Lochalsh Pipes


For this issue’s pipemaker interview Common Stock headed to the north-west coast to Lochalsh, on the mainland opposite the Isle of Skye, to meet with Ross Calderwood who began making Scottish smallpipes there in 2004. I was particularly interested to hear how he came to be there, doing that.
“I was born in Greenock, on Clydeside and moved to Renfrew at the age of 10. I left school in 1982. I was interested in cabinet making and fine woodwork, but growing up in Clydeside you were steered towards heavy engineering as that’s what was all around. I got an apprenticeship in an engineering and construction company. When I was 20 I moved to live in Huddersfield and began working at Sellafield. I stayed there until 2004.” Ross and I remarked that a background in engineering seemed to figure in the story of quite a few pipemakers.
I was also interested to hear about his interest in music at the time.
“I began learning the Highland pipes when I was around 7 or 8 years old, taught by Duncan Brown at Port Glasgow Boy’s Brigade band. Later on I went for pibroch lessons with Donald MacLeod. His teaching method was to sing a tune to you until you got it, with a mix of canntaireachd and his own vocables. By the time I was 16 I lost interest in Highland bagpipes and was mainly listening to psychedelic rock, but then I heard Dick Gaughan and became interested in political folk music.”
“I first heard Scottish smallpipes at Holmfirth Folk Festival, being played by Malcolm Swindell. I couldn’t believe that bagpipes could be such a sociable instrument and be part of the same folk world as people like Dick Gaughan. Visiting my dad one year he took me to a Bagpipe shop in Edinburgh and bought me a set of Scottish smallpipes around 1996.
“When I worked at Sellafield I started up a session at the Screes in Nether Wasdale with my friends Robbie Moody on fiddle and Kerry Wright on bodhran. We mainly played Irish tunes to begin with but then found an interest in local tunes from Cumberland. This session developed into a really successful night, with people travelling from all over Cumbria to play.
“I was sharing digs with a friend, Angus Soutar, who was originally from Reraig where I live now. Angus was always interested in learning the pipes when he was younger but was too busy fishing. For something to do on winter evenings I started teaching Angus the pipes. At the same time I replied to an advert in the Whitehaven News for a pipe-teacher from Ronnie Service, originally from Invergarry. He was 70 years old at the time. Angus got to the stage where he needed a set of Highland pipes. Ronnie’s hobby was woodturning, I worked in engineering, our landlord at the time was a retired joiner who had various nice bits of timber and a workshop. With everything combined we decided to make our own set.

at the lathe

“This was around the time I heard Malcolm Swindell at the Holmfirth Folk Festival. I talked to him there and found out he was also a pipemaker, mainly doing Northumbrian and Scottish smallpipes. I consider him a top pipe maker of his era. He was a contemporary of Colin Ross and one of the founders of the modern Scottish smallpipe revival, but because he had to care for his elderly mother his production wasn’t that prolific and he isn’t that well known today. I visited him at his workshop and it was his advice that led me to the use of fruitwoods and native hardwoods such as yew and holly rather than the usual imported blackwoods that were then the standard material for highland pipes. Our landlord had a lump of cherry wood so we used it to make our first set of highland pipes, copied from an existing set. We soon made another set for Ronnie and then started making smallpipes.”
“At this time I regularly went on holiday to Lochalsh with my family. We decided to move up in 2004. We set up a bed and breakfast business and during that time I made pipes as a hobby for friends and family, including my two sons.
“By 2014 our mortgage was paid off and I built a workshop in which I made pipes for friends and family. I then created a website about my pipemaking; as soon as that was live I realised that was it, I had a business, I was a pipemaker.”

So I asked Ross to say something about the pipes he makes:
“My materials are mainly indigenous hardwoods, such as holly, laburnum, fruitwoods and yew. I find that these timbers provide first class tonal qualities as well as being of outstanding beauty. I finish each set of pipes using natural materials such as tagua nut (vegetable ivory), Buffalo horn, rams horn, or light coloured woods such as sycamore and holly. The wood I use comes from several local timber suppliers which means I can tell you exactly where the tree was felled that provided the timber for your pipes.
“I make the bag of pre-treated hide which requires very little seasoning. I used to make my own bags but I now use Mark Bennet pipe bags.
“I make my own bellows which are double skinned with the outer skin being leather and the inside is vinyl; this makes the bellows completely air tight and eliminates the need for seasoning. For the plates, recycled timber such as oak, teak and mahogany are used as well as local timbers such as oak, ash, cherry, and alder.
“I have been working on various materials for drone bodies, I have used glass fibre tent poles and various other plastics but have now settled on wooden bodies. I use the same timber as the I use for the pipes. I have developed a curved body with a free tongue fixed with o rings. This was inspired Richard Evans’ talk on drone reeds at the 2017 collogue. The main advantage is that you can replace the tongues very easily as well as being able to do fine adjustments. I still use ezee drones for people that want them particularly for overseas buyers who live in areas of fluctuating humidity.
“I use standard cane small pipe chanter reeds but with a slightly bigger staple. I still use plastic reeds for mouth blown pipes.

Having played together with Ross on many occasions I was aware that he and I shared an interest, not just in the older parts of the repertoire but also in a wider range of music. This led me to two questions. Firstly, I knew that he had been working for some time on what is known as the ‘Rostock chanter’, the oldest surviving bagpipe chanter, found in a midden dated 1480. Ross gave a talk at the 2017 collogue about this, which was printed in the December 2017 issue of this journal, but essentially this is a wide-bore chanter with a single reed, of the sort used in Swedish bagpipes. I was interested to know whether he had made any other innovations in his pipemaking.
“When I was working on the Rostok chanter I decided to introduce one or two features that are not in the original (as well as ‘adjusting’ the position of the finger-holes). Firstly, I added a right-hand thumb hole to give me a flattened third; this is a common feature of French bagpipes. I also developed a system of plugs which enabled me to change the pitch of the 6th. I now find myself often asked to provide other ‘extensions’ to the standard smallpipe chanter - I have included a keyed 9th for example, though that is not uncommon today. Less common is the introduction of a double hole for the top G. I have also, on request, included plugs to alter the pitch of other holes as well as the 6th, giving the opportunity to play in modes other than the standard mixolydian or dorian.”

My other question was to do with the music he was now playing, having been very impressed with his prize-winning duet in the 2017 LBPS competition.
“That was with Christine Martin, she was playing nyckelharpa, but she is also an accomplished fiddle player and harpist - she is a fiddle and clarsach teacher and has been teaching and performing since the 1970’s. We are now playing as a trio called Harta along with Jack Evans who played with a long list of bands in the 1970’s and 80’s , including The Easy Club and Jock Tamson’s bairns. Jack plays bouzouki with Harta.
“We all have an interest in the 18th century repertoire as well as music from Scandinavia.”


smallpipes in yew 

My thanks to Ross for taking the time to answer my questions. You can learn more about his pipes and his pipemaking at his wonderful website: https://www.lochalshpipes.co.uk/