Playing respects — Bagpiper ushers rare, antique pipes on to happier home

By Jenny Neyman

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Steve Adams plays his set of Dunbar bagpipes at his home in Kenai on Saturday. He recently sold an antique set of bagpipes to a world-renown piper.

Redoubt Reporter

There can be no doubt of Steve Adams’ bagpiping hobby or near 100 percent Scottish heritage when visiting his home in Kenai. The Adams coat of arms hangs on a wall inside the door, leading down a hallway lined with photos of Adams piping in full traditional kilt and regalia. In the living room, the fireplace mantel is lined with Scottish knickknacks and plaid paraphernalia — bottles of Scottish beer, more photos and bagpiping figurines — including a Santa sporting a red, white and green tartan, and a tiny plastic Smurf with a red hat and yellow pipes. On another shelf is an antique apple doll made by Adams’ grandmother when he first started piping 40 years ago.

Given all that, Adams should be well aware of the old Scottish saying, “The worth of a thing is best known by the want of it.” Even though that proved to be the case when he sold his set of antique bagpipes recently, the phrase hadn’t crossed his mind as the situation developed. Nor did the equally pertinent Scottish saying, “One good turn deserves another.”

Adams’ enchantment with the bagpipes has been long-lived, but it wasn’t instantaneous. Growing up in New England, he once had a girlfriend who piped, but wasn’t interested in learning about the instrument himself at the time. He played French horn and was accepted into the Armed Forces School of Music. After a tour with the Navy, he attended a music conservatory in New England, though he didn’t graduate from college.

On a Sunday visit home he tagged along with his dad, who was going to bagpiping practice with the Shriners club he had just joined. The crowd was a boisterous bunch, as bagpipe bands tend to be.

“Piping is kind of interesting in the fact that you get two or three pipers together and give them an hour and they’re going to be arguing about something,” Adams said.

Adams neglected to mention his musical background, and the Shriners started betting him he couldn’t play the pipes.

“I knew dang well I could learn to play it if I wanted to,” Adams said.

Adams has a collection of Scottish and bagpiping knickknacks and figurines, many given as gifts over his 40 years of piping.

What he didn’t realize at the time was what a large part in his life the bagpipes would come to play. Before long Adams was involved in four different pipe bands, with some piping-related activity happening every night of the week. Adams’ father started researching the family’s genealogy and discovered both sides were nearly 100 percent Scottish, which just added another dimension to Adams’ interest.

“I like the sound of them,” he said. “Pipes are something that are just really unusual. There are just nine notes. There’s no sharps, no flats, no major, no minor scales. It’s nine notes only, but it’s very intricate and very difficult because of the fingerings that are involved.”

Adams moved to Alaska in 1980. He lived in Juneau for six years and played with a pipe band there, and lived in Anchorage for six months and played with a band there, although he vowed to never live in Anchorage or Fairbanks after that. He moved to the central Kenai Peninsula, taking a job at the Soldotna Post Office 15 years ago, and became the area’s sole performing bagpiper.

There’s another piper in Homer, but in this area, any need or desire for a bagpiper means calling Adams. He’s performed at weddings, funerals, the Kenai Performers’ production of “Brigadoon” a few years ago, and various fundraisers, parades and other community events. Last week he played at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof for a send-off party for Iditarod musher Wattie McDonald, of Scotland. McDonald’s entire family flew over from Scotland to see him off to the trail, with all the men wearing kilts, including Adams, he said.

Adams has tried for years to renounce his solo status, giving lessons and trying to drum up interest in the bagpipes.

“The pipes, in my opinion, are so much fun when you’re involved with a group,” Adams said.

But they’re challenging to learn to play, and he’s found few students willing to put in the time and effort required to learn them.

“I used to get on the radio just looking for people who are interested in learning in the hopes of getting a pipe band going down here, but there’s just never been enough interest,” he said. “A lot of people will come to me and say, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to learn.’ Well, they always wanted to learn, but they didn’t want to put any work and effort into it.”

Of those who are willing to work at it, even fewer develop a proficiency at it.

Adams' grandmother made this antique apple doll for him when he started playing bagpipes about 40 years ago.

“One young lady could learn a tune and memorize it in a week, but she could never, ever coordinate breathing and squeezing,” he said. “She could never learn and I tried every trick in the book. She finally threw her hands in the air in disgust, and it was something she really, really wanted to do and she worked hard at it.”

In recent years Adams has found himself considering retirement. Traveling to Anchorage or Homer to pipe with others is a hassle, and the requests from community organizations wanting free piping are starting to get out of hand, he said. A kilt alone costs $800, and oftentimes piping engagements necessitate taking time off work.

“When I get kilted up and go marching down the street I’m wearing a lot of money, and I put in a lot of time and effort,” Adams said. “It’s a unique service and I get a little tired of people just expecting that I’ll do it without being compensated.”

He’s got a crown on one tooth that pops off an average of once a year, due to the way he holds his mouthpiece. The crown costs a couple hundred dollars to replace. He also quit smoking three years ago and put on some weight, making wearing his kilt an uncomfortable affair.

Enough was getting to be enough, and Adams figured he’d at least semiretire. In September he decided to send his pipes out to be reconditioned before he relegated them to storage in the garage. They’re an antique set of pipes, made by Peter Henderson Limited in Glasgow, Scotland, sometime between 1905 and 1910. He bought the pipes after he moved to Alaska and his original set disappeared.

He’d broken a piece on his old set when he lived in Anchorage, and arranged with a retired Alaska State Trooper to bring the pipes to a workshop in Scotland while he was on vacation there. But the repairman was going through bankruptcy at the time, and packed up and moved to Australia without warning.

“It was very irritating at the time, but kind of fun. I’ve got letters from the Glasgow city police and all these other letters with cool letterheads on them and coats of arms. But the bagpipes were never found,” Adams said.

He bought the Henderson set from a classified ad in a Scottish magazine. They were nice-sounding pipes, bought for about $1,000, but Adams didn’t think they were particularly special. Bagpipes can range from $700 up to $10,000, but the difference in price mostly has to do with ornamentation, not instrument quality.

“You can get them with all sterling silver fittings and engraved everywhere. All this additional pretty stuff, but it is just pretty stuff. The least expensive set of pipes with no ornamentation at all are going to sound just as good as the $10,000 pipes, except for competition performance,” Adams said.

Adams explains the function of the chanter on a set of bagpipes.

He contacted Ron “Ringo” Bowen, of The Bagpipe Place in Delefield, Wisc., to recondition the pipes. Bowen offered to appraise them for an extra $25. Adams had done some research on eBay, comparing his set to descriptions of other pipes for sale. He estimated his may be worth around $3,000, but figured $25 was a small price to pay to find out for sure.

Off the pipes went, and Adams soon heard back from Bowen, in a scene reminiscent of PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow.”

“He sends me this long e-mail listing every little thing on them and I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy, I can see where this is headed,’” Adams said.

The pipes were made from cocuswood, an exotic hardwood from the Caribbean, which is quite rare today, Bowen wrote. The projecting mounts, rings and bushings were all made of elephant ivory.

“The bagpipe is in overall excellent condition for an instrument of this age. Henderson bagpipes enjoy an excellent reputation among the most serious competition pipers worldwide and this bagpipe is an excellent example of Henderson instruments,” Bowen wrote.

Adams was shocked to read the appraised value — over twice what he had thought they were worth. He was even more surprised to be contacted soon thereafter by James “Jim” McGillivray of Aurora, Ontario, one of the premier pipers in the world. He’s won every award there is to win in bagpiping, Adams said.

Bowen had told McGillivray about Adams’ pipes, and McGillivray said he’d like to buy them for his own personal use. Adams hadn’t been planning on selling, but started giving the matter some serious thought. They dickered over price a bit, bandying a number that was less than Bowen’s appraisal, but Adams couldn’t help but consider factors other than dollars.

“I’m thinking in my mind, ‘You know, the pipes sit in my garage year-round. I go out and pipe a wedding maybe once a year, I do a couple funerals and that is all I do with them. And here is a world-class piper that wants them for his own personal use,’” Adams said.

He agreed to sell.

“I know darn well I could have put the pipes on eBay or put the word out to the piping community in the world and I could have gotten the appraised value for them,” Adams said. “I can be fairly cheap, and I definitely like to go for the best deals I can. On the same token if I’m selling something I want to get every penny I can out of it. But I ended up getting more money for the pipes than I thought that they were worth to begin with, and I still sold them for considerably less than what they were really worth. But the bottom line is that they’re now being played every day by somebody who definitely knows their value and appreciates what they are.”

With the sale agreed to, Adams found he couldn’t stand not having bagpipes around, just in case.

“Even though I was thinking about ending the piping, I didn’t want to end it to the point where I didn’t have a set of pipes. I’ve never been without a set of pipes for 40 years. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling for me,” he said.

McGillivray told Adams of a bagpipe retailer to call and say that McGillivray referred him. Adams hoped to get a set of plastic Dunbar pipes. Nothing fancy, reasonably priced, but with good sound quality.

After hearing the story of how Adams sold his antique pipes to McGillivray, the store owner decided to follow another Scottish witticism, “Fair exchange is no robbery.”

“He says, ‘You know, I do not believe that there are many people in this world that would do what you just did. Because of that, I’m going to make you a hell of a deal,’” Adams said.

With all said, done, swapped and shipped, Adams still holds out hope that someday there will be a central peninsula pipe band with which to play. In the meantime, he’s still got a set of bagpipes to pull out of retirement whenever the mood strikes him, and he’s got an interesting tale to pull out with them.

“It just seemed like a cool story. It still gives me the shivers to talk about it,” he said.

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