‘Meet the Bagpipe Maker’ with Burgess Hay

Scott on the Great Highland Bagpipe

The latest in the Clan Hay Society's lecture series via Zoom took place on Saturday 5 June, when we heard from Burgess and Scott Hay, of Burgess Bagpipes in Forres, in a session entitled 'Meet the Bagpipe Maker.'

Founded six years ago, Burgess Bagpipes is the first bagpipe maker to enter the market in 15 years, is now the only maker based in the Highlands, and the only one to manufacture all three types of Scottish bagpipes.  Burgess and son Scott took their audience on a fascinating tour through the history, tradition and art of piping, including all three varieties of pipes that are particularly associated with Scotland.

The best known of these is the Great Highland Bagpipe, which has been in use in the Scottish Highlands since at least 1400 and which is now universally recognised as one of the defining symbols of Scotland.    However, there are two further bagpipes, less generally known, but equally part of Scotland's long piping tradition.

The Scottish Small Pipes, operated with a bellows rather than a mouthpiece, are quite a different instrument, at least in sound.  Described by Burgess as 'mild and mellow' the Small Pipes are intended for use indoors in a ceilidh setting, or as part of a folk band.  Like the Great Highland Bagpipe, the Small Pipes have three drones, including an additional baritone drone to accompany the tenor and the base.

Burgess in the workshop

The Border Pipes are different again.  Although blown by bellows, like the Small Pipes, the tone is very different and more reminiscent of the Great Highland Bagpipe.  Also often used indoors in concert of ceilidh, the Border Pipes are loud enough to cut through, for example, a noisy bar setting, or to be heard through the sound of other instruments in a band.

Burgess and Scott explained the manufacturing process and the differences between the bores, reeds and other features of the three pipes.  Bagpipes are now made from African Blackwood, which is imported directly from Southern Africa and which has matured for at least five, and often as much as 12 years before it is used.  Historically pipes would have been made from native Highland trees, including laburnum and especially fruit trees, such as apple and pear, although Burgess pointed out that Scotland has been importing wood for many centuries so the African Blackwood has been the principal material for professional instruments than might be assumed.

Scott is a champion piper and a first class performer on all three instruments, and his musical interludes were a delight for his audience.  He began the evening on the Great Highland Bagpipe, playing pipes made for his maternal great grandfather, John Macdougall senior, in 1920.  These pipes were made for him by Charles Ewen of Aboyne and John Macdougall was a noted performer and champion at the Aboyne Games over many years in the 1930s and beyond.  Indeed, the Macdougalls were a noted piping family from the early 19th century and we were introduced to the medals, banners and trophies won by successive members of the family over the years.  Scott's grandfather (and Burgess's father in law) John Macdougall junior was a world class piper and the winner of all the major championships, including the National Mod Gold Banner, and the iconic Gold Medals at both the Northern Meeting and the Argyllshire Gathering.

A fascinating, entertaining and thoroughly enlightening evening, enjoyed and appreciated by all.  We thank Burgess and Scott for sharing their skills and experience so generously.