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paddy the piper 1ca91
'Paddy the Piper' - 1904 postcard
Research increasingly seems to suggest that the origins of the union or uilleann bagpipe may well lie in Scotland and England, rather than in Ireland...

The Union Pipes in England and Scotland


THE BAGPIPE is probably more popular and highly developed in the British Isles than anywhere else in the world, We possess a greater variety of bagpipes than any comparable region, the most sophisticated piping technique and body of music (the Highland), and the two most sophisticated forms of the instrument (the Northumbrian small pipes and the uilleann pipes), yet our knowledge of the history and development of the various British bagpipes is lamentably poor. Much published research dates from the 19th and early 20th centuries and is blighted both by the crudest nationalist prejudices and by the general tendency of Victorian antiquaries to start with a set of assumptions and then select the facts to fit.

In this article I intend to try and outline some recent findings about the history and origins of the instrument now generally known as the Irish or “uilleann" pipes. It is of necessity a rather patchy and speculative account, nevertheless, a series of surprising facts emerge which point to some equally surprising conclusions. In particular, it appears that the instrument was widely played in northern England and southern Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries, and it may well have been of Anglo-Scots and not of Irish origin, either a development from, or parallel to, the Lowland/half-long pipes.


The name: Throughout this article I shall refer to the instrument as the Union pipes. This was the name by which it was universally known in both Britain and Ireland from the mid-18th to the early 20th century. However, in its time it has received several other names, and to avoid any confusion it seems sensible to list and explain these before going any further.

The first published tutor called the instrument the Pastoral or New Bagpipe, but these names don't seem to have caught on. When Baines and Cocks first discovered Scottish sets in this century, and recognized them as a form of what they knew as the Irish pipes, they coined the name Hybrid pipes. Finally, in 20th century Ireland they have come to be called the Uilleann pipes. This name is now so universally accepted that it seems pedantic to object to it, yet it is really quite spurious. In 1911 the Irish scholar Grattan Flood put forward the theory that "union" could be a corruption of the Irish word "uilleann" meaning "elbow", It was an interesting idea, though there was no evidence as such to support it. Unfortunately, enthusiastic Irish patriots seized on the name and popularized it.

We can only speculate as to the origin of the name. It probably refers to the fact that the regulators play chords in union with the chanter. Also, in the 18th century “union" was often used to mean harmony in a social sense - something like that ghastly modern word "togetherness" - and I wonder if this lies behind the name. After all, the instrument's sweet tone, restrained volume, and tremendous musical versatility make it absolutely ideal for small convivial gatherings.

The Bagpipe in northern England: Most readers will be aware of the great popularity of the bagpipe in 18th and 19th century Northumberland. It is of some importance to our discussion. To realize that the bagpipe apparently remained popular in several other counties of northern England during this period, something scholars have only recently come to realize. I hope to go into this subject ‘more fully in a later issue, for the time being it is sufficient to note that there are continual references throughout the 18th century in the writings of travellers, antiquaries and the like to bagpipes south of the Tyne, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and these references continue, though ever more rarely, throughout the 19th century.

Indeed, the last Lincolnshire piper so far traced by scholars, John Hunsley of Manton, only died in 1851, while the most celebrated individual Yorkshire piper, Billy Bolton of Wharfedale, died as late as 1881 - and he doesn't appear to have been the last of the dales pipers either.

Origin of the Union Pipes: In 1746 a little booklet was published in London entitled "the Compleat Tutor for the Pastoral or New Bagpipe....", the work of one John Geoghegan. This seems to be the first documentary evidence of the existence of the union pipes. The booklet describes a bellows blown form of bagpipe pitched in D and capable of producing two complete octaves by overblowing. The illustration inside the cover shows the distinctive long, thin drones and tiny long-necked bag we often find in surviving sets and in illustrations of Anglo- Scots union pipes (see, for example, the set opposite page 144 of Frazer's The Bagpipe). Over the years the instrument was to develop in various ways: the bag was gradually enlarged, the bass drone was often shortened by the use of U-tubes, extra drones and switches to control them were sometimes added, and keys were sometimes fitted to the chanter. Above all, sometime in the second half of the 18th century the regulators – keyed pipes capable of producing harmony chords - were added. Despite these developments, Geoghegan's tutor could still serve as a tutor for the modern Irish instrument, and it went into several editions (the last Cannon has been able to trace was in 1807).

Geoghegan's tutor makes no mention of ethnic origin. It refers simply to the "new" bagpipe, informing us that "the bagpipe (has) this time been brought to such perfection as now renders it able to perform the same number of notes with the flute or hautboy...". However, the book was clearly aimed at an English audience (indeed, from the introduction it seems to have been particularly aimed at the gentry, attracted to the pastoral cult of the time, in which the theme of the shepherd swain with his bagpipe played such a prominent role). The original and all subsequent editions were published in London.

I have only seen the 1775 edition, published by Longman’s of Cheapside (",..where may be had bagpipes...") The appended collection of tunes is a typical collection of English country dance tunes of the period, many of which appear in other collections, and many with indisputably English titles like Paddington Pound and Portsmouth Harbour. It does include several Irish and Scottish tunes, but this is quite usual in 18th century English collections, and the Scots tunes in particular are rather self-consciously so (A Scotch Measure, A Scotch Air, etc), which surely suggests a non - Scottish audience.

When Cocks and Baines first encountered the instrument in this century it was in a Scottish context, and they presumed it to be a Scottish adaptation of an Irish instrument. However, on the evidence of Geoghegan's tutor an English origin seems more likely, and it is perhaps significant that the two areas outside Ireland where the instrument's popularity has been best documented are Yorkshire and Northumberland. On the other hand, the name Geoghegan is Scottish! My own feeling is that in the context of 18th century popular culture we cannot draw too fine a distinction between northern England and southern Scotland, and that the Union pipes were probably the product of gradual evolution throughout the northern English/southern Scots bagpipe zone. The important point, of course, is that there seems to be no indication of an Irish origin.

I would suggest that the Union pipes were either a gradual development out of the Lowland/half long pipes, or a parallel development in response to the same pressures that brought about the Lowland type of instrument, and that they probably developed independently in several areas of northern England and southern Scotland. There was clearly a general tendency towards increasing sophistication in piping in the Lowlands and in England during the 17th and 18th centuries - a marked preference for small and halfsize pipes, the growing use of bellows, and above all, experiments to increase the range of the chanter, either by “pinching” and overblowing or by the use of keys. It must be remembered that this was very much the golden age of the fiddle. The “pop" idioms of the day were the reel, strathspey, and common-time hornpipe - essentially fiddle idioms, with the most popular new tunes reaching beyond the bagpipe's 9 note scale. In response to this pipers learned to squeeze an extra high B from the Lowland chanter, but to play the bulk of the new fiddle music they really needed an extra half octave. As pipers tried to squeeze yet more notes out of their instruments, many of them must have experimented with weaker reeds and with narrower and longer bores, eventually coming up with union type chanters.

It doesn't take much imagination to see how these developments would then have been refined and standardized by a few makers and eventually marketed as the "new bagpipe".

An Irish connection? Throughout the 19th century the Union pipes became increasingly regarded as Irish. As early as the 1830s we find Robert Reid, the great Tyneside pipemaker, making a set with the inscription “Erin go Brath" on the chanter - though not, apparently, for an Irish player (see the December issue). This could reflect no more than the instrument's continued popularity and development in Ireland, and its rapid decline over here. As we have seen, what evidence there is seems to point to an Anglo-Scots origin. Yet I do not

think we can totally discount the possibility of some sort of Irish connection in the origin of the instrument. We have suggested that it evolved independently and gradually throughout northern England and southern Scotland as pipers experimented to widen the range of the chanter. Is it not logical to see this kind of development taking place wherever bagpipes were popular and people were listening to the new fiddle music - in Ireland as well as northern England and the Lowlands? Nor does it take much imagination to see how cross-fertilization could then have taken place, There were important links between Ireland and some of the strongholds of British piping - between Lowland Scotland and the Ulster colony, for example, and with the Yorkshire Dales via major seasonal labour migration.

The regulators: Irish writers have always maintained that the regulators came in sometime during the second half of the 18th century, and the British evidence supports this view. Geoghegan makes no mention of them (1746), but every set I have seen or heard of dating from the late 18th or 19th centuries has got them. The idea of the regulators is, on the face of it, rather odd. One can imagine the two octave chanter evolving gradually and independently in several places, but the regulators have always struck me as the invention of one original mind, and probably a rather eccentric one at that! As it happens, I have a possible candidate for the role.

Brown and Stratton's British Musical Biography (1897) contains a rather curious reference to a Yorkshire piper named David Hatton: Hatton, David, bag-pipe player, born at Thornton, Yorkshire, 1769; died November 22, 1847. He invented an instrument something like the Irish bag-pipe on which he played with much skill.

By 1897 the Union pipes were generally regarded as Irish, and they would seem to be the instrument referred to here. Hatton cannot have invented the instrument, of course, because it already existed in 1769, but might not this reference contain a confused memory of the invention of the regulators? If we presume he invented them as a young man, then this would date them to the 1794s. It should be possible to check whether any surviving sets with regulators pre-date this period. Interestingly enough, there was a David Hatton, musical instrument maker, living in Dunfermline in the 1820s who invented a new kind of flute. Gordon Mooney tells me this flute was a rather eccentric instrument - just the sort of thing that might have come from the same mind as the regulators! Unfortunately we have no way of knowing whether this was the same David Hatton.


Distribution: That the instrument was popular in southern Scotland is clear from the number of sets which have survived there. There are several in museums, and some fascinating photographs in Baines and Frazer. They were also widely played in Northumberland. There has been a lot of recent research into piping in Northumberland which has revealed something of the popularity of both the half- longs and the Union pipes in the 18th century. Proud and Butler's book The Northumbrian Small Pipes not only details several individuals who were primarily Union pipers, it seems to suggest that it was not uncommon for individuals to play several kinds of pipes in 18th century Northumberland, sometimes including the Union pipes - thus the great James Allan played the small pipes, the halflongs, the big pipes, the Highland pipes, and the Union pipes.

The only other area where the instrument's popularity has been documented is Yorkshire. It was popular enough there to warrant an entry in the Ab o't Yates dialect dictionary - "Tweedler: a man who plays the Union pipes is called a "Tweedler". In 1975 R.A. Scofield published a fascinating article in English Dance and Song on "Billy Bolton, piper of the Dales", describing the career of the most celebrated minstrel of the 19th century Yorkshire dales, who happened to be a Union piper.

Billy Bolton died as late as 1881, but he doesn't seem to have been the last of the Dales pipers. As recently as 1960 a folklore collector was told by an old lady in Barrowford that her father had played the bagpipes. When asked if he was Scottish she replied, "Certainly not, he played the Union pipes" - as if it was the most natural thing in the world!

Interestingly enough, though Billy Bolton played all over the North and West Ridings, and especially in Wharfedale (where he eventually settled), he came originally from the area around Richmond, as did David Hatton.

Construction: Surviving Anglo-Scots Union pipes are recognizably the same instrument as the modern Irish pipes, but they are usually simpler in construction, often with only three straight drones, one bank of regulators, and an unkeyed chanter, as opposed to the modern Irish set with U-tubes on the bass drone, three banks of regulators, sometimes with two or three keys on the chanter, and such refinements as drone and chanter switches. On the other hand, there are no features on modern Irish sets which cannot be found on some Anglo-Scots sets, and some Anglo-Scots sets are in fact considerably more complex - the Reid pipes mentioned above, for example, had six drones and four banks of regulators, and I have seen a set with about a dozen keys on the chanter.

The only really consistent difference between Anglo- Scottish and Irish sets is the detachable footpiece on the end of Anglo-Scots chanters. This odd feature extended the chanter by about a third of its own length, presumably to make overblowing easier through lengthening the column of air. This seems to have been removed early on in Ireland, although Irish sets still have an ornamental tenon on the end where the footpiece would originally have fitted. Removing the footpiece also removed the vent holes, which meant the chanter could be overblown by stopping it on the knee, a practice known as “popping “ .

The existence of keyed chanters requires some explanation. As the instrument gets the second octave through overblowing, the only reason for fitting keys would be to enable the playing of sharps and flats - rarely needed in traditional music. I am informed that even where modern Irish chanters have a few keys, only one is ever used (to gét C natural in the upper octave). This suggests that at some stage people were trying to play other forms of music on the Union pipes, and indeed, Geoghegan's tutor, though it only includes folk tunes, does suggest that players attempt other kinds of music, and he includes details of how to finger semitones on the unkeyed chanter (interestingly enough, he tells us that keyed chanters already existed in 1746).

This all adds to the impression created elsewhere in the tutor that it was at least partially aimed at a gentry market, and gentleman pipers were certainly not unknown in Ireland.

Presumably keys didn't catch on because the instrument ultimately retained its original plebeian character.


Anthony Baines Bagpipes (Oxford, 1969)

Breandan Breathnach Folkmusic and Dances of Ireland (Dublin, 1971)

R.D. Cannon The bagpipe in Northern England, in Folk Music Journal

(London, 1971)

A. Duncan Frazer The Bagpipe (Falkirk, 1907)

John Geoghegan The Compleat Tutor for the Pastoral or New

Bagpipe.... London, 1746, c.1762, c.1775, c.1800, c.1885, c.1807)

Keith Proud and Richard Butler The Northumbrian Small Pipes, an

Alphabetical History Volume 1 (1983)

R.A. Schofield Billy Bolton, piper of the Dales, in English Dance

and Song Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, Autumn 1975,