Pipe dreams

Jon Swayne left the law to ‘save himself’ and found that bagpipes were his true labour of love. Jennifer Farrar reports


When the idea of sitting be-hind a desk for the rest of his life be-came “horrifying”, Jon Swayne knew that it was time to quit his job as a country solicitor in Glastonbury. But after 12 years in the law he had to think hard about his next step and finally decided that his future lay in bagpipes.

Swayne, 62, who now makes bagpipes and whistles in a workshop attached to his cottage, has been largely credited with reviving interest in a style of folk music that most people regard as unfashionable. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of Blowzabella, a folk band that Swayne formed in 1978, which is about to reform for a series of celebratory gigs across the UK and Europe. Meanwhile, the bagpipe trio and the orchestra that Swayne plays in and composes for are going from strength to strength. So does he ever find his legal background useful in his new career?

“No,” he states baldly, “although my training has been useful in the organisational side of the business. It’s also helpful to know how to research, how to manage my time and how to write well.”

Swayne studied law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and went on to take his articles (equivalent to a training contract) at the small firm of solicitors where his father already worked.

“In retrospect, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t forced into being a lawyer because my father was one, I did have a choice. I saw that [a legal career] would allow me to make a decent living and I certainly enjoyed the years that I had at Cambridge,” he says.

After qualifying in 1965, Swayne settled down into the daily rhythm of life as a country solicitor and was made a partner a few years later. “We were quite old fashioned and didn’t do any litigation. We did a lot of conveyancing, wills and probate, but didn’t do any crime or family work. I did enjoy some of it. I liked helping people and I made some good friends, but the longer I stayed the more bored I became.”

To make matters worse, Swayne started to develop a social conscience around the same time. “It all stemmed from the fact that I felt I was earning too much money for the amount of work I was doing,” he says. “But my main reason for deciding to leave was because I couldn’t see myself sitting behind the same desk for the rest of my life. I didn’t think I was getting anywhere and knew that I needed to get out to save myself.”

While he was trying to decide what new career path to take, Swayne enrolled on a wood turning course at a local arts centre, where he met some people who played early music. “I got an insight into a different way of life,” he says. Through his involvement in the arts centre, he learned that there was a strong demand for early musical instruments, such as wooden flutes, lutes, whistles and pipes and suddenly a plan fell into place. Swayne’s next step was to enrol on a three-year course in musical instrument technology, specialising in early woodwind, at what was then the London College of Furniture in the East End.

“My family were pretty horrified when I told them,” he recalls. “And my father thought I’d gone mad, but I’d found exactly what I wanted to do.”

During his time at the college, Swayne was introduced to folk music by an Australian colleague. “I had always played classical or early music before, but never folk music. It was a completely new world and I found it to be very liberating and life-enhancing.”

By the time Swayne graduated in 1980, Blowzabella had been founded and was already making a name for itself as a pioneer of ‘drone-based dance music’ in the UK and Europe. After moving back to Somerset, Swayne opened a workshop and started up his own business making musical instruments.

“When I started out, I was making Baroque and Renaiss-ance flutes, recorders, bagpipes, some Flemish pipes and folk whistles. Over the years I’ve dropped things – Baroque flutes were the first to go and I stopped making recorders about 10 years ago. Now I primarily focus on bagpipes and whistles and I have about three years of work waiting for me. I’ve always been very fortunate in having lots of work,” he says with pride. “Up until I left Blowzabella in 1986 for family reasons, I was mainly pipe-making with the occasional gig thrown in. But when I rejoined in 1989, the band had got really busy and it was more or less full time so my making took second place for a while.”

A year later, Blowzabella disbanded, so Swayne went back to bagpipe-making with renewed passion.

“I work longer hours now than I did when I was a lawyer,” Swayne admits. “The hours were quite relaxed at the practice I was in and there was no need to take work home or to work at weekends. Now I tend to work more than five days a week and it doesn’t seem to be a burden, just because I’m interested in the work.”

Although it is clear that Swayne has never looked back since leaving the law, he has no regrets about the fact that he devoted more than a decade to a legal career.

“When I was at school, my teacher wanted me to get a degree in music, which I could have done, but I didn’t feel strongly enough about it at the time to follow it up. In retrospect, I’m glad that I didn’t because I wouldn’t be where I am today, I would be something like a music teacher, which I wouldn’t have wanted to be. So I can’t say that I wasted those 12 years I spent as a lawyer because I have spent much more time doing what I really want to do now.”