The last craftmakers of handmade bapipes - Scotland Magazine
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The last craftmakers of handmade bapipes

Bagpipes have been a rich part of Scottish heritage for centuries. Here, Jeremy Flint meets the last craftmakers of artisan handmade bagpipes in the heart of Edinburgh Words and photos…

Bagpipes have been a rich part of Scottish heritage for centuries. Here, Jeremy Flint meets the last craftmakers of artisan handmade bagpipes in the heart of Edinburgh

Words and photos by Jeremy Flint

The bagpipes, Scotland’s national instrument is believed to have been played in Ancient Egypt, as far back as 400BC, when soldiers blew pipes made from dog skin with chanters of bone. Nero, the 5th and last emperor of Rome’s first dynasty was also said to have been captivated with playing the pipes and though some people believe the Celts brought the bagpipes to Scotland as they travelled here from the Middle East, others believe it was the Romans who introduced them to the Caledonians. Regardless of how they reached these shores, it’s clear that by the mid 1500s, pipes had been adopted by Scottish clans and they are now
as much a symbol of Scotland
as tartan and shortbread.

The pipes are hand turned on a lathe to add the decorative details

Basic pipes consisted of a bag with a chanter (the pipe with finger holes on which the melody is played, like a recorder) and one drone (a pipe that produces the harmonising note and unique sound throughout play), which evolved to include a second drone and then more. Bagpipes were largely respected in clan culture. The Highlander became internationally recognised and renowned on the battlefield for carrying the bagpipes, where the skirl of the pipes was used to signify Scottish individuality and strength and helped to inspire troops to victory in many great battles such as the Battle of Bannockburn.  

Today, the name bagpipe has become synonymous with the Great Highland Bagpipe. The harmonious and whistling sounds of the bagpipes are a part of Scottish culture and feature at popular events including the Edinburgh Tattoo and, of course, at Highland Games events held throughout Scotland and across the world. 

Kilberry complete every stage of the process by hand

Today, manufacturing methods are increasingly automated, but there are still a few remaining craft makers who make Great Highland Bagpipes by hand using traditional techniques. One reputable company upholding the craft and sustaining the heritage of artisan handmade pipes is Kilberry Bagpipes,  which makes and restores these wonderful instruments in
its workshop on St Mary’s Street, Edinburgh, just off the Royal Mile.

I met with Ruari Black, an apprentice who has been making bagpipes for three years as part of a five-year apprenticeship under Dave Wardell, a master bagpipe maker at Kilberry (which is now owned by renowned kiltmaker Gordon Nicolson) for the last 30 years.

Ruari is an apprentice bagpipe-maker

While Dave’s role migrates towards the workshop and making bagpipes, Ruari tells me his job is more varied, ranging from working in the shop to ordering parts, processing invoices, orders and payments, and essentially making the pipes. “I am covering all aspects of running a business and really enjoy making and refurbishing the pipes besides giving lessons,” Ruari says. “My least favourite part is the admin.”

Ruari considers himself fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time when his apprenticeship opportunity came along. “Having played the pipes for 12 years, this job is what I have always wanted to do. I became fascinated with making the pipes and how everything goes together and works, I am grateful to have found my calling,” he says.

This musical apparatus is completely distinct and makes an incredible continuous sound when you blow into the mouthpiece. Air filters through the blowpipe to form a reservoir of air within the bag, “from here the air typically flows into four reeds,” Ruari says. This includes two tenor drone reeds, a larger bass drone reed, and the chanter reed. “As you close the holes on the chanter reed the sound changes. The material of the reed makes the unique sound and Kilberry uses double tongued cane reed, rather than synthetic materials.” 

Customers can choose their own engravings and decorations

Ruari and Dave use the same hand production process as in the early 1900s, unlike the mass produced pipes of their competitors. Each unique set of pipes is made from African blackwood (sourced from Mozambique) and made to order.

The process of making the pipes is a skilful concept. Firstly, every wooden component is cut to the same length, bored with identical diameters, and shaped. Embellishments are added, including hand engraved nickel and brass ferrules (decorative bands) and white projecting mounts to protect the wood from damage. Next, the wood is hand turned on a lathe and decorative circular details are grooved, a process known as combing and beading. The wooden parts are sanded with paper and steel wool before finishing with varnish or polish. 

Ruari says: “We do five to six different types of engraving, and each set of pipes takes around two days to complete.” The bagpipes are purely design based and can cost anything from £800 to £3500, depending on the volume of decorations. 

With more people having a desire to learn and a growing demand for bagpipes, Kilberry enjoys a steady stream of orders and regularly sends out completed sets to buyers worldwide. Ritchie Blackmore, the lead singer of supergroup Rainbow, and TV presenter James May are also customers.

The pipes are hand turned on a lathe to add the decorative details

Ruari says: “One of the best parts of my job is testing the pipes before they are shipped to customers. I love the amazing sound and acoustics our bagpipes create; they are truly mesmerising.”

Excellent craftsmanship and high tonal quality are the key components that separate Kilberry bagpipes from the rest. Ruari says: “I am looking forward to making and repairing our stylish bagpipes for many years to come.”

To find out more or to purchase your very own exquisitely hand-crafted artisan bagpipes, go to

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