The British Raj is history and Pakistan is halfway round the world from Scotland, but in the bazaars and alleys of Sialkot, the pulse of the Highlands beats -- or screes -- on.
This dusty city in eastern Pakistan is home to four generations of bagpipe makers, who once kitted out Scottish regiments in what was part of Britain’s India colony and now sell to piping enthusiasts around the world.
Glengarry hats, kilts and leather pouches known as sporrans spill out of the shops on Raja Street, where artisans carve thistle motifs on nickel, turn wood pipes on lathes and stitch tartan cloth.
“This is Pakistan’s Scottish hub,” said Nadeem Bhatti, chief executive of one of the hundred small firms making bagpipes and Highland clothing in Sialkot, 125 miles southeast of the capital of Islamabad.
Bhatti’s family has been making bagpipes for more than 100 years, starting with his great-grandfather, a musical instrument maker who spotted a sure-fire business opportunity as the 19th century ended.
“He started selling to the British army and the local regiments around 1895. His business grew, and in 1910, he was the first person in Sialkot to start exporting pipes to Scotland,” Bhatti said.
His grandfather developed the business, creating the British-sounding Peterson Pipe Co. in 1925.
The British army, including Scottish infantry regiments, occupied South Asia from the early 1800s -- when Pakistan and neighboring India formed a single colony -- until independence and partition in 1947.
The British also dressed some local troops in Scottish-style uniforms and set up regimental bagpipe bands, many of which survive in Pakistan’s modern army.
A yellowing 1944 copy of a Peterson Pipe Co. catalog pictures a colonial army pipe band above reprinted letters of thanks from the commanders of the Eastern Pakistan Rifles and the British Northern Railway Battalion.
Even after pulling out in 1947, Britain’s military kept up links with Sialkot and encouraged armies in former colonies worldwide to keep buying from the city’s producers, Bhatti says.
In his low-ceilinged office near Raja Street, Bhatti dusts off vintage drumsticks, as well as drones and chanters -- parts of a bagpipe -- that he says are at least 100 years old.
Dipping into boxes, he pulls out dozens of tartan patterns, reciting the names of the clans or regiments they belong to: “Mackenzie, MacDonald, Black Watch, Royal Stewart....”
Nowadays, Bhatti’s company, Jaguar International, makes all its pipes and kilts for export. He visited Scotland for the first time in 1999 on a monthlong business trip.
Since Bhatti started selling over the Internet three years ago, business has grown 65%, with orders for outfits and instruments coming mainly from bands in Australia and the United States, he says.
The company now makes about $100,000 a year -- a huge sum for a small company in Pakistan.
Bhatti plans to open a new factory and double his staff to 100, and hopes that his 12-year-old son, Zohab, will take over the business one day.
Compared to Scottish pipes, Pakistani pipes are a bargain.
“Scottish pipes are expensive, $1,000-$4,000,” Bhatti said. “Ours are the same quality, but cost $200-$300.” His kilts cost $36, a fraction of the price in Scotland or North America.
Paul Warren, director of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland, welcomes cut-rate kilts: “This market at present is overpriced, and greater competition would be no bad thing.”
But Warren and other knowledgeable pipers say customers should be wary of Pakistani-made bagpipes.
They look fine, but the makers generally use lower quality materials, such as rosewood, which doesn’t match the African blackwood from which Scottish pipes are made.
Rosewood is porous and cracks easily because it absorbs more moisture. There can also be problems with leaking bags and badly drilled pipes that require more puff to play, Warren says.
Sean Somers, former chief instructor at the College of Piping on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, says buying Pakistani pipes is “like buying a frying pan from the dollar store.”
“You get it cheap, ultimately it serves the purpose, but after a while, the low quality becomes apparent, and it’s not worth the hassle to use it anymore. It’s truly a case of getting what you pay for.”
Bhatti concedes that only a handful of Sialkot’s manufacturers -- including his company -- use blackwood. But he says some foreign importers also are to blame for the bad reputation of Pakistani pipes because they don’t send specifications for the best wood.
Not all the pipes are shipped out of Sialkot. The city is home to at least 20 bagpipe bands that play at weddings and official functions.
Although Bhatti knows the workings of bagpipes inside out, he has never been tempted to play himself.
“I’ve never tried,” he says. “In fact, no one in the family plays.”