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hand crafted bagpipes

The Pipes Are Calling

Ross Calderwood's handmade bagpipes, once a just a weekend hobby,
have become an international sensation.

BY TERRY WILLIAMS

Ross Calderwood is a lucky man and he knows it. I met him on a breezy day at his workshop beside the waters of Loch Alsh, where the light can change a dozen times in an hour and the wind chases white-laced waves between the Kylerhea narrows and the pale arch of the Skye bridge on the northern horizon. Ross's business is bagpipes -- making them, talking about them and playing them when he has time -- and Lochalsh Pipes is the culmination of a musical journey that has dominated most of his life so far.

He started playing the Highland pipes when he was eight years old, with the Boys Brigade Pipe Band in Port Glasgow. Like many youngsters, Ross swapped music for earning a living when he left school, turning his attention from pipe bands to pipework engineering. Then came marriage, children, a home in Yorkshire and a weekly commute across the Pennines to work at Sellafield in Cumbria, where he shared lodgings with Angus, a young man from a small village called Balmacara in Wester Ross. With hindsight, their meeting seems more than coincidental.

Despite his origins, Angus had never learned to play the pipes and he persuaded Ross to give him some lessons. A small advert in the Whitehaven News attracted a few more pupils, including 70-year-old Ronnie.

"Eventually Ronnie and Angus needed a set of pipes," Ross told me. "So we decided that we were just going to make them. One of Ronnie's hobbies was woodturning and I was working in engineering. Our landlord's brother had a joiner's shop up at his farm, which was quite handy. Between us, we made a homemade lathe out of a washing machine motor. It worked alright!"

So Ross added woodturning to his engineering skills. Thanks to the washing machine lathe, Angus and Ronnie got their Highland pipes, but it wasn't long before a different kind of bagpipe caught Ross's attention during his weekends at home.

"I started going to folk festivals in Yorkshire. That was the first time I'd seen these smallpipes. I was intrigued, coming from a Highland piping background. When I saw people playing these pipes in the pubs, I realized they were using Scottish fingering and that I could play them if I learned the bellows."

A generous Christmas gift from his father provided Ross with his own set of smallpipes and he teamed up with a fiddler friend in Cumbria. They started a regular folk session and had a lot of fun, but eventually it was time for a change. Never afraid to take a leap in the dark, Ross and his wife Jane decided to move back north with their family. The house by the sea in Reraig -- the by-the-sea portion of Balmacara village -- seemed perfect.

The full text of this article is available in the Sping 2016 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos © Terry Williams; Ross Calderwood, Lochalsh Pipe