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The Bagpipe Society

The Polesworth Pipe

It’s a Friday evening at the end of May in the Staffordshire village of Polesworth. In an alcove off the hall of the community centre, instrument-maker Tony Millyard is supervising the installation of the woodworking lathe that would usually be in his workshop (“For the technically sad amongst us it’s a Union Graduate, considered by all to be the very best wood lathe ever produced on these shores”). Over the next two days a unique event will take place in this tiny space. While piping and dancing, teaching and learning, happen around them, six of England’s professional bagpipe makers will work together to make a bagpipe.

The setting is the annual ‘Blowout’, the gathering of the Bagpipe Society at which enthusiasts of bagpiping and dancing from all over Europe come together. Ian Clabburn, who organizes this event, was inspired by seeing Sean Jones, a re-enactment enthusiast, make a pipe on a pole-lathe and proposed a ‘pipewatch’ event for the Blowout. Sean Jones tells me that he had no intention of spending his holiday weekend working in a tent on his own, and it was this that led him to suggest what must be the first ever co-operative instrument-makers project.

An exchange of emails has already established that the pipe will be in G with a single drone, made in boxwood. The wood for the drone bell and the chanter will come from Jon Swayne, the rest from Sean Jones, and the leather for the bag will arrive with Dominic Allan. Julian Goodacre has made it quite clear that he will be making the first section, the drone end, so

that he can stamp his

distinctive style on the

design from the start. It has

also been agreed that Mike

York will make the chanter

and that Jon Swayne will

make the chanter reed in a

reed-making teaching

workshop on the Sunday

afternoon. The plan, such as

it is, is that blow-pipe (to be

made by Dominic), drone

end (Julian) and chanter

(Mike) should be finished by

Saturday, with the stocks

(Tony and Dominic), drone

sections and reed-making

(Sean and Jon) and the

tying-in of the stocks (Dominic) being done on Sunday. No-one had planned for the events which were to happen early Sunday morning.

Friday night saw the first act in this extraordinary process, when the audience at an informal concert (in fact it was a competition to find the ‘most inappropriate bagpipe tune’1) were invited to choose the colour of the leather and finishing for the bag from a selection presented by Dominic. Green with brown binding was the audience’s choice.

First up on Saturday was Dominic, who was to turn the blow-pipe before disappearing to work on the bag. Immediately the scene was set for the rest of the weekend. A continually changing group of those attending the event stood and watched as the makers involved stood around and discussed what was being done on the lathe. There was much lathe-talk and a good deal of banter. But it was clear that each maker was keen to watch the others work. “It’s fascinating” Sean told me “the different ways of working, of using tools and of sharpening them”.

It soon became clear, however, that there were some important questions yet to be answered. “What size is the bore? That’s the question” asked Sean and followed that with “are we working in

imperial or decimal?” And

as Dominic finished turning

the blow-pipe Julian was

asking “Are we going to

use polish” to which came

an answer which was to

typify the weekend’s work;

“I don’t know. What do

you want to do?”

Julian explained to me later that working with

an unfamiliar lathe was “like doing a concert on a set of pipes you never played before.” This was probably the biggest problem faced by all the

makers. The tool-rest, which needs to be frequently adjusted during any process, had a screw which turned in the opposite direction to the usual (there was much discussion of why the manufacturers did that). “Very disturbing” said Julian, “Mike, having mastered it, found he was turning all the other adjustment screws in the wrong direction.”

While Julian was turning the drone bell all the makers assembled and began discussing their experiences with boxwood. Tony told a story about finding lead shot- gun pellets in one piece he was working. Julian could not resist getting involved until Jon pointed out to him that he was not ‘shortening the waiting list’, to which Julian’s response was that if they wanted him to get on then they should stop having such interesting conversations.

Having finished turning the drone

bell Julian took up the piece that was to be

the drone-end section. Turning to Sean he

said “Can you drill this for me Sean?” and Sean duly obliged.

Typical of the comments exchanged throughout the weekend were two from Sean; when Julian set about joining the bell-end to the drone section, Sean was heard to remark “He’s going to use superglue!”; when

Julian began sanding the completed drone- end Sean’s enthusiasm for the opportunities the project offered to discuss esoteric subjects which pipe- makers would usually have to suppress was revealed when he exclaimed “let’s talk sandpaper!”.

Sean and Tony between them had

taken on the role of health and safety officers, frequently

wielding a broom to clear the abundant shavings. One couldn’t help wondering at the amount of boxwood which disappeared in this process.

Meanwhile Dominic was making the bag; “I agreed to do it so that I could sit outside all day in the sunshine and listen to the cricket” As it turned out, the day was chilly with some rain, so he actually ended up working in the dining room.

By around mid-day, Mike had begun turning the chanter to a cylinder prior to boring, a process which drew not only an audience from among those attending the event but also a complete gathering of the makers together with other makers not directly involved, including early-music specialist Eric Moulder and German pipe-maker Mike Hoffman, both attending the weekend event. Mike Hoffman later offered this insight into the notion of co-operation between makers – “When we began making pipes in Germany, Remy Du Bois visited us and gave us a great deal of help. He explained that by learning from each other, makers would make better instruments; better instruments being played meant more people wanting to play, which meant that co-operation would expand the market and help everybody.”

It was now 12.45pm. With the chanter rough-turned, the intricate process of drilling the bore began. Jon and Mike had brought with

them their various lathe- fittings which act as guides for the drills; the ingenious ‘steady’ which holds the free end of the chanter with the help of four skate-board wheels, however, was Sean’s device.

As one drill followed another, Sean and Tony

confessed that they were impressed with the set-up. Though each maker had their own way of working, it was clear that there was a mutual respect for different approaches and much interest in seeing how they each had discovered and used ingenious tools and techniques; all had been particularly interested in the ideas Eric Moulder had expressed about sharpening various drills.

The process of boring the chanter was eventually

completed with a reamer to convert the stepped drillings into a continuous cone.

Now the process of fine- turning of the chanter could begin. One got the feeling that

each of the makers present would have liked to be doing this bit of the job; they were all certainly keen to see how Mike approached it, and often lent a hand.

With the turning complete (the piece of boxwood had revealed itself to be beautifully ‘flamed’, banded with darker stripes –“had we known that, said Mike “we might have brought a less valuable piece”), another major re-fitting of tools on the lathe was supervised by Sean, installing his drill-stand for drilling the finger holes. Once more

the assembled makers watched a way of working which was new to some of them.

The day’s work then moved into its final stages

with the drilling and turning of the blow-pipe stocks.

By dinner-time the blow-pipe, the drone-end, the chanter and the stocks are complete; there is one problem, which had been foreseen: several watchers have indeed already jokingly asked the question. “We knew this would be a mistake” says Sean, “now customers will be asking “Why do I have to wait two years if you can do it in two days?”

Sunday May 31st:

Tony was up and breakfasting early on Sunday since he was due to turn the drone and chanter stocks before rushing off to a gig at 10am. He was interrupted in his plans however when one of the event participants, who had been working in the kitchen, collapsed; Dominic was among those first at the scene and within a minute Tony had taken on the task of administering artificial resuscitation to a heart- attack victim. The ambulance crew arrived within 5 minutes and brought the victim back to life. Suffice it to say that the man’s life was saved, but Tony was not in a state for bagpipe- making thereafter, though he did make it to the gig. Sean therefore found himself taking his part in the process.

By 11.15am there were only the two

drone sections to go. Sean and Jon, who were to

make them, discussed which way round the two

pieces of wood should go. “We have to decide what to do at the junction of the two sections” said Sean “how is the turning to be done?” The challenge was for these two makers to produce something of their own which would relate in some way to the distinctive character Julian had stamped on the design from the start.

Once the drone lengths were

bored and turned, Sean set about lapping the joints. Meanwhile Dominic set about cuttings the holes in the bag. “I was still reeling a bit from the morning’s events and I perhaps made less of a job of positioning the blow- pipe than I might otherwise have done” he said later. While he then got on with tying in the stocks, Sean set about making and fitting the drone reed.

And suddenly it had become a bagpipe; well, almost; Jon fitted together the sections, blew up the bag and sounded the drone.

All that was needed now was the chanter reed. As part of the teaching workshops scheduled for the weekend, Jon was to give a session on reed-making during which he made the reed for the Polesworth pipe. The fluency with which Jon turned a yoghurt pot into a fully functioning chanter reed was a joy to watch. Finally the moment came when the reed was inserted into the chanter throat, the chanter plugged in and the Polesworth pipe came to life. For me it was a magic moment, but for Jon it seemed to be all in a day’s work and the moment passed without even a round of applause.

With Dominic checking the room-temperature (Jon explained how to calculate the necessary adjustments to be made to sounding pitch if the reed is to play at A440 at

standard room temperature) Jon sanded down the finished reed (using diamond card originally recommended by Julian) till it produced a satisfactory scale, more or less fully -chromatic across an octave and a half. He then invited the audience to try their hand at reed-making, and while two took up his offer, the pipe was passed from one maker to another, and each played a little, and then passed it to members of the audience, several of whom (including yours truly) joined in the celebration of a remarkable achievement. For the rest of the evening the pipe was to be seen lying in various places, and occasionally in the hands of one piper or another. Later in the evening all six makers played it simultaneously in a concert in the Abbey Church. It was not perhaps a brilliant musical performance but it was a fitting culmination of a unique event, which it was a privilege to witness and record.

And what of the pipe itself? Now What?

The Polesworth pipe has been taken apart and each section has gone back with the maker responsible for its safe keeping, where it will be stamped with that maker’s mark. Next year, all being well, it will be re- assembled when each maker returns with his section and it will play once more.

And what of the makers?

After due reflection most of the makers would admit that perhaps the pipe

they made together was not their finest work. Jon

Swayne said later “The proportions of the various parts

of the drone didn’t turn out very well, which we could

have foreseen but didn’t. On the other hand, the result

reflects the nature of the project and the fact that each

part was made by a different person. It gave me great

pleasure, and I enjoyed the sense of cooperation with

my esteemed colleagues.” Dominic too had some

comments to make about the design process:

“Normally the Blowout is a weekend off after many

weeks of hard work getting instruments for customers

or for display ready for the event. This year I had more

work to do. Thankfully I enjoy my job and found the

experience fascinating. Julian completed the first

turned part (bell section of the drone) leaving the rest

of us to make our contributions match his more

flamboyant style. As a result my blowpipe design has

been exposed as just plain boring! In future my blow

pipes will try to be a bit more stylish. I look forward to

the instrument’s reunion and secret hand shakes next

year.” Julian, having protested that he “certainly did

discuss the issue of the overall design before we

started, with Brother Drone Base and Brother Drone

Mid-Section”, went on to say that he had “lots of new

ideas - I ordered a 3 point crown tool yesterday from Axminster…. and have lots of ideas I want to try out with reed design.”

There was a good deal of frivolity on the Monday morning (by which time we had learnt that the heart-attack victim had survived) and references to ‘secret handshakes’ and various ‘Brothers’ are part of that. It was clear that, beneath the jokes about ’the Brotherhood of the Bag” and the intention to reunite the pipe parts ‘when the time is right’, there was the sense that a unique bond had been formed between makers who had known each other before the event, but now perhaps shared something new. Jon Swayne summed it up: “There is a part of the universe where time stands till until the ritual reassembly of the instrument next year. I

know that my part is stamped and waiting in its place

of concealment until the time is right.”


  1. Mike York (and a tiny feathered friend) won the competition with ‘The Birdie Song’ closely followed by Pete Stewart with ‘Singing in the Rain’ complete with dance (not quite Gene Kelly), raincoat and umbrella (tied to the drone of his English Great pipe)