For several years now the Society has run a Practice Pipe hire scheme. Here the pipe-hire steward, Allan Sturrock, reports on the scheme and its development

One of the aims of the LBPS is to encourage newcomers to take up bellows piping.  However one major difficulty can be getting hold of an instrument on which to learn.  To purchase a new set of smallpipes or border pipes from one of the established craftsman pipemakers is a very big commitment when you don’t know if you and the instrument are going to get on!  It is also likely to involve a wait of 6-18 months. To overcome this barrier, the Society set up a practice pipe hire scheme.
In its present form, the scheme dates from January 2010, when the Society purchased two sets of practice pipes from Richard and Anita Evans.  A third set was added in March 2011. These are Scottish smallpipes in the key of A, bellows blown and with a single bass drone.  They are well made, sweet sounding and excellent to learn on, whether for highland pipers converting or complete beginners.
There had been earlier efforts to provide practice pipes but these were cheap and not very cheerful.  To quote our Treasurer, Iain Wells “the bags were pvc, I think, and there were a couple of drones made from thin brass tubing.  The bellows were probably from, and far better suited to, blowing up a lilo! To be fair they did not cost much and you probably got what you paid for but much less than you hoped for.  In my brief experience with them I found it was difficult to get a pleasing sound from them and they were guaranteed to extinguish any enthusiasm a beginner might have for smallpipes.”  When the committee decided to invest in a smaller number of well-made instruments the old ones were sold off. They must be out there somewhere, but I have never seen them in action since.
The hire fleet was then augmented with a set of Heriot and Allan smallpipes from an unknown donor.  These had a broken drone pin which was invisibly mended by Julian Goodacre.  It is a full three drone set and with relatively small bellows is not so easy for learners, but better than nothing.  I also believe that the chanter is in Bflat (it certainly tunes better there) which is OK for a solo player but not suitable for class learning.
Unable to satisfy demand, we ordered two more sets of Evans pipes, the same as the first.  Delivered in February 2013 they were immediately out on hire and we still had a waiting list.
Ann Grindley donated her late husband Dick’s pipes to the Society.  These are a full set and have both A and B♭ chanters, a bass and two tenor drones.  They appear to have been made by John Ratzen some 25 years ago when he was still making pipes in Scotland.  The Committee decided that these should be used to help youngsters to get started.  Originally it was intended to offer them on a year’s free loan to the winner of the Novice Event at the annual competition, but that did not work out so they are now out on three months free loan to a lad at George Watsons.
Finally we decided to order two more sets from Richard.  One of these was to be paid for by money raised from the sale of our late friend Jim Buchanan’s music books.  When I contacted Richard about engraving a dedication on them, he and Anita most generously offered to make them into a full three drone set for the price of a practice set.  So one of our hirers is benefitting from this and she is very happy!
Over the last three and a half years, 30 people have had pipes on hire. Pipes have been out on hire for 4,931 “pipe days” out of 6,544 available – which is 75% utilisation. The average duration of each hire is around 5½ months.  Some hires are very short, people finding difficulty stretching the pinkie to low G, or not coping with the bellows or not having enough time to practice.  Others keep them for over a year as they wait for pipes to be made (or perhaps saving up for the deposit!).  We don’t put a time limit on hires, but we may have to do so if the waiting list builds up too much.  We have very occasionally over-ridden the waiting list to provide pipes to people joining the Beginners class run by the Scots Music Group in Edinburgh, which the LBPS supports.  I also borrow back some of the hire pipes for events such as the Teaching Weekend in February and the Collogue where we have a “Come and Try Smallpipes” workshop.  On a few occasions, when several sets had been returned around the same time, I have promoted the scheme through the Society’s website and Facebook page but these, plus a brief  mention at a traditional music event have soon resulted in new hires and a restored waiting list.  I have one person on the waiting list, but they are wanting left-handed pipes.  At present we cannot justify purchasing a left handed set, but if there are other left-handed would be pipers out there I should be pleased to hear from them.
The fee for hiring the pipes is £15 per month and we take a £100 returnable deposit.  So far all deposits have been returned in full.  We also require that hirers join the Society at least for the duration of their hire. The scheme is not run as a commercial venture, but it has produced a useful addition to our income, at least repaying the cost of the pipes.
So who hires these pipes?  Ages range from 13 to at least 68. Some 25% have been women.  I would guess 75% have played highland pipes before but the rest have successfully started from scratch, possibly having played traditional music on other instruments. Geographically most stay in Scotland or just over the Border, but one set was sent to Denmark and another set was booked from the USA for a man coming over to Southampton on a one year academic secondment.
One hirer, Charles Bates writes “I didn’t have any piping experience when I decided to take up the SSP.  Ross Calderwood recommended that I consider leasing a training instrument from the LBPS while I was waiting to pick up my own instrument nine months later.  This gave me an opportunity to get acquainted with the SSP in a way which would not otherwise have been possible. The training pipes are beautifully made and were a joy to learn on. I found them much more entertaining to play than the practice chanter, and therefor practiced more. I also doubt if I would have progressed as quickly if I had started on the full set of pipes I picked up from Ross later.”
My own experience was equally positive, coming from the highland piping tradition. Martin Lowe got me interested in smallpipes and hired me one of the Evans sets.  It took me about three weeks to master the bellows to the extent that I could play some of my simpler tunes without too much wavering.  I then used the practice pipes for a term in the Scots Music Group class as well as for a weekend workshop run by Ian Kinnear at The Burn.  Whenever a set returns from hire, I try them out to make sure all is in order and I still always find them a pleasure to play.
All said, I think we can consider the scheme a success.  I believe there is scope to expand it further, if the demand is there and so far we have not marketed it strongly.  Donations of second-hand pipes are always welcome and the Committee may decide to purchase more sets in the future.  So it’s up to you would-be pipers to get in touch with me via the website.  To quote Charles Bates again “The LBPS training pipes were my first introduction to what is now, one of my favorite endeavors and for this I am grateful”.