By Stuart Letford
It was Jack Campin who years ago quipped that the only place you’ll ever see a well-dressed Border piper is on an undertaker’s slab. Since its inception in the early 1980s, the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society (LBPS) has been the organisation responsible for the revival of Scottish bellows-blown pipes and the repertoire that goes with it.
These pipes were played in Scotland since at least the 17th century, and, taking Scotland as a whole, were the pipes most commonly heard.
The LBPS has held its annual competition since 1984. It has always been a quintessentially idiosyncratic gathering full of colourful characters and colourful music. It has been a decade since I last attended the competition and so I was delighted to accept an invitation to assist with judging at last weekend’s event.
Anyone expecting this competition to be run with the efficiency and seriousness of a highland pipe competition will be in for a shock. This competition is the antithesis of a Highland pipe competition. There is not a kilt, a tie, nor a sporran in sight. The emphasis here is on relaxed informality. Ian K. Murray’s description in the Piping Times of the 1986 competition still applies today: “All that appears to be required is for a competitor to wear one or more of the following: a pair of jeans, John Lennon-type spectacles, a hand-knitted sweater and a beard. Some of the more ambitious disported all four.”
Every encouragement is given to competitors. Ian K. Murray again: “Because there is not the weight of tradition which lies heavily on the shoulders of the Highland competitor nor the great performances of the past against which to make a comparison, the Lowland piper is at liberty to take liberties and make a kirk or a mill of the performance. If a mill is made he or she doesn’t leave the boards disconsolately and head for the bar. They have started so they will finish and, having no blowpipe, can grin at the same time.”
Closed fingering? It matters not a jot. Play C and D with the pinkie up? Worry not. Missed a gracenote? These things happen.
One competitor introduced his performance by saying, “For this category I was going to reprise the tune I played this morning but I think I’ve given it a hammering already.”
Full marks for trying go to Pete Stewart, who chose to play a technically difficult 18th century tune he’d discovered in an old manuscript. I forget the name of the tune. As he progressed with his performance, Pete visibly struggled with the increasing intricacies and fast runs of the piece until he, perhaps inevitably, ‘fell off his pipes’.
A feature of the competition I always found enjoyable was the ‘Duet for Pipes and Other Instrument’ category. I can recall great performances from pipers being accompanied by friends playing instruments as diverse as hurdy gurdy, button box, saxophone, kids’ toy drum, washboard and frottoir, moothie … a triangle! This year’s category was notable for the unique performance of Fred Morrison’s Lochaber Badger from Donald Lindsay on keyed smallpipes with Zexuan Qiao on shakuhachi (a Japanese flute) – see video, bottom.
Audience participation has always been a feature of the competition although this year I noticed it seemed to have been abandoned.
Matt Seattle must be mentioned in dispatches. Matt positively immerses himself in the 18th century piping and fiddle manuscripts and invariably discovers hidden gems. Referencing King Crimson, Matt introduced himself as an “18th century schizoid man.” His rendition of John Anderson My Jo was from the original setting and was full of naturals and glissandos, making the piece sound incredibly eerie. Matt told us he had lately been playing the ‘town tunes’ in their respective towns of Melrose, Selkirk, Hawick and Galashiels to appreciative audiences. His enthusiasm is infectious and remains undiminished. He thoroughly deserved the award for being the piper who on the day made the greatest contribution to Lowland and Border piping.
It was a delight to be once again in the company of this gathering of enthusiasts, eccentrics and nonconformists. The annual competition is an unconventional gathering of unconventional (mostly) people and all the better for that. I shall be back next year. Now, where is that old sweater?
• Here’s a short video of the competition that I hope gives a musical flavour of the day:
• Stuart Letford is editor of the Piping Times.