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Nigel Richard provides further food for thought on the conical bore pipe.

Unfortunately I missed the deadline for the last Common Stock issue [a common complaint. Ed!] devoted to Border pipes, but consequently have had the pleasure of reading the interesting articles by others on the subject. Because, as far as I know, I am the only other U.K. based pipe maker apart from John Swayne mainly making Border pipes I will take this opportunity to write at some length on the subject. Firstly I will describe how I got involved in pipe making, and how my work developed, then give my views on the particular nature of Border pipes.


I made my first musical instrument at the age of sixteen in a tractor shed near my home at Strathpeffer. This effort was not crowned with success; my attempted Mandolin/Sitar was constructed from a fish box and a length of bamboo, and when I tightened the strings, the neck bent like a bow. Ah well it was the sixties, and an age of boundless optimism! Having started playing folk blues style guitar I became interested in Traditional music when I moved to Argyll in the mid seventies. A few years later I moved to Edinburgh and was enchanted by the sound of the pipes. As there was no medical remedy for this particular affliction, I took up chanter lessons. I knew I had no wish to march around in regalia playing the piob mhor, but thought the pipes could sound great with other instruments if the volume, tone, and tuning were right.

Joining the LBPS confirmed my view, and when I heard the Border pipes I knew they were THE pipes for me despite the fact that the quality of Border pipes available at the time was pretty variable. Meanwhile I had started a course in musical instrument repair at Stevenson college in Edinburgh. From then on the subjects that progressively obsessed me were what made a good Border chanter, and how could you get beyond the restriction of the nine note scale. Oddly enough some thirty years from the start of this saga one of my recent instruments has been a Mandolin/Sitar, this one works very well indeed, patience is rewarded!


Being puzzled as to which aspects of a Border chanter were critical in giving a good tone, I started by making a number of reamers (not work for the light hearted) with varying angles, but within the range of 1.5 to 3 degrees, i.e. all narrower than the primary bore of the standard Highland pipe chanter (see Technical Note). I made a number of chanters and tried out a vast number of different reeds in them including cut down Highland reeds, and some made by established bellows blown pipe makers. None of these proved entirely satisfactory in my particular chanters, but I was progressively building up a clear picture of the charac- -teristics I required from the reed, a strong unwavering tone giving crisp grace notes, with clear but not dominant harmonics. These are the same things many look for in a Highland pipe reed, but this reed needed to work at a lower pressure and play at a lower pitch (A not Bb). At the same time | was developing a keywork system to extend the range of the chanter and give the accidentals within this range. The first system mixed some original mechanisms with ideas borrowed from the oboe and clarinet and it had ring keys around some of the finger holes. It was of the rod and pillar construction style which was - to me - clearly more versatile than the block mounted style. The breakthrough came when a slightly unusual Highland pipe reed made by the French reedmakers Glotin produced (with some adjustments) a really promising sound. I now had a fully chromatic keyed chanter working with a sound cane reed, that has only been refined a little since for the design of the reeds that I make for my Border chanters today.

It gradually came to me that a chanter covered with keys, particularly ring keys, was not what the traditional bagpipe player was looking for. I began to rationalise the design to make the chanter playable in the standard manner with the keywork all offset to the side so it did not interfere with the normal fingering. I then turned my attention to making an ordinary nine note chanter in A with the drones to match in style tone and volume. As Julian Goodacre pointed out to me, this was a somewhat roundabout route to the standard bellows pipes! Nowadays I sell more standard Border pipes than anything else, and in fact the standard chanters give most of the “extra” notes within the range by cross fingering anyway. However a number of adventurous souls take one or more additional keys which they say serve them well, and give extra scope for their musical imagination, so the original development work has proved worthwhile in the end.

Technical Note:

The angle of the Irish pipe chanter is around 1.3 degrees (1 in 44), and the Highland pipe chanter varies from around 3 deg to 4 deg. In my experience sound Border chanters can be made with a bore from around 1.5 deg (softer sound) to around 2.5 deg (more of a Highland pipe sound - not surprisingly) but you have to find the reed to match the cone. Cut down

Highland pipe reeds stand a much better chance of working with the wider bore chanters.


The last thing the Society needs is any sort of argument between Border pipers and players of Scottish Small Pipes as to which one is better. They both have different qualities which suit different circumstances and different tastes. In fact many situations suit either and quite a number of members play and enjoy both. A cone is a cone and a cylinder is a cylinder, and this single factor gives rise to most of the acoustic differences which characterise the sound of the different pipes.


There are many fine sets of Small Pipes around nowadays, and some are relatively speaking quite loud. However there must have come that moment for many players of Small Pipes

in sessions, when another fiddler strikes up, or maybe a guitar or accordion joins in, when the player wishes his instrument had a bit more volume and more “edge” to the tone; this is when the louder volume and brighter tone of the Border pipes is a benefit. With quieter instruments or small groups of instruments played quietly, the Small Pipes can be the better choice. Amplification of course changes the whole picture.


In my opinion one strength of the Border pipes is that grace notes are heard more clearly, and have more impact on the overall sound.


The ability to cross finger accidentals on the Border pipes gives the player greater freedom of expression.


I agree with Gordon Mooney here, the pitch of the half holed high B is unreliable (with my reeds anyway) and a keyed high B gives a good note, whilst allowing the reed to remain strong on the other notes. Lower pitch pipes (G, F, etc) overblow more effectively.


Hardwood is hard! I don't find a significant tone difference between Blackwood, Boxwood, Rosewood, or Lignum Vitae. “Soft” open grain rosewoods like Indian Rosewood, make good guitar fretboards but poor chanters in my experience.


It is a common mistake to imagine that pipes that are “easy to play” and pipes that play at a low pressure, are necessarily the same thing. A reed may be playing at a low pressure but be warbling around like crazy and be hard to control. You are aiming to have a reed/set of pipes that have good tone and stability, and are comfortable to play. To an extent you get out what you put in. A bit of extra pressure, with a slightly firmer reed can give a rich vibrant tone with strong harmonics without undue effort, however there is no right and wrong here, some makers and players prefer a softer reed and a softer sound. Overall I don’t think the Border pipes are significantly harder to play than Small Pipes (neither are easy!) but they do take a bit more getting to know initially.


The conical bore chanter takes longer to make than the parallel bore chanter but is not too difficult once you have the right tools and a bit of practice. The larger wood sizes and the longer time taken on reeding up would suggest you could expect Border pipes to be say

20% to 30% more expensive (not taking account of any other considerations of quality).


The society is fortunate in having both those who look to the past and those who look to the future as members. Researchers into the physical and musical history of the instruments have done us proud. However bagpipes themselves are musical instruments not antiques, and it is the makers’ job to continue to develop and improve them if possible. Likewise with the music - the Tradition is rich but the horizons must be broad, the more pipers having a spirit of musical adventure the better. Although I expect the number of Border pipers to   increase only slowly, the potential tor then is very considerable. In my opinion Border pipes are the ideal pipes for folk groups, and very satisfying solo instruments, but also great for mixing with woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, you name it!