page 12

page 13

page 14

In the latest of our interviews with pipemakers, Jim Gilchrist asks Ian Ketchin, who is based at Banavie, Fort William, about how he came to make small pipes.

Where are you from originally, Ian, and what took you to your present home and workshop?


I'm from Edinburgh and lived there for most of my life, with a spell in the Borders.

Then, 13 years ago I moved to the Isle of Muck, the smallest of the Small Isles in the Inner Hebrides. My grandfather came from Papay Westray in Orkney, and I always knew that small island living was in my genes. Muck is only one-and-a-half by one by mile wide, with a population of about 30, no mains electricity, no shops, no car ferry till very recently, and sometimes only one boat a week in the winter when the weather is bad. We loved living there, but life got increasingly hard when I developed a chronic spine condition (couldn't work in the garden, work on the building or go out to catch a few fish in the wee boat I'd built any more) and eventually last year we made the reluctant decision to move back to a more conventional life on the mainland.

We wanted to stay in the Lochaber area to keep the connection with friends and family

locally and on Muck, so here we are! In a small lock keeper's cottage on the Caledonian


Canal with a stonking view of Ben Nevis, and a small byre (which used to be the stable for the canal ponies) which is now my workshop.

Are you getting enough business?

Because of my back problems. I'm not able to work full time or at full speed, but given my reduced capacity, yes, I'm fairly busy. But I do try to keep delivery times as short as possible for people so I don't mind not having years of orders ahead of me.

You make Scottish smallpipes and Northumbrian small pipes. Which came first, and what got you into pipemaking in the first place?

Northumbrian smallpipes came first. Traditional music and traditional craft have been the two strong threads throughout my life.

I started on the euphonium at primary school, then quickly became more interested in traditional music as a teenager. I was only 12 (way back in the 1960s!) when I went into Glen's in the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh to get a new mouthpiece for my euphonium when I first saw a set of Northumbrian pipes in the window. I was bowled over ... completely and utterly fascinated and mystified by them. It was an antique set, small, intricate, such a beautiful object. Every time I went past I'd have to stop and have another look at them until eventually they were sold.

But I didn't hear them being played till I went to a Corries concert four or five years later and heard Roy Williamson playing a slow air, singing against the drones ... can't remember the name of the tune but it was the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard (but definitely not traditional Northumbrian piping!). I knew then that I wanted to play them but couldn't remotely afford a set and at that time had no idea where to start looking for one.

At that time the guitar was my main instrument, and I dodged about on the fringes of the folk scene while I was at Edinburgh College of Art, was doing sculpture, and was really lucky to catch the tail end of a very traditional course that taught skills like casting, model- ling, forging, lettercutting etc. My father was a woodturner to trade (served his time in Peggy's Mill, a water-powered turning mill near Cramond outside Edinburgh) and I learned woodturning from him.

When I left college, I set up on my own as a turner and carver, working in wood and stone, and in my spare time made my first set of NSP for myself, working without any help or drawings, just a lot of trial and error, and they were fairly crude, but they played, if not entirely well, and I learned a hell of a lot, and I was even more hooked. In the late 1970s I decided I'd have to buy a set if I was going to get any further with my playing, so bought an 11- key F set and played that for a few years, but I was disappointed with quite a few aspects of them, and immediately resolved to make myself another set. I used all my spare time working on prototypes, learning how to make reeds and figuring out how everything worked and why.

At this time I also started making Scottish smallpipes, and started to sell a few. I was keen at that point to start making pipes for sale full time, but other pressures prevented me till I moved to Muck. I then spent another five years on development and tooling up, before I felt I had both SSP and NSP that looked, sounded and played the way I wanted.


Do you have an apprentice/assistant?


No, though I did when working as a turner and carver in Edinburgh. I'm a great believer in apprenticeships, so I feel sorry that I don't have one at the moment, but my turnover's too modest to justify an apprentice, and because of my back, my working hours are too irregular to make it workable.

Do D and A still tend to be the most popular keys for Scottish small pipes?


Yes, about 60 per cent A sets, followed by D sets, with the occasional C and, very rarely, enquiries for B flat. My own favourite is D because I like that extra brightness, but I know it's a minority taste.

As well as the standard bass and two tenor drones or bass, baritone and tenor, you also make a four drone set with two interchangeable chanters in D and A? Elaborate?


The drone set is usually A D and with a tuning bead on the D to give E. I've also made combination sets that have an NSP drone configuration with an SSP chanter as well as an NSP chanter. The most elaborate would be to have a D set of NSP with additional SSP chanters in A D and E! But I usually try to persuade people to opt for simpler sets - the more elaborate a set becomes, the more compromises the player has to make, so less is often more.

Your website has a “stop press ” about your “new Lochaber pattern SSP” Can you describe it, and what prompted you to start making it? Response so it so far?

The idea behind these was to make a less expensive instrument, so I've introduced various simplifications that make the set a bit less labour intensive to make without sacrific- ing any of the sound quality.

I'd been using lined sliders and sleeved tuning pins for all my SSP for a number of years now and also tube sliders on all my NSP ... my workshop on Muck was only 20 feet or so from the sea, and vulnerable to humidity, so I wanted to make sure that the drones would still be tunable wherever they were eventually sent in the world. I now have much better control of the environment in my new workshop and can make an ordinary wood-on-wood slider with complete confidence, so I took the opportunity to design a slightly different style from the SSP I'd been making. As many of my SSP customers are Highland players rather than Lowland, I thought it would be nice to incorporate the traditional combed pattern into the design ... but I'll be making them plain uncombed as well.

The result is a pipe that's much more affordable. So far, everyone who's seen or heard them seems to have really liked them, and I'm selling more of these just now than my original Lowland pattern. The Lochaber sets definitely still have the appearance and sound of a smallpipe, though.

Any other innovations you 've made, either in design or materials, reeds, etc?


Not really any innovations as such. I don't think there's anything I do that hasn't been done before by somebody somewhere at some time or another but, having said that, I maybe have a slightly different approach to making pipes than most people, having made so many different things by hand over the years. There are always lots of different ways to make anything - no particular right or wrong way, you just have to find the best solution, given the equipment and resources you have to hand. I've learned a lot by sometimes doing things that turned out to be definitely the wrong way.

My bellows are a bit different from most other makers, I think. It was a pattern I devel- oped from scratch back in the Eighties and I've stuck with it, adding lots of refinements along the way, as it provides really great capacity and airtightness: They're not necessarily traditional, but they work and, hopefully, look good.

What materials - woods, mountings, etc - do you favour?

I like working with ebony. It used to be the traditional choice for NSP, and I also like it for SSP. As long as your tools are sharp, it works really well and takes great detail. I use blackwood as well. I'm careful to use timber from what I'm assured are sustainable sources, but I'd really like to use more homegrown hardwoods like laburnum, apple, plum, etc. I'm working with some nice yew in the workshop at the moment. But most people like the tradi- tional black appearance. I do use yew, though, for all my standard bellows cheeks as it's a wonderful warm colour and ages so beautifully.

For mounts, most people seem to opt for imitation ivory, which is polyester resin. I do use it but I much prefer natural vegetable ivory, which is really beautiful - it has a translu- cence which you just can't get with manmade alternatives. I use other natural materials like horn, bone and tagua nut. I won't use real ivory, even if it's recycled from other things, as this still supports the ivory trade.

Most people opt for brass metalwork, but I also use solid nickel silver and hallmarked sterling silver. I quite like the way silver and brass pipes tarnish with age if you don't polish them, but I also love them when they are shiny and bright, so nickel silver is a great solu- tion as it stays bright for much longer and hardly ever needs polishing. I also do all my own plating, either nickel or silver. The brass is cheapest as it's fairly easy to get tubes of the right diameter. I hand-roll all my nickel and silver ferrules, and I turn all my tuning beads from solid bar.

What kind of reeds do you favour?

I only use cane for chanter reeds. I haven't yet heard a plastic chanter reed in a bellows pipe that really gives the sound I'm after in my instruments. I know some other people use them and are happy with them, but they're not for me, I'm afraid. I changed three years ago from Spanish cane to Italian cane, which I think makes for a much brighter sound with more volume. I can see some situations of very extreme humidity where a cane reed might not be able to survive for very long, but for most situations I find that adjusting the mouth of the reed is usually more than enough to keep a pipe going well. Humidity was always a big consideration on Muck, where it could go from next to nothing up to 90 per cent over- night - and its not much better here in Lochaber - but I've always found that cane reeds


Made in Lochaber: one of Ian’s sets of small pipes

stand up to that fine.

But I do use styrene tongues as well as cane tongues on brass bodied composite drone reeds. The sound difference between styrene and cane on a drone reed seems to be far less significant, and styrene tongues just make life a bit easier in extreme humidity.

Are most of your customers existing Highland pipers?

Yes, most of my SSP customers are already GHB players. Quite a few seem to have lapsed from playing GHB and are looking to SSP as a quieter alternative to get their hand back in.

Any pipemaker in particular who has influenced your approach?

No one in particular, but I hugely respect all the great craftsmen of the past who managed to make superb instruments of all kinds with much less sophisticated equipment than we have now ... and no access to the internet to track down supplies.

Have you considered making Lowland/Border pipes or “reelpipes ” at all?

No, not really. I've played around with conical chanters in the past but feel very happy sticking with smallpipes.

Is there a thriving music scene in your area?

Yes, absolutely - this is Lochaber, home to some of the very best pipers and fiddlers in the world! And the feis movement is really strong here, so there's a great surge of young- sters coming up all the time. The Lochaber Ceildih Trail for example is a fantastic oppor- tunity for young musicians to get a taste of live performance with a variety of audiences and venues. The Scottish Traditional Music Awards are being held in Fort William again this year, which is great.

Do you play much yourself?

I play less than I used to because my back problems sometimes affect the nerves in my fingers and wrists (I recently went to record some sound samples for the website and managed to break down on every tune, which was really embarrassing, then crashed the car on the way home - not a good day, and hence still no sound clips on website, sorry!) but I still play guitar and NSP for my own enjoyment. I think I can play SSP well enough to get a good sound but not well enough to inflict tunes on other people. And I also play a bit of mandolin and whistle. I love the smallpipes for their expressive voice and versatility. I play traditional music but don't feel I have to play in any particular style. I love the colour you get from using vibrato, slurs, and bends - great for ballads and airs.

Have you any particular “philosophy” or ethos - when approaching your craft?

I suppose it all stems from a love of making things, and a fascination with the nature of materials and with technologies both ancient and modern. There's incredible satisfaction in making an artefact that in itself can make beautiful music. I always get a real buzz from hearing someone play a new set I've just finished for them - it's like alchemy.

I've spent most of my life making things by hand. I very rarely jig things up or use form tools; it's the way I was taught. This does have its advantages in that it gives you flexibility over everything that you make; you can change things very quickly and easily. I also tend to make one set of pipes at a time, from start to finish, and tend not to do batches of anything. And I'm always looking for better ways of doing things.

But it's the voice of a set of pipes that drives everything and I'm fairly obsessive about tuning and balancing and always looking for small refinements in design that help people get the best music they can out of them.

Anything else you'd like to add that you feel is relevant?

Life on Muck was great but very isolated from the piping scene. It was really difficult to get to LBPS or other piping events as any trip involved at least three days away, and often a week. Now I'm on the mainland it should be easier, but I'm still not always able to travel much, so sadly I still don't manage to get to as many things as I would like. It's not that I'm being unsociable - so do drop in for a cup of tea or a dram if you're passing.

Contact details: Dervaig Cottage, Banavie, Fort William, Inverness-shire, PH33 7LY. Website:


Melrose music: Carol-Anne Mackay at the March teaching weekend