On 24th September, we had the opportunity to speak with Alastair Dunn from RG Hardie. In this interview, Alastair discussed his work with St Kilda Holdings.
The previous two parts of this interview can be found here and here.
Could you explain the structure of the business, Alastair?
St Kilda Holdings is the limited company, and within that we have two trading divisions – Gaelic Themes and RG Hardie. Gaelic Themes are the highland wear division, and RG Hardie are the bagpipes, chanters, accessories and so on. So my role, coming from a pipe band background, is to advise on the uniform side of things for our highland wear, making sure that our kilts and jackets are fit for purpose for pipe band use, and come up with innovations for how these uniforms could benefit playing in a pipe band. We have different styles of jackets, for example, for playing in a pipe band versus wearing at a wedding. On the other side, we have the bagpipes, which is my primary interest, where I’m mostly involved in the sales and marketing, managing production, and making sure that the quality of our instruments are the best they can possibly be.
How did you get involved with the music products industry?
I moved over to Scotland in 2003 and applied for different graduate programs, worked in a bank for a little bit – did the usual thing starting out, hopping about jobs. Then I was approached about getting into the bagpipe industry, and I thought; “Why not?”, so I worked in a shop for about a year. The owner of St Kilda heard about me, and I was asked if I wanted to work for a much bigger company, to take the bagpipe side of the business forward. I joined them and then the year after he bought RG Hardie, which I was put in charge of running at the end of 2005. Hardie’s hadn’t been doing so good at that time, so we revamped the whole business, which took a few years, but we’re now in a very strong position.
I know that we as a company love working with RG Hardie when we get the opportunity to. I also know that you’ve been on some pretty interesting trips with Alun. Do you have any highlights from working with St Kilda and RG Hardie?
Of course, my trip with Alun was great, very interesting to see how things operate. It’s great with pipes to see different cultures – I’ve been to Australia for the Australian Pipe Band Championships. We have a dealer out there who represents us. I’ve been to Germany and a lot of places in Europe, and Brittany where piping is strong. I’ve definitely had a lot of travel experience with the pipes!
Do you find that the style of playing is quite different dependent on where you’re traveling to?
They generally follow the structure that’s been set out in Scotland. It’s quite good that the army has been involved in piping, they have quite a few music books which are very structured. I think it’s good that we have that structure in piping. In Brittany they have a different style of playing. Perhaps you might have different styles, but generally people do follow what happens in Scotland.
Fantastic, and I understand you’ve invested in some new technology recently, particularly for the RG Hardie division of the business?
Yes, we now have laser engraving, which we use to mark our pipes, and also to do some fancy engraving. We utilise CNC machines for producing chanters and parts of the bagpipes. We blend this technology with traditional techniques for doing intricate work, and we employ wood turners to hand finish the wood. More recently we purchased a 3D printer, meaning we’re able to 3D print drone extenders, which changes the bagpipe drone pitch from 486 Hertz to 466, which is B flat.
Why would you want to do that?
The bagpipe is an instrument that’s got higher and higher in pitch over the last 30 years, to gain a competitive edge, and create a brighter sound. This came to be seen as a better sound, but in doing so, we weren’t able to play in the key of B flat anymore. So, you have to set up the instrument slightly differently if you want to play in B flat and with other instruments. So it’s exciting times at Hardie’s – we’ve got a lot of new and interesting things that we’re working on with the introduction of all these technologies and which have also improved the quality…including our Bb chanter!
Yes, that all sounds incredibly exiting! I assume your engineering background comes in handy for such new innovations?
While I don’t operate, design and program the machines, it’s important that I understand the principles behind it and what we’re able to achieve. It’s great to be able to explore ideas and apply them to pipe bands and piping. My engineering background certainly helps with quality control and a way of thinking for running that part of the business. We have engineers and operators managing production, which I oversee to make sure we get the balance right between engineering a good product, but also something that pipers will enjoy playing.
Of course, and obviously as a very accomplished Piper yourself, you can use that experience also…
Yeah, absolutely. You have to do that. Any business has to know their market, they have to know what the customer wants. It’s definitely a benefit.
It would be great to learn about who your typical client is, Alastair, if there’s such a thing!
We supply to Army’s around the world, such as the British army, and then of course through the British Band Instrument Company, we’re servicing the Middle East. There is also the civilian market, we’ve got dealers who’ll be supplying customers at Highland Games and Pipe Band Competitions. We also supply police departments, fire departments, schools, etc. Actually, we do quite a lot with schools in Scotland – there’s a very good programme for suppling bagpipes to schools. They want the bagpipes to be seen like the recorder you might have in an English school. We want the practice chanter and bagpipes in Scotland.
That’s brilliant – is that across all schools in Scotland?
I’d say it’s more directed at the public schools – the private schools are able to fund themselves in that regard. It’s a really good programme because bagpipes are quite an expensive instrument. Even at entry level, you’re talking about £600 or £700 for an instrument, so it’s not always affordable. It’s great that this Trust has been formed to provide these instruments to all parts of Scotland.
So they start on practice chanters in their first lessons then?
Absolutely. Yeah. Again, we’re lucky in Scotland, with so many great pipers and great teachers in schools. One council might have two teachers who visit all the different schools in that area. We have a good structure in place which is important for the future.
Of course – if you want people to be working their way up to participating in these bands, and perhaps competitions, you need them to start somewhere! If they get that as part of their state education, then that’s fantastic!
There’s a competition that they run around March, April time – all the schools descend upon a high school and perform. They’re actually quite innovative, compared to the piping competitions I was speaking about earlier, they play with other instruments as well, in a concert formation. You see the enthusiasm and the comradery, and the structure and discipline that’s required to play in pipe bands. I definitely think it’s a great thing for kids to be involved in.
Most definitely! Do RG Hardie and St Kilda’s sponsor any of these competitions at all?
Yes, we are the sponsor of that event, so we take a stand to show the schools what our newest products are and what we have to offer.
Of course, like most things. What do you think the future of piping looks like? (global pandemic aside!)
Yeah, I think there are actually more people piping that when I first started, the bands have gotten bigger. When I first started to play with Field Marshal, for example, the Corps was only 17, but got up to as many as 26. I think the size is coming down, and I think possibly COVID could make the sizes come down further. We had pipers from all over the world, flying in, so perhaps these things won’t be possible – we don’t know what flight prices are going to be like. I do think the structure of bands will change in that regard. Maybe they’ll become more local, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
I do think there need to be some changes in the pipe band movement. It is getting a bit stale in the sense that what I was doing with the band 20 years ago, there’s not much of a change in what you would see today. So the events that I played in, they are the same today. I think that perhaps the Association and the bands could be a bit more creative in how they present that to the public and the audience.
Are there any key changes that you would like to see surrounding that?
Yeah, changing the format of the medley competition, for example, so that it is a longer and allows pipers to stop and start maybe. You could have small groups within the Corp playing at a time, whereas at the moment, all pipers have to play for the whole performance. Maybe making it 10 minutes long, and allowing a solo Piper to play a piece, or even a quartet, might make it a bit more interesting. Perhaps they could perform in concert formation, with the bands on stage facing the audience. At the moment we stand in a circle, with our backs to the audience. There are reasons for that, which are very good, but I think it would make it really interesting.
Perhaps after COVID, people will be keener to try out new things!
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