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What things cost: Highland Pipes

I’ve often wondered what I might pay for that leopard-print pipe bag cover.
Image: pinterest.com

Highland pipes

$~750 / ~$1,200 / $2,500+

As you can see, I state the possible cost of a set of Highland pipes in three price tiers. Here’re those tiers expanded upon slightly:

  • ~$750 – $1,100
    New, quality plastic pipes, and/or lucky finds (though there may be some damage present)
  • ~$1,200 – $2,000
    Quality, brand new sets without lots of frills. Also, maybe some vintage sets that have some issues present.
  • $2,500 and up
    Brand new sets with some nice, fancy additions such as engraved metal work can be found around $2,500. Also, vintage sets that are still in excellent condition might start around this price. Heavy amounts of silver work can bring the price up greatly, though it’s rare and often unreasonable for a set to be expected to fetch more than ~$8,000.

Too good to be true = run

Finding Highland pipes is much easier than smallpipes and border pipes, as there are many, many makers. Overall, I feel we’re living in a golden age for the Highland bagpipe in terms of quality and availability. The quality of most newly made sets out there is extremely high now-a-days, so long as you’re smart about where you look. So it’s hard to go wrong … BUT … there’s still some garbage out there.

In my experience, do not expect ANY instrument costing less than $600-$700 to be worth buying. Even then, you’re pushing the envelope, but deals can be found.

Here’s a good pair of videos that do a really good job of illustrating why this is the case. An experienced piper named Matt Willis sets out to try and make a Pakistani-made set of pipes playable. He posts a lot of these sorts of videos on his Youtube channel.

First he tries his best to manipulate the pipes with only what was provided. In the second video he attempts to change out parts in order to bring about a better result. Overall (spoiler alert), all of his attempts failed dismally … and this is a very experienced piper with oodles of knowledge. So if he can’t get these things to go right, I think it’s safe to say that no one could.

Get a look:

Here, piper Matt Willis dives into trying to bring about the best possible results from a cheap set of bagpipes from Amazon, and compares them to a quality set of Highland pipes.
In this followup to the above, Matt attempts to use different equipment to enhance the result. It does not go well.

It’s likely that I’ll be writing up a few other pages on this subject. In the meantime, when it comes to being “smart,” here are several things to avoid/watch.

Exercise caution with/avoid:
  1. As mentioned above, if a set is being offered for less than $600, be very skeptical. Chances are high that it’s “too good to be true” because it’s some sort of a ripoff or scam.
  2. Anything made in Asian countries such as China, Pakistan, and India.
  3. Anything advertised as or mentioning rosewood*, sheesham wood or cocuswood*. In general, for anything new, avoid woods other than African blackwood, though quality sets made of cocobolo have started to be offered more often lately.
  4. If the wood looks very light, or bright brown in color … normally that’s bad.
  5. If there’s any dark/blackish paint on the outside, that’s usually a very bad sign. Normally, this is trying to pass a subpar, lighter-color wood off as African blackwood.
  6. Related to the above, if the wood looks dark on the outside, but you can see lighter-colored wood on the inside (say, inside chanter holes, or inside of stocks), this is a sign of cheap garbage. Again, this means the maker is trying to hide the true color of the wood.
  7. Finally—not wanting to be too judgey here, but—if you see a set advertised online and the posting has things like poor English, bad photos that don’t offer good views, etc … be very skeptical. Ask lots of questions of the buyer—if their answers are vague or unhelpful, I recommend running for the hills.

Ok, with all that out of the way, lets dive further into those price tiers mentioned above.

Plastic pipes & lucky finds: $750 – $1,000

The pipes I’m playing here are an Acetyl set from McCallum bagpipes. The chanter is also a plastic McCallum model. Time and several tough lessons have taught me that durable, plastic pipes are well-suited to rowdy events such as these. They still provide a very good sound while allowing me to keep my wood pipes safely at home.
Photo: Skyler Hart

In this price range, you’re most likely looking at pipes made of some sort of plastic, or possibly a good deal on a set of used pipes.

Used pipes are tricky. Sometimes it can be a really good set that’s priced to sell quickly, or the seller doesn’t know what they have. Or, it might be a good set that’s in need of repairs, so the price reduction is there to hypothetically compensate the buyer for repairs they’ll need to think about.

If you’re unsure if a set is a good deal, the best thing you can do is to ask a knowledgable piper. Among the best of the best for this is Ringo Bowen.

Ok, on to plastic. One of the best of this sort of material used out there today is polypenco (poly), which is a dense type of plastic.

Believe it or not, some of the better-made poly sets can have a sound that rivals many wood instruments. Many diehard pipers will refuse to accept it, but many-a-piper has been fooled into thinking a good poly set “just has to be wood.”

One of the best deals I’ve seen anywhere have to be Dunbar’s poly sets. They make amazing-sounding pipes, their prices are very reasonable, and usually the Canadian dollar (they’re based in St. Catharine’s, Ontario) gives us here in “the States” an even better bang for our buck. With the cheaper options for bag and reeds, you can pick up a poly set from them for right around $700 US.

Plastic pipes are also extremely durable, especially polypenco. These are great pipes to have about for gigs where weather can be extreme (say, below freezing), or where things get a little rowdy (think you’ll find a nice, quiet pub in Boston on St. Patrick’s Day? … yeah, didn’t think so).

Right around the same price point are plastic pipes from McCallum Bagpipes in Scotland. They use a plastic called Acetyl, which is very similar to polypenco. I now use a set of these drones onstage with Cu Dubh, as I like the prospect of not risking any more of my wood pipes with mortal peril.

Blackwood pipes: Starting around $1,200

Playing my set of Gibson blackwood pipes, marching with the Highland Light Scottish Pipe Band. The chanter though is a polypenco McCallum. Photo: Mark Pasquantonio

Most Highland bagpipes are still made from wood though, particularly the drones. Plastic chanters have been increasing in popularity for many years, especially in band settings.

Whenever one buys a new set of pipes, the chanter that comes with them by default is near-always plastic now-a-days. Wood chanters tend to be highly favored for solo competitions, particularly at higher grades.

Far and away, the most commonly used (and desired) wood for bagpipes today is African blackwood. It’s an extremely hard and dense wood that looks almost black, at times, depending on the light. Blackwood has been the go-to wood since the early 1900s, when other exotic woods such as ebony and cocuswood were becoming more difficult to find in instrument-grade quality. Those other woods are now all-but extinct.

From many of the reputable makers/retailers today, most blackwood sets tend to start around $1,200-$1,300, give or take. In this price range, fittings such as mounts, ferrules and caps/rings will usually be plastic (for more on what these pieces are, see Bagpipe Anatomy).

Pipes costing $2,500 and upwards

A close up of my cocuswood Henderson pipes. As you can see, the wood has a reddish-chocolate color to it. Cocuswood started to become hard to find by makers in the early 1900s. This set has been determined to be from around 1915, and they have an estimated value of approximately $3,000. Sadly, all of it’s original casien mounts, rings, and bushings (white parts) needed to be replaced due to damage from the set’s age. Dunbar Bagpipes and Ringo Bowen are the folks responsible for helping me bring this set back to proper playing condition. The new material used was holly. The original ferrules are all still there, made of nickel.

Pipes will start to go higher in price based on:

  • Maker/reputation
  • Fitting materials
  • Vintage/condition (if it’s a used set)

Like any other instrument, different makers’ pipes will go for different prices. Sometimes it’s simply due to the maker’s reputation—though often such reputation is earned from their instruments being highly prized and sought after.

Also, some makers (such as McCallum) use lots of machinery/staff to produce many sets in a shorter period of time, whereas others might be a “one-man shop” who make their sets mainly by hand (such as Murray Huggins or David Atherton). The latter sort of makers are bound to have a higher demand, as they don’t produce as many sets. Of course, their quality should also be exceptional if they’re to expect their pipes to sell at top dollar.

Fitting materials can go a long way in bringing up the price tag. Again, things usually start with plastic (which usually is made to look like ivory). Going up from there, many sets will have either wood fittings, or sometimes alloy metals such as nickel. Well-made sets with wood and/or nickel fittings are likely to cost closer to $2,000.

A full set of engraved silver fittings, ready for a new set of pipes. These are made and engraved by Murray Huggins of Colin Kyo Bagpipes.
Image: https://ckpipes.com/bagpipes

The priciest (though most dazzling) of options for fittings tend to involve sets with full silver, often with hand engraving. Silver is obviously costly as a material, and hand engraving involves a lot of man-hours from an exceptionally skilled craftsman. This can catapult the cost of sets up as high as around $8,000.

Then there’s vintage. A vintage set from a reputable maker that’s still in good shape is bound to cost a pretty penny. The more time passes, the scarcer some of these sets are going to get.

My old set of Henderson pipes (pictured further up the page) were evaluated to be around 100-years-old. They’re made of cocuswood instead of blackwood, and the appraiser said a fair price for the set would probably be around $3,000.

They have their original nickel ferrules, though I ended up having to remove the original casien mounts, rings and bushings on them (casien becomes brittle and crumbles with age)—they all were replaced with custom-made fittings made out of holly.

One piece on the set (one of the tenor bottoms) was an impostor—a different make that didn’t match the set. So Rick Pettigrew at Dunbar Bagpipes made me a bespoke piece to match the set. Of course, as cocuswood is no longer an option, that piece had to be made from African blackwood.

As you can probably tell, apart from maker/reputation, all of this stuff that really adds to the price of an instrument are niceties … silver work, vintage pipes, etc.

In the end, no matter how fancy a set looks, what matters is the sound that they produce.

So especially in this day and age, unless you’re the sort who just HAS TO have the absolute best of the best, there’s really no need to prepare for spending much more than about $1,500 for a set of pipes—and that would most likely get you a wonderful set that could last many generations (with proper care).

Most of the time I would try to steer someone away from spending more than say, $2,000 for their first set. Some folks buy their first set, and it’s the only one that they’ll ever own. Those people are out there I’m sure, but I’ve hardly run across any of them (and I’ve met ALOT of pipers).

Most people simply pick up the best set that they can afford at the time when they’re starting out. Later, when they’ve had time to navigate things for a while, they’ll often invest in another set that really tickles their fancy.

After all, in the meantime, there will be other things to spend money on, from time to time.

Finding that “perfect set”—for you

So why don’t pipers usually stick with their first set forever?

Well, it’s largely a matter of experience, and taste. Starting out, most pipers don’t have much of either. In time, seeing and hearing other sets will usually get the brain going—exposing the piper to looks and sounds they never knew. Many sets of pipes will have distinctive characteristics to their sound, though these can be very subtle and hard to detect early on.

Above and below are some early images of my old Henderson pipes, before they went through their refurbishment. It took a lot of work, but in the end, I essentially had the bagpipe I’ve always wanted.
Images: Ringo Bowen
These bass pieces had already begun going through refurbishment, which is why the bottom mount is missing from the piece in the middle.
Images: Ringo Bowen

For example, that Henderson set pictured above is effectively my fourth full set of Highland pipes. It’s likely my last, as I consider them to have been the perfect find for all of my wants and needs.

After a good 20+ years of playing, I’ve come across and heard a great many sets. I started out with a blackwood set of Kintails, which came to me new in 1994. Much later, I bought my blackwood set of Gibson pipes, which were made around 2007.

Whenever I’ve been really drawn to the sound of a particular instrument, they were usually either an old make of Henderson drones, or a pipe that’s closely related to them. So eventually I started keeping an eye out for older sets of Henderson drones. A brand new set from a quality maker that’s based on old Henderson drones would have been fine too, but I’ve always been dazzled by the thought of playing on a piece of history.

Many pipers highly covet pipes with real ivory, but not me.

Due to the international ban of buying/selling ivory, such instruments can be a real hassle to acquire—and they’re even more of a nightmare if one later needs to cross a border with them. I’m also personally not keen on intense silver work … to each their own, but it just feels like too much for me—both in terms of cost, and appearance. Again, gorgeous … but simply not my cup of tea.

If loaded with silver and ivory, considering the century-plus age of the instrument and the fact that it’s made of harder-to-find cocuswood, my set of Henderson pipes could have easily cost two or three times as much. Fortunately for me, such was not the case.

So again, for my wants and needs, my cocuswood Hendersons were the perfect find.

* – Rosewood is a confusing term, as it can be representative of many individual species of wood. Rosewoods are closely related to good bagpipe tone woods, such as African blackwood, cocobolo, and kingwood, but they are NOT the same.

* – Also, it is true that cocuswood CAN be a highly coveted wood for bagpipes, but that’s because (like ebony) it’s an exotic wood that was more-widely available in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, such is no longer the case, as those woods are all-but extinct in instrument-grade form. Thus, any new pipes claiming to be made of “cocuswood” are dubious at best, and it’s advisable to steer clear, unless you’re able to have the pipes looked at by a professional first.