September 30, 2014


OutlandishTo the general public, the sound of “the pipes” is increasingly becoming the sound of the uilleann pipes.

Thanks to the film and TV industry’s ever-rising preference on original scores for Ireland’s bagpipe as the sound of anything Scottish, the “great” Highland bagpipe is second-fiddle, as it were.

I’ve been watching the series Outlander recently, with all its costume changes, high cheekbones, and heaving bosoms. At first I was pleased to hear the Highland pipe in the spine-tingling opening stinger, deftly integrated with the Burn’s lyric to the “Skye Boat Song” melody. “Finally!” I thought. “The Highland pipes will be used throughout this series that celebrates Highland stuff.”

What a disappointment.

The uilleann pipes, lovely as they might be, are used throughout the series. There is hardly a Highland pipe to be heard or seen in the actual episodes. When they chase across the Scottish hills, it’s to the thrumming register of the bellows-blown Irish pipes. When the evil redcoat is dispatched, it’s to the soft tones of Ireland’s national bagpipe.

This has been going on for decades. Braveheart and Titanic were classic examples of uilleann pipes used as “Scottish” music. TV commercials for golf clubs depict Scottish folk and Irish pipes. The accurate use of the Highland pipe in Scotland themes is increasingly rare.

The traditional reason that the fickle Highland pipe chanter-scale can’t be integrated with other instruments no longer holds water. Today there are a multitude of solutions, from specially-pitched chanters, to synthesizer accompaniment, to post-production tweaking. If Miley Cyrus’s voice can be auto-tuned, surely the Highland pipe can be twerked . . . I mean, tweaked to accommodate any instrument, and vice versa.

Film and TV productions go to great lengths to be historically accurate. They painstakingly research the clothes and the speech of the period depicted. Yet, when it comes to the music, they conveniently go for the completely unauthentic sound.

Using uilleann pipes in a movie about Scotland is like a Gestapo officer in a World War II drama talking Ebonics.

It’s to the point where I am often asked by non-pipers about that “other Scottish bagpipe . . . the one that sits on the piper’s lap.” They mean the uilleann pipes, because they have seen and heard it so often in Scottish-themed shows.

There are exceptions, and I’m sure you will point out that Lorne MacDougall did the work on the Highland pipe in Brave. The exceptions are getting rarer.

But in the big scheme of things what can be done? Should Highland pipers be like Scotland itself, and resign ourselves to domination by another country’s persuasive charms? Perhaps the use of uilleann pipes in Outlander is subtle irony for the show itself: resistance is admirable, but, ultimately, futile.

I don’t know. How can we get the Scottish Highland bagpipe back into soundtracks and theme-songs for Scottish-themed programs and films?


    1. I think Jennifer has made an excellent point here. I’ve been around piping related activities for some time and must say any time I hear an Irish piper playing in public, it is enjoyable and it sounds as if the piper knows what he/she is doing. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about highland pipers…ESPECIALLY on St. Patrick’s Day.
      I have always hoped the GHP would be mainstreamed into more everyday scenarios instead of the stereotypical middle aged highlands of Scotland.
      Based on my experiences with public pipers, I have to wonder how many times non-piping enthusiasts in the film and television industry have heard “bad” pipers and decided the sound and music would not fit? Has anyone reading this ever had a non-piping enthusiast try to visually and audibly describe their impression of what a bagpipe sounds like? Food for thought…

  1. During the time period depicted in the show, wasn’t the GHB illegal in Scotland? Not that uillean pipes would have replaced them, I realize.

    And there was a GHB in the party scene in one of the earlier episodes.

  2. While I agree with you about the frequency of Irish pipes being used in Scottish shows and movies, I was incredibly pleased to hear one of the early Outlander episodes featuring an actual piobaireach, on a highland bagpipe, and portraying what appeared to be a real bagpiper, not just a fill-in piper “playing” to a pre-recorded sound track.



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