Published: April 30, 2005

12-hole punch

Strathmore blackwood pipe chanter
Strathmore bagpipes, Kirriemuir, Scotland
$393 CAD, £170 GBP, $315 USD

Reviewed by Bill Livingstone

There is a flood of new piping products on the market, and this deluge has been going on for some years. A synthetic done reed is developed, and a host of competing versions appears. A pipe bag with internal plumbing comes on the market, and variations on this theme spring up. So too with drone valves, blow pipes, and pipe bag material.

One wonders how all of this is sustainable. The best information I can get from people who have analyzed the market, is that there are about 30,000 pipers worldwide. Now, marketing products to this group has to be a far cry from getting people to buy Telecaster guitars, with hundreds of thousands of young guitar players to target. Still, there must be a sufficient demand to justify the steady stream of new entries into the market, some of which involve significant development costs. One such recent arrival is Murray Henderson’s Strathmore chanter. It comes in Polypenco and blackwood, and it was the blackwood that I tested.

Murray Henderson was involved along with Jim McIntosh in the design and development of the Naill chanter, which pretty much has been the standard for solo pipers for many years. We would therefore expect the Strathmore chanter to be a very good product. It does not disappoint.

First, like other modern chanters, it’s a beautiful-looking article. I have no information on the manufacturing technique, but it has all the earmarks of something built with precision tools. The finish is smooth and lustrous, and all the important bits, that is, the holes, are cleanly and immaculately cut. It’s listed at £170 ($315 USD and $393 CAD).

In testing the chanter, I tried to avoid one-on-one comparisons with others, and simply worked with the Strathmore until I felt comfortable with it. I used a variety of reeds from well-known reed makers and, as most good chanters will do, it accepted these readily. A reed was provided with the chanter, but unfortunately it seemed to have suffered the fate which befalls many reeds during trans-Atlantic travel, and I could not get it to go well. I am sure the maker would have preferred that I use it but, in some ways, having to resort to other reeds merely supported the reliability of the Strathmore.

I followed the dictates of the chanter itself, and sought its natural pitch by establishing a perfect low A to high A octave, without tape on either note. I then applied tape to any other notes that required it to achieve correct intervals. The result was a small application of tape to each note from B to high G.

This picture was pretty much universal for the various reeds tested. Now I know that Murray Henderson, like most chanter-makers, is not likely to be happy to hear that tape is being used. But it is clearly the reality in piping that the perfect reed for a particular chanter is a scarce commodity indeed, and tape is used liberally by almost everyone to gain perfect intervals. Interestingly, when I started playing in Scotland in the early 1970s, there was significant horror expressed at the use of tape: “I would never tape a chanter like that.” Well, that was usually pretty obvious given the abundance of incorrect intervals one heard back then.

What does the Strathmore sound like? It sounds very good indeed. It has a very nice presence, it’s bright and clean, and while it projects well (admittedly a hard quality to measure when playing) there is a warm quality to it which is ideal for solo piping. I could achieve tonal stability over sessions of an hour and a half, and I was very pleased with the quality of the piobaireachd high G.

The pitch generally settled well at 479 cps and it was not a stretch to get 480 or 481 out of it, although the tape coverage had to be increased.

I’m not sure of the target market for the blackwood Strathmore, but since it’s being made in Polypenco as well, I expect the blackwood is aimed at the soloist, and it’s almost certain to hit that target quite well. Soloists have largely eschewed the extreme pitch chase that has gone on in recent years in pipe bands. The 78th Frasers Highlanders won the Worlds in 1987 playing at 474. The top bands in the world today play at 485 and 486. Few soloists today would want this, for while it sounds great in the top bands, it sacrifices of sweetness and warmth of tone are too great for the solo pipe.

A last, if seemingly unimportant, note. How often have we squinted at the space above high G to see the name of the maker? Not so with the Strathmore. The name is prominently displayed on the ball of the chanter, in large deeply engraved letters – a kind of declaration of pride, and well-deserved it is.

The most competitively successful North American piper in history, Bill Livingstone has won the Clasp twice, the Glenfiddich piobaireachd, and just about everything else. He has been the Pipe-Major of the Toronto-based 78th Fraser Highlanders for 25 years. Bill Livingstone is a lawyer by profession and lives in Whitby, Ontario.p|dWhat do you think? We always want to hear from our readers, so please use our comment system to provide your thoughts!

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