A quick Google search for bagpipe jokes turns up a perhaps not surprisingly large cache of material. This one, for example:
Question: What’s the definition of a gentleman?
Answer: Someone who knows how to play the bagpipes but doesn’t.
Fair enough. Bagpipes are not for everyone. But they are for Roddy MacLellan, founder of MacLellan Bagpipes, one of perhaps only three bagpipe makers in the United States, and a relative handful worldwide. Most are based in Scotland. MacLellan is based in Zebulon in eastern Wake County.
In October, the NC Chamber selected the business as one of the “cool things” made in the state.
All joking aside, the bagpipe industry is alive and well.
“After COVID there was a bit of a lull (in sales) because there weren’t as many parades, but it’s picking up now,” says MacLellan, noting that the bagpipe is among the 10 most popular instruments to play. MacLellan has a one-year backlog for its custom-built instruments that range in price from $2,000 for a basic model to $10,000 for pipes with custom silver work and other flourishes.
The popularity of this nearly 1,000-year-old instrument was on full view at the 2023 World Pipe Band Championship held in Glasgow, Scotland, which featured 190 bands from 15 countries, up from 146 bands the year before, according to a story in the Piping Press. Those sending bands included Australia, Canada, the U.S., Israel, Malaysia and Zimbabwe. There is even an International Bagpipe Day – March 10, with events held around the world to mark the occasion.
A roundabout journey
As seems fitting, MacLellan came to bagpipe making in something of a roundabout way. Born in Glasgow, he trained as a silversmith at an art school there before immigrating to the U.S. in 1980. He settled in Montclair, New Jersey, plying his trade for customers that included Tiffany’s and the Sotheby’s art auction house. He then moved into fashion photography for a time. In 1993, MacLellan joined a pipe band in nearby New York City as a “way to get back to my heritage,” he says. Needing an instrument, he built his own set of bagpipes and found that the one he made was as “good as anything they were importing.”
Soon enough, he was building pipes for others, and doing the work on a full-time basis. A series of moves down the East Coast eventually landed MacLellan in Monroe around 2010, where he built and sold bagpipes for more than a decade. In 2022, he relocated to Zebulon’s main drag, North Arendell Avenue, where he has a storefront showroom, a shop in the back, and a frisky boxer named Isla who greets visitors at the door.
The impetus for the intrastate move came in part through his work with Raleigh’s Wake & District, one of the biggest pipe bands on the East Coast with about 80 kilted bagpipers and drummers. MacLellan is the group’s featured supplier of pipes.
“Roddy is probably one of the top three bagpipe makers in the world,” says Joe Brady, a former Chicago policeman who founded Wake & District in 2006. “We’re incredibly lucky to have him here.”
MacLellan works mostly alone, cranking out about six bagpipes per month. “I’ve kept it small because I like to be hands-on,” he says. On the shelves of his shop are the raw materials of bagpipe construction, including a supply of African black wood, prized for its denseness and its ability to resist moisture. Fourteen pieces of this wood are meticulously turned and drilled by hand to make the body of a bagpipe.
“I had the benefit of learning hand skills in Scotland, but not many people do that anymore,” says MacLellan. “Most people work with computers. They don’t make things. We’re losing those skills.”
Along with Wake & District, MacLellan is attempting to secure his legacy by setting up an apprenticeship program, but it hasn’t been easy. Making a bagpipe requires both meticulous craftsmanship and dedication to the instrument. “No one is going to get rich making bagpipes,” says Brady. “It’s more a labor of love.”
To somewhat paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, a destiny that leads a Scotsman from Glasgow to New Jersey and on to a bagpipe shop in Zebulon, population 10,000, may seem a strange one. But as long as the 67-year-old MacLellan remains at work there, North Carolina will stand at the epicenter of the craft.
And that’s cool. ■