I guess I’ve long been attracted to the weirder fringes of bagpiping; but then, when it comes to weirdness, bagpiping itself must surely be regarded as being out there on the extreme edge of music – any sort of bagpiping.
Consider: blowing into the skin of an animal in pursuit of music. Before starting, be sure to have a few lengths of wood arranged so they project out of the skin at odd angles. Finally, plug each of these lengths at one end with a little stick of something that looks like bamboo and you’re in business.
Oh, did I mention the tuning? If there’s one thing that troubles non-pipers more than anything else, it’s those out of tune scales that pipers insist on inflicting on music lovers everywhere. Well, for those of you new to the faith, you might like to know that it ain’t the pipes that are out of tune; it’s everyone else, the main culprit being the well- tuned piano. But you’ll have to trust me on this as bagpipe intonation is too big a subject to go into here (perhaps some other BagSoc member, better qualified than I, would like to reveal all concerning just scales versus equal-temperament for future pages of Chanter).
For me, the attraction of these wonderful instruments began over forty years ago when a kindly uncle donated some just-about-working Great Highland Pipes to my instrument collection. The trouble was, I simply couldn’t take them seriously – I mean, bagpipes! So, instead of learning to play them properly, I amused myself and my mates with endless performances of the ancient and noble art of Cat Strangling.
But the seeds had been sown and one day I found myself trotting along to the local library in search of anything they might have on the subject of bagpipes. Now you have to remember that the term ‘bagpipes’, to most people in those days, meant just one thing: the Great Highland Pipes. So when the librarian produced a rather dull-looking book, imaginatively entitled Bagpipes by some geezer called Baines, I almost wet myself. Yes! There was life out there beyond the GHP.
Clutching my new-found bagpipe-pornography to my bosom, I hurried off home in a daze of Cabrettes, Cimpois and Cornamusas (not to mention Dudas, Dudelsacks and Dudeys). There, for the first
but certainly not the last time, I devoured that
hallowed tome from cover to cover. The book
contained dozens and dozens of the weird and
wonderful, the sounds of which I could only
imagine as I still hadn’t got a clue what these
amazing-looking beasts were actually like to
So it was back to the library, this time the record section. The librarian must have been a closet bagpipephile for when I tentatively asked if they had any recordings of bagpipes I was directed to an LP (remember them?) devoted to the work of one Billy Pigg, The Border Minstrel.
Other than in the pages of Baines, I’d never seen Northumbrian smallpipes before, let alone heard them, and it seemed from the sleeve notes of The Border Minstrel that this guy was the dog’s. Yet again I’d stuck gold.
It was about then that I discovered that a senior member of staff where I worked was seriously into bagpipes. He had, on a number of occasions, been observed wincing as I happily Cat Strangled in the car park beside his office (yes, I still indulged, I’m afraid to say) and decided it was high time I had a lesson in tuning the drones – oh, is that what those slidey bits are for?
Once the ice had been broken and I realised I wasn’t about to get the sack, I asked if he played any other sort of bagpipe than the GHP. “Scottish pipes?” he said. “I don’t think you can actually say that I play the Scottish pipes – just picked up a bit here and there on my travels. Why don’t you come around and see some of the pipes I like to think I do play properly?” I hardly dared accept his invitation. Was I really about to hear a live performance of bagpipes other than the GHP?
First out of their case was a set of Northumbrian smallpipes, which I was assured were over a hundred years old. Next an even older set dating from seventeen hundred and umpty-ump (sorry, but the sands of time have scoured away many of the details of that amazing evening). And, yes, he could play them properly, or so it sounded to my uneducated ear. The rest of his collection was subsequently laid before me for my delight and approval. I recall a couple of sets of Uilleann, both extremely old, one being a full set equipped with perfectly-tuned regulators. I remember the effect as he suddenly brought those regulators into action in the middle of a tune; to me it was like having a seat beside the organ in the Albert Hall.
I can’t recall every bagpipe that was demonstrated that evening though I do remember his Galician Gaita and, wonder of wonders, a Bulgarian Gaida, with a bag like some huge inflated elephant’s scrotum. Yes, even then it was the weirder instruments that stuck in my memory.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I was by now well and truly hooked. And, like any addict, I wanted more. The trouble was, there was little around at the time other than Scottish pipe bands, which weren’t really what I was looking for. So, for several years, bagpipes went on the back burner.
A brief interlude which I swear is absolutely true: the GHP I acquired from my uncle had been passed on to him by a pal when they were in the Army together. One day, I took out said pipes intending to hone my newly-acquired tuning skills. Instead of the expected Cat Strangling, however, I was greeted with silence. Well, not quite; more the hiss of a burst lorry tyre. But this was no simple puncture: the bag had perished away completely over an area of several square inches. Completely beyond repair.
A few days later, I saw my uncle and related the incident to him. He went very quiet and asked me when it had occurred. He then informed me that his Army pal had passed away on the same afternoon that my pipes had given up the ghost.
The GHP was put away and to this day has never been rebagged. This had nothing to do with any possible paranormal connection. It was more that I finally accepted that the Great Highland was perhaps not the instrument for me.
But it was a rather minor incident that was to jolt my piping interest off that back burner: Sometime in the early 80s, I was idly checking out some album covers in a record shop window when my gaze was arrested by what was, to me at least, a stunning record sleeve. Six ultra-cool monochrome dudes sporting an amazing array of the weird and wonderful. Not one but two hurdy-gurdies. Not one but two bagpipes – neither GHP nor Northumbrian but, as far as my novice eye could tell, two different kinds of Mediaeval bagpipe. I felt weak at the thought that perhaps not too far from where I was standing, someone might have been playing – perhaps even making – early bagpipes. I had to know more.
My window shopping experience proved to be a truly life-changing moment for within a couple of days I found myself trotting down to the Chestnuts Folk Club to take in a performance by Blowzabella (for it was they, of course, who were my monochrome dudes). I learned that the pipes weren’t exactly Mediaeval, more Renaissance, one set being an old English replica, the other Flemish. And, as I’d suspected, they were made by a member of the band, one Jonathan Swayne.
I couldn’t get enough: records, concerts,
workshops, talks, seminars. I was more hooked
than I’d ever been only this time I decided I would
do something to turn my passive pursuit into an
active one. I’d make my own bagpipes and learn to play them.
I rapidly began to accumulate a collection of data in the form of plans, notes, books, instructions, recordings. I also had a growing list of contacts in the form of pipers, makers, suppliers of everything from wood to leather.
Slowly the ball was starting to roll.
Two things were, however, missing from my inventory: woodturning equipment and the knowledge/skills to use it.
By then I’d discovered that all local bagpiping roads led to Whitechapel, in the form of the London College of Furniture, as it was then known. So I decided to enrol there in Early Woodwind Construction, an instrument-making evening class. I quickly discovered that there were at least four sets of early pipes on the go at the College, being made by as many different students. I’d died and gone to Heaven.
I was, however, becoming increasingly frustrated. I knew there were a lot of people in the wider world with similar interests to mine. I just didn’t know how to reach them. Don’t forget that the Internet was in its infancy at the time. Oh, there were organizations such as The Northumbrian Pipers’ Society and The Irish Pipers’ Society but, admirable though these bodies were, they didn’t cater for pipes and piping in general.
There was only one thing for it: start your own!
Fellow student Judy Rockliff and I put our heads together and came up with a draft constitution, some aims and objectives and a plan of action. As if by magic, The Bagpipe Society began to take shape. Well, not quite by magic: I guess we both put in a lot of toil before we were ready to unleash the Society on the world.
In the meantime, I continued to learn the craft of bagpipe making. Increasingly, I found myself moving in the direction of the really weird and wonderful (I use the qualifier because, as I said earlier, I believe all bagpipes to be weird and wonderful to one extent or another).
As well as more conventional fare, over the years I’ve given birth to a number of sets of pipes that undoubtedly fall into the weird category even though not everyone would perhaps agree with the wonderful bit. A few of my little darlings are shown here:
I don’t do much making these days, though I still play quite a bit, mainly for Royal Liberty Morris. But it’s good to know that if I’ve got a bagpipe problem, there’s now a society out there that can help me resolve it.
Now I wonder if there’s any mileage in a mock-stone bagpipe that looks like it’s just been unearthed in some dusty corner of my local church…
From Chanter Winter 2010.