by Michael Grey
Piping Today #60, 2012.

We live in the most documented world there ever was: everyone has a digital camera and everyone uses it. Not just that, almost everyone leaves their easily-seen fingerprints all over the internet for their friends to see, for their families to see and for the world to see — forever. Privacy has become a nice idea but not all that practical.

From time to time I wonder what our impressions of the old pipers would be if, say, Facebook, had been around a century or so ago.  Imagine the internet, and Facebook, in the primes of people like John MacDonald (Inverness) and G. S. McLennan. Think of the possibilities.  There’s JMac, posting a pic of himself receiving his second Clasp in 1908 — within minutes he’s got 53 ‘likes’. There’s G. S. in 1926, posting a teaser page, The Jig of Slurs, from his forth-coming book of music. He’s got loads of ‘likes’ and 37 comments including, “I’ll be interested to see what Kilberry makes of this” and a slightly inappropriate, “I hope the book’s not full of jigs and rubbishy tunes like this”. [GS promptly ‘unfriends’ Ned the commenter; he can afford it, he has 3542 ‘friends’, 100 of them he has actually met].

Oh. And the 1907 Northern Meeting ceilidh. There’s Willie Lawrie doing a solo self-shot, holding his digi-cam up with his right hand and mugging, slightly glassy-eyed but just right, he thinks, for his status update: “At Inverness. It’s grand to win playing yer own tunes!”

I believe we’d think a lot of differently of the old boys and girls had we access to server loads of biographical minutiae (as our successors will most certainly have of us). Would we think better of these people — or worse? I don’t know. Maybe a subject for another day.

I came across a book by the late American writer, Susan Sontag, On Photography. Its a brilliantly insightful and original look at photography — and people. She said, to photograph is to confer importance”. That’s an easy thing to understand.  But at the same time Sontag believed the convenience of modern picture-taking has created a world with too many photographic images; “just about everything has been photographed”. True (and, by the way, her book was published in 1977). Does the world need yet another pic of the Pass of Glencoe or the tower in Pisa?

Sontag also points out that photography, more than literature, teaches us of the world. Seeing is believing and all that. I know I didn’t have to go to Pisa and take a picture of a tower (with scaffolding) to know it leaned. I’d seen it a million times before in photos.

I was brought up in a house where antiques and old things in general were valued. My mum and dad love the auctions and antique fairs, even before The Antiques Roadshow was around. And some of that has rubbed off on me. Last week, I happened across a box of Magic Lantern slides.

Over a century ago, the Magic Lantern, a primitive sort of slide projector, was the last word in eye-popping entertainment. The well-to-do might have had a Magic Lantern projector at home, along with a respectable collection of slides. More often, though, community and church halls hosted slide shows for the locals. Ribald fun, you say.  Right you are!  Still, as you know, this was before movies and television.

Books with photos were not common and almost always of unsatisfying quality.  For the hoi polloi, the Magic Lantern was an important window to the world. Any images imprinted on glass slides would be carefully considered by the manufacturer. And in the best spirit of Susan Sontag, an image photographed for Magic Lantern use would confer great importance.

So let’s take a look at one of my newly gotten ML slides and see what might be seen. On the face of it, we see a slightly twee Highland games scene circa 19-oatcakes. I have to admit, I didn’t think too much of this image until I started to scrutinise the thing, egged on by Sontag and her damned brilliant words.

1. There are women with umbrellas but no rain. Light’s bright — looks like a great games day. The flag sags, as still as a judge’s foot at a bad jig contest

2. The skirt lengths are below ankle and men can be seen with top hats (to the games!). It wasn’t until the start of WWI that skirt lengths rose and top hats, by then, were a distant memory for any event outside some kind of serious formality. I peg this image at around 1908.

3. Someone’s got whisky on offer. Here’s a chancer with foot on rope trying to make it for the infield. 

4. Swords in view: the dance was the Ghillie Callum.

5. Only one dancer. Unusual. He is dancing with medals on (and heavy brooch and waist belt, by the way). I wonder if he was one of the leading exponents and so danced an exhibition here?  

6. Is it just me or does this fellow look like he’s trying to fish a mobile from his sporran? 

7. There’s something afoot among these four. Two look like they’re sanding something, clearly attending to some activity that needs supervision by two others.

8. The caber is safely stowed at the side of the platform. No signs of saw marks so suspect the big event is yet to happen.

9. Our piper: manfully playing one of the tunes most-hated by all pipers, Ghillie Callum. This slide was found in a lot of slides from the northeast, so I wonder, based on the black and white shadows, if the piper’s tartan might be Gordon? He may be a good piper though one sign points to not: his drones are tuning far too low; he’s got ‘ivory-grinders’, at least that’s what Bruce Gandy and I used to/still do call that kind of sharp tuning.     

10. Finally, how good of the games organisers to provide a rare step to the platform. Clearly a thoughtful games committee.

Before Susan Sontag I don’t think I would’ve mustered any understanding of this old games slide — and admit I may have absolutely missed the mark in my assessment. Still, a lesson for me, and maybe you. In today’s quick-time world we often see without knowing and, sadly, think we know without seeing — or understanding. •