Pierre’s Lifetime of Passion for Old Vintage Bagpipes

Pierre playing an ebony replica of the 1806 Donald MacDonald bagpipe

Pierre Blanchet is a Breton pipe-maker. He started playing the pipes at the age of 11 in 1958 in the Saint Nazaire area in the south of Brittany. He was given a set of pipes made by Dorig Le Voyer with only one tenor drone and gradually began to make progress as a player.

Listening to other players, everything was done by ear with no staff notation, just a system of diagrams corresponding to closed and open holes. Then he got himself a full set of pipes, Breton made (Lanig), and started practising a repertoire of local dance tunes for a group of children.

by Patrick Molard

Meanwhile, a piper from the La Baule Bagad (pipe band) showed him the rudiments of Scottish fingering, gracenotes and doublings, and also some elements of music theory. Pierre made tremendous progress, and in 1967, being called up to the military, he joined the 41st infantry regiment of La Lande d’Oue which had at the time a military bagad.

He soon became pipe major of the band. Service over and back in civilian life, he joined the Saint-Nazaire Bagad and he received tuition from Jakez Pincet who was a permanent teacher at the time in La Baule.

His progress were spectacular! Eventually the bagad became a pipe band as most people know it, that is it lost its by now moribund bombarde section. It took the new name of Rederien Ar Mor Pipe Band.

Pierre was appointed pipe major, and in 1976 they decided to enter the World Pipe Band Championships in Grade 3. They were placed seventh out of 35, and won the Overseas Trophy.

After this, Pierre joined the Gaelic Club Pipe Band of Nantes, then the Bagad du Pouliguen, and finally the Askol ha Brug Pipe Band. It was at this time he decided to concentrate on pipe-making and stopped playing in a band in 2000.

As far back as 1976 Pierre had a growing interest in pipe-making. In this he was helped by a friend from the city of Nantes who had already made a few sets of pipes as a hobby.

It was this friend who encouraged Pierre to study the treatise on acoustics by Ernst Chladni and his theory on wind instruments: with all of them it is not the material that makes the sound, but the shape and dimension of the air column.

The Donald MacDonald set in plastic by Pierre

Since then Pierre has always followed this principle in his pipe-making. His first instrument was a replica of a set of pipes which fascinated him at the time. Later he discovered that they had been made by Robert Gillanders when he was working for the MacDougall brothers after the departure of James Center for Australia.

Pierre was so interested in the Chladni theory that he decided to make his second bagpipe, this time in boxwood. They were a replica of a James Robertson set and when completed sounded exactly the same as the original.

Then came the fashion for synthetic chanters in polyoxymethilen (polypenco or Delrin). The theory worked for chanters, and should work for drones, thought Pierre. He started making polypenco drones, his first set a replica of the Gillanders/MacDougall set. Again the sound was the same.

Since then Pierre has made quite an impressive number of replicas, both in plastic and wood (African blackwood, ebony and mopani). Here is a list:

Alexander Glen, dated 1847
Peter Henderson, 1930
Henry Starck, 1920
Half-size Henry Starck, 1930
RG Lawrie, 1890
Peter Henderson, 1890
James Hutcheon, 1900
Duncan MacDougall, 1880 (Breadalbane)
John Center, 1900
David Glen, 1900
Donald MacDonald, 1806
George Glen, 1825
John Thow, 1860
Thomas Glen, 1850
Montrose, 1790
Malcolm MacGregor, 1820
Duncan MacDougall, 1870 (Edinburgh)
John and Robert Glen, 1890
Donald MacDonald, 1810
Allan MacDougall, 1820
Donald MacDonald, 1835
Duncan Gillies, 1900 (formerly in the College of Piping Museum)

Pierre and Andrew Frater with the mopani replica of the 1806 Donald MacDonald pipe

Pierre has copied all these old instruments because he finds that they all have remarkable qualities of tone and musical colour – but his favourite remains the 1806 Donald MacDonald set.

It was thanks to Dr Hugh Cheape, and with the help of Andrew Frater, that we were given permission to measure up the original set which is in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Pierre first made a plastic copy which I played for a few weeks and which was so good that I was ready to keep it. But eventually Pierre made me the same in mopani and horn, a beautiful combination, and it had the same sound as the plastic copy, again following Chladli’s theory on wind instruments.

We came back to Edinburgh the following year to measure up the chanter. We had difficulties at first to get a decent result because we were using modern reeds. The well known piper and reedmaker Andrew Frater had the idea to use a longer staple, one inch instead of 15/16 of an inch, and it worked perfectly.

Andrew, Pierre and the writer try out the new reed with the longer staple

This was a great adventure and undoubtedly the highlight of Pierre Blanchet’s career as a pipe-maker.

  • Have a listen to Patrick playing his set of Donald MacDonald replica pipes here.

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