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Music & Dance

The Ulster-Scots Tradition

There is a wide variety of music and dance traditions associated with Ulster-Scots culture and heritage. Highland dancing is popular in Ulster-Scots communities, as are ceilidhs, and the Ulster-Scots music tradition includes fiddle, fife, drum as well as highland and lowland pipes.

Ulster-Scots emigrants took these traditions with them, and over time these influenced other musical genres including American country music, bluegrass, and even rock and roll.

Musical Influence

The distinctive styles of many modern-day American country, bluegrass and folk music performers can be traced directly back to the 18th century Ulster-Scots or Scots-Irish settlers.

Additionally, the dance tradition of the Appalachian region in the south-eastern part of the United States also has very strong Ulster-Scots roots which go hand in hand with the music.

This is music and dance which crossed the Atlantic during the great waves of emigration and, in the modern idiom, it is a rich cultural expression which is being taken back to the homeland.

The Ulster-Scots sound of drone notes, associated with the pipes and fiddles, is very pronounced and the story-telling balladry of the Scots-Irish diaspora remains deeply rooted in what is American country and folk music today.

Our Instruments

The fife is a wooden flute usually played in the key of Bb or C# and is an important instrument in Ulster-Scots music tradition. The fife was traditionally accompanied by the side or snare drum and used by the military to keep soldiers in time as they marched.

In Ulster, there are still many fife and drum bands that have adopted that tradition, the drum heads being commonly made from goatskin like their bigger Lambeg counterparts.

The fife has also become established in the musical tradition of the Lambeg drum. Although the fife is not commonly played with the Lambeg in Counties Armagh and Tyrone, it is certainly a popular twinning in County Antrim and parts of Down.

The Lambeg drum is a percussion instrument unique to Ulster.

It is one of the largest (and loudest) acoustic instruments in the world. Although large drums exist in other cultures and music traditions, these typically have a low bass pitch. The lambeg drum has a unique ‘crack’ due to the highly tensioned skins.

Each drum is commissioned and hand crafted by a single craftsman who steams wood (oak is normally preferred) and shapes it to make the shell of the drum. The ‘hoops’ that secure the skins are typically made of oak. 

The skins of the drum are traditionally goatskin and before playing, they are tensioned using 15 ‘buffs’ on ropes that are laced through hoops on each side of the drum. It is critical that each ‘head’ (side) has the same pitch and tone. This is done by ear before the drum is played and can involve striking the wooden hoops in places with a mallet. When not being played the tension on the heads is released.

Bagpipes are renowned worldwide as being a traditional Scottish instrument, and most people associate bagpipes with Scotland. However, the origin of bagpipes is rather unclear. Pipes are a very old instrument. They are even mentioned in the Old Testament in the Bible, and it is believed early versions were brought across Europe from the Middle East (possibly from Egypt).

Over the years, the bagpipes have changed. The first set of bagpipes only had one tenor drone. The second tenor drone was added years later, and the final bass drone was added by the Scottish about 300 years ago, making the Great Highland bagpipes as they are known today.

Music & Dance Publications

We have a range of free music and dance publications that we have produced alongside the Ulster-Scots Agency, all of which are available on our website and as physical copies in the Discover Ulster-Scots Centre.

These publications each focus on the lambeg drum, the fife, the B flat marching flute, and Scottish country dancing. You can find these on our Publications page.

Funding Opportunities

New funding opportunities are always arising for those with a genuine interest in Ulster-Scots musical and dance traditions, allowing events to be held, instruments to be purchased and physical spaces to be maintained. 

For more information, check out our funding page.

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