A career in bagpipe making

 2 February 2012

Bob Hay and Neil MacPhail, two workers at Bagpipes Galore in Edinburgh, describe what it's like to work in a bagpipe store and the challenges faced by people wanting to become a bagpipe maker.

Working with bagpipes

Bob Hay

“Everybody that works in this shop plays pipes. You’ve got to be able to play all these instruments that are hanging on the walls behind you.

Everybody that works in this shop plays pipes.

"Practice chanters, practice pipes, small pipes, Highland pipes, you need to be able to play them all. You need to be able to sort out reeds for people.

“First thing we do in the morning is we look at our website and we look at all the orders that have come in overnight. All the pipey things in here, we make ourselves, so we’ve always got them in stock – the Highland pipes, the practice pipes – we always have them in stock. But there are other bits and pieces like music and reeds sometimes, we don’t make.”

Neil MacPhail

"As the day goes on, we prepare orders and prepare them to be sent out, and we play instruments for customers when they come in.”

Developing skills to work with bagpipes

Bob Hay

“Most of these people that make pipes – like Joe Haggan there for instance – he's been making pipes for 40-odd years.

"Wherever it was he started, it would be a shop just like this, and there’d be old boys just like Joe making bagpipes. In those days, you’d just be a trainee.

"You’d keep your eyes out and you’d keep your wits about you. And you’d learn how to make the various pieces: how to blank them – how to turn that into a piece of round wood is the first thing you have to learn to do.

“So many people use programmable lathes and such to turn instruments, which is a shame in some ways. I mean, all our instruments in here are made on real lathes, by a guy who does it pretty much by eye.

"Just to know the difficulties that a bagpipe woodturner has, we went back to Jewel & Esk College to do a woodturning course there.

“It’s mainly just sort of woodturning and making different things with wood and getting used to the tools. I found getting used to the tools is helping with making bagpipes and repairing different parts of bagpipes.”

Bagpipe-making as a career

People at school are always laughing when you say you want to be making bagpipes.

Neil MacPhail

“I hope to have a career in bagpipe making, but I’m not sure if any bagpipe makers are fond of telling their skills and teaching learners how to make instruments and things.”

Bob Hay

“You go there as an apprentice, and maybe four or five years later, you’re off! You go and buy yourself a lathe. It’s quite a lucrative business, always has been.

"It’s a one-man show, it’s a cottage industry. Even famous makers like Sinclair’s in Leith, who’ve been making bagpipes – I used to sit there during the War. They’re still there, but it’s still a one-man band!”

 “It certainly isn’t a dying art. Especially when people find out how much money you can make by making them.”

Neil MacPhail

“I’d hope to do both, maybe make them and then test them and play them. And probably adapt some of them, make something better, see if I can come up with some new types of bagpipes or something.

"People at school are always laughing when you say you want to be making bagpipes in the future, because it’s sort of an unusual job.”


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