Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of CDs, pipes, etc…

McGillivray’s Aurora Chanter

A friend of the blog has had Jim McGillivray send me one of his polypenco Aurora JM chanters to try out before sending it on to them. Jim has had a hand in designing several chanters, including the CE Kron Medalist and The Gael from Jim’s previous collaboration with Roddy MacLellan. The Aurora JM comes out of the shop of Dunbar bagpipe makers, which is consistent with all the work they do for him restoring pipes and making reproductions of old pipes for his piping retail business. The Aurora JM is different than both the Medalist and the Gael.

The Aurora JM is designed to be a flatter chanter (like the Gael in that respect), and it accomplishes that being a full 4 Hz flatter than a Shepherd MK 3, which I consider to be the flattest chanter used by pipe bands. Where my MK 3 comes in at 479 Hz with a Shepherd Bb reed, the Aurora comes in at 475 Hz. As an aside, this particular Bb reed is unlike my other Shepherd Bb reeds which actually tune to Bb in my Shepherd Orchestral chanter; this one is a few Hz sharp of Bb. The sharpest I got the Aurora was with an easy Gilmour playing at 25″ H2O and even then, I only got the pitch up to 480 Hz.

I found the finger spread easy to adapt to. Below is a photo with the Shepherd MK 3 on the left, Aurora JM in the middle, and a Colin Kyo on the right. You’ll notice the Aurora has a longer spread between the D and E holes, but the spread on each hand is normal, the same as the Shepherd, slightly longer than the Kyo.

I found the E to be a tad sharp and D to be a tad flat; C# and B were also flat for some reeds. After playing the chanter for 3 days in a row, I might be inclined to move B, C#, and D up the chanter a tad, leaving low A where it is. There’s plenty of room considering the gap between E and D; though that would increase the bottom hand finger spread. But, it’s not my chanter, in any sense of the phrase. One could also simply tape low A down to the rest of the notes, and that’s exactly what I did for the 3/5 reeds that had sharp low As to the rest of the bottom hand. Every reed had tape on high G.

Now for some audio. All recordings are of a set of 1950s Hendersons with X-TREME regular drone reeds; The Zoom H4n Pro field recorder is off to my left at head height. I haven’t been playing all summer due to travel and being home with the kids all day. So, my fingers aren’t in the greatest form. I particularly hate how tight my doublings are; sometimes the second grace note is non-existent. Kids are headed back to school in a few days so I’ll have to resume a more routine practice schedule once they’re out of the house. We start with recordings of the 25″ H2O easy Gilmour at 480 Hz. You’ll notice my drone reeds are set for a harder reed.

Hector the Hero – a tune I usually avoid because it’s close to being over done, but sometimes you just gotta play one of James Scott Skinner’s classics

Lark in the Morning, King of the Pipers, and Troy’s Wedding – two Irish jigs, the second of which is arranged by myself for highland pipes and a past tune of the month), followed by a popular jig by Colin Magee

Paul K’s, Battle of the Braes, and Glenlyon – a set of tunes I got from Fin Moore at a smallpipe workshop a few years ago

Next we’ll have some recordings with the Shepherd Bb reed which eased some during the session, ultimately settling at 29″ H2O, so it needed a wee push to get the drones in as well. This combination resulted in having tape on E and high G and pitched around 475 Hz.

Mrs. Duncan MacFadyen, Duncan Lamont, and Drumlithie – an MSR comprised of Donald MacLeod tunes

John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage, The Doune of Invernochty, and Roderick MacDonald – another MSR set, with tunes by William Lawrie, William Grant, and again, Donald MacLeod

Burden of Innocence and Happy Days – a tune I wrote followed by a tune any Battlefield Band fan would recognize

Eileen MacDonald and Hen’s March – off key highland jigs!

For comparison the following recording was made right after those above with the same Shepherd Bb chanter reed, but set in a Shepherd MK 3 chanter. This chanter has tape on high G (half the hole!), D, and C#.

Song for Winter, Hen’s March, and Eileen MacDonald – again, a Shepherd MK 3 chanter with the Shepherd Bb reed used in the recordings just above.

Returning to the Aurora JM chanter, I tried a third reed the third day. I pulled a non-ridge cut Sound Supreme out of my solo Colin Kyo chanter. It was not as good of a match as the Gilmour or Shepherd Bb reeds above. I had to tape low A (a last resort for me) and D and C# were still a tad flat, though all the tape came off the E; so tape only on high G and low A. This was a long session as well and I think my bag is due for another seasoning as moisture seems to be accumulating on the chanter reed. Most noticeable was the pitch that fell from 475 to 473 Hz as the reed got wetter. This reed plays a little harder than the previous at 31″ H2O.

Bloody Fields of Flanders, Lord Lovat’s Lament, Flett from Flotta, Battle of Waterloo, and 51st Highland Division – started off with the melody chosen by Hamish Henderson for his song, Freedom Come All Ye, then worked in some 4/4 marches including a true to timing as written rendering of Flett from Flotta (note the high A quarter note in the ending phrase)

Kantara to El Arish, Murray Huggins’ Sweet Chanter, and Murdo MacGillivray of Eoligarry – Kantara is a tough tune for me, so I play it as often as I can, the strathspey is my own composition, and Murdo was a past tune of the month with MacGillivray in the title!

The Rock and Hollerin’ for Haggis – two hornpipes by Texas composers, and both tunes were previous tunes of the month (so sheet music is available on the Free Tune Page, as are my compositions and a bunch of other stuff)

Kalabakan, The Sister, and Canongate Twitch – a medley quickly becoming a standard for me, the last tune being yet another tune of the month

Turns out the wife was still at work and my daughter was, thankfully, STILL standing in for me on the Nintendo Switch playing with her little brother, so despite how tired I was from the first set of tunes on the Sound Supreme reed above, I figured I needed to knock out a couple more reeds before the weekend zapped my time. I would certainly like to get this chanter on to its real owner. So, next we have a Troy/McAllister reed. I had to tape low A to get it down to the flatter D, C#, and B. No tape on the E here, so just tape on high G and low A. I had modified this Troy reed at some point in the past, taking some cane off the very tips in an effort to bring the high G down (I don’t recall this working, oh well). It did, however, make it one of the batch I received actually playable, haha. The other two I can’t even make squawk. My McAllister reeds come from back when I was trying the RJM chanter, it being the reed that Roddy MacLeod prefers and it also brought the flat D of that chanter up to the rest of the scale.

The Blackbird and Hilton McLaurin’s Jig – another tune of the month (this one was an Irish tune I rearranged for the pipes) and a tune I wrote for my father (the 2nd tune I ever wrote, and still one of my favorites and best, I think)

Lament for the Old Volunteers (74th’s Slow March) – another tune of the month, a slow one this time

Dusky Meadow and The Foxhunter – a Cape Breton strathspey and an Irish reel, both arranged by myself and past tunes of the month

Last, we have uno recording with a Husk reed because I forgot to turn the recorder on. Doh! Again, the low A is taped down to the flatter D, C#, and B. This 32″ H2O reed came in at 473 Hz. Just a tad of tape on E and the most tape on high G of the 5 reeds tested (1/3 of the hole).

Rusty Gully (Wee Totem Fogg) – a common border tune that was recently a tune of the month


  1. The high G seems well controlled with regard to pitch. While every reed needed tape on high G, what chanter doesn’t?! The fact that I never needed to cover more than 1/3 of the hole AT MOST says a lot in my opinion!
  2. The chanter is definitely flatter than most (non-Bb) chanters, coming in at an average 474 Hz with robust 30″+ H2O reeds. Really, it is just as flat as many Bb chanters which don’t actually get to 466 Hz unless you have the right reed, though I believe the Aurora will not get to Bb naturally, that is without taping of the bottom hand after pulling the reed out to get the high A to the Bb reference.
  3. I believe the D, C# and B are consistently flat enough that you’ll likely find yourself taping the low A down to their pitch, depending on the reed.
  4. The finger spread for both hands is normal. It isn’t the smallest, but certainly not the largest.
  5. Low G was generally very well pitched, with only one reed coming in about 10 cents sharp of the -31 cent tuning required by just intonation (I don’t recall if it was the Troy/McAllister or the Husk), but this is easily corrected by taping a tone hole or two (though I did not because I was already into recording and I’m lazy).
  6. F# was also well pitched. I never put tape on it for any of the 5 reeds and it sounded good to me. I never put tape on high A if I can help it, and it never needed it here.
  7. The reed seat is threaded. You’ll love this feature when fine tuning a reed means a simple clockwise twist further in. You’ll hate it when you twist a reed out and it pulls the bottom wraps of hemp off the reed and you have to rewrap it entirely losing all track of where the reed was sitting before.

October 2018 Tune of the Month: Ducks on the Mill Pond

Crazy (and long) post that includes the following: 1. Tune of the Month 2. The Spanish Peaks Piping Retreat 3. A Cocuswood David Glen highland pipe 4. Shepherd Bb chanter 5. Accidentals 6. Tunes outside the highland piping tradition. Whew!

This was my fifth year attending the Spanish Peaks Piping Retreat organized by Jim Conley in conjunction with the Spanish Peaks International Celtic Music Festival in La Veta, Colorado. The retreat/workshop focuses on the playing of Scottish smallpipes. Returning as an instructor this year was Tim(othy) Cummings who gave us a couple more Appalachian tunes to augment our repertoire from the year before; additionally Tim gave me a couple “challenge” tunes which have been quite fun and in line with my desire to increase my own repertoire beyond the highland tradition, both of these tunes can be heard below. A short plug for Tim: he is an awesome smallpipe instructor, music collector, and all around nice guy. Any workshop with him will be worthwhile. The band Heron Valley was over from Scotland playing at the festival and so their piper, Euan McNab, also taught a few tunes in the Scottish tradition when he had time to escape his performance responsibilities. What a great, young band.

The tune of the month for October 2018 is a tune Tim gave us during the retreat: Ducks on the Mill Pond. This is a great little hornpipey reel from the Blue Ridge Mountains here in the U.S. Sheet music can be obtained from Tim for $1.00. Just uno dinero. He’s got a bunch of other tunes that can also be purchased for that paltry sum, some of which are featured further down in this post. Note that this and some other sheet music obtained from Tim’s website comes with two versions of the tune, a simple melody that accompanies the included lyrics and also a “hoedown” version; I am playing only the hoedown version. Listen here on my new-to-me 1910ish David Glen cocuswood bagpipe (more on that below):

Ducks on the Mill Pond and The High Drive (Gordon Duncan)

A tune that surfaced during a jam session at the retreat was The High Drive by Gordon Duncan, but all mayhem broke loose when we reached the last line of the tune, as it seemed I was at odds with a few of the other versions out there. Without realizing it when I learned the tune from the music book “Gordon Duncan’s Tunes”, the last line has 5 bars! The others did a good job of having me question my sanity but upon returning home from the retreat I was vindicated by the sheet music, muahahahahahaha. You can hear Stuart Liddell play the extra bar as well in this youtube clip:

On to the 1910ish cocuswood David Glen bagpipe. CITES developments have made me nervous for a while so when this pipe came up for sale I jumped on it. It comes with the original chanter which is mostly for provenance now as I haven’t found a reed that doesn’t squeal yet (a thought just hit me, maybe a border pipe reed?). The pipe was located in Canada and had 2 rings that were still ivory along with the chanter sole. I had the seller ship the pipes to Dunbar to have the ivory removed and replaced with Mexican royal ebony, also known as katalox. I think Rick at Dunbar did a great job, at a great price, and at great speed. The saying about car repair, “you can have it done fast, well done, and cheap; but you can only pick two” doesn’t apply to Dunbar bagpipes, you get ALL THREE.



I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with the pipes, but they don’t seem the most forgiving when it comes to drone reed selection. I’ve got a set of Rocket reeds in there now and they seem to go quite well. Canning reeds also seem to go well. For whatever reason, a lot of drone reeds just shut off. I’ve tied them into an old L&M bag and since my stash of Airtight smelled more gross than I remember a new bottle smelling, I’ve settled for seasoning the bag with 100% vegetable glycerin which turns out to be very runny. During the recording session I actually had some leak out around the chanter while I was playing! So I drained the bag a second time afterwards. Perhaps I need to get some more Airtight ordered? The drones come in right around concert Bb, 466 Hz, so I’ve paired them with a Shepherd “Orchestral” chanter, which is a solid Bb chanter. I’m playing a previous model Husk chanter reed. What will be obvious from the remaining recordings in this post is how well this chanter and reed combination plays the C and F natural accidentals!

You may have noticed I have not been posting much recently, save for the Tunes of the Month. I have been playing a lot of bagpipes in my new found unemployment, but not just highland bagpipes. In addition to Scottish smallpipes and border pipes, I am also playing in a border pipe ensemble using Jon Swayne border pipes in G. I understand they are English border pipes in G with some French chanter design influences, so I call them the Frenglish pipes. The chanter has the back thumb hole for the C natural (in highland terminology), and also plays the F natural and G sharp accidentals really well, in addition to having high B, C, C#, and D readily accessible in the next octave. This pipe has done a wonderful job making my fingers do new and crazy fingerings. Our repertoire is mostly English, French, Breton, and Galician. Here I am playing a Galician tune:

I also have a Seivane gaita chanter in Do (C) whose cork-like tenon wrapping fits perfectly into my 1960s Sinclair chanter stock whose drones I have tuned all the way up to concert C (Redwood bass reed, single Colin Kyo tenor reed, other tenor is plugged). Here I am playing a Galician tune:

Back to the highland pipes, influenced by my playing of non-highland bagpipes, I’ve got some more tunes for you on the new-to-me Glen pipes. First up is another Appalachian tune Tim gave us at the 2017 retreat followed by a jig I picked up from a Facebook video of uilleann piper Tiarnan O Duinnchinn. The Appalachian tune, Cluck Old Hen, utilizes C natural instead of our usual C#, which is fingered with the ring finger down instead of the pinkie. I play the song arrangement through twice followed by the hoedown version twice through. The jig that follows has no accidentals outside our normal A mixolydian scale, but it is also about a chicken so I figured they’d go well together despite being different time signatures.

Cluck Old Hen and When the Cock Crows it is Day

Next we have some bourrées. The first one is in 3/8 and is one of Tim’s challenge tunes. The rest are in some version of common time from the border pipe ensemble repertoire. You’ll hear heavy use of both the C and F naturals in the first and third tunes. You’ll also hear a mistake in each of the first three tunes, but the fourth managed to go unscathed.

Bourrees – the first one, “Calarem, calarem pas“, can also be bought from Tim’s website.

Lastly are some 3/2 hornpipes. If you have Gary West’s “Hinterlands” album he plays this set, turns out. However, I got the tunes from other sources. The first tune I’ve heard more recently in this very entrancing video on Facebook:

Comments in the video indicated the tune is called “Came Ye O’er Frae France”, however, what sheet music I can find doesn’t match what is played in the video so I transcribed it from the video (I have doubts about my transcription so I’ll have to work on it a bit more to make sure). I’m just gonna call it “A Lancashire Hornpipe”. Let’s just say, low G to C natural is tricky due to the ring finger and pinkie switch. The second tune is another of Tim’s challenge tunes: Mr. Preston’s Hornpipe. You may notice a dearth of gracenotes, which are less common in other piping traditions, which is just my excuse for sight reading the tunes and throwing gracenotes in there when I have the spare brain capacity to do so.

A Lancashire Hornpipe and Mr. Preston’s Hornpipe