An instrument to stir the blood.
Summerville man crafts bagpipes for pipers around world
By RICHARD WALKER, T&D Staff Writer ^ Nov 5, 2006
They’re nearly as old as time. Though they’re easily recognizable by sight, they’re even more recognizable by sound, a sound like no other musical instrument in the world. “No one ever mistakes it,” said Roddy MacLellan of Summerville. “But there’s nothing like it. I think haunting would be accurate. Stirring, it stirs the blood.”
Scottish bagpipe maker Roddy MacLellan moved to the United States to get away from the typical Scottish weather of rain. While the Glasgow native left behind the inclement weather, he brought to the Summerville area his talent for the Old World-style of making the bagpipes. Above, MacLellan demonstrates a practice chanter made in his shop, MacLellan's Bagpipes. RICHARD WALKER/T&D
A native of Glasgow and proprietor of MacLellan’s Bagpipes, the Scotsman said the bagpipe is an instrument which leaves few listeners indifferent as to the high-pitched melodies created by the bass and tenor drones.
Thousands of years old, the pipes are typically associated today with the Highlands of Scotland. But MacLellan said in one form or another, bagpipes were originally part of every early culture.
“All ancient cultures had one form or another of the bagpipes,” MacLellan said. “What happened is the mountains kept Scotland separated. So while the rest of the world moved to other instruments, they (the Scots) were still developing it.”
By the 18th century, that separation and continued development resulted in Scotland’s craftsmen having produced the quality and high-pitched tones so distinct today. Perhaps not surprising, several hundred years ago the bagpipes were at one time labeled as a musical instrument of war. The shrill of the pipes are said to have inspired the Scots.
“They were designed to scare the hell out of (the enemy),” MacLellan said. As a result of Britain’s wars in the last 200 years, the time-honored and carefully developed instrument of war was re-introduced to the world when the United Kingdom clashed with other countries.
Similar to the construction of thousands of years ago, a set of bagpipes is made up of the bag, a chanter and a blowpipe or mouthpiece. The number of drones, the wooden pipes extending from the air bag, has changed from the original one of thousands of years ago to a typical three today.
Originally made of animal skin, the air bag today is constructed of modern materials such as Gore-Tex. It’s then covered, usually with a tartan.
There are a great number of different bagpipe types used today. Perhaps the most well-known is the Great Highlands Bagpipes identifiable by the tall bass drone pipe extending above two tenor pipes.
“The biggest difference between the Great Highlands bagpipes and others is it’s much louder,” says 28-year-old Capt. Jim Dillahey, pipe major for the Charleston Police Department, and since 2001, for The Citadel Pipe Band. “It has much more history being used as a war instrument.”
That “war” instrument is played by using the blowpipe to fill the bag, which has a one-way air valve. Air from the bag flows through the chanter and reeds inside the drones. The piper then refills the bag every few seconds through the blowpipe. Notes are changed by lightly pressing the finger joints over the holes in the stem of the chanter.
“You have to take one thing at a time,” said Dillahey, an 18-year veteran of pipe playing. “It’s like rubbing your head and flipping a pancake at the same time.”
Learning the pipes begins by using a practice chanter. Similar in appearance to a flute, the chanter is a hallowed wooden shaft with note holes for a scale that runs from what is called low G to high A.
Anyone can play the pipes, MacLellan says. Youngsters, however, seem to adapt to the finger movement easier. “Like any other instrument, the finger issue will be a factor,” MacLellan said. “But anyone can play. It takes time. It’s not very difficult with lessons.” Meanwhile, a quality set of Highland bagpipes can inflate your bagpiping experience up to several thousands of dollars. Prices for a practice chanter, however, are quite a few quid lower than that of a set of pipes. Quality chanters start at about $200.
Whether here or in the Highlands, MacLellan for nearly two decades has been constructing top quality bagpipes used by the most demanding pipers around the world, including the Western Australia Police Pipe Corps.
“We’re fortunate to have Roddy down here,” Dillahey said.