By Nicholas Taitz, South Africa
I recently acquired a set of plain silver and ivory mounted Sinclair pipes which were made in 1972. They were supplied to a young piper in South Africa in the same year, given to him as a Christmas present. I attach some pictures of the set. With the sad passing of the last of the Sinclair bagpipe family engaged in the business, the late Allistair Sinclair, it was a somewhat strange coincidence to come across this set available for purchase only a week or so after hearing of his death.
Incidentally, I had met Allistair about twenty years ago, when I first came to Scotland to play with Richmond Avenue Pipe Band at the Worlds.
As an aside, some older readers may remember that Richmond Avenue was the South African Grade One pipe band which was banned from playing at the World Championships in 1984 at the intervention of Glasgow City Council.
Our trip in 1998 was the first time the band had been over to Worlds since that unfortunate occasion during the apartheid days, and was a very exciting trip for all band members.
My friend Dylan Joseph and I wanted to get a Sinclair blackwood pipe chanter each, and, thrilled at the opportunity of choosing one in person, we made our way down to the Sinclair premises in Leith, Edinburgh.
We were met at the door of the small shop by Mr Sinclair himself. He laid out about forty blackwood pipe chanters for our selection and we picked one each and went on our way.
Getting back to the bagpipe I have just acquired, it is interesting to note how I have inferred that it was turned by Allistair. The projecting mounts on Sinclair bagpipes over the past ninety years or so have not remained identical – there are minor stylistic differences between projecting mounts turned by the founder of the company, and his grandson Allistair.
I sent pictures of the pipes to one of the leading experts today on Sinclair bagpipes, namely Tim Gellaitry. Tim spent a number of years turning pipes in the Sinclair shop and it was he who informed me that the style of my projecting mounts was that of Allistair Sinclair.
The pictures show the pipes having been cleaned, rehemped and oiled. You will be able to see the very fine beading and combing on the set, with the combing being particularly deeply cut, especially compared to other modern makes of bagpipe.
The wood is also of exceptionally high quality, which gives credence to the well-known claim that Sinclair would age their wood for up to twenty years in their own storage facility before proceeding to turn a new set.
If that is true in this case, then these pipes are close to seventy years old, having been made approximately fifty years ago but with wood aged twenty years.
The set has the original Sinclair pipe chanter, which is still dead straight and is clearly a superior piece of blackwood, very black and dense.
It has a hallmarked silver sole which has a most interesting feature. It is not solid silver, but rather is hollow inside and when you turn the pipe chanter in your hands, you can hear a small rattling sound from inside the sole.
I had previously heard rumours of silver pipe chanter soles having something placed inside them so as to create a shimmering high A.
I asked around my group of highly experienced professional piping friends and a number had never heard of this practice. One, the most experienced, thought perhaps the rattle was caused by a loose piece of wood or glue which had come away over the years.
However, a number of others had heard of this and one of them told me he had a Sinclair silver-soled chanter which had the same rattling feature in the sole.
One of my local piping friends, Mr Rohan Morgan, provided definitive insight into this question as, coincidentally, he had written to Sinclair approximately a year ago and had asked about this same feature within the silver sole.
Rohan informed me that Allistair Sinclair told him that this small rattle was caused by a tiny round piece of lead-shot from a shotgun pellet. Apparently, at some point a small piece of metal had been accidentally left lodged inside a hollow Sinclair silver sole and upon testing of that chanter, it was noticed that it possessed an additional vibrato on the high A and high G.
This was assumed by the Sinclair pipe makers to be as a result of the small piece of metal in the sole. After this, and I am not sure for how long this practice continued, Sinclair would intentionally place a small lead pellet in their hollow silver soles in the belief that this improved the top hand resonance and sound.
Of course, as with most bagpipe makers’ secrets, this was never publicly advertised which would account for the fact that even experienced professional pipers I discussed this with had never heard of it.
I am not sure whether the lead ball in the silver sole in fact makes any difference to the sound or resonance of the pipe chanter, but I intend to test the original Sinclair pipe chanter when I have a chance to see whether there is any merit in this or not.
Personally, I would have thought that reed selection, the pipe bag you use, and also how you blow the chanter, are the key elements in achieving an oscillating sound on the high A, for example the beautiful high A sound Gordon Walker consistently achieves.
However, there may be some truth to the lead ball in the silver-sole idea, and I certainly intend to test it.
Cleaning and restoring this old bagpipe has left me deeply impressed with the workmanship and quality standards of the Sinclair pipe-making firm.
The external beading and combing is immaculate and deep, and the turning of the ivory projecting mounts is very fine as you will see from the pictures I have enclosed. Perhaps most importantly, the inside bores of the drones are perfectly finished with a mirror-like sheen.
I thought this article might be of some interest to readers given the recent passing of Allistair Sinclair, and also for the rattling silver sole theory. I relation to that it would be interesting to hear from other readers what they know about this and why it may have been done.
Of course, the report I have had directly from the late Mr Sinclair through Rohan seems to be definitive, but any other information would be very interesting to receive.
For example, it is not clear whether this was only a Sinclair practice, or whether it was also something known about and done by other leading pipe-makers either before or after.
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