Iain MacInnes concludes his 2000 John MacFadyen Lecture

Iain MacInnes

One irony of the current pipe band situation is that, at the same time as civilian bands have carried the music round the globe, and have put down firm roots, the cultural institution that created pipe bands, the British Army, has slowly lost interest. Pipe bands really emerged at about the time of the Crimean War, the 1850s, in the Army. To this day the uniforms, the deportment, the style of performance, all bear the firm imprint of military custom and tradition.

Now it wouldn’t be true to say that playing pipes with drums was always enthusiastically welcomed in the Armny. My favourite quote from Willie Donaldson’s book comes from an Army pipe major writing to the Oban Times in 1925.

“Sir,” he says, “if you will protect me, I will write about drumming and piping, but I have fears for my life. Drummers are terrible fellows, and if my name and hiding place were revealed, they might come and drum near me; and I would sooner die of old age.”

Piper David Moir, 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot. He enlisted in 1845 and served in the Crimean War and the indian Mutiny.
Piper David Moir, 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot. He enlisted in 1845 and served in the Crimean War and the indian Mutiny.

But not withstanding the dangers, pipes and drums were firmly established in Scotland, in civilian life as well as Army life, by the 1920s.

There is a line of thought, particularly in wider musical circles, that the Army took pipe music and simply regimented it and squeezed the life and spontaneity out of the old tunes, and that it took tradition and dressed it in a tight military tunic for the parade ground. But Id like to put a different scenario to you.

The Army has been the one cultural institution in Scotland in the past century which provided an elite of pipers with a workplace in which they could seriously practise the art of piping as part of their day-to-day life. John MacLellan from Dunoon, Willie Ross, G. S. MacLennan, Donald MacLeod, John MacLellan from Edinburgh, Angus MacDonald, Gavin Stoddart, Alastair Gillies, and many more; all these players were, or still are in some cases, professional pipers in the Army. Not only were they fantastic musicians, but many of them were also great composers; and so many of our best tunes have evolved in the military context, the quicksteps, the retreat marches and so on. The Army helped these men breathe life into the music, and there was no contradiction, say, in playing the Cock o’ the North on the parade ground in the morning, and going home in the evening to compose a Jig of Slurs or a Little Cascade. The Army has been one of the great patrons of piping, and I think it timely to acknowledge that fact.

But times have changed, and its clear now that there’s much less scopefor pursuing a musical career in the modern Army than there was in the past. This has everything to do with defence cuts and politics, internal and external, but in a sense it comes at a time when other opportunities are opening-up for young pipers. Centres of higher education, for instance, are starting to offer courses to the best young players. The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama offers a Masters degree in which pipes can be the first instrument. Other universities are showing conspicuous interest in bagpipe music, and graduates from the new courses will, in time, work their way onto the teaching rosters of the local authorities. Piping is now firmly on the curriculum in many schools throughout Scotland.

And there are other ways in which some pipers do make a decent living from their art, in the professional folk groups for instance, or on the teaching and recital circuit. And of course that bedrock of modern piping, the competition, still has a huge part to play.

The trouble with competitions is that someone has to judge them, and where judges go, strenuous debate often follows. As we speak, both the pipe bands and the solo piping world are putting a lot of energy into working out who is best qualified to judge their competitions; it’s the oldest story in the book, and it’s still top of the agenda. The real trouble is, piping is a musical art, its not a steeplechase; the first person over the line isn’t necessarily the winner.

P.M. Willie Ross in 1924.
P.M. Willie Ross in 1924.

But things have improved. Here’s a little Willie Ross story to remind us that if things aren’t perfect now, they’re certainly better than they used to be.

Willie Ross and a couple of his friends have stopped at a small Highland games between Aberdeen and Inverness. Willie’s pupil, Hector Ross, takes up the story in another clip from the BBC archive recorded in the 1950s:

When they arrived on the field the only other people there were just locals who couldn’t hold a candle to these chaps. They tuned their pipes and, turning around to the piping platform, Willie [Ross] said to the others, “Goodness me, look at the judge! He’s a wee man with a boweler hat.”

Willie went up first and identified himself and the judge said: “Ah, yes.”

“How many tunes are we to put in, sir?”

“Oh, just the one tune. What are you going to play?”

“I’ll play the Lament for Mary MacLeod,’ said Willie.

“Very good,” said the judge. “Just once through.”

Willie immediately realised that the chap knew nothing at all about piobaireachd, so Willie thought, ‘there’s no good wasting time here’, so he played the ground and a variation or two and then came off.

Now, number two went up and passed Willie on the way and said: “Did you break down, Willie?”

“No!, of course I didn’t break down!”

“God,” he said, “you didn’t seem to be long on the platform.”

“Ah, well,” said Willie.

So this chap went up and played right through his tune. And the result was given out and Willie got the first prize and two of the other professionals got second and third, and the chap who’d gone up number two wasn’t placed, and was extremely displeased, because he was a very fine player indeed, and he’d got nothing. He was absolutely furious about this and said to Willie, “I don’t believe that man knows a thing about piobaireachd.” “I don’t know,’ said Willie.

So when Willie went back up to play the strathspey and reel, he said: “By the way sir, competitor number two was extremely displeased he wasn’t placed in the first three.”

So the judge looked up his wee black book, and all he had written in it was the competitor’s name and the name of his tune.

“Well, sir,’ Willie said, “he’s going to go for you. But if you’d like I could give you a few notes on his tune, if you’d like to write them down.”

So the judge grabbed his pencil, and Willie said: “Well, of course his ground was played far too slowly and in his first variation he missed out two bars in the third line. The middle of it wasn’t too bad, but he must have been nervous by that time, knowing that he’d probably gone off and he didn’t make much of a job with his crunluath movement. And then, of course, when he came to crunluath a mach he played it far too fast and it was a bit of a mess.”

The chap was scribbling furiously into his book, you see. So when Willie had played his strathspey and reel, he met number two coming up, and he said to him, “Go for him now! Go for him!”

“By God, I’ll go for him!”

So he went up, and the first thing he said was: “What was wrong with my piobaireachd?”

The chap looked up from his book and said: “Well, in the first place your ground was far too slow. In the second place you missed out two bars in your first variation. The middle of your tune wasn’t too bad but you obviously got nervous in your crunluath and made a few fumbles and of course your crunluath a mach was just terrible, just a mess!”

So, when he came off the platform after he played his strathspey and reel, he met Willie, and said: “Well Willie, he may be a wee man with a boweler hat, but he knows his piobaireachd!”

Let me just close by making a few general remarks on where we stand today in the world of piping.

One thing’s for sure. We certainly have more people playing the pipes here in Scotland, and around the world, than ever before. We do tend to dwell on the famous names in piping and the big pipe bands, but for most people, piping is simply a great hobby; its sociable, its energetic, sometimes its even a fantastic musical experience. The organisers of the Marie Curie march in Edinburgh have already enlisted over 5,000 pipers and drummers for their parade, and they’re aiming at 10,000; and very few of these players move in the elevated circles of cut-and-thrust competition. The heart of the tradition remains with the Boys’ Brigade bands, the street bands, the solo pipers who play simply for pleasure.

In piobaireachd, too, there are more performers than ever, most of them playing on superb instruments. It’s going to remain a minority interest, but those who do play, do so with enormous commitment and intelligence. And one excellent thing that’s happened, is that early sources of the music are becoming ever more accessible. Indeed, the John MacFadyen Trust and the Piobaireachd Society plan to launch the first published edition of the Angus MacArthur MS; it may have taken 180 years, but its none-the-less a timely addition to the sum of piping knowledge. And I must say I still can’t help but admire the leap of logic that took our forebears from the simple nine-note chanter scale, to a music of such elegance and sophistication. Our ancestors clearly had a lot going for them.

The instrument itself is in great shape. Pipe makers are making good bagpipes, and the whole growth industry in synthetic reeds, bags, chanters and so on, has ensured that many more pipers now play good-sounding instruments. The pitch has crept ever higher, and I for one would be quite happy to see it return to B-flat; but essentially fashion will dictate the pitch and tone of the instrument; and these things do change with time.

Pipers are writing music and publishing as never before; in fact its very easy nowadays to get your own music printed and published; some would say, too easy. But don’t forget that however elaborate your typesetting and design, the only thing that really matters is the actual quality of the music, and the best gauge of that, is the same as ever — whether anyone wants to play your tunes or not.

William Donaldson's book
William Donaldson’s book … “wonderfully researched”.

The universities have started taking piping seriously. The School of Scottish Studies has produced research graduates. The music academies have taken piping on board as a serious study. We have two flourishing piping institutions in Glasgow. We have an active piping media, and at last we’ve got to the point of sophisticated published scholarship into piping history, for instance in John Gibson’s book on the piping tradition in Cape Breton, Canada, and in William Donaldson’s wonderfully researched publication.

The piping world has changed in other ways as well. The clear-cut social divide that used to exist between the amateur player and the professional, and as often as not, between the judge and the competitor, the wee man in the bowler hat, and the man in the glengarry, has been largely eradicated. We’re much more egalitarian, though its impossible to escape the fact that where we do have competitions, there will always be a degree of conflict. For that reason alone we should welcome with open arms the increasing trend towards recitals and concerts. The pipe band world has gone about this in great style, led in this country by the Glasgow Skye Association, who each year stage a huge concert in the week of the World Championships, involving one of the famous pipe bands. It’s always sold out, and it’s a tremendous showcase for modern pipe band music released from the shackles of the competition format.

The world of technology and the internet will have a part to play in the future of piping. It’s a cheap and effective way of spreading information and music, and it certainly offers great possibilities for remote learning. Gone will be the days of the laboriously produced, personalised teaching cassette. And one thing we certainly must look at doing, is preserving the body of recorded pipe music as it currently stands. Too many of the existing recordings are in the unstable format of analogue tape, and I would hope that the BBC, as well as others, will lead the way in transferring pipe music recordings to a more stable digital format. This will cost money, but it’s worth it, and it’s part of the legacy we bear for future generations.

And this might be a good time also to start looking a bit more closely at the old collections of light music, and to see if there’s anything in them that we can bring to modern playing styles. We’re so used to hearing the Willie Ross settings of the big tunes on the competition platform, that it’s easy to forget that there were a hundred years of publishing history before Willie came on the scene. Old collections like William Gunn, Donald MacPhee and the superb Glen collection, are full of wonderful tunes and tune settings, and it would be heartening to hear more of that material played in public.

Finally, I’d like to mention one of the resounding success stories of Scottish piping in the past 20 years, namely the revival of the other Scottish piping tradition — the bellows pipe, the cauld wind pipe. Twenty years ago, in 1980, there wasn’t a single pipe maker in Scotland producing bellows-blown instruments. There were a mere handful of players. Now we have a flourishing pipe-making industry, and many hundreds of pipers who get great pleasure from playing the bellows pipes. At the heart of this revival has been the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society, though it would be fair to say that the whole movement has now taken on a life of its own. In one respect there has been failure; and that is in attempts to revive the old border pipe repertoire; but I’m sure that that will come in time, especially as were now getting better designs of conically bored Lowland pipe chanters. Often it simply takes the right instrument to unleash the potential of a buried repertoire.

• From the August 2000 Piping Times.