Bagpipe making melds tradition with technology
Marianne Meadahl, (in Scotland) 44-742-648-7107; Marianne_Meadahl@sfu.ca
As a child, Simon Fraser University Pipe Band piper Alan Bevan had a knack for making his own bagpipes. While watching his mother play, he’d roll up a blanket, insert one of her chanters and attach a few small plungers.
Creating professional scale bagpipes is another matter. And increasingly, traditional methods are pairing up with technology to modernize the process.
In the town of Kilmarnock, southwest of Glasgow, the 30-plus employees at McCallum Bagpipes produce 30-40 sets a week – roughly 2,000 a year – in a 10,000 square-foot factory.
Pipes evolve from a concept now laid out on a computer screen to a hand finished product costing anywhere from a conservative $500 to more than $5,000, depending on the material used and the detail work involved.
“We have a number of McCallum drones (pipes) in our band,” says Pipe Sergeant Jack Lee - among those using them, Gordon Conn, a Scott who lives in Calgary. Lee has been friends with the company’s Kenny MacLeod for more than 30 years.
At McCallum, the process starts with blocks of African blackwood, chosen for its density and resiliency, cut to length and placed on skewers to be spun and profiled into the pipes’ rough shape. (The shop is also now working with a new material, black acetyl, and has created a line of bagpipes that MacLeod calls virtually indestructible).
The profiled lengths are left to sit to completely dry out before being profiled into their finished shape (to avoid cracking later).
The pieces are then checked against the technological specifications before being profiled to an advanced stage. The hand finishing takes over, with manual machines used for cleaning and polishing. Meanwhile chanter reeds are shaped by hand in a climate controlled room.
“We then work with a solid tube of high quality alloy (rather than nickel, it shines more like silver), which is moored, profiled and threaded by hand, then engraved with various patterns, which can be quite exquisite,” MacLeod explains.
The bagpipe’s bag is traditionally made of sheepskin – just as it was when first played more than 10 centuries ago. While members of the SFU band abide by that tradition, MacLeod says more pipers are turning to Gor-tex or other waterproof material.
The parts are checked for quality, assembled, tested and delivered. “A well-made bagpipe can last a lifetime,” MacLeod says. “There are some pipers who play pipes made in the 1800s and they still sound marvellous.”
SFU band members choose their own instruments according to their individual tastes and preferences, says Pipe Major Terry Lee. “There is definitely a bonding that happens between players and their instruments,” he says.
Pipers like John Sutherland won’t let them out of sight. Once when asked to check his pipe bag on a flight, he handed over the empty bag and held his pipes on his lap.
“What’s important,” adds Lee, who last year sported a brand new set of pipes, ”is that once all are tuned precisely, they make magic together.”
Backgrounder: playing the pipes
Considered one of the most difficult instruments to play, the bagpipe consists of a chanter or melody pipe with finger holes to produce musical notes, and three drones, each tuned to a note on the chanter and attached to a bag held under the arm.
Sound is produced when air is blown into the bag and releases through the pipes as the chanter is played – all of which requires skilled breathing and bag-control techniques.
Students usually learn to play first on a practice chanter, which can take a year or more to perfect.