The bagpipe-maker: ‘The older customers want me to make their pipes sharpish; they want to be sure they’re not dead before they get to play them!’

Hours of intricate work are needed to craft a set of bagpipes. Kate Lovell spoke to bagpipe-maker Dave Shaw to find out how it's done.

Bagpipes are as much a part of Scottish culture as whisky, the kilt and Nessie, but they’re actually an Ancient Egyptian import thought to have been introduced into Britain by the Romans. Regional variations emerged and it was one of these that, 40 years ago, caught bagpipe-maker Dave Shaw’s eye.

‘I see the process involved in making something and simply get a mania for it. That’s what happened with the bagpipes,’ admits the Co Durham-based craftsman.

There was no childhood connection, either, save for a bagpipe-trilling farming neighbour of his father’s. ‘He would walk up his mile-long drive each evening, practising his bagpipes – even now, it’s an evocative sound.’

Mr Shaw harboured ambitions of becoming a vet, but his failure to secure a place on his chosen course led him to study agricultural botany, then do a number of jobs, including tree-felling. What he really wanted to do, however, was make concertinas.

‘The 1970s folk revival was in full flow and everyone wanted to get into folk music,’ he recalls. ‘Concertinas fascinated me, but, when a friend came back from the British Antarctic Survey with a set of Northumbrian smallpipes he’d found in a house in Port Stanley, I was really taken by them, so we did a swap.’

As the pipes weren’t in good condition, Mr Shaw bought a pipe-making book and used it as his manual. He refurbished the pipes, spent seven hours a day teaching himself to play and then spent the family savings on a second-hand Coronet Major Universal Woodworking Machine, which meant he could make the instruments professionally.

‘It’s a very sizeable piece of equipment and the midwife found it most unusual when she walked through the kitchen on her visit to my wife,’ he adds with a smile. ‘And that was before she saw the small acid bath needed to clean the bagpipe’s metal components.’

One dances the Ghillie Callum (the 'Sword Dance'), while the other accompanies him on the bagpipes. Photo: Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

One dances the Ghillie Callum (the ‘Sword Dance’), while the other accompanies him on the bagpipes. Photo: Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

At first, Mr Shaw sold his pipes to people he’d met and word of mouth did the rest. Now, he specialises in Northumbrian smallpipes – acoustically similar to the clarinet – Scottish smallpipes, shuttle pipes and Irish uilleann pipes, which sound like an oboe. Each set takes about 15 days to make, spread over the course of many more.

It’s physical work – boring a 4.4mm hole through a 30cm length of wood isn’t easy and a lot can go wrong, so it’s important to be relaxed and focused.

‘I always start with the sticks,’ he explains. ‘I use African blackwood and boxwood, which are strong and tonally good, cut them into lengths, bore the holes, then centre each piece on the bore for turning and carving into the pipes and chanter.’

The pipes (drones) create the unique bagpipe sound and the chanter is used to make the melody. Mr Shaw then embarks on the keywork, ends and brass ferrules, cleaning the metal parts in an acid bath and soldering them into the shapes he needs. ‘It can get quite hot and smelly in my workshop – a mix of metal, leather and oils – but people always tell me how lovely it is,’ he admits.

The bag comes next. Crafted from leather, often covered in another material, it acts as a reservoir of air to sustain the sound as a piper takes breath. Then, it’s the turn of the reeds. ‘The bagpipe is a reed instrument and I make mine from cane I buy from Barcelona. Each set needs four single reeds for the drones and a double reed for the chanter.’

Once everything is complete and the pipes are assembled, they’re ready for shipping.

‘I’ve made pipes for customers as young as teenagers to beyond pension age and I’ve shipped them to clients all over the UK, to Europe, Australia, America and, more recently, China,’ elaborates Mr Shaw.

‘Bagpipe music can resonate with anyone of any age in any country, but, it’s the older ones – 70-plus – who want me to make their pipes sharpish; they want to be sure they’re not dead before they get to play them!’

Dave Shaw plays his bagpipes at Beamish Open Air Museum, Stanley, Co Durham – www.daveshaw.co.uk