In earlier instalments in this series, mention was made of the demand for bagpipes during and after the Second World War. The McPhees, who were arguably the most famous of New Zealand’s pipe makers, went part of the way to filling this vacuum. Another who achieved fame as a pipe maker was Archie MacMillan of Dunedin.
Archie was the youngest of a family of twelve who came from Machrihanish near Campbelltown in Scotland. Born in 1897 he arrived in New Zealand with his family in 1908 and settled in the Dunedin area. Although their father was not a piper, all the boys in the family played
Two of his piper brothers were Angus and Eddie. Angus, as well as being a fine player made pipe bags and dancing pumps of high quality. In the Notices of Australian Pipers on page 21 of The Piping Times, Vol 31, No 10, Douglas Thoreson states that Angus may have served in the N. Z. Scottish Regiment or the Otago rifles in the First World War.
According to his nephew Colin MacMillan this was not so. Angus lost a leg in an industrial accident before the war and such a disability would have precluded him from joining the Army. The same article states that Angus played a set of pipes in the early 1950’s that he made himself. He was indeed a versatile man.
Eddie, who also was reputed to be a very fine player, lived in Australia and served with the Australian Armed Forces in the Great War.
At the outbreak of war Archie, who was underage, enlisted as a soldier in the Otago Rifles. He saw service in France and is mentioned in The Piper in Peace and War by C. A. Malcolm, 2nd edition published by Hardwick Press 1993.
He was a first-class performer and was apparently taught by Duncan Cameron of Mataura. He composed the excellent unpublished six parted march The Centennial Route March.
In the late 1930’s Archie learned the art of pipe making. Bill Stewart (mentioned in an earlier article in this series) assisted Archie in the early stages. Later he experimented with many of his own ideas: his son Colin can remember the copper being used to boil the timber in a foul smelling concoction and then the oven, or hot water cupboard being used for the drying process. Later a dedicated drying room was constructed. Then there was the oil in which the artificially seasoned timber was soaked. Colin thinks that it may have been a mixture with the main ingredient being linseed oil. For weeks, or even months the timber was left to soak.
Archie experimented with a variety of timbers but the two he used were South Island rata, known locally as ironwood, and lignum vitae. Puriri was used for the chanters. The mounts were cast metal and later silver plated. Many were engraved with a thistle pattern.
Archie made pipes on a large scale throughout the Second World War. The writer has seen a number of sets that have been attributed to him. At one stage there were eight sets in the R
N. Z. A. F. Te Rapa Pipe Band. A number were purchased by the New Zealand Army during the war and taken overseas by the soldier pipers.
Ill health forced Archie to give up pipe making in 1948 or 49. In about 1950 he moved from Dunedin to Tauranga where he was to live for the rest of his life, dying there in about 1968.
When Ian McKay of Wellington was a teenager in 1948, he recalls seeing Archie judging the B grade at Palmerston North. At one stage he vacated his judging seat and competed in one of the A Grade events. When he finished, he returned to his deliberations at the B Grade board. This could only happen in New Zealand.
Ian was impressed by the fact that Archie was able to take his instrument out of its box, get up on the board, tune it in and then play a tune that was worthy of a prize on the day. Ian also states that Archie was one of the judges at the first Highland Games held in Hastings in 1950.
The writer has known of Archie MacMillan for over thirty years. Many of the older pipers who knew him convey an impression of an extremely pleasant likeable man. Many pipers passing through the city where he lived were always made welcome when they called upon him and his family.
Special thanks to Colin MacMillan of Morrinsville, Airdrie Stewart of Dunedin and Ian McKay for their assistance in preparing this article
Twice in the last month I have ordered a book from the College of Piping in Scotland; I have faxed through the details with my Visa card number and withing a week both books have arrived in perfect condition. The 1940s and 50 in New Zealand were a very bleak time in relation to getting goods from overseas.
The severe financial restrictions in those days would have made the whole exercise described above extremely difficult. Besides the time taken to get the order over to Scotland and then the time for the goods to come to New Zealand there was the matter of arranging the finance.
In those days we had to have overseas funds before we could import anything over a certain price. If we wanted smaller less expensive items, we had to make an application through a banking institution to obtain the funds. There was a limit as to how much any person was allowed to spend overseas in any one year.
If we went on an overseas holiday there was a very small limit on the amount of money we could spend. We could only take a very small amount of New Zealand cash, and this was to be used when we got back to New Zealand until we could get to a bank to cash whatever overseas currency we might have in our possession. There were no money machines or Visa cards in those days.
People did manage to get round these restrictions; one friend of mine worked in a service station and if any customers tendered foreign coins or notes he would buy them off the customer and use that money on his overseas trip. Another person managed to sneak several hundred pounds out by taping it to his body under his clothes. The punishment if you were caught was quite severe.
Pipe and chanter reeds were always in great demand in those days - particularly in Pipe Bands. As you can imagine from the remarks above it was not an easy task to get reeds from overseas. If an individual wanted a chanter reed, he or she could try Beggs, Lewis Eady or McPhees.
The reeds were frequently enclosed in a plastic wrapper and could not be tried out before purchase. Many was the time the reed you had just bought was fit only for the rubbish bin. The seller didn’t want to know about it after it left the shop. Drone reeds could at least be tried but the quality was not good.
The music shops who imported reeds were subject to restrictions; they were allowed only a certain value in a year. If they were all used up before the year was out - tough; there were no more.
Some pipers had their own suppliers in Scotland if they were lucky but the rigmarole in getting them into the country put many off. This led to the art of reed making in this country. Oddly enough, during my research for all the articles in this series I have discovered only one reed maker who did it on a large scale. This was George Pilcher of Lower Hutt.
George died in about 1975 at about the age of 75 and although he was known to many pipers, including myself, not many know the details of Georges early life. He was an engine driver with the New Zealand Railways and seem to have moved around the country.
He never started playing the pipes until his thirties and no one seems to know who taught him. This late start and the fact that he was prone to arthritis in his hands probably prevented him from being a great player. However, has certainly good enough to have won a number of A Grade competitions. Those who remember his playing consider he was a better Piobaireachd player than small music player. Throughout his whole life he was an ardent enthusiast.
George spent many years in the Palmerston North area and from about 1946 was Pipe Major of the Manawatu Scottish Society Pipe Band. A Dominion Pipe Band Championship Programme from 1953 shows he was still Pipe Major in that year. The Band does not appear in the Programmes for the next three years after that. The Band played in the A Grade during George’s reign. Sometime around 1954-5 George moved to Lower Hutt.
George taught many pipers in the band; one of these was Merv Carruthers of Palmerston North. Merv started learning in about 1945 and by 1948 was Pipe Sergeant under George. Merv states that in the late 1940s or early 1950s George and himself visited George’s cousin Jim Pilcher in Hawarden in Canterbury and there George learned the art of reed making.
Shortly after that visit George tooled up and began making reeds for many pipers and Bands throughout New Zealand and Australia. I have spoken to many older pipers in my research for this article and they all had high regard for George’s reeds. In my early days with the Wellington Police Pipe Band, we played Pilcher reeds.
Graeme Welsh of Lower Hutt lived close to George and was greatly influenced by him. Graeme was taught pipe bag making and reed making by George. Graeme still makes a highquality bag and although he experimented with making reeds has not persevered. George imported his cane from Spain, but Graeme tried growing his own; this was not as successful as he hoped.
George had a reputation of being a great innovator. He adapted many simple things to make reed making easier. He had an engineer develop a special jig for bending the copper sheet to make the staples for the reeds. When George died all his tooling was purchased by Albert Sheath of Hamilton.
During the 1960’s George suffered a heart attack as was not allowed to play his pipes. This did not prevent him adapting the vacuum cleaner, which he strapped to his back, to inflate his bagpipe and so allow him the pleasure of playing.
Everyone who knew George remark about his delightful and friendly demeanour. If anyone took an interest in his reed making, he would be more than happy to pass onto them the art. Colin Cairns of Australia was taught reed making by George.
A bagpipe makers art lives with us for many years after he dies in the instruments he has made. Sadly, the reed makers art dies at the instant the last of his reeds is discarded. This will not stop many hundreds of pipers from the 1950s, 60s and 70s from extending a heartfelt vote of thanks to George for helping them through what were tough times.
I would like to thank the following for their assistance in helping to produce this article. Roy Gunn, Australia; Merv Carruthers, Palmerston North; Colin Addison, Wellington; John Hanning, Wellington; Lewis Turrell, Auckland and Graeme Walsh of Lower Hutt.
Very little has been written about the history of reed making. We take it for granted that cane has always been used for reeds. Arundo Donax is the cane generally used these days and that grown in Spain is considered the best.
Whenever an old set of pipes comes on the market and there are reeds in the drones or chanter or in the bottom of the case, they are always made of cane. It seems to this writer that reeds for the Highland Bagpipe have been made of cane for well over one hundred years.
Other materials have been used; when Ian Whyman made the Dudy bagpipe (see New Zealand Pipe Band Summer 1999) the plans he used described brass drone reeds. These were a brass tube with a vibrating brass tongue - very similar to the vibrating reeds in the piano accordion.
Terry Carroll of Papakura tells of an old set of Uilliann pipes with reeds that were made of from elder wood. Apparently, it is easy to extract the soft pith and the remaining cylinder was not unlike the cane reeds we know so much (or so little) about.
Waipu was settled in 1853 by a group of Scottish Highlanders who had made Nova Scotia home for a number of years. The Highland Clearances began in the 1780’s and many thousands of people were evicted from their land over the next 70 years. These people, who had been under the care and protection of the clan Chiefs were forced to live around the coast and in the southern cities when it was discovered that more money was to be made from having sheep on the land. Many more decided that the colonies offered better chances and headed, initially, to the Americas. Later others came to Australia and New Zealand.
In 1817 a group of Presbyterians, led by the famous Reverend Norman MacLeod left Ullapool in the northwest, bound for Nova Scotia. Over the next 30 years the numbers in the new settlement grew and after a series of bad winters the good Reverend decided to move to another newly formed colony. Australia was their first choice but once they arrived many quickly decided to try the even newer settlement of New Zealand.
The ensuing years saw the new settlement swell to over 800; nearly all having come from Nova Scotia. Although many of the new immigrants were Scottish born, a large number were born in Nova Scotia. Some had left relatives behind, but they brought with them a variety of skills that made the Waipu settlement one of the success stories of early New Zealand settlement.
Whether piping flourished within the new colony is open to conjecture. Some people say that some musical activity was sanctioned whilst others insist that MacLeod strictly forbade such pursuits.
Whatever the truth of the matter, we know that by the 1880’s there were locals playing at the Waipu Highland Games. This interest in piping was inherited by two brothers, Roderick (Rory) Duncan Campbell and Duncan Alexander Campbell and in the early part of this century they made a set of pipes.
They were both born in Waipu in 1864 and 1874 respectively. Their parents, Robert and Isabella (nee MacKay) Campbell were born in Cape Breton in 1823 and 1830. Robert’s parents were born in Scotland and died in Waipu. Isabella’s father was Scottish born and her mother was born in Prince Edward Island. Both died in Waipu.
We don’t know when the two brothers made the pipes, but the writer has been told that it was about 1902. Duncan Campbell’s son Angus was born in 1913 and still lives in Whangarei. He states that they were made before he was born and that his father showed him the old treadle lathe that was used. As far as is known they were the only set made and Angus has deposited them in the House of Memories in Waipu on permanent display.
Angus adds that his father was a kauri bushman and that he thought that this was the timber used for making the pipes. This may not be correct for the colour and weight suggest a lighter timber. The bag was made by a local saddler. The ‘ivory’ appears to wood painted white, and the metal mounts appear to be silver plated.
No one has heard them played for some time and the tonal quality is not known.
The writer wishes to thank Angus Campbell, Anne Picketts and Betty Powell of Waipu for their assistance in writing this article. Other information was obtained from The Scots of New Zealand by G. L. Pearce. Published by David Winter and Son Ltd, Dundee 1976.
In the Spring 1996 issue Jennie Coleman made the point that when the early colonial Pipers wanted to purchase a new instrument or repair damage to an existing one, it was not simply a matter of going to a shop; these establishments did not exist. If suitable tradespersons were not available, then it is probable the piper carried out repairs himself.
By the turn of the century we know that many bands and individuals were purchasing instruments from manufacturers in Scotland. Musical instrument suppliers like Beggs Ltd also imported bagpipes and other piping and pipe band paraphernalia.
There have been occasions when importing restrictions were imposed on many commodities, including bagpipes. One of these occasions was during and after the Second World War. The demand for the instrument never stopped and to fill this vacuum two Wellington brothers became bagpipe makers.
Neil and Allan McPhee were originally from the Duntroon area of North Otago. By the age of twelve Neil was learning the pipes and soon started playing with the Oamaru Pipe Band. In 1927 he joined the New Zealand Police and moved to the Wellington area where, in 1936 he formed the Wellington Police Pipe Band, now known as the New Zealand Police Pipe Band.
Neil was a top-class piper who won many New Zealand and Provincial Championships. He served on the committees of many piping organisations and was President of the New Zealand Piping and Dancing Association from 1956 to 60. In 1957 he became the inaugural President of Commun Na Piobaireachd (NZ) and held this post until his death in 1969, aged 62 years.
Allan served with the Prison Service before he enlisted in the Army Service Corp at the outbreak of War and saw service in Africa and Italy. After he was demobilised, Allan worked briefly for a supermarket in Wellington.
Neil had been carrying out experiments with different timbers during the War and was making bagpipes by 1942, if not earlier. Ian McKay of Wellington received a set of McPhee bagpipes for Christmas 1942. Interestingly the timber used was jarrah, a very hard wood from Australia.
In 1946 Allan and Neil set up a pipe making business in Riddiford Street, Newtown. Allan did not play the pipes, (although the writer did see him playing the practice chanter) but he became the pipe maker of the business.
In June 1946 Peter Summers of Manakau, north of Wellington, purchased a set paying £60. They were half silver and ivory. Ron Mair of Auckland purchased a set from them at around the same time. Ron states that he made his purchase soon after Neil and Allan moved into their Riddiford Street property and adds that Peter Summers purchased the first set made at these premises and that he purchased the second set. Peter confirms this story.
In 1947 Ian McKay acquired a set that he still plays to this day. They originally had full ivory mounts, but Ian had them converted into a half silver and ivory at a later date. All the three sets mentioned were made from African blackwood. Neil and Alan obtained the ivory from billiard balls that they purchased from secondhand shops around Wellington.
In 1948 Neil resigned from the Police and McPhee’s Ltd moved to 43 Tory Street where they became Highland suppliers. The pipe making business carried on until the early 1950’s when it became difficult to compete with the prices of imported instruments. In 1953 the shop moved to 106 Courtenay Place.
Other pipers who own or have owned McPhee pipes are Don Alley of Christchurch and the late John Gunn of Levin, formerly Wellington. Ian McKay also has a second set that were played by his son Donald some years ago. In the early 1960’s Peter Summers sold his pipes back to the McPhees and they sat in their Courtenay Place shop window for about a year before they were sold. Peter is curious as to who obtained them; perhaps someone reading this article might be playing them?
The Highland supply part of McPhee’s was bought by Colin Addison in 1970. He also acquired the leftover materials from the bagpipe making days and this formed the basis of Colin’s bagpipe manufacturing enterprise over the last twenty-five years.
In the mid 1970’s Colin acquired some lignum vitae logs from a defunct boat builder’s yard, much to the chagrin of the boat building fraternity. Lignum vitae is one of the heaviest woods known and has a very oily texture making it ideal for ship driveshaft bearings. Colin, however, could see a greater need and consequently there are a number of bagpipes around made from this timber. Later Colin imported African blackwood and there are many of his sets made from this timber around New Zealand.
During Colin’s ownership of the business the premises moved three times. Firstly, to Ghuznee Street in about 1978, Cubacade in 1982 and about three years ago he moved to other premises in Cubacade closer to Cuba Mall.
In March 1996 Colin decided that retirement had a lot of appeal and he sold the Highland supply part of his business to Kevin Nelson. The bagpipe making business was sold to the writer in April 1997.
The writer wishes to thank Colin Addison, Ian McKay and Ron Mair and Peter Summers for their assistance in producing this article. Also, two items from the Dominion newspaper; the first published a year or two before Neil’s death and the other and obituary after Neil’s death. Allan died aged 78 two days before New Year 1986.
Since this series of articles about bagpipe repairers and manufacturers started 2 ½ years ago 13 men have had their piping lives exposed in this magazine, albeit briefly. Interviewing the many family members and friends and indeed, the subjects themselves has been most rewarding. Over 30 people have freely given information without which these articles would have been impossible.
Perhaps this willingness to pass on information stems from the attitudes of the very people we were discussing. Many of those interviewed have been the recipients of knowledge and help from these mentors and their way of acknowledging the debt is to, in turn, pass it on to later generations.
These men, many now no longer alive, were very aware of their own mortality and did their utmost to ensure the skills and expertise they had did not die with them. In my last article about George Pilcher I knew from my own knowledge of the man that he was prepared to enlighten anyone who was prepared to listen. One person who gained most from George’s teachings was Graeme Welsh.
Graeme is the son of Scottish born parents who farmed in the south Wairarapa. There was no previous piping history in either his mother or father’s family but when he went to Wairarapa College in 1946 as a 13-year-old, he decided to learn the pipes.
The College had a Pipe Band before the 2ndWorld War and in 1940 it won the B Grade at the Dominion Pipe Band Championships in Wellington. During the war the band’s activities were curtailed and efforts were made to resurrect it soon after. Interestingly, a few weeks after the band won the 1940 B Grade, Airdrie Stewart of Dunedin became a Masterton resident as a 12-year-old especially to receive tuition from Murdo MacKenzie. This lasted for the remainder of that year before he returned to Dunedin.
Graeme’s first tutor was Ewen Cameron. In 1947 he received individual tuition from the late Johnny MacKenzie. Johnny was the son of the Murdo MacKenzie mentioned above. Murdo had a successful competitive piping career in Scotland before arriving in this country; he won the Gold Medal for Piobaireachd at the Northern Meeting in 1898.
Murdo was living in Masterton at the time of his death in about 1946; at that time Johnny took over the family home and was involved in tutoring the Wairarapa Caledonian Pipe Band and the Wairarapa College Pipe Band. This arrangement lasted only a year or two and Johnny moved to the Hutt Valley.
From 1948-49 Graeme received tuition from Jock (John) MacKenzie (1886-1967); Graeme states that Jock was the most influential tutor he had in his formative years. Jock was born in Scotland and was a piper before coming to New Zealand in 1911. He had two children who played the pipes Roddy (1932-1996) and Shirley. In my collection I have some bagpipe music books that once belonged to Jock and Roddy.
In 1950 Graeme left school and took up an apprenticeship as a fitter with New Zealand Railways. Initially he joined the Wellington Police Pipe Band under Pipe Major Neil McPhee. Two years later he left and joined the City of Wellington Pipe Band under the redoubtable Pipe Major Alan Guild. There are many older pipers who have been influenced by Alan Guild and Graeme attests to the huge influence Alan had on his piping.
During Graeme’s time with the Band he saw it win the New Zealand Championships in 1955 and was involved in many of the numerous victories over the next 20 years. In the early 1970’s Graeme stopped competing with the band and became tutor of the City of Wellington No 2.
In 1973 he left the New Zealand Railways and became a tutor at the Technical
Correspondence Institute. Graeme’s time at the TCI coincided with another well-known Wellington piper who has become a bagpipe maker, Bob Everest. Bob will be the subject of an article in this series in the near future.
When Graeme moved to the Hutt Valley in 1960s, he lived just around the corner from George Pilcher and visited George frequently learning the art of reed making and bag making. When I was living in Wellington in the mid-1970s most of the local pipers used Graeme’s bags.
Graeme experimented with reed making for a number of years and was successful enough to have his own band playing them. He tried growing his own cane after receiving advice from Colin Craig in Palmerston North. Colin grew his own cane and had a novel way of drying it; by stacking it under the metal roof of his carport the heat from the sun dried it to perfection.
By the 1980s Graeme discontinued reed making but the making of plastic practice chanters soon took over. He says that he always wanted his own lathe at home but with a young family and mortgage, the cost was hard to justify. The making and selling of the practice chanters have allowed him the luxury having the lathe for his other engineering hobbies.
Graeme advertises frequently in the Pipe band Magazine and one can see that he makes a standard practice chanter along with a long span and child’s half size chanter. He makes ‘dry stocks’ (for protecting chanter reeds) and can make a goose to suit any individual.
Now in his mid-sixties Graeme is still involved with bands and currently helps as a tutor with the Tawa and Districts Pipe Band.
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