November 26, 2021

Opinion: Who will be Highland piping’s Paddy Moloney?

Paddy Moloney with Bob Dylan, 2009. [Dean+Barb, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]
The passing of the great Irish piper Paddy Moloney in October saddened millions worldwide. As a co-founder of the Chieftains in 1962, Moloney was a superstar of not just the uilleann pipes, but of traditional and new Irish music. He was revered by those who play the instrument and love the genre, but also by rockstars, politicians, actors, popes, and dignitaries of all stripes.

Safe to say, before Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains, the uilleann pipes and Irish music were only a niche, followed by only die-hard traditionalists. Through his force of talent, his extraordinary charisma, and not a little eye-twinkling charm, Moloney brought Irish music to the masses.

He played for American presidents and Queen Elizabeth II. For goodness sake, he collaborated with the likes of U2, Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Sting, the Who, and even the Muppets. He licensed the Chieftains’ music for countless commercials and screen productions to the point where, today, you’re more likely to hear uilleann pipes in “Scottish” movies than you are Highland pipes.

True, there are Irish immigrants everywhere, and Ireland is a beloved and tourist-attractive country. But the same can be said of Scotland.

True also, Ireland and its descendants have St. Patrick’s Day. But the Scots and those with Scots heritage have two occasions when much of the world stops to celebrate all things Scotland: St. Andrew’s Day and Robert Burns Day.

Scottish piping has some great players with every bit of the chops and creativity as a Paddy Moloney. A few who come to mind: Fred Morrison, Eric Rigler, Matt MacIsaac, Lorne MacDougall, Ross Ainslie, Iain MacInnes, Gary West, Robert Mathieson, Stuart Liddell, Lincoln Hilton, Brìghde Chaimbeul . . . too many to mention.

The closest Highland piping-infused bands to the Chieftains so far might be the Tannahill Weavers, Battlefield, Ossian, and, more recently, Gnoss and Assynt.

Why is it that the Highland pipe doesn’t yet have nearly the stature and excellent reputation worldwide that the uilleann pipes enjoy?

Looking at the Chieftains and Moloney’s history, they aligned themselves with far more famous leaders and artists, starting around when Moloney was in his late twenties. This introduced millions to their art and gave them credibility with unlikely new audiences who otherwise would probably never know uilleann piping from, well, Highland piping.

The Chieftains gained fans with dignity, remaining true to their genre, and, led by Moloney, created incredible musical energy without needing garish outfits, over-amplification, or pyrotechnics.

So why is it that the Highland pipe doesn’t yet have nearly the stature and excellent reputation worldwide that the uilleann pipes enjoy?

We can’t simply chalk it up to luck or the sound of the instrument. A well-tuned Highland pipe in the hands of a good player is at least as attractive as the uilleann pipes. Traditional Scots music and derivations of it are every bit as appealing as traditional Irish. We’ve proven that the Highland pipes can have a voice in a multi-instrument ensemble.

As lovely as they are, it makes us cringe when we hear uilleann pipes prominent in movies set in Scotland, and it makes us want to write scornful letters to Hollywood.

But, it’s no one’s fault but our own. Maybe Highland pipers are trained to think we don’t deserve such prominence and we can’t compete with the vaunted Chieftains or the late Paddy Moloney. Perhaps we’re just so used to being ridiculed as an instrument that we deny ourselves the chance.

Or maybe we’re just waiting for that lucky big break, for that charming Highland piper and their group to catch the ear of a movie producer who incorporates the music into the Academy Award-winning production, launching the artist on a world tour with dignitaries and rockstars yearning to be aligned with them.

But, to be sure, to be sure, Paddy Moloney didn’t sit back and expect the luck of the Irish to make the big break happen. No, he worked it. He knew that what he had was attractive to anyone with an appreciation for excellence and musicality. He aligned his piping with pop music and persevered to have it surprise and delight large audiences in the unlikeliest of places. It was calculated through sheer hard work, belief in his craft, and dogged persistence. He didn’t try to be a rockstar or someone he wasn’t; he remained true to himself and Irish music.

Paddy Moloney had the guile, confidence, and charm – not to mention some serious chops – to be a true world ambassador for his music and his instrument.

Will Highland piping ever have a Paddy Moloney?



  1. Not sure that’s a fair question to relate to an individual piper.
    I believe , for those of us who loved the collective efforts of the Chieftains, their greatest strength was in the collaboration of a diverse set of amazing and unique musical talents that worked so well together to achieve their common musical goal.

    Having said that the list of pipers shown are all great choices but I’d say Gordon Duncan would have been a front runner in terms of musical originality and broad appeal.

    1. I don’t believe there will be one. The uilleann pipes have a broader appeal because they’re more musically versatile, and even the gaita from Galicia and Asturias, Spain in the hands of Carlos Nunez, Susana Seivane, Cristina Pato, and Jose Angel Hevia is almost the same in that regard.

      The Highland pipes simply don’t have that capability. Our scale is limited, we have no way to modulate our pitch without dramatically modifying the instrument, and most of all, they conjure up the most primal aspects of human emotion. Hate, love, joy, sadness, fear, pride… no other instrument I’ve heard is able to do that. We could have players with all the skill and charisma one could muster, and we’d still never accomplish what Paddy Maloney did with the Uilleann pipes. Honestly, that’s fine from where I sit. The Gordon Duncans, Eric Riglers, Mike Katzes, Martyn Bennetts, Rufus Harleys, Aaron Shaws, the Chili Pipers, etc., all have done tremendous jobs at making the Highland pipes musically relevant in the world of music. We don’t need a Paddy Maloney. Having performed with The Chieftains, I can say that his inclusion of our bagpipes did us a service internationally wherever he had us play by itself. Remember when Terry Tully joined The Chieftains and Sting for “Mo Ghile Mear” off The Long Black Veil album? In other words, he himself was the “Paddy Maloney” we could have ever needed. We didn’t need an equivalent.

      May his memory be a blessing.

  2. Lest we forget, “Mull of Kintyre” was the highest selling single and maybe still is! Paul McCartney GOT the emotive haunting nature of the GHB and realized its potential when integrating it beautifully into his pop song which was a massive hit. The Scots Guards Amazing Grace broke through the mainstream “popular” music scene barrier and was probably responsible for loads of adults in North America taking up the pipes, which btw doesn’t happen in Scotland! If you haven’t been grounded on the pipes fairly young in auld Scotia by the time you’ve left school, nobody, well very VERY few Scots learn the pipes later in life as an adult… unless they’ve emigrated somewhere. Our wee band bought MacCallum Bb chanters and regularly play in concert with other musicians, (cheap plug here) check out “Taigh na h-Alba” on any net sales platform where we’re playing with a Civic Organist Dr Carol Williams and St. Pauls Choir. Note for the copyright police, I spent a year tracking down composers not in the public domain for permission on their tunes. We’re a non-profit band-org. all funds into education. Happy Yuiletide.



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