How to Identify a bagpipe Home
The following article was written for the Piper and Drummer magazine and appears in the August 2002 issue.

Jeannie Campbell tells us in her recent and very fine publication entitled Highland Bagpipe Makers that “recognition of makers can be a problem.” As simple a statement as this appears, it completely sums up the many challenges is trying to determine the origin and make of a bagpipe.

I think that it helps to understand a bit about making bagpipes from the maker’s perspective. Bagpipe making as we know it from the mid 1700’s to present day is very tightly linked. If you were to create an organization chart of makers, you would see that they are specifically linked through the people they employed, through business dealings with one another and through the styles and specifications of their respective products.

Let’s talk about the people they employed first. Makers were sometimes turners and sometimes not. Sometimes they employed turners to manufacture their products. Sometimes they contracted out the work to other makers or to a cottage industry of bagpipe makers. Turners each have their own abilities and style. Although they followed the specific pattern of the maker, they left their own signatures in the small details of their work. This detail can easily be spotted by another bagpipe turner, however it is virtually invisible to the untrained eye. Turners trained and influenced each other. As they became more competent and self-assured their work reflected the skill and confidence in the style, detail, and consistency of the application.

When a turner left one maker and went to work for another, he took his skills and abilities with him.  He also took his personal preferences in style and design which was reflected in his ongoing work. In this way, small and not-so-small changes took place to a particular maker’s original design.

Turners sometimes changed the exterior design to accommodate errors in the manufacturing process. Perhaps a piece was cut short or left a bit too long, or perhaps the “start” point for the beading and combing was “off-the-mark” slightly. In order to create an acceptable “finish” to the piece, we can see creative treatment in specific places, most notably at the top of tuning chambers, beneath the cord beads, and just beneath the bell. You will also notice slight differences above and below ferrules and projecting mounts. In this way, turners “massaged” the various imperfections into an acceptable finished product.

Turners also modified the exterior design to fight boredom or as a creative expression. Sometimes it was just to see if they could copy a particular style. Sometimes, in the case of a repair, the turner set out to specifically copy another turner’s work. It must be understood that in some ways, a turner is an artist. The wood is their canvas and the tools are their brushes. Whether adhering to a template, copying a specific style or design, or working with a concept or idea, the finished product is an expression of the artist within and machining abilities of the turner.

When a turner went out on his own, he generally made bagpipes as he had been taught or as he had made at his previous place of employment.  We know of a number of turners that left Peter Henderson Bagpipes who continued to make a “Henderson” bagpipe under a different name.  Last summer I happened upon a bagpipe stamped “Williamson” that looked very “Henderson” to me. I found out later that Williamson and Jack Dunbar were apprenticed at Henderson Bagpipes at about the same time.  Williamson later formed a partnership with James Jeffrey (who also worked at Henderson’s but not as a turner) and together they made bagpipes from 1948 to 1950.

Jack Dunbar, Thomas Liddell, and John Maitland, all Henderson turners, formed a partnership with Hector Russell in the late 1940’s.  Hector Russell bagpipes made during those years are essentially “Henderson” bagpipes.  Maitland and Dunbar later went on to form Piobmor Highland Industries and continued to make a “Henderson” bagpipe. Of course, as one might suspect, the Dunbar bagpipe today is a “Henderson” bagpipe.

We can see the very strong influence of Henry Starck Bagpipes in the David Naill & Sons bagpipe made today. Not surprisingly, we know that founder Les Cowell worked for Starck Bagpipes from 1945 to 1955.  George Kilgour worked for Robertson Bagpipes and some of that influence can be seen in the exterior design of Kron bagpipes and others made under his own name.

Although perhaps it cannot be proven, we have been told by old pipers around Greenock that Duncan Fraser worked with or for the MacDougalls around 1850. We have also been told that Peter Henderson worked for Duncan Fraser around 1870, some ten years before establishing his own business. According to Jeannie Campbell, Robert Lawrie worked for Peter Henderson prior to founding R. G. Lawrie Bagpipes in 1890.

As you can see the “links” are fascinating.

Now let’s examine the business dealings between makers. We know that some makers bought out other makers. Peter Henderson assumed the premises of Donald MacPhee in 1880. James Robertson assumed the premises and business of John Center in 1908. Again, by studying the bagpipes of these makers, you can see similarities that are probably not coincidental. We also know that orders were “jobbed out” to various other makers when a particular maker fell behind in orders. This creates an additional level of uncertainty when trying to determine the actual maker of a bagpipe.

Unfortunately the maker’s stamp is not reliable. We know that Henderson bagpipes were made by R. G. Lawrie from 1971 to 1973. We also know that there is an abundance of R. G. Hardie bagpipes stamped “P. Henderson Ltd.” following Hardie’s acquisition of that company in 1973.

In the instance of Hugh MacPherson Bagpipes, we know that there was a period in time when he fully employed Wm. Sinclair to manufacture MacPherson bagpipes. We know further that MacPherson bought the Sinclair business in 1958, stock, tools and turners.  In 1963 Sinclair bought the business back. The specifications and styles of MacPherson and Sinclair bagpipes are extremely similar in some instances and identical in most.

One can witness and document changes in styles and specifications of particular makes of bagpipes over the years. Some of this was deliberate. Other changes crept into production as boring and finishing tools were renewed. Significant differences in all the internal measurements, from make to make, has been documented   Counting the number of beads and combs on a particular piece is thought to be a reliable means of identifying the make of bagpipe, however, in fact, it is one of the least reliable indicators. Styles of ferrules and projecting mounts changed also.

When trying to determine the make of bagpipe by examining the internal dimensions, there is another important fact to consider. Many of the older bagpipes today have been re-bored or had repairs made to them. Many have replacement parts that may or may not conform to the original specifications. These repairs and replacement pieces may or may not remain true to the original specifications, purposely or otherwise. Again, just to complicate things a bit more, wood is a natural substance. As such, it is subject to certain behavior which includes shrinkage over the years.

So, how does one go about determining the make of a bagpipe? Most experts will tell you that they add up all the clues and then make an educated guess. General styles fall into two camps; Glasgow and Edinburgh. These were the two primary centers for the bagpipe trade throughout the years and each continued (more or less) with certain characteristics. Let’s talk in general terms.

Glasgow makers:
Broad, flat bead
Shallow combing
Heavy cord beads
Beaded ferrules, rings, and bush
Beaded projecting mounts
"Bold" tapered stocks with rounded base

Edinburgh makers:
Narrow, rounded bead
Deep, well defined combing
Narrow sloping cord beads
No beads on ferrules, rings, and bush
Cut bead on projecting mounts
"Delicate" straight stocks with flat bottoms

Since we’re starting to talk about features, it must be mentioned that nothing was exclusive to any one maker and that there are exceptions to every rule in identifying bagpipes. I know of makers that deliberately copied a particular design and specification to purposely misrepresent the bagpipe as to vintage and make. I also know of makers that will do custom work in the design of a particular maker.

Not surprisingly, a great many bagpipes are mistakenly thought to be MacDougall. This may be wishful thinking on the part of their owners. MacDougal bagpipes are known to have a very wide channel between the cord beads.  Sometimes this appears on all three drones. Sometimes it only appears on the bass drone. Sometimes, not at all.  The style of projecting mounts is diverse among MacDougall bagpipes.  Perhaps the most distinctive style is shared by a couple of other makers, most notably the Thow brothers of Dundee.  Duncan MacDougall was said to have a great dislike for African Blackwood. You will find African Blackwood MacDougall bagpipes, which were made by Gavin MacDougall following Duncan’s death in 1898.

Several makers employed a cut-bead on projecting mounts, if not on an ongoing basis, at least from time to time. Names like Donald MacDonald, Alexander Glen, Thomas Glen, John Center, and Henry Starck all come to mind.

Henry Starck also had a tremendous impact and influence on the design and manufacture of bagpipe. Starck beading and combing is arguably the most defined and concise in the history of the instrument. Their attention to detail also sets very high standards. Starck Bagpipes that survive today represent an outstanding example of the  higher end of the craft.

As mentioned earlier, James Robertson purchased John Center’s business when that family moved to Australia. His early advertisements read “Successor to John Center & Son” however the Robertson bagpipes that we are most familiar with are a radical departure from typical Edinburgh bagpipes. The overall design was very bulky. Robertson left a lot of wood on the instrument. The bell is perched upon a straight neck, which was not typical of any bagpipes made at that time. The bead was small and rounded in the Edinburgh fashion. The stocks were large and tapered, more typical of Glasgow makers, and the projecting mounts were massive. I suspect that Robertson had a unique design created in order to differentiate his product in the marketplace.

In my opinion, a definitive guide to identifying bagpipes would be incredibly ambitious and misguided. One can, however, present relevant information that could point someone in the right direction….or not. One could take specific information and apply it to a particular set and come to a correct conclusion, but only with limited success at absolute certainty.

The Internet and digital photography are wonderful technologies at our disposal. Around the world there are several legitimate experts in the field of bagpipe identification who communicate regularly with each other and exchange both images and information. They also frequently collaborate on matters of identifying some bagpipes. These individuals have the passion, experience, and expertise to identify a wide range of bagpipes. They would agree on much of what has been written here, but perhaps not everything, based on their own personal experiences. They might also agree on the actual identification of some bagpipes, however not on all bagpipes. Such is the nature and allure of the craft.
Ron (Ringo) Bowen and Capt'n Ken Eller
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