Graham Burley’s passion with the pipes began when he was just seven years old however not everyone was convinced it was a love that would last.
“My dad who is English with traces of Scottish in his blood and my mother is Austrian and Greek and they both looked at me jumping up and down wanting to play the bagpipes like I had just stepped out of a UFO,” recalled the Naramata resident who now at age 49 repairs and handcrafts the ancient instruments at his Carmi Road shop, The Burley Bagpipe Company. “But after me insisting my parents eventually found a teacher and basically I’ve been involved in pipe bands and competitions my whole life.”
What triggered the interest in the first place was an album he heard in the ‘70s with the first recording of the song Amazing Grace which had actually made it to mainstream radio but …
“It’s still not really an instrument many kids would pick up and kids that do pick them up are influenced by someone who is a player or their last name is MacDonald and it’s a matter of ethnic pride,” said Burley. “I wasn’t openly teased but I didn’t wear my kilt to school very often and when I was in my late teens and early 20’s I wouldn’t have just openly walked into a bar with my kilt on for no reason regardless of what I was wearing underneath.”
His interest in making bagpipes began after he got a set of Irish bagpipes, which although they sound similar to the Scottish instrument, are quite different in design and a bit of a rarity to find.
Used, badly in need of repair and with the nearest help thousands of kilometres away, it was out of necessity he began fixing them himself: “basically it was like a marooned astronaut,” he said.
Largely self-taught with assistance from his father who is a machinist by trade and still helps out around the shop, Burley began experimenting with constructing bagpipes from scratch, eventually selling his first one in 2003.
“I fell in love with the whole process of making them.
First time I made a chanter, the part that actually produces the melody and when I played it forthe first time, it made this relatively correct little scale it was actually one of the best moments of my whole life,” recalled Burley. “I’m trying to make a full-time go of this right now, it’s been a hobby business for over a decade, but it’s slow going and you’re probably going to see me working occasionally as a Wal Mart greeter to fill in the financial blanks.”
His clients currently include pipers from New York and California and he is talking with officials of the world championship Simon Fraser University Pipe Band about using his creations which would be a giant feather in Burley’s Glengarry bonnet.
“This business is a slow grower, small market and the people in that market are very, very staunch traditionalists and are slow to accept a newcomer, but I am slowly kicking down that door,” he said. “I don’t expect to put all the Scottish makers out of business but I’m hoping that I can start winning more and more hearts in North America.”
Making bagpipes, depending on how fancy the customer wants them, usually takes about 60 hours and can cost anywhere from $2,900 to $12,000 or more for those which have enhancements like engraved silver.
Like the other makers of high end instruments, Burley hand turns the imported African Blackwood which is known as the tree of music because of its tonal qualities to produce the pipes.
“The sound quality comes from the correctness of the internal dimensions, how precisely they’re done and the quality and the age of the wood and how the pipes set up,” said Burley. “I’ve spent countless hundreds of hours experimenting and banging my head on the wall trying to improve stuff.
“It’s definitely a labour of love. I’m sure not a day goes by where my wife doesn’t wish I was a microchip designer,” he said laughing. “She definitely didn’t marry for money.”
When not making or playing his bagpipes, Burley enjoys providing lessons to his students although he admits there are no seven year olds currently enrolled.
At least for now.