Made in Ayrshire, played worldwide
By Gill Sherry
We’re all familiar with the unique sound of bagpipes, but have you ever thought about how they’re actually made?
McCallum Bagpipes in Kilmarnock have been making these woodwind instruments for 25 years. Sales Director, Kenny MacLeod, tells me how it all began.
“We started in 1998. Stuart McCallum and I met through the Glasgow Skye Association Pipe Band. Before that, I had a company called MacLeod Highland Supplies which I sold. I lived in America for a while and I was asking Stuart to make some bits and pieces as I was selling bagpipes out there. When I came back, we decided to get together. That’s how it started and it’s gone from strength to strength.”
Stuart’s background was in engineering, so with his practical experience and Kenny’s sales knowledge, it was the perfect partnership.
I ask him to talk me through the manufacturing process.
“They’re made from African Blackwood, mpingo is the technical name for it. We buy it directly from Tanzania and through two shipping agents, one in Manchester, one in Germany.”
African Blackwood, Kenny tells me, is a very sustainable wood which is subject to a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Certificate. Basically, you need a permit to import or export it.
“African Countries have got plenty of Blackwood and people were cutting it illegally and selling it on the black market. Now you have to buy it from a sustainable grower.”
Presumably there’s nothing similar closer to home?
“No. They used to be made from bog oak here at one time, but now we use African Blackwood. We use it because it’s heavy. It grows in a swamp so it doesn’t float.”
At one time, ivory was used to make mounts, ferrules and ring caps but these are now made from plastic or aluminium.
“It’s horrible to think… but quite a lot of old sets were made from ivory. You haven’t been able to get new ivory pipes since 1972. They’re collector’s items, almost antiques. Some people still like to buy them but you need special licences to sell ivory so it’s not easy.”
McCallum’s make about 2,000 sets of bagpipes every year and every part is made at their premises at Moorfield Industrial Estate, Kilmarnock.
“We make all the plastic parts. All the metal mounts are made from aluminium which we buy in rod form and then form it into mounts and engrave it.”
These engravings are purely aesthetic and may consist of Celtic thistles, Irish or Victorian Scrolls – whatever the customer desires.
For the more menial tasks, the company invested in two collaborative robots. Kenny explains what they do:
“When we get the plastic or wood, it comes in rectangular squares. We would round it off and then bore it. It was a very tedious job for the guys. Now the robot does it all. It has an electronic eye so it sizes it up, puts it in exactly the right place and it just bores away all day.”
Rather than feeling threatened by the introduction of these robots, the staff were glad to be relieved of such a monotonous job. In fact, instead of putting jobs at risk, the robotic arms have created more employment by allowing the company to increase its output.
Once the robots have done their thing, it’s back to good, old-fashioned manpower and skill for the rest of the making process.
“The customer will pick what bag they want,” says Kenny.
“Nowadays, the majority go for Gore-Tex bags. They used to be made from sheepskin or cowhide but most go for synthetic bags. So they’ll be fitted, the cover and cords will be fitted, and then it will be shipped to the customer.”
Those customers consist of individual pipers to international pipe bands.
“We supply different shops all over the world so we’ve got a big distribution network,” Kenny confirms. “North America, Australia, New Zealand and most of Europe are what you would think as the ‘normal’ places. But the Colombian Navy buy a lot of pipes from us. We had a huge order from the Algerian Army for 100 sets of silver pipes. The Middle East – Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan – we supply to all these places as well.”
There is, in fact, a map of the world on the wall showing all of the countries they supply. It’s amazing to think that bagpipes made in Ayrshire are being played on the other side of the world!
“We sell pipes into Israel but also into Palestine,” Kenny continues. “I’ve just done a quote for the Gaza Strip for a few sets of pipes as well. It tends to be the Christian community bands that play pipes out there.”
Despite the evidence on the map in front of me, I’m surprised to learn that 80% of what they make goes abroad. Prior to the Russia-Ukraine War, Moscow Pipe Band had purchased bagpipes from McCallum’s.
“We also sell a lot of stuff to Mexico and I’m just about to do a quote for Zimbabwe. The band who won the Novice Juvenile World Pipe Band Championships in 2019 was St John’s College from Zimbabwe. They’re not just taking part, they’re one of the best kid’s bands in the world.”
The cost of a set of bagpipes, Kenny informs me, ranges from £700 to £5,500.
“There’s no difference in the sound quality,” he says, “it’s just decoration. They’re all made to the same spec but the ones at £5,500 are all hand engraved with full silver mounts. That’s the expensive part. It’s more of an investment… they don’t sound any better!”
That, I suppose, depends on who’s playing them. Presumably, the expensive ones don’t last any longer either?
“The best piper in the world at the moment is a guy called Willie McCallum (he’s no relation to Stuart). He’s one of our endorsees. He has pipes that were made in 1890, so that’s how long they last!”
As well as traditional bagpipes, they also make Scottish smallpipes where, instead of blowing in the bag you use bellows. They’ve also started to make Irish Uilleann pipes.
“They’ve been made for a long time in Ireland,” says Kenny, “but we’re one of the first in Scotland to bring a mass produced element to it. They’re very traditional. It has a different finger technique and a different sound. Highland pipes can only play one octave, Uilleann pipes can play two octaves.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising that a lot of McCallum’s 39 employees play the pipes themselves. Both Kenny and Stuart still play and one member of staff even plays for the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band in Canada!
“It’s a great scene to get into. There’s loads of nice people involved in it.”
It’s also heartening to learn that the Scottish Government are aiming to have a pipe band in every school.
“They’re really pushing it,” Kenny tells me. “It’s nice to see pipes at last getting treated the same as other musical instruments!”
Can’t argue with that.