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McGillivray Piping
Jim McGillivray
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Highland Pipes, Selection and Fit

Acquiring a set of Highland pipes is an investment in both money and time. For a lot of people, it's downright scary. Classic old pipes are still desirable for many, but recent advances in reed- and pipe-making technology have leveled the playing field in terms of drone quality.

C.E. Kron Half Silvers

Pipes made last week by a top-flight maker can equal the sound of pipes turned in 1900. And of course with new pipes you have a guarantee against defects or cracking. Craftsmanship, reliability, affordability and service are now as important as sound quality when you are selecting pipes.

I have chose the makers I carry for their combination of superb craftsmanship and rich, steady tone as well as the willingness of these companies to work with me to keep my clients satisfied. I  know these instruments well. I am in frequent contact with with these makers to discuss their products and how they are being received by my clientele. 

I examine, set up and play all pipes personally before they go to you, making sure they have the reed strength and tonal characteristics you have requested or which I feel are exceptional. I make sure bag size and blowpipe length are right for you. I'm a stickler for good tone and an easy-playing pipe and I will not send out a set of pipes that I would not happily and comfortably play myself.

I have extensive experience in setting up instruments for beginners, bandsmen and soloists. I have played pipes for over 40 years and am a 30-year veteran of workshops, summer schools and private tuition. My career is that of a full-time piper and teacher of bagpipes at St. Andrew’s College, a private boys’ school in Aurora, Ontario. The boys in my band play pipes by all of the makers I carry, so I know intimately the characteristics of all these pipes. I believe my skills in setting up instruments to play well for pipers at any level are second to none.

Selecting a bagpipe can be a daunting experience, but I try to make it much easier and I have fun doing it. I hope you will enjoy working with me.

You can Email or phone me if you have questions, but below are some important points about selecting the bagpipe you want and making sure it is the right physical fit for you.


"Received the pipes. Played them last night. They sound wonderful. I should have done this sooner."
Ruth Cunningham, Owen Sound, Ontario
Naill DN4a

Bagpipe Selection
Piper William Cumming
Piper William Cumming, Piper to the Laird of Grant, painted by Richard Watt in 1714. By the way, what's 'wrong' with this picture

All of the Highland pipes I offer are first-class instruments. If they weren't, I wouldn't carry them. Their tone and steadiness are superb and they are extremely well crafted. Prices vary according to the mounts you choose. These can include imitation ivory, nickel, stainless steel, plain silver, engraved silver, woolly mammoth ivory, legal elephant ivory and even more exotic materials. The mounts have no effect on the sound of the instrument. The way the instrument is made, tonally speaking, does not vary with mounts selected, though there is no doubt the maker takes a bit more care in wood selection for a higher end bagpipe.

This means that after you have decided which make of instrument you want (I can help you with this) you need to figure out how much you can spend and then how you want your bagpipe to look. If you are getting started or are on a limited budget, then the less expensive options may be for you. If you are looking for a lifetime bagpipe and have the money to spend, then you may wish to consider engraved silver mounts since most pipers eventually covet a set of engraved silver-mounted pipes.

If you would love to have silver but are on a more limited budget, it may help to know that the resale value of blackwood bagpipes is very good. It is not unusual for a piper to sell a set of blackwood pipes made in the last ten years for 85 percent of the original purchase price. So it's okay to get yourself started with a more affordable set while you save for your dream set somewhere down the road.

Jim performing at Loon Mountain Games around 2003
This is me playing at Loon Mt. Games around 2002. I stand 5'5" and am playing an 8.5" blowpipe and a Ross extra-small bag.

One thing you can be assured of: when your pipes leave my piping studio, they will be set up immaculately, no matter what price you have paid. The bag and blowpipe will be the right size for you whether you are a beginner or a professional. I want you to be able to take your pipes from the shipping box, put them together and play a tune comfortably, not worry about why they won't go or why they are so hard to blow.

Your options for bag type are fairly limited, and deliberately so. I can get you any bag you want, but I prefer to provide synthetic bags for my clients because after having tried every bag type over the last 40 years, these are what I prefer to play. As someone who has taught bagpipes now for decades, I believe synthetic bags make our piping lives much easier because the instrument works much more reliably.  There is no leather seasoning to worry about, and the option of having a zipper in the bag is extremely useful, especially for moisture control . Whether you choose the Ross Bag -- a lightweight fabric bag -- or the Bannatyne -- a bag with a hide feel, but lined with fabric -- depends on your preference. Most pipers are happy with the fabric bag, but some who played leather in the past prefer the added weight of the lined hide bag under their arm.

But if you do decide you would like a real hide, sheepskin, or some other bag I don't show on my site, talk to me about it and I'll get it for you.


Bag Size and Blowpipe Length

This section is extremely important in buying a bagpipe, and I take great care in helping pipers make these decisions correctly.
Silver mounted blowpipe
A blowpipe that is too long will make piping uncomfortable or even painful, and can cause the bag to slip down under the arm.

There is a long-standing myth in piping that you should play the largest bag you can possibly get your arm around because it will make your pipes easier to blow.  Yikes!!!!  This may well be the worst piping advice ever given. Here's the truth:

The more comfortable your bag is, and the more of your left forearm is free from pressing on the bag the easier your pipes will be to play and the better you will play.

The bag should fit under your arm with almost no visible space between your underarm and the top of the bag. If this in not the case, you will not have a secure grip on the instrument, the bag will slide down, and your left arm may go numb.  Sound like a recipe for good piping??

While many people say that a 'slippery bag cover' is the major reason for their bag sliding down, the real culprits are generally either a bag that is too big, a blowpipe that is too long, or both. These are common problems, and many manufacturers and dealers don't address them. I do.
Jim at St. Andrew's College 100th anniversary
Note how natural my posture is, and how much of my left forearm is free.

It takes a little more thought and a little more time and discussion, but it is almost the most important thing we will talk about. Points like this raise another issue: be wary of prices that are too good to be true. These dealers often have little knowledge and little time to spend with you. The best price is of little use if your hobby is miserable for the next year because things are happening (or not happening) with your new pipes that you don't understand or can't fix.

Playing a bagpipe that is perfectly sized for you and set up in great playing condition pays dividends for the rest of your piping career.

Below are my recommended bag sizes and blowpipe lengths according to height. Blowpipe length is measured from where the projecting mount on the blowpipe meets the stock (the top of the hemp) to the tip of the mouthpiece. Note that Ross bags tend to run a bit large. This chart is just a guide; I like to talk to my clients about sizing needs:

5' 2" or shorter
Ross extra-small
8" or less blowpipe

5' 10" to 6'
Ross small or medium
All other makes: medium
Blowpipe length 10" to 11"

5' 3" to 5' 6"
Ross extra-small
All other makes: small
Blowpipe length 8" to 9"

6' to 6' 4"'
Ross medium or large
All other makes: medium or large
Blowpipe length 11"

5' 7" to 5' 8"
Ross small or extra-small
All other makes: small
Blowpipe length 9" to 9.5"

6' 4" or taller
Ross medium or large
All other makes: large
Blowpipe length 12"

5' 9" to 5' 10"
Ross small
All other makes: small or medium
Blowpipe length 10"



Please note that this chart is not written in stone. I have one piping friend with a slim build who stands 6' 4" and has always been very comfortable with a small bag.


Other decisions?

There is one major decision left in selecting your pipes: which chanter would you like? You might wonder why you woudn't just play the chanter that comes with the pipes. Well, the truth is, the chanter is the most challenging part of the instrument to make, and some bagpipe makers do it much better than others. Don't let anyone tell you that certain chanter makes go best with certain drones. Pick the drones you like and the chanter you like and stick them together! You may just want a polypenco chanter; you may want blackwood. There is lots written about this elsewhere on this site, and I'm happy to talk with you about it as well.

Finally, you'll need to decide on the colours of your bag cover and trim, and your drone cords and whether or not you need a case with your pipes. Follow the hyperlinks!