The (17th century) Iain Dall Chanter links the past to the future

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Iain Dall (“Blind John”) MacKay was both a poet and a piper and one of the finest composers in early Highland piping history. He was born in 1656 at Talladale, Gairloch. He was blind from a young age and spent seven years studying with the MacCrimmon’s in Skye. He carried the composition of pibroch to a high level and eleven pibrochs can be attributed to him; for example ‘Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon’. As well as a piper, Ian Dall was a poet and bard of high status and a significant selection of his poetry has survived. He died in 1754 and in 1805 his chanter was taken to Nova Scotia by his emigrating grandson John Roy, where it was kept by generations of his descendants. No other chanter survives from any of the leading seventeenth- century piping dynasties.

The first time I was first told about the ‘Iain Dall’ chanter I was not especially interested in it. I certainly never anticipated that it would lead me into an odyssey which would affect many other areas of my life and my pipemaking. This ancient and frail chanter has somehow survived for over 300 years, having been passed down to the present day through an unbroken chain of people who have preserved it. It provides a unique link to a style of music that persisted in the Highland and Islands long after it had died out elsewhere.

My involvement with making Highland pipes goes back to 1990 when a German pibroch enthusiast, Andreas Hartman Virnich, commissioned me to make a copy of the ‘earliest surviving set of pipes’. Hugh Cheape, who was then curator in charge of bagpipes at The Scottish National Museum, suggested the ‘Waterloo Drones’ and the ‘Mull’ chanter, both of which are now housed in The National Piping Centre Piping Museum,Glasgow. I measured these and copied them for Andreas and was impressed enough by them to make a copy for myself. They fascinated me, but as I do not have the background or ability to play Highland pipes and little experience of cane reeds, further developments got shelved.

In 1994 Dr Peter Cook, who was then Senior Lecturer in Music at The School of Scottish Studies, and had shown interest in these pipes, told me about the Iain Dall chanter and asked me if I was interested in going to Nova Scotia to measure it. I think it was Peter who gave me a blurred photocopy of a photograph of the chanter that had been published in the Oban Times in 1935. At that time I did not appreciate its importance and did not follow up his suggestion.

The turning point came when I met Barnaby Brown. In 1997 I had lent my own copy of the ‘Waterloo Drones’ and the ‘Mull’ chanter to Allan MacDonald. Alan had been researching and reappraising pibroch styles and his exciting and dramatically different performances were ruffling a few feathers in pibroch circles! He spent some time trying to reed them up and eventually passed them on to Barnaby. The moment Barnaby and I met we saw eye to eye. We both had an ‘Early Music’ approach to this project; he was just beginning to establish himself as a researcher and performer of the early pibroch repertoire and wanted to play on the best possible copy of an early Highland pipe. We both understood how important it was to respect original instruments and when copying them not compromise by altering measurements or hole positions in any way. His scholarly attitude rekindled my interest and his undaunted determination and zealous enthusiasm has remained the driving force behind this entire project.

Barnaby and I now cannot recall exactly when we set our sights on copying the Iain Dall chanter. A few other early chanters have survived in Scotland and Barnaby tracked down and inspected as many as he could. We wanted to copy one of them in as great a detail as possible to improve our skills in measuring and copying an historic chanter. We decided to focus our attention on the Black Chanter of Clan Chattan which is housed in the Clan MacPherson Museum, Newtonmore. It is an early chanter, with a delightful mythology that it was first seen being played by an angel in the sky at the Battle of North Inch of Perth in 1396! It is certainly an old chanter, quite possibly dating from the 17th century, but it has an ancient and substantial crack along the finger holes and does not show signs of having been played. We measured it in October 1999 and subsequently I made three copies, one of which Barnaby attempted to reed up using modern Highland reeds.

Having gained this experience we focused our attention on the Iain Dall chanter. The person who was the vital link in this project was the piper Rory Sinclair, from Toronto, Canada. Rory and I had become friends in 1996, when he was over on one of his annual visits to Scotland to the Piobaireachd Society Conference. At some time I had mentioned the Dall chanter to Rory in conversation and it turned out that he had known about its existence for several years. Better yet, he was a personal friend of the family who owned it. Furthermore, he had independently been thinking about how a copy might be made, so when he heard that we were also thinking about this, he enthusiastically offered to set the whole project up. He was the best person in the best position to arrange our trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which we made in December 2000.

It was then owned by Barbara Sinclair, the widow of John Mackay Sinclair, a direct descendant of Iain Dall. Barbara was elderly when we visited her and was delighted to find that we were showing such interest in the chanter which had been treasured by her late husband.

It was enormously exciting to see and handle the actual chanter during the two days we spent measuring it. We assumed that we would only ever get one chance so we had to be sure of getting all the information we required. It is a one-piece design with a graceful shape a bit reminiscent of some modern Spanish gaitas. It is professionally turned but now in poor condition as it is cracked and has broken in two around the bottom ‘devil’ (vent) holes. This has been repaired with a neat silver collar nailed onto the chanter with very short nails; a repair which may well have been made at least 200 years ago. The wood had shrunk to the extent that the chanter is now loose within the metal collar, which has also cracked. It is therefore impossible to play. The outside is bound with hemp between the finger holes. Much of this binding had become loose.

It clearly had been played for decades and it was fascinating to find that the finger holes show no signs of alteration or undercutting. Whoever had played it for all that time heard no reason to alter the intonation of the chanter whatsoever. We can be sure that the finger holes are exactly where the pipemaker originally intended them to be. Any tuning must have been done with wax in the finger holes or through the design and manipulation of the reed.

While inspecting it we also noticed a delightful feature; there is the double wear mark made on the chanter by the pinkie finger of the top hand, proving that it was played right hand high. This feature increased our reverence for it; it actually bears the direct marks of Iain Dall’s pinkie finger. It is clear that he held the bag under the right arm. At some point, someone has levelled the surface of the low G hole by hacking it down with a knife. They did this very crudely; you can see the knife marks. All the other holes are perfectly polished, which for a while we believed was worn down by piper’s fingers over decades of playing.

Barbara, and her sons Michael and Donald, could not have been more welcoming and helpful. We spent two days in Barbara’s house sketching, measuring, discussing and videoing the whole process. This involved inspecting it in the greatest detail, taking maximum and minimum measurements of the bore and outside profile. Wood does not shrink at the same rate across the grain as with the grain. The challenge with an instrument of that age is judging how much the wood has shrunk since it was in its playing prime. With regularly changing humidity in the bore the wood shrinks, more concentrically with the grain than radially. The result is an oval, or egg shaped bore, and by measuring both the minimum and maximum axes, one can try to estimate the circular diameter which the bore originally had. On returning to Scotland our first task was to take these measurements and extrapolate what we believe the original dimensions to be. We did this using a formula based on the research of recorder makers in the 1970s.

I made up a reamer and using my measuring probes on a test bore we compared the dimensions it produced to those we believed this chanter had in its prime. We repeated this fourteen times over a period of about four years, each time making fine adjustments to the reamer, filing it down here and there, until we were satisfied that it produced exactly the bore we wanted. Barnaby’s meticulous scientific approach was vital at this stage.

Compared to modern highland chanters, the existing throat on the Dall chanter is very wide. The throat is the short parallel section of the bore below the reed seat. When Barnaby took our first copy to reed makers they, without exception, expressed disbelief at the width of the throat. In the first years of usage the throat of a chanter often shrinks and benefits from being restored to its original diameter, but in the case of this chanter we found ourselves intentionally reducing the size of the throat to reduce the grief we were experiencing with reeds. However a couple of years later Barnaby persevered with the original throat size and discovered that it was simply a case of letting go of modern preconceptions of staple design.

We were delighted that in 2006 Rory got permission to bring the chanter over to Scotland for a week. He was delivering a paper on important piping artefacts in Canada to the The Piobaireachd Society Conference. Rory, Barnaby and I took the opportunity to give two other presentations about the chanter. One was at The School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh and the other at The National Piping Centre, Glasgow. Rory talked about the history of Iain Dall Mackay and his chanter. I talked about the challenge of copying it. Barnaby then played the chanter and talked about the challenge of developing a reed for it.

This visit also gave us a second chance to check some of our measurements and to compare my copies with the original. Mike Sinclair had agreed to allow a small sample of the wood to be taken for identification purposes. I managed to remove a minute sliver of wood from beneath the silver collar. This was identified by microscopic analysis at Kew Gardens as Guaiacum officinale or lignum vitae. This is the wood I am now using for my copies.

One of the benefits of this project for me has been that I have had to reassess some of the ways I work. Whenever I develop a new design of chanter I have the freedom to alter and adjust all the measurements. Once I have chosen the bore and wall thickness I can change the size and position of any of the finger holes to suit the chosen design of reed. But with the Dall chanter I do not have this luxury. My part in this project has been to measure and copy the chanter in as great detail as possible and I have studiously avoided the temptation to alter the evidence to make it behave in a way we imagine it should.

This has left Barnaby with the challenge of developing a reed that is perfectly suited to the chanter. Over the years he has pursued this task with bursts of fanatical zeal! This has involved him working with some of the finest Scottish reed makers and led him to designs which are substantially different from a modern Highland reed.

Highland bagpipe reeds have become so standardised that few modern reed makers have experience in altering these basic measurements. The tools used today make it harder to explore older reed designs; the requirements of mass production mean that older techniques, such as hand tying, are dying out. Barnaby has been privileged to work with some exceptional artisans who were willing to stretch out into the unknown, particularly Thomas Johnstone at Ezeedrone and, more recently, Andrew Frater. This process has had unexpected rewards, with the reed makers improving their standard product as a result of ‘research and development’ for the Iain Dall chanter.

What do the results sound like? Well, two myths have been exploded. The pitch of the Highland bagpipe in the eighteenth century was not as low as A440, but more like A455 , i.e. closer to a modern B flat. The instrument was also no quieter! The lower pitch does, however, give it a warmer tone, particularly compared to the chanters used in pipe bands today, which are sharper than B flat. Barnaby had cherished the thought of establishing what intonation the famous MacCrimmons preferred, as Iain Dall was one of their most outstanding pupils. He published results in 2009 which suggested ‘that Highland pipers’ ideals of intonation and pitch have changed more since 1950 than in the previous 300 years’. Since then, however, progress in reed making and experience has reduced his confidence.

After Barbara Sinclair died, the chanter was inherited by her eldest son, Mike Sinclair. The interest shown in the chanter led him to the decision that the family should return it to Scotland after its 205 year stay in Nova Scotia. In November 2010, several members of the family flew over to officially donate it to the collection at the National Piping Centre in Glasgow.

Mike Sinclair had actually brought the chanter over in July and I was asked to undertake some conservation work on the loose binding on the outside of the chanter. It was rather daunting to be handed a cardboard tube with ‘Iain Dall Chanter’ written on the outside and being allowed to take it home for a few days. But it was a privilege to have one last chance to spend some time on my own with this priceless object.

It was also possibly the very last opportunity for Barnaby and me to recheck that our measurements actually tallied with the original chanter. And it was rather humbling to find that after all our efforts, when we placed the chanter on the drilling jig, we found that the positions of several fingerholes were slightly out. There is no substitute for working with the actual object one is copying and we would encourage anyone embarking on a project of this nature to transfer their measurements, not to pieces of paper, but directly to the tools of manufacture.

And it was also an opportunity to reflect on the journey that we have taken as a result of this chanter. As I am largely a self taught pipemaker, most of my skills and approaches have been learnt through a combination of trial, error and sharing and gleaning ideas with other instrument makers. Barnaby had no previous experience of chanter making and his healthy questioning of some of my assumptions and workshop practices proved very helpful. I admit that my initial reaction could sometimes be that of irritation! However it is sometimes beneficial for me to be shaken out of certain fixed ways that I have developed through working on my own. As a result I have made various changes in my approach to the way I make some of my other chanters. A vital realisation was to relate all measurements to a single zero point and to maintain this in the tools of manufacture. Otherwise, one cannot be confident about the interrelationship of the bore, the profile, the hole positions and the reed seat. With this chanter, our zero point was its base.

We have now been working on this project for eleven years and our collaboration has been a rewarding experience both on a professional and personal level. My practical skills and experience complement his analytical mind and have proved a powerful combination. We often have stimulating discussions about the chanter, trading and challenging theories, sometimes reluctant to abandon them. His insistence on making faithful reproductions of the chanter has even led me to compromise my principles of only ever using British hardwoods. I currently use lignum vitae for the Iain Dall chanter, but will also be making them in British hardwoods and I look forward to hearing the differences in tone.

When we started out on this journey we never anticipated that it would turn into such an odyssey. Looking back, we naively thought that after our trip to Nova Scotia it would only be a short time before we had a working chanter. Barnaby had bought some reed making tools and assumed that developing a reed would be a matter of a few months; job done! But we both lead busy and eventful lives and it has not always been easy to find time for our research and development work. The Breton piper, Patrick Molard, who has shown great interest in our project, eloquently described it as ‘a lifetime’s adventure’!

My own pipe making career has involved me recreating bagpipes from early images and from surviving 18th century pipes. In both cases, we know little about who played these pipes or their piping styles and techniques. The Iain Dall chanter is a complete contrast in that we know who played it, what music he played, and we even have the imprint of his fingers!

The importance of this chanter cannot be overstated; it has been described as the most precious relic of Highland piping heritage today. We know of no other chanter with a pedigree like it. The music that Iain Dall composed and played on it has its roots in a wider medieval tradition and it may be more accurate to view pibroch as a remnant of something British and Irish, rather than something specifically Scottish. This chanter is thus a ‘time capsule’ which offers us a unique link to the past.

It has miraculously survived through an unbroken chain of people who have chosen to preserve it. I am proud to have become part of this chain by reproducing it. Making a copy may appear to be an end to me, but it is also a beginning for the piper who plays on it. They become the next links in this chain from the past to the future.

Barnaby is already giving concerts and recitals of Iain Dall’s compositions and there is considerable interest shown in it by other pipers who wish to explore the early repertoire of Highland piping on instruments of the period.

This has been a once-in-a-lifetime project. It seems symbolic that back in 2000 we were handling the chanter with our bare hands. As our respect and understanding for it has grown, we began handling it wearing cotton gloves. Now we have the satisfaction of knowing that Iain Dall’s original chanter is somewhere safe and visible, surrounded by pipers who appreciate its significance.

THANKS: We would not have been able to achieve any of this without the help, support and advice of many people. Especially Dr Peter Cooke, Rory Sinclair, Barbara, Mike and Donald Sinclair, Hugh Cheape and all of Iain Dall’s descendants who preserved his chanter.

The basis of this article was originally a paper that I delivered to The Piobaireachd Society Conference, Pitlochry, in March 2006. Since then it has been expanded and updated with significant input from Barnaby Brown.

For other discoveries on this odyssey, see “The Iain Dall Chanter: Material Evidence For Intonation and Pitch in Gaelic Scotland, 1650-1800” by Barnaby Brown in The Highland Bagpipe: Music, History, Tradition, ed. Joshua Dickson (Ashgate 2009).

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