History: Thow, the Dundee Bagpipe Makers

We are grateful to Jimmy McIntosh, now in South Carolina, for this information on the Thow Bagpipemaking firm formerly based in his near native Dundee.

Jimmy has passed on a letter he received from a Mrs Joyce Thow, a relative of the firm’s founders. It reads: ‘The firm of Thow Brothers was established in 1854 by John Thow. He was followed by his son David Thow. The firm at that time made violins as well, but later bagpipes and stamp cutting were the two main products of the firm.

‘Mr David Thow was followed by his two sons John and George (third generation). I am not sure when the firm moved to the Wellgate [in Dundee] but it would be in the early 1900s. I enclose a copy of a 1932 newspaper showing photographs of the bagpipes being made.

George Show, died 1940

‘My late husband’s father died in 1940 [George Thow] but by this time the firm were concentrating on the stamp cutting and bagpipes were no longer made. Mrs Thow kept the business going during the war [WW2] and my husband returned to it in 1946. They still sold reeds and had one employee who could skin the drums. The firm then became Thow Brothers, printing block makers.

 

‘The firm moved to Bell Street in 1977 when the Wellgate was pulled down and he retired in 1987. Our two sons did not follow into the business and it is now run in a small way as Thow Blockmakers.’

Another forwarded letter (24/1/93) has this from a Mr HB Duffus: ‘When I was a laddie I dealt with both Thow and Gillanders. I was a piper in the Boys Brigade and in business in the jute trade. We used both businesses for stamps or brands. Both businesses moved around quite a lot. Both described themselves as Bagpipemakers and Stampcutters…..I remember buying bagpipe drone reeds from Gillanders [another Dundee-based bagpipe maker] from a place called Park Lane. It was a wooden shack or lean-to. Re Thow Brothers, my cousin Harry B. Stewart who was originally a pattern maker, turned the drones on a lathe for them.

‘Dundee had quite a few pipe bands: the Police, the MacKenzie, the City of Dundee and BB bands from the 24th, 33rd, 3rd and 18th but not enough to keep a full time lathe operator hence the move into stamp cutting.’

The newspaper photographs referred to above are from the Scottish Daily Express printed in Glasgow on September 5th, 1932. The article is headed ‘A Little-Known Scottish Industry’ and features five photographs with this caption: ‘How many Dundee people are aware of the existence, right in the centre of the town, of a trade that is old and little thought of – the manufacture of bagpipes? The Thow Brothers of Wellgate, Dundee, supply bagpipes to bands all over the world. Theirs is the oldest firm in the trade in Scotland, having been established for over 80 years. Every process, from the shaping of the instrument pieces to the engraving of the ornaments is done on the premises.’

Of the pictures, one is used in the main image above. It shows a pipemaker testing a set pre-dispatch. The others:

The newspaper caption reads, ‘A veteran worker assembles the sections. Great care is taken in the selection of reeds to give a proper tone….’
‘The ivory ends of a section are finally turned…’
‘Boring rough sections for drones. Ebony from west Africa, blackwood and cocus wood are used for the pieces….’

‘Shaping, cutting and sewing the wind-bag [sic] from sheepskin….’
If you think you may have Thow pipes then check out these two characteristic features. The drone tops look very similar to MacDougall of Aberfeldy tops and Thow drones are often confused with these. The projecting mounts are more distinctive however:  • For much more on this important family of bagpipemakers check out Jeannie Campbell’s ‘Bagpipemakers’ book. Click here.


Six weeks to the sun!