Located in the heart of the Canadian Prairies, Reel Pipes has been serving the Celtic community for almost two decades. Recently we spoke with the company’s founder Iain MacDonald.
What is your own ethnicity/heritage?
As far as I know, our family is mostly Scots-Irish, although we know of one Miꞌkmaq forebearer in the Maritimes who was identified from a 19th-century census. All four of my grandparents moved west from Prince Edward Island in the early 1900s, establishing themselves on Treaty 6 and 4 territories in Saskatoon and Regina. The original immigrant Scots settled in PEI in 1772, landing from the brig “Alexander” having left the west coast of Scotland. The Irish side of the family came at various times in the 1800s, likely driven by economic circumstances, and they met up with the Scots at social occasions on the island.
What is the company’s history and mandate?
The company started in 2005, although my involvement in selling bagpipes and supplies goes back to the 1980s when I lived in Vancouver and worked at Tartantown one of the great Scottish suppliers in the world. Later, I was a distributor for Tartantown in the prairie region. My involvement in teaching and running pipe bands has always kept me close to what’s happening in the business. As a company, our goal is to provide customers with the best products possible, and an exceptional customer service experience. In selecting products to supply and represent, we work with companies who share that desire to provide a high level of customer satisfaction.
How has it grown over time?
Reelpipes.com started in 2005 when famous Scottish piper Fred Morrison launched his first set of pipes. I had known Fred for years and he asked if I would help market his pipes in North America, and so that was how it started. Next came smallpipes, and eventually we just added more products as the demand grew. In the time we’ve been going, we’ve delivered Fred Morrison reelpipes, smallpipes and uilleann pipes to customers across North America, Europe and in fact as far away as Australia and New Zealand. We now supply instruments, reeds, accessories and even Highland dress from some of the top manufacturers, and we always have exceptional bagpipes in stock and ready for set-up and delivery. We have loyal customers all over North America, and we continue to work hard to make their experience a good one.
What are your roles and responsibilities there?
I do everything! Sometimes that seems like a bad thing, but it also helps me control costs and bend with the wind, which was required over the last two years. I do all the ordering, testing, supply, setup, customer and supplier relations, right down to selecting customer reeds and helping them sort issues with their instruments or playing. I have worked in communications for many years, and as a result I am able to do most of the web design and updates, and I have also designed all the print, web, and social media ads.
What are the challenges of the job?
The challenge is just keeping up, and staying on top of inventory, cash flow, customer orders and inquiries. It’s sometimes hard to launch new things, or try new marketing ideas, because just keeping up with inquiries and orders is a job on its own. There are always little changes and adaptations to products and staying current with each supplier and their product line is part of the requirement for providing the best service and information possible to customers. “What reeds go in that chanter?” “How is Bagpipe X different than Bagpipe Y?” “Can I get that shoe with extra width?”
What are the rewards?
It’s rewarding to have people feel happy and grateful for the service and products they’ve received. I’ve also been passionate about bagpipes my entire life, so getting to spend so much time with pipers and piping is a gift. I’ve met a lot of fantastic people through the business, on both the supply and customer sides, and it’s always great to connect with them. It’s also great to have a chance to try new products, and it’s especially exciting when friends have a great product that you can promote. This was the case with Fred Morrison, and my friend and band mate from Babcock-Renfrew Pipe Band – James Begg – has been making excellent pipe bags for 40 years, and a few years ago he and I put our heads together to design a bag specifically suited to bellows pipes. More recently, we’ve started carrying bags and bagpipes from Lee & Sons Bagpipes, and it’s exciting for me because I’ve been friends with Jack Lee since the 1970s and to be selling he and his sons’ products is just really satisfying.
What are your core products & services?
Our core products are the Fred Morrison series of reelpipes, smallpipes and uilleann bagpipes, plus Highland pipes from Duncan MacRae, McCallum, Lee & Sons, R.G. Hardie, Peter Henderson and Dunbar. We sell all the accessories and products for pipers and pipe bands, too.
How do you differ from the competition?
We are smaller, with a more personal, customer-satisfaction approach. My extensive experience in Highland pipes, pipe bands, and bellows piping is unique in many ways. My resume includes Grade 1 pipe bands going back to the 1970s: Babcock-Renfrew Pipe Band, The SFU Pipe Band, ScottishPower and 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel) and I was pipe-major of the Grade 2 City of Regina Pipe Band for 30 years and ran a youth pipe band for over 20 years. I started uilleann piping in the 1980s and played and recorded with a folk band for a number of years, and I’ve since played both smallpipes and border pipes in performance situations, so I have experience and perspective that is useful to customers at all levels of their piping journey.
How do you reach your potential clients?
We advertise in some magazines, on piping-related websites, and through direct markets via our newsletter and website subscription. We have done Highland games events also, and it’s always fun to meet people in that environment. One of the ways we market is by supporting piping events, such as regional Highland games, summer camps and through larger events such as the Nicol-Brown Chalice (NY) or the George Sherriff Memorial. We also recently supported the digitization project of “The Piping Times” magazine.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the Celtic marketplace?
With very few events happening in the last couple of years, it’s been difficult for all manufacturers and suppliers, because no one has had need of products. Having said that, there was a bump up in sales of smallpipes, reelpipes and piobaireachd books, as people found new outlets for their piping energy and budgets. In terms of buying quality instruments, there has never been a better time than now when it comes to the quality and attention to detail by the top makers. Customers are spoiled for choice, with brilliant instruments being made by a number of firms, and I think it can actually make it hard to choose, because there are so many excellent instruments being made. At the same time, there is a concern that the proliferation of makers may be an extra drain on musical hardwood resources, and we know that this will be an issue going forward without significant steps to regenerate natural wood stocks.
What can be done to improve that?
There is a move to local, sustainable woods by some makers, and there are international organizations monitoring and limiting the trade in these woods. Ultimately, we’ll have to put a lot more effort into making pipes with other materials, and into investing in the long-term growth of wood stocks. One of the challenges is going to be climate change, and what effect that has on natural ecosystems where musical hardwoods have typically grown. One small thing that can be done is to make sure that no old pipes are left under beds or in closets, when they could be on new players. There is a healthy trade in used instruments, but I think overall we are not as good as we could be at making sure old sets of pipes are maintained and passed on.
What are your future plans for the business?
I see the company carrying on serving the needs of pipers and pipe bands, and one of the ways we’ll do that is to continue developing partnerships and products with like-minded people and businesses striving to make piping of all kinds a little easier, a little more mainstream, and a little more fun. After all, if it’s not fun, what is the point?