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About Kilberry Bagpipes

Kilberry bagpipes was started in 1990 by Neil Manderson and Dave Wardell. Both guys had played pipes since a young age and in fact used to compete together in the same school pipe band. Both Neil and Dave were tutored by Callum McPhee - a very respected teacher of bagpipe music, from the 'old school'.

As well as band playing, both lads competed regularly on the solo circuit, winning a variety of prizes. Dave went into actual bagpipe making when he was 16 and served his time with one of Scotland's leading bagpipe manufacturers. It then seemed very logical for the two boys to get together and start Kilberry Bagpipes when the opportunity arose. Dave is Kilberry's head bagpipe maker.

Over the years, both have continued to play pipes and until recently, were competing at the highest Grade One level. Work commitments has meant the competing side has had to currently take a back seat. Grade one bands that they have competed for include Shotts and Dykehead Polkemmet and Dysart and Dundonald.

During this extensive period, a combination of the continual playing, competing and setting up of the instrument, has led to the 'Kilberry team' having a vast amount of experience and knowledge as far as bagpipes are concerned. They are joined on the admin. side by Denise Bald, who processes orders and will also answer most of your email enquiries.

The business is located in Edinburgh and as well as making highland pipes, Kilberry also manufactures Scottish smallpipes and Chamber pipes. They also make learning kits with practice chanters and, recently, Neil and Dave wrote two of their own booklets - one relating to the maintenance of the pipes and the other, a very precise book with corresponding CD, designed to teach people to play.

Everything is done on the premises including some of the reed making and all bagpipes are fully assembled and thoroughly tested before leaving the workshop.

The 'Kilberry boys' are very proud of the instruments they produce and of their many completely satisfied customers over the years. They strive to produce the best bagpipes in the world - judge for yourself and listen to any of the sound samples on the web site.

Our world of bagpipe making:

YOU see them everywhere - at gala days, Highland Games, processions, some official openings, agricultural shows, school sports, fitba matches, military tattoos and political demonstrations.

I'm talking pipe bands. Scotsmen and lassies blowing their way through "The Barren Rocks Of Aden" or "Amazing Grace", usually be-caped to avoid the watery rigours of the Scottish summer.

Then there are the innumerable lone pipers, who serenade clan chiefs on clear Highland mornings, grace "Beautiful Scotland" calendars, or occupy the best stance in Princes Street as they busk their way through the top ten Scottish tunes.

That's not all. There are the players of the chamber pipes (for indoor use and therefore smaller than the full Highland pipes) and the small pipes, which are played across the knee while sitting, and which are worked by bellows.

Multiply that a thousand-fold when you consider the instrument's popularity in England, America, Australia, the Middle East, France, Germany, Sweden, Holland and Japan, and you realise one thing - it adds up to an awful lot of bagpipes.

The making of our national instrument, of course, is a skill known only to a few manufacturers. They've been in existence for years, and have handed down their jealously-guarded secrets from generation to generation. Their musty workshops - located in far-flung Heilan glens - still use treadle lathes, and the workmen themselves have to make sure their grizzled beards don't catch in the drive-belts as they carefully turn drones, chanters and blowsticks.

Wrong on all counts! For a start, most bagpipes are manufactured in the Lowlands - usually in Edinburgh or Glasgow. Secondly, there's no secret in the process, though there's plenty of skill. Thirdly, some of the craftsmen are alarmingly - for this grizzly-bearded old writer - young, though they still bring to their trade the necessary love and craftsmanship. And lastly, their manufacturing processes are now rooted in the 20th century, using 20th-century methods.

Would you believe me if I told you that bagpipes can now be found on the Internet?

Kilberry Bagpipes of Gilmore Place in Edinburgh is one of the small Scottish firms manufacturing bagpipes. It was only formed in 1990, when Neil Manderson, a piper still in his 20s, decided that the making of bagpipes was a natural progression from playing them. So, together with business partner Geoff Nicholsby (a non-piper), he formed Kilberry Bagpipes. The firm makes all three kinds of Scottish bagpipe - the full Highland instrument, the chamber and the small pipes. It also sells a beginner's kit, which comprises a practice chanter with reed, tape, and tutor book.

One of their best, and more unusual, sales was to a Scots Magazine reader who had seen an advert. "The man came up from the south of England," said Neil, "and just walked in out of the blue. He bought our most expensive, silver-mounted set, costing well over £2000. I asked him how he was going to pay, and he said cheque or cash. When we said cash for such a large amount, he went to a bank, withdrew the money, and handed it over there and then."

Neil started playing the bagpipes when he was six. "It's a wee bit young to start, as your fingers are so small you can't really cover the chanter holes. Eight is probably a better age. Anyway, I got private tuition here in Edinburgh from Calum McPhee, joined a pipe band when I was 12, and have never looked back since."

Dave Wardell is the craftsman who actually manufactures the pipes. Still only in his early 30s, he's been with the firm since 1992, and plays in the same grade one band as Neil - the Dysart and Dundonald from Fife.

"Like Neil," he said, "there was no history of playing in my family, though we originally came from Bonar Bridge. I spent a lot of my childhood there, and a nearby crofter started me off when I was ten. Then I had private tuition in Edinburgh, and ended up in the Craigmount High School band.

"I left school at 16, and went straight into bagpipe making with a firm called MacPherson's. So to me, they're a way of life."

Dave tells a story about his school days which shows just how attitudes to the pipes have changed in recent years.

The head of music at Craigmount in the 70s would have nothing to do with Dave's bagpipes, and wouldn't allow them to be played in the music room. And this in the year that Craigmount School Pipe Band won the juvenile grade World Championship. Not an attitude he could get away with nowadays.

I asked about the history of the instrument, and Neil explained. "It's thought that they originated in the Far East, though nobody knows when. I've heard tales about wandering nomads in about 2000 BC introducing them into Europe.

"France, Spain, England and Ireland have bagpipes - albeit different versions from ours - as do some Middle East countries. Of course, we've reintroduced the Scottish bagpipes to the Middle East, and most countries' armed forces out there now have pipe bands.

"I was talking recently to a man from the Omani Navy who wished to buy new bagpipes for its pipe band. They take Scotsmen over there to teach them the finer points of playing, and they buy all their supplies from Scottish firms, including us."

It was the Scottish regiments who really popularised the bagpipes in Scotland, and turned them into our national instrument.

Dave Wardell explained. "The great Scottish war pipes - as the Highland pipes were originally called - was a solo instrument. There were no such things as marches, jigs or reels. It was all pibroch music, which is the classical music of the bagpipes. Warriors weren't marched into battle as such, though the pipes were played at times of war."

Neil took up the story. "I recently heard bagpipes which were played at Culloden, and they produced a really terrible sound. They only had two tenor drones, instead of today's two tenor and one bass. There's no doubt that bagpipes have improved in quality over the years since then. They used inferior local woods, and not the African blackwood we now use."

After the Forty-Five the Highland regiments formed by the Hanoverian government got hold of the bagpipes, refined them, and made them marching instruments within pipe bands, as we know them today

Neil admitted that the early history of the instrument is vague. However, when I asked him when non-military pipe bands really took off in this country, he wasn't so vague, though his answer was surprising.

"There were bands in the 40s and 50s," he said, "but the whole pipe band scene really came to life as late as the 1960s.

"Since then, the standards have improved even further, and there are a lot more people playing. Talented youngsters are coming through all the time, and there have been a lot of innovative pipe-majors who are responsible for that. The instrument's basic style has more or less stayed the same, but the type of playing has changed and improved."

One of the innovations has been the introduction of harmonies, which means that some bands now break the pipers into sections.

"Going back 20 or 30 years," said Neil, "you had two sections in the pipe band - the pipe corps and the drum corps. Even today, in some lower grade bands, that's how they still play. But more stress is now put on ensemble playing. Dave Barnes, who's in charge of the Dysart and Dundonald band, is renowned for this. He treats the band as an orchestra.

The main aim is for all pipers in the band to achieve one sound, as this is one of the points which is judged and produces a much more enjoyable performance. The bass, tenor and side drumming sections of the band also play the same music, resulting in a good ensemble performance.

Neil explained that you need two things to be a piper - plenty of puff and nimble fingers.

However, the younger you learn, it seems, the easier it is.

This was my chance. Could an old codger like me - short on wind but long on optimism - get anything at all out of a set of bagpipes, I asked innocently? Say, that rather nice set lying over there in its case?

Neil rose to the bait. "Why don't you try?" he said, lifting them from the case. He showed me the basic components of the instrument - the chanter which produces the melody, the three drones which produce the constant notes, the bag where the air is stored, and the blowstick into which you blow. "The rest - ferrules, bag cover and cords - is ornamentation," he said.He also showed me where to put the components when you try to play. Then I huffed and puffed. There was no way I was going to manage a tune, but I was determined to get a sound from the drones.

I huffed and puffed even more. Eventually, to my surprise and delight, some notes emerged from the drones.

Not only was I delighted, I was also dizzy. Neil, funnily enough, praised my efforts. "You don't always succeed first time," he declared. He then let me into a secret - it was his pipes I had been playing. I hope I did them no damage.

However, if they were damaged, at least I was in the right place, for Kilberry Bagpipes repair and upgrade pipes as well as manufacture them. But how exactly do you manufacture a set of bagpipes in the first place? What materials do you use? Suitably prompted, Dave Wardell said he would show me.

The basic wood for the chanter, drones and for the blowstick nowadays is blackwood, which is heavy and dense. Another wood - though not so expensive - is iroko, which gives a reasonable quality of sound, but keeps the price of a basic set of bagpipes to about £350. You can also obtain injection-moulded plastic chanters (which Kilberry supply), and surprisingly enough, their sound quality is almost as good as the wood ones.

"You only occasionally get drones or blowsticks made of plastic," said Dave. "They point upwards, so the moisture from your breath, having nowhere to go, must be soaked up by the wood, or it goes down into the reed and stops it playing. However, the chanter points downwards, so the moisture can easily escape."

Dave showed me a piece of blackwood as it comes into the workshop. It's square, with inch and a half sides, and about ten inches long. That's my way of measuring things, but these modern lads at Kilberry Bagpipes have long since gone metric

The first thing Dave does before putting it into the lathe is find the centre by marking the diagonals on one end of the wood. It's a hand-turning lathe, so-called because all the tools he uses are hand-held. They can't be bought in a shop, so he makes most of them himself from tempered steel.

"I round off one end on this lathe," he said, "and then I transfer the wood to another lathe, where I put a hole - called the bore - through the middle. The diameter of the bore is the most important thing when turning, as it affects the sound quality - especially if I'm turning a chanter."

Putting an accurately-positioned hole through a piece of wood ten inches long - so that it stays exactly in the centre - is where the skill comes in.

The bore is then widened to the correct diameter using other tools. One of the tools for the drone bore is about 16-17 mm, and it's as thick as a stout poker. The drone bores are stepped, so they vary in diameter along their lengths. The tenor drones are made in two parts, while the bass drone is in three.

However, the chanter is the most difficult to make. "It has a conical bore, with the throat starting at about 4 mm, going out at the bottom end to about 19 mm. The thickness of the walls is about 3 mm, so if your bore's slightly off it can cause problems."

One thing I didn't know about bagpipes was that the blowstick has a simple non-return valve built into it to prevent air from escaping when the player takes a breath.

"Some players prefer to use their tongues," said Dave. "But it's not so common nowadays."

Having produced the bores within the chanters, drones and blowsticks, the next stage is to add the ferrules and slides on the outside, either of imitation ivory or nickel. These simply decorate the pipes. Kilberry get the nickel ferrules specially made, though Dave turns the plastic ones himself.

"Once upon a time they would have been ivory," he said, "but it's illegal to import ivory nowadays."

After that, the beading and combing - the carefully turned ornamentation on the outside of the wood - is added using a third lathe. Then come sanding and polishing, either using three coats of shellac or just plain buffing, which is preferred.

Kilberry don't manufacture their own reeds, but they do get them made locally. Each drone has a reed, as well as the chanter. "We have no reed-maker on the premises so we buy them in. Usually they're made of Spanish or French cane," said Dave.

The bag is either of hand-stitched hide or sheepskin - sheepskin is better, as it repels moisture. Holes will be cut into the bag, then tied on to the stock of the chanter, drones and blowstick using a waxed string.

A covering of some decorative material such as tartan will be put over the bag as a finishing touch, and the cords and tassels added.

"And that's it," said Dave. "You have a full set of bagpipes."

Prices for a set of Highland pipes vary between £350 and £2500, depending on the materials used and the kind of pipes required. Neil, however, was quick to point out that the more expensively-embellished sets were not any better sounding than the plainer models - the quality of the sound is relevant to the inside bores and not the embellishments.

"The extra price is for embellishment. Some people want the works - silver ferrules, imitation ivory plus intricate beading and combing."

"What of the cheap imported bagpipes that you can buy for about £100 nowadays?" I asked. Neil grimaced. "They're not worth the money. They're poorly made, and the sound quality is bad. People have turned up at our door with these cheap sets, asking us to fix them, but we can't. We usually recommend that they use the money they were going to use to fix them as the down payment on a decent set from us.

"Basically, these imported bagpipes are wall ornaments - no more," he concluded. That then, is how you make a set of bagpipes. The industry is alive and healthy, and Kilberry Bagpipes is an innovative company manufacturing a traditional product that looks forward to the 21st century with confidence

What our clients say about Kilberry Bagpipes:

Here at Kilberry we pride ourselves not only on the quality of our products, but also on service that we believe to be second to none. We always go out of our way to ensure that every customer is 100% happy, as we know that our reputation is everything - on the Internet like everywhere.

But we recognise that many people can be a little unsure about purchasing a serious instrument on the Web. The following customers have given permission for their testimonials to be shared here, and will confirm as much to serious enquirers. (Please bear in mind that these are ordinary busy people who are being kind enough to do this for us, and so contact them only if you feel a real need to...)

Here are some of the clients´ testimonials:

"Dear Neil, I can't say 'THANK YOU' enough for the bagpipes. The craftmanship you put into them is outstanding. I must admit, I was a little nervous ordering them on-line from half way across the world. However, they arrived yesterday, by surprise, earlier than expected, in perfect condition! They are absolutely gorgeous! The pictures you display on your website do not do them justice. My instructor was very impressed with the sound and the craftmanship, also. I cannot thank you enough!!!!! Keep in touch,"


"Neil, I can truly say that the instruments you supplied (practice chanter and goose bag) are wonderful things"

Bruce Steven Baxter

"Thanks to Kilberry, I now have the best set of pipes that I have ever owned. They look great but more importantly, they have a touch of magic in their sound. It's nice to know that there are still companies that take pride in the quality of their work. At first, I was slightly nervous ordering pipes off the Internet, but I couldn't be more satisfied with the end result. They are worth every penny!"

Gavin Brannan

"I would like to thank you for your patience with me. I will look forward to playing the practice pipes for a long time to come. I can't say enough for all the help you have provided me. I look forward to dealing with your company again in the future - it has been a pleasure."

Kelly Hogan

"Neil - the pipes (Highland) just arrived without incident, which is really good service, and they look and sound fantastic! Compliments to you and your crew. It has been a pleasure doing business and good luck to"

Steve Dunn

Dear Neil, I would first like to thank you very much for getting the pipes out so very quickly for my son to play with the London Irish Pipes and Drums. We received them on the evening of Friday 9th July. They were put through their paces that evening and every day for the next week. On Saturday 17th they were used to record the music for the Royal Tournament. From then on they were in daily use for the Tournament finishing on the evening of the 2nd August. He got a mention in the Tournament write up as being one of the youngest performers to complete the tournament at 13 years old. Attached is a photograph of my son playing your pipes at the Richmond Tattoo on the 25th July in aid of The Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen. May I once again thank you for getting the pipes to my son in plenty of time for him to be a complete member of the band. Yours Sincerely,

John Mason, London

You see we are always delighted when we hear back from clients who have received their new instruments. We are also more than happy to assist with queries that are not answered here on our web pages, prior to purchase.

Please feel free to email with any questions you may have about ordering from us, and we will do our very best to help you quickly and efficiently.