A few readers got in touch after yesterday’s story on the pipes. Jim Robb: ‘Alan Bain maintained that his family’s ‘Avernish Pipes’ were made from hazel wood and had been bored with a red hot rod. They could still be played with a fairly modern chanter and were known in the family as ‘The Auld Sticks’. He said they had been made in Avernish, Kintail, and were about 200 years old. I’ve got photos of the pipe somewhere.’
I don’t know who Alan is Jim but please do forward the information on the pipes. Very interesting. The address is email@example.com .
By John Nevans
Bob Ash, who knows me through the RSPBA Summer School: ‘I must say, the story of Alexander Donnachie and his pipes made by Airchie Thampson was compelling reading.’
Fergus Philip: ‘Great article. I love the part, ‘He wasn’t talking to his pet sheep, he was talking to his first bag.’
I have been down the rabbit hole of bagpipe identification, and I want to thank the above commentators and everyone who examined the pictures and gave me some direction.
So what do we have on our hands? This is an apparently very old set of very light pipes, much repaired and over varnished but a full set nevertheless with some potential for playing if the wood allows.
Before I bought it, the pipe had been in the hands of David (Blue) MacMurchie, the well-known maker and repairer via J&R Glen’s shop in Edinburgh.
A recognised collector of early bagpipes alluded to Blue that these pipes were a sister pipe to a John Ban MacKenzie, maker-stamped, prize pipe in his collection. This gave our pipes an impressive provenance if it could be verified. Tentative enquiries revealed that the person in question was unable to assist due to ill health.
My next port of call was to the editor in chief Robert W and he asked me to write up the story to that point. It was then revealed to all of you dear readers and the game was then afoot. I was given lots of leads to a possible maker and a date, but, though graciously given and received, many fell at the first hurdle of physical comparison.
Notables in the field such as Jim MacGillivary and Ron Bowen felt that there were not enough distinguishing features to hazard a guess and declared them to be unknown. Andreas Hartmann-Virnich offered no more light on the pipe maker but did place it in the pre-1850 era. The assumption from all was that they were not from the hands of John Ban McKenzie.
George Hannah of Australia kindly lead me through the process of measuring bores and angles to assist in identification. In the meantime I had received contact from Yves Tyson in France which led to him making a massive contribution to the preparation of the instrument for playing, principally in reeding it.
Meanwhile I had explained to Blue Mac that George H and I were getting ready to strip the varnish/shellac from the pipe to search for a makers mark. Blue in his wisdom asked a very important question: did I want it to be the artefact that it is or did I want it to become an archaeological dig site losing its character as I dug deeper into its structure? His one telling statement was, ‘all turners are copiers’. There was a big chance that the maker didn’t even possess a stamp and the pipe was made to the specification of his customer.
Was it really so important to find a maker or was it better to have conserved and restored this instrument to working order, bumps, bashes, scratches and cracks, warts and all? The answer, for me, was the latter. I am sure this was a disappointment to George but I felt there was something to be said for this pipe maintaining its rustic beauty and just being itself.
For the academic study of old makers I am indebted to Professor Hugh Cheape and Mr Keith Sanger for their articles pertinent to the subject. These allowed me to consider the environment under which early makers produced their instruments. Taking this into account I could be sure the pipe was made by a craftsman but in decorating it he had taken a ‘use what is there’ approach.
To conclude and in summary, we have an approximate age for the pipe, the wood type and decoration materials – Jamaican cocus wood and bone – but the maker remains a mystery. We can assume that it is early nineteenth century. Its cosmetic appearance is similar to many other types of pipe, Glens, Donald MacDonald, early Robertsons.
So, I have to settle to my lot of owning a very old, fragile bagpipe with some fascinating marks and scars which, whenever I bring it out and hold it in my hands, enable me to romantically view its life and owners in my own vision.
Am I disappointed that these aren’t a master piper’s master work? No, I am not. I am delighted that I hold and can preserve for posterity a part of our culture’s history.