevolent Highland pipers which, come to think of it, might be a good course
of action for us today. The Highland Society of London went on to award money prizes for changes or "improvements" on the Uilleann Pipe and many of its Highland Pipers actually
played the now fully modified Uilleann Pipe as well.
Thus, we have arrived at the transvestite state of today's piping. French pipers who insist that Breton tunes were made for the Highland Pipe, Scottish pipers who pretend
to be Uilleann pipers, and Irish pipers who turning off drones, proceed to play a flute.
Wonder what the Irish have to say about it all? Well, in 1981, the Cumann na b Piobairi of Dublin published an article in their journal The Pipers
Review called Eighteenth Century Long Pipes. In the article, it's stated that the Irish mouth blown bagpipe; "had two drones,
the shorter an octave higher in pitch and a chanter with a range of 9 notes from A to a, and a G
below the A, while the drones tuned to an a. They refused all sources of reference for these claims or even to discuss
them. They also claimed their Uilleann Pipes evolved from the old Irish mouth blown pipe, again refusing comment or reference. Apparently, Cumann na b Piobairi were looking
at John Derricke's 1578 ms. and hallucinating.
Incidentally, the Irish never referred to the mouth blown pipe as a "war-pipe". Oddly enough, it was English writers who first referred to it, both in Scotland and in
Ireland, as a "war pipe", with such continued persistence as to leave one to speculate that the instrument possibly was known in England as a war pipe in earlier times. The
first to use the term was John Derricke in his Image of Ireland, ca.1578. Derricke was a soldier in the English army. The next was Captain Edward Burt, an engineer officer
working on roads in the Highlands. He compares the "war pipes" of both Ireland and Scotland in his Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland,
It was Grattan Flood who remembered Derrickes and Burt's misnomer when in 1911; he produced his book of total fiction on the bagpipe. The Irish Pipe Band Association began
using the term around 1933 to help bolster Flood's unconvincing attempt to claim the Highland pipe as being Irish.
In a series of articles in the Piping Times, Sean Donnelly gives a staggering amount of actual Irish references to pipers from 1544-1650. In his,
Miscellaneous Reference to Pipers in Ireland, 1552-1652 (A Whetstone for Marshal Courage) and Irish Pipers at the Siege
of Boulogne 1544, he gives us some 38 references to individual incidents, company pipers and the names of pipers involved. Never once is the expression "war pipe"
If all of this is slightly confusing, try to remember that the mouth blown bagpipe was not played in Ireland to any great extent by anyone, prior to 1900. It disappeared
in the early eighteenth century. Of course the odd player could be found, just as in Mozambique today, but he was rather looked on as being odd or "quare" because the Highland
Pipe was considered much of a loud joke in Ireland at the time. A quip from the period reminds us; "the Irish invented the pipes, generously passing them on to their Scottish
cousins which the gullible Scots took seriously and the Irish have been laughing ever since". The Celtic revival which took place in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth
century eased the way for the twentieth century reintroduction of the instrument. Until fairly recent date the Irish never took it seriously. It was only in 1991 that
Piobaireachd became a regular event at the annual Ulster contest. In the South, nothing is done to encourage individual playing or Piobaireachd the highest level of pipe
music. The South of Ireland has not yet reached its piping potential. Indeed, the country seems to be pipe band daft, the Irish Pipe Band Association doing nothing to encourage
In the Notices of Pipers, regarding the battle of Fontenoy, we are reminded that the Irish mouth blown pipe was played during the charge
of the Irish Brigade and that an instrument "from the battle", was at the Musee de Cluny in Paris. I believe this "information" was also lifted from Grattan Flood's book.
At any rate the museum refuses any comment on this claim and also refuses to discuss the matter. Several people over the years wrote to The Piping
Times and talked of "having seen" a coloured photo of the instrument, but never bothered to mention where they saw the photograph, giving no actual facts on the instrument.
Of course, no subscriber of the Piping Times ever questioned the "sighting" or expressed the slightest interest in the matter which, more or less, brings me to the point
of this article.
If anyone has reference information, pictures or authenticated measurements on this Musee de Cluny set of Irish mouth blown pipes, please contact The Piping Times, 16
24 Otago St. Glasgow G12 8JH. All your expenses will be covered by the writer upon contact from the editor. Thank you in advance for you kind help and consideration.
Published: The Piping Times 1996
In response to readers questions regarding;
"In Search of the Old Irish Mouth Blown Bagpipe Chanter"
By Frank Timoney
Claims to knowledge of the notational range of the Irish mouth blown pipe, based on estimates of its chanter pitch and
calculations then made on drone construction from those estimates, we must relegate to the rubbish bin. Firstly, we must consider the reference
sources for these calculations and estimates.
The most often quoted is a woodcut by Derricke (see fig. 1), ca1578, showing a chanter which has been estimated by Collinson to be about two
feet in length. This however would produce quite a flat pitch and quite different to what we are accustomed to today. This long chanter length is verified in a sixteenth
century wood carving of a piper found on a pew bench end in Altarun (see fig. 2), Cornwall, England. Derricke shows two drones, one
slightly shorter than the larger, obviously, the shorter drone could not be an octave higher in pitch than the larger.
It could not be a tenor drone. The length of the larger drone is much too short to produce a pitch two octaves below that of the two foot chanter. It could not be a bass
Another is not so well known. This is a sixteenth century drawing (see fig. 3), preserved in an engraving from the
Receuil Herbier in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Here the chanter is not so long and the two drones depicted are
more in line to represent a possible bass and tenor harmony.
The third and final is a painting by the Dutch artist Lucus de Heere, ca1574 and is reproduced on the frontispiece of this web site This is perhaps the most important
depiction of the instrument that we have, because de Heere painted his subject from "the quicke" or from life. The chanter length somewhat resembles that of the Receuil Herbier
drawing. The drone arrangement is also similar.
Based on these sources, it is impossible to determine the amount of vents or holes in each chanter as depicted. Nor is it possible to determine
that any one of the three chanter's had a range of nine notes or indeed if any had a back or thumb hole. It is impossible to say that any one of them had "g
below the a" (the lowest note a whole tone below the key note) or that any had a major scale. Consequently, until further evidence is presented,
it is impossible to hazard any guess as to what the drone arrangement was in the Irish mouth blown pipe.
It has fairly well been established that the Irish Uilleann Pipe was a development of the North Umbrian Pipe or the Border Pipe. It certainly
was never copied from any mouth blown form of pipe.
The triangular harp is a product of the Picts of Eastern Scotland. The Irish used the quadrangular shaped lyre until approximately the eleventh or twelfth century.
It is definitely not safe to state that the bagpipe made its appearance in Scotland or Ireland in 506! It was a latecomer to Celtic society. Indeed most European cultures
have a far older piping tradition than either country. But in Ireland, pipers were never part of the three great professions of Gaelic society; harpers, scribes and poets.
There is no reference to the bagpipe in pre Christian Ireland. The Brehon laws do not mention a bagpipe. The word "cuisle" refers to the ubiquitous flute or reed pipe
of the ancient world. Cuisle means a vein, an artery or reed. The tenth century copy of the Senchus mor gives us Cuisleannach; or one who plays
on a reed. No word for bag is given. We may not assume it is meant! Obviously, there could be no "special legislation" for something that did not
If there were competitive games in pre Christian Ireland, there are no known references to bagpipes or pipers or "clan pipers". There is no bagpipe contest mentioned at
any ancient Feis at Tara or anyplace else. The sacred chant of the Celtic Church in Ireland was not sustained by the bagpipe or indeed any instrument. The "dord fian" was
a vocal droning or humming sound much the same as heard today in the Greek Orthodox Service.
Regarding the tenth century cross at Monasterboice, there is no bagpiper depicted on it. It rather shows a player of the bagless triple pipe,
or divergent pipes. This is the pipe that was introduced into Pictland during the Irish invasion of the fifth century, the instrument used by "bands of pipers" at funerals,
accompanied by cymbals and singers, played by Donnbo and mentioned in Cuan O'Lochain's poem. The ninth century cross and wood panel at Clonmachnoise also depict this bagless
triple pipe. It is with the thirteenth century Irish/Norman reference at Holy Trinity Church, that we have our first reference to a bagpipe in Ireland. By 1375, the references
become more Gaelcised, Donald O'Moghan being granted a license to play within the Pale. It certainly was within the law to own, play, and entertain" with a set of pipes.
The claim that the Statutes of Kilkenny caused the Irish to loose their piping "tradition" does not hold up under scrutiny. The evident purpose of the Statutes was to
delimit the Anglo/Norman area, not to declare war on the Gaelic world and traditions throughout Ireland. Connacht, Western Munster and nearly all Ulster were either under
Gaelic or Gaelicised Norman Houses. Gaelic culture was free to flourish in most of the country. The Irish, who chose to remain inside the Pale,
were forced into Anglo/Norman ways. Irish piping perished not because of any law or ban against it. The piping "tradition" was simply not established long enough to stand
against the enormous foreign social pressures about to hit the country as the fourteenth century ended. With the exception of Ulster, it disappeared after 1600, having only
lasted some 250 years.
The bagpipe has always been a solo instrument and all early references to it clearly indicate this fact. There is not a proven reference to band playing until approximately
1790.The solo primus tradition is proven by the very existence of Piobaireachd. The British Army is responsible for the pipe band tradition. It brought back the mouth blown
bagpipe to Ireland and began to foster and cherish an alien (to Ireland) and powerfully nationalistic instrument. The army romanced the new Irish bagpipe by inventing a national
dress for it. The instrument was slow catching on. The Irish had a lofty disdain for grace notes and introduced crossing noises as if they were
grace notes! By 1918, all the Irish infantry regiments were authorized to maintain pipers. The army just did not maintain Irish piping culture; they invented it for regimental
purposes. The snag was that there was no native Irish music specifically composed for the new instrument. Traditional tunes had to be altered or a new scale invented.
Concerning Scotland, the 1746 proscription never mentioned the bagpipe. It never denied anyone the right to play anything. It is known that government spies closely watched
the disaffected Clans, but how this affected their pipers and the over all playing of Piobaireachd throughout the Highlands is unknown. The MacCrimmons did not initiate
the art of solo playing. The bagpipe in Scotland is also a solo instrument and its solo traditions go back long before the MacCrimmons. They to be precise are credited with
the perfection of Piobaireachd playing and composing, nothing more, nothing less!
Summing up Grattan Flood, I'd say; prejudice, based on envy is a great time saver. It allows one to make up one's mind without spending the time to research the facts.
I would like to include a quote from a man who has done more for piping in the last fifty years than anyone in the last millennium. He is The MacCrimmon of our time, the
late Mr. Seumas MacNeill, former principal of the College of Piping in Glasgow and editor of The Piping Times.
"Three centuries ago, when the bagpipe was heard everywhere over Europe as well as the Court of the most powerful reigning monarch, nobody could have foreseen that the
one bagpipe destined to become known the world over would be the Piob Mhor or "Great Pipe" of the remote Scottish Clansmen. We have never suggested that bagpipes originated
in Scotland, even although when bagpipes are mentioned, everybody throughout the world thinks immediately of Scotland. This is just because we have developed the instrument
to a higher degree than any other country, and our Highland music of the pipes is vastly superior to all other bagpipe music, and also to a great deal of other western music.
The inability to distinguish between the Irish and the Scots is a well known phenomenon throughout the world but it does not exist in either Ireland or Scotland. No one
has a greater admiration for Irish music than we do ourselves, but everything in its own place. Here in Scotland, we owe a great debt to Ireland for many aspects of our music
and culture, but piping is not one of them. Piping certainly existed in Ireland a long time ago, as it did in most countries of Europe, but our piping, the music of which
has spread throughout the world, is entirely a Highlands of Scotland Development."