More reflections on Colin Ross

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In 1973 I was a student at Newcastle University. I managed to secure a place on an evening class, learning to make the Northumbrian Pipes. This took place in the metalwork room of a local school, and it was a lot more interesting than my degree course! At two hours a week, making a set of pipes was a long-term project - after the first session, I was the proud owner of two 2”x1” brass plates, which the following week would be rolled up to make ferrules for the chanter and blowpipe stocks. There was much enthusiasm but little reliable information. One issue was obtaining materials, and this was how I first came into contact with Colin Ross. Colin would then I think be in his late thirties, and was a very well-known figure on the Tyneside/Northumbrian traditional music scene. Colin would turn up at the class, generally towards the end of the evening, with an extremely heavy holdall full of billets of lignum vitae. This had been liberated from the still-active shipyards and bandsawn into appropriate sizes. There was much enthusiastic chat, and Colin could always be persuaded to get his pipes out for a few tunes. A second problem was accurate information - the only available printed plans had issues, and Colin had developed a good chanter scale which he made freely available. This approach was to become a major part of Colin’s campaign to revitalise the pipes and pipe making - a willingness to share any information - anything to promote the making of good, well-tuned instruments. My first set of pipes was moderate to say the least, and a couple of years later I joined a class run by Colin himself. Here I produced my first reasonable set, in concert D. By this time, Colin had detailed information on reed making available and this was of the utmost importance, along with chanter dimensions, in the production of uniformly-pitched sets. It is impossible to over-estimate Colin’s influence in making the Northumbrian pipes more widely available. Until this time, chanters had been quite variable and generally a reed had to be matched to the chanter very carefully. By contrast, it is now possible for reeds to be made using readily available information or supplied by post in the confidence that they will work well and it is this that has made possible the worldwide spread of the instrument.

Colin ran a monthly maintenance session in the Black Gate Museum in Newcastle. This was a source of information, encouragement and enthusiasm and a link with an older generation including the influential maker Bill Hedworth. Many an interesting operation was performed without anaesthetic on an often dubious set of pipes!

It was during a quiet night in the Black Gate in the early 1980s that Colin showed me some old chanters and explained that he was developing something a bit different - the Scottish small pipes. I produced my first set in 1982 or ‘83, and since I was a Northumbrian pipe maker it had, of course, a couple of keys. As I developed as a pipe maker, Colin was never less than totally encouraging and continued to be a source of welcome advice and support. Inevitably, I saw him less frequently after we moved away from the North-East but our fairly rare meetings remained a pleasure. It is only necessary to look at the names of those who wrote so eloquently about Colin in the last issue of Chanter to gain a true idea of Colin’s influence. Matt, Jon, Hamish, Francis, Julian, Andy… there is no need for me to say any more. But my abiding memory is of the huge enthusiasm, the conversation and the laughter at those evening classes so many years ago.

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