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A Universe of Bagpipes White Paper:

No. I

~ Buying Bagpipes ~

Piper, Beware!

Battle for Bagpipe Dollars

The Battle for the Bagpipe Dollar

A rose by any other name is still a rose, but so is a turnip.

Bagpipes have always been shrouded in mystery. They stand apart from both orchestral and folk instruments musically, mechanically and culturally. Their music is unlike any other. Pipers and bagpipe makers are not easily approached by the casually curious. Looking at a bagpipe reveals little about how it produces sound. Most professional musicians, music teachers, music scholars and conventional musical instrument dealers know next to nothing about bagpipes. Little is known about the history of the bagpipe, and there are few reference books about them. It's as though bagpipes inhabit an alternate universe (they do, they do...).

Anytime there's a demand for something about which most people don't know much there are opportunities for mischief, ranging from the glossing over of sloppy quality to outright fraud. It's no different around bagpipes, and unfortunately there are those whose interest above all else is getting into the piper's or student's wallet. Most common is some level of misrepresentation or misdirection. Not a week goes by here without our hearing a tale of woe from someone who has purchased a bagpipe that's not what he or she expected it to be. Such laments come not only from beginners but also from more advanced pipers as they slowly learn what it's all about. Even very experienced pipers sometimes fall prey to those to whom bagpipes are nothing more than a way to make a dollar and who have no respect for the instrument, its music or traditions, or those who play it.

Misrepresentations fall into several categories, ranging from more or less expected sellers' practices such as trying to steer customers to the most profitable instruments or exaggerating differences in quality and features of the competition's wares, on to (rarely) outright fraud. The most blatant ripoffs involve the manufacture in Pakistan of utterly useless bagpipe-like objects which are sold world-wide to unsuspecting beginning pipers for what seem to be bargain prices. Pakistani "bagpipes" have been a bad joke among established pipers for decades. But unfortunately the vendors of these sonic horrors aren't the only ones groping for your wallet while offering a blurry picture of less than stellar instruments. (For more about Pakistani bagpipes and how and why to avoid them, see our White Paper on that subject.)

A relatively new sort of misrepresentation involves the application of famous old makers' names to new instruments. In some cases the "rights" to a long-gone maker's name have been purchased. In other instances a name is simply appropriated.

For example, here is a partial list of well-known makers of fine bagpipes who stopped producing pipes long ago, and whose scarce original instruments are highly valued by pipers and collectors, often both for their musicality and for the beauty of their craftsmanship. Original bagpipes by these old firms often sell for amounts much higher than they would if they were still being made today. They are often (or often become) heirlooms, lovingly cared for and passed from generation to generation of pipers.

  • Peter Henderson
  • R. G. Hardie
  • James Robertson
  • J & R Glen
  • Henry Starck
  • Duncan MacDougall
  • R. G. Lawrie
  • Duncan Fraser
Today there are manufacturers hawking entirely ordinary bagpipes that they've pimped out with such names (sometimes going so far as to engrave the long-gone maker's name on the pipe's metalwork).

One modern manufacturer in the United Kingdom, until recently (and still) a producer of run-of-the-mill pipes, has acquired the "rights" to a famous old name and uses it as their company name. This firm markets bagpipes labeled not only with that well-remembered name but also cranks out pipes plastered with the even more famous name of yet another dead maker. The company's misleading, flashy Web site centers on this revered maker and speaks of his pipes as being the most sought-after in the world. That's accompanied by an offer of a "wide selection" of these bagpipes, in various models, at mid-range prices. Well, perhaps the visitor will realize that "sought after," which implies scarcity, doesn't mesh with the availability of a "wide selection." Nevertheless, the implication, carefully crafted without making any single false statement, is that the real thing is being offered. It's not. If, blinded by the glitter, you bite you'll be hornswoggled by a mere label on an otherwise ordinary bagpipe. (Note: None of this refers to the US retailer "Hendersons" who sell but do not make bagpipes.)

The next great thing...
...the next Great Thing...

This is the first published photograph of the rarest of all bagpipes, the fabulous and avidly sought-after "McStradison," made in 1656, at the age of 12, by the grand master of instrument makers Antonio Stradivari, whose recently revealed secret passion was Highland piping. In fact, Tony only took up violin-making after suffering through a nearly fatal attack of the "reed horrors" which had him sleepless for three consecutive nights and caused a near riot in his neighborhood.

Today, Tony's great-great-great-great grand nephew (by marriage) Allulicious McHerringanus (famous on late-night television as a spokesperson for male enhancement pills) heads up a consortium of used-car salesmen and plumbers which has revived this incredible bagpipe. Pipers everywhere can now own a McStradison for little more than the cost of a polyester kilt! The signature Antonio Stradivari appears no less than twenty-seven times on each pipe! Thus the promise is that wherever the McStrad is seen, a tornado of agonizing envy and futile lust will be spun up, no matter from what angle the proud owner's pathetic inferiors view this magnificent bagpipe!

Price: If you have to ask, you can't afford it. Delivery: At our whim. Warranty: Pipe is guaranteed for 3 days or 2 notes, whichever comes first. Note: Crunching sounds while inflating/deflating are normal.

So, it seems that if your struggling bagpipe company just can't compete on merit, a mere rebranding and some cunning marketing can save the day. Never mind that people aren't getting what they think and that they'll likely find themselves ridiculed when they parade their sad fakes past those who know.

Even more profitable and even less ethical is the practice of not even bothering to actually build bagpipes, instead setting up shop on the streets of Scotland and hawking Pakistani bagpipes, branded with Scottish-sounding but fictional names, to unsuspecting tourists. (A list of such names here would be pointless, as they often change.) We hear all too often from people who proudly tell us that they bought a bagpipe on a trip to Scotland, but that it doesn't seem quite right and could we maybe help them out. The dialog goes something like this: "Who was it made by and how much did you pay for it?" "I don't know ... it cost $400." "Well, there's nothing wrong with a $400 bagpipe that a new bag, drones, chanter, reeds and blowpipe won't fix."

So, location of a seller is no longer in itself meaningful. People are unwittingly bringing Pakistani bagpipes home from visits to Scotland, and people are ordering famous old-name pipes made in Scotland without realizing what they're actually buying.

Price is sometimes used as a guide to separate junk and fakes from the real thing. To an extent this is useful. You are not going to buy a legitimate new bagpipe for a few hundred dollars. That $400 pipe on eSwamp or from Ye Olde Pipers Nest in Scotland is guaranteed to be Pakistani. But again, caution is in order. One US seller of Pakistani bagpipes (now out of business, in part due to our intervention on the behalf of a bamboozled customer) took a different approach. He simply stuck seriously high prices on his shoddy crap, thus eliminating the obvious red flag. We'll likely see that fraudulent tactic tried again.

On the subject of outright fraud, there are further opportunities available to the unscrupulous. Counterfeits of both antique and high-end modern pipes are not unheard of, though rare. Most makers of bagpipes, past and present, have always offered a wide range of models, ranging from the very plain to the elaborately decorated; this opens the door to back-room upgrading, by applying metalwork and/or ivory to a pipe that never carried such. Hallmarked antique silver can be deceiving, as it is often used as primary identification of the maker and the year of manufacture. Salvaged silver can easily be mounted on an otherwise ordinary bagpipe, greatly increasing the combined value.

Replaced (replicated by someone other than the original maker) wooden parts are another issue. It's not unusual for an antique pipe to have had some replacement parts fitted during its lifetime. Often, but by no means always, this is obvious from differences in the wood, turning or finish. Blowpipes, chanters, and the five stocks are perhaps the most commonly replaced parts, and that really doesn't affect the "heart" of a pipe as much as does the replacement of any of the seven drone sections. But value does diminish with any replacements, so this is something that a seller might not mention but that a buyer should look for.

One might think that identifying who made a fine old bagpipe shouldn't be too difficult, but that's not at all the case. The basic problem is that pipemakers, past and present, rarely put their mark on their pipes except on the chanter or on silver, if that's present. Chanters are more or less consumables, and it is rare that an original accompanies an early pipe. Furthermore, pipers commonly replace one maker's chanter with one by someone else, sometimes even at the time of purchase. So what is left for identification are fine points of detail and dimensions, for example the style and spacing of the exterior turning, but variations within a maker's work are not uncommon. There are further issues, such as inconsistent use of materials, re-boring of drones, and so on. The bottom line is that the identification of a pipe that lacks good provenance quite often comes down to a matter of opinion, sometimes with disagreements among knowledgeable and honest people. This of course again opens the door to fraud, or perhaps more commonly, to wishful thinking.

The best way to avoid falling into any of the above traps is to work with a reputable dealer or maker when choosing and purchasing a bagpipe. Ask questions and do not be automatically put off if you don't get hard answers; to the contrary, be suspicious of what you hear from anyone who claims to have all the answers. Bagpipes, new and old, contain many mysteries and the true expert understands and respects this. Remember, much that you hear about old and new bagpipes is ultimately opinion.

The good news is that so long as a wide detour is made around Pakistan, it's hard to buy a bad bagpipe. Decide what you are really after. If you simply want a bagpipe that plays decently and won't fall apart, the basic models in wood or synthetics from any of the established so-called "hand makers" (for example Dunbar, Kron, Naill, Walsh, MacLellan, Dunfion, Gibson, Sinclair, etc. etc.) will serve you well. Even mass-produced bagpipes (a new phenomena which is the subject of another White Paper), and which currently means McCallum, are acceptable). If you want something a bit different if not unique, most makers offer a very wide variety of options regarding materials and/or styles. If you want something truly special then the high-end models by the top hand-makers, or a vintage/antique pipe, might be the thing for you. But in any event, do your homework first - and remember that we are here to help you with that.

White Paper No. II: Man vs. Machine

White Paper No. III: Pakistani "Bagpipes"

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