Jock Agnew re-visits a contentious issue

When I was working with the late Martin Lowe on The Wind in the Bellows, he asked me to recommend a project for the LBPS (of which he was then Chairman). Without hesitation I suggested the coordination of the many makers of Border pipes and Scottish small-pipes world-wide.
I have been involved with the Society since the mid-80s. During that time I have seen the interest in Scottish small-pipes and Border pipes grow from virtually nothing to their current world-wide popularity. At the start there were precious few makers, and they shared their experience and technical knowledge freely with one another. Then, as commercialism crept in, most pipe-makers started keeping their information close to their chests. Different fittings were developed; different woods were experimented with; a variety of different pitches of pipes were produced until the pitch of ‘A’ became the most common (a mistake, in my view; ‘C’ might arguably have been better). Experimentation took place over the construction and materials for, in particular, Border pipe reeds – Scottish small-pipe reeds are virtually the same as Northumbrian reeds.
Pipers, since those early days, have come to rely heavily on the makers for guidance and advice. But what if the pipe-makers themselves give conflicting advice? For instance one may prohibit the use of oil, particularly on the reeds, while another may sanction the opposite. Yet another may demonstrate how to coax and squeeze a plastic reed into good playing order, while a different maker tells the piper never to finger reeds of that material. One maker may say the drones should be set up so that they never rest on the bellows’ arm (like Geordie Syme!?) while others are quite relaxed about such a posture.
Then there are the physical matters of construction.
As editor of Common Stock I published a series of supplements, one of which (number four I think) listed all the makers of Border and Scottish small-pipes which could be discovered in advertisements and piping publications of the day. To my surprise the LBPS Committee asked me to desist – I never discovered whether this was prompted by commercial considerations (there were pipe-makers on the committee) or the fear that such a list might suggest these makers were those approved by the Society. There were then, and still are as far as I know, no standards of manufacture to which new or existing makers might adhere. It might be tricky to devise such parameters, but this particular nettle should, in my opinion, now be grasped.
Take the bellows, for instance. When, in the early days, we had monthly meetings for pipers in London and the Home Counties, we were continually trying out each other’s pipes. But because of the variation in size and design of the fittings, and one set of bellows not necessarily fitting another breed of pipes, we had to half undress and swap over bellows as well as the pipes. In fact one piper had bought both small-pipes and Border pipes from the same maker, each of which were supplied with their own bellows, and even those bellows were not interchangeable!
And today it is getting no better. The connection between pipe-bag and bellows can vary enormously, and some bellows are so large, so heavy, that the piper risks developing a list to starboard when s/he straps them on! As one piper said to me, his bellows could be used to service the furnace in a smithy. (In many respects this question of size and capacity is the fault of the customer; the piper. If you go to buy a pair of dancing shoes and come away with a pair of wellington boots, then you only have yourself to blame!) The Northumbrian Pipers Society is the only source I have come across offering any sort of correlation between bellows size and the pipes they service. No mention seems to be made of the condition of the pipes: if the pipes are properly fettled (i.e. loss of air reduced to a minimum) then the bellows themselves can be quite small and neat. I demonstrated this at one annual (LBPS) competition by playing two sets of pipes simultaneously while using just my regular set of bellows – which had earlier been pronounced too small, by one particular pipe-maker, for even its normal task.
Highland pipers can, more or less, go to the Piping Centre or the College of Piping (or a similar source) and choose a reed, chanter, blow-pipe, or even a bag cover, which will suit their needs. For Border pipes and Scottish small-pipes we are a long way from that situation.
The reeds for Border pipes offer us a whole fascinating can of worms. If a piper breaks his reed it may mean sending the chanter to its maker to have a replacement fitted. I know of one very competent piper who now never plays his Border pipes because the maker of those pipes no longer exists. It may be part of the reason why Border pipes died out, to all intents and purposes, for almost a hundred years.
Maybe a group of pipe-makers could put together a pilot scheme to harmonise (no pun intended) certain scantlings and materials – even standardise some. Make chanter stocks and blow-pipe stocks of such a size that any chanter or blow-pipe may be fitted with the minimum use of hemp. Make Border pipe chanters capable of accepting scraped-down Highland pipe reeds (and I know of one pipe-maker who has done this), so that pipers in faraway places can always have access to replacement reeds. Give recommended constraints of capacity (and weight?) for the bellows and, in a really helpful vein, agree a common connection between bellows and pipes.
And when this has been achieved introduce a code of construction that is agreeable – even attractive – to responsible pipe-makers, with a logo or imprint (like the British Standards kite) which guarantees the pipes conform to that code. I rest my case! Lead on, LBPS.