Interview in the Northumbrian Pipers Society Journal

Back in 2016 I was interviewed for an article for the Journal of the Northumbrian Pipers Society.  Here’s the interview which gives some history about how I got into piping and pipemaking and who helped me along the way.  I’m very grateful for all the help I’ve received – people have been so generous.
1) You first surfaced as an NPS member whilst living at Leaplish up at
Kielder. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to the pipes, where
you’re from, and so on.
I’d been playing for a year or so before then.  I moved up to the North East when I left university.  We used to live in Whickham and I married my wife Lynda, in 2000.  I’m not keen on wearing jewellery and didn’t want a wedding ring, so I asked for a set of pipes instead!  I’d seen David Burleigh featuring on a local TV programme so we went to visit him and placed an order.

2) Did you play other instruments before, or have other musical interests?
I’d played the usual crop of instruments and even sang in the Church choir as a child.  I learned to play the piano and recorder when I was young and the guitar as a student and wanted to learn something new.  I’d always been aware of the pipes but didn’t know a great deal about them.  I think there are a lot of benefits to starting early in life.  I find I can now find my way around most instruments fairly quickly, and bash out a simple tune or two!

2a) (whoops) – who taught you the pipes? How have you found your
interaction with the piping / competition world in terms helpfulness,
progress  etc
When we picked up my set from David he asked if I had a teacher.  He offered to teach me himself, but thought  perhaps it was too far to travel.  Instead, he gave me Roland Lofthouse’s number.  I rang Roland who kindly agreed to take me under his wing and I went to him every fortnight for a year or so.  I really appreciated his tuition.  Nearly all the tunes were new to me and he gave me a really good technical grounding and established a good traditional repertoire.
We then moved up to Kielder.  I was managing an outdoor centre there and I wasn’t able to visit Roland anymore.  We started a family and with two young girls and a busy job I stopped playing too.  One day, my eldest daughter asked me about my set and why I didn’t play them any more, and she said I should start playing again.  So, after a gap of several years I started to play at home and then saw the Whitley Bay course advertised.  I thought this would offer a good route back into playing and might help me make some connections, so I went along and had a great week.
Andy May and Chris Ormston were tutoring and both offered different but appealing approaches, so I went along to see each of them for lessons occasionally.
As with most pipers, when people find out you can play they ask to hear.  I’d really only been playing at home until this point, but wanted to be a confident enough player to play in public and thought the competitions would be a great way to do this.  With this in mind I entered the intermediate and a couple of open class events in 2015 with some success!

3) Tell us a bit about pipers who kayak, or kayakers who pipe! Are you
the only one? You seem to be playing the fiddle as well now, and fit
that in on Shetland courses!
mmm..  I think I’m the only one who plays the Northumbrian pipes although I know of a couple who play the Scottish pipes.  But there are plenty of musical kayakers.  I’ve been on sea kayak or canoe trips to lots of places and we’ve had memorable campfire sessions in Alaska, Norway and throughout Europe.  The pipes aren’t very portable though, so it’s usually been a whistle which can be easily packed away.  I’ve made a lot of good friends in Shetland and many of the sea kayakers play the fiddle.  I started to play the fiddle a couple of years ago to help my daughter learn.  It’s always had the reputation as a difficult instrument, but I found it relatively easy probably as a result of learning to play the pipes!

4) What made you decide to start making pipes. Obviously kayaking must
be a seasonal thing: do the two mesh together well?
I started maintaining my own pipes almost straight away.  After playing for a month or so, one of the cane drone reeds started playing up.  I diligently followed the written instructions which came with my set and passed the reed through the flame of a candle.  After I’d stamped out the flaming piece of carbonised cane and run my fingers under the cold tap I decided it would be useful to learn how to make my own.  I started by copying what I had and soon got the hang of it.
One day, Andy May asked if I was interested in making pipes and I dismissed the idea but I think a seed was planted.  By the time Julia organised a bag making workshop with Jackie Boyce I had already started to make chanter reeds.  I’d reached the stage where I could make the bags and I could make the reeds, so I only needed to fill in the gap between them and I’d have a full set!  It seemed like a logical step to make.

5) What skills did you have beforehand – and what have you had to do a
crash course in?
The main asset I have is a believe that we can all more or less learn how to do whatever we want to if we get on with it.  I’d already learnt how to use lathes and other workshop machinery at school, and my Father had taught me a lot of practical skills too.  I visited Julia, Barry and Andy for start up advice and a shopping list and set up a workshop in my garage.  Luckily, I enjoy problem solving.  For my first set I used the information on Mike Nelsons website and spent 95% of my time head scratching and 5% actually making.

6)  Pipe design and style – what are you hoping to go for? How do you
view the functionality v. aesthetic debate?
My first set was definitely functionality – could I make something that works?  When I knew could I started to think about the aesthetics.  My own taste is for something fairly traditional looking but without being too ornate.  I like a more delicate look too.  The look of my sets is still evolving as I think through new ideas or am inspired by something I’ve seen.  Now, the functionality is paramount, but much of my motivation comes from the pleasure of making something which looks good.

7) Have other pipemakers been helpful – who did you talk to / get
lessons from?
Yes, very helpful.  I was able to see David Burleigh and Colin Ross at work before I started making, and Julia and Barry Say and Andy May have all been really helpful.  Richard Evans and Francis Wood have offered remote advice too which is very much appreciated.  I think most have gone through the same problem solving process as I have, and we’ve often come up with out own pragmatic solutions and preferences.

8) How easy was it to assemble the necessary equipment and materials?
It was very easy.  The main purchase was a lathe.  Once I knew what to look for I went to look at several second hand ones.  Most were deathtraps and best avoided.  I decided not to buy a cheap one offered to me when I counted the number of fingers the owner had and noticed that I had more.  But Andy pointed me to a dealer in South Shields.  They had a few in stock and I was able to buy one there and then.  I bought some materials from the NSP pipe making stock for two sets but now source all materials directly.  Most of the materials  are readily available and many of the tools are standard.  There are some specialist tools needed, but these are often adapted from existing ones or made from scratch, and not too complicated.

9) What are your plans for the future?
I’ve just moved to Byrness and have set my workshop there.  Kayaking is seasonal, and often means working weekends so I do have plenty of time for pipe making.  I have orders for sets ready to go and people are coming to me for fettling too, so I’m just going to carry on doing what I’m doing, but aim to do it better.
Things have moved on a lot since this interview, so for more information about the Northumbrian Smallpipes contact

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