About 1955, Col. J.P. Grant of Rothiemurchus, then one of the most important and influential men in piping, wrote the following letter, presumably for the Piping Times, but apparently decided not to send it.
Thanks to the late James Campbell, it was published in the Piping Times of September 1985.
The topic is perhaps not so relevant as it was then, but it can still serve as a warning to the young and the unwary.
We reproduce it here:
This is a matter of some delicacy to raise in your columns but I do not doubt the necessity of the question being raised. Let me say right away that I am no pussy-foot and that I enjoy my dram as much as the next man. But I greatly resent the ignorant public attitude on the connection between the playing of pipe music and over-drinking.
On the physical side the effect of drinking spirits is disastrous to fine playing. To judge from the effects I have myself seen and heard, I have never believed the stories of so-and-so not being able to play unless he was ‘warmed up’ by a dram. The effect of drink shows up first in the fingers, long before the head or the feet – a fact which some older pipers fail to recognise or they would be careful not to indulge before playing. I have for long admired the Pipe Major about whom the story is told, (and it does not really matter whether or not it is true) that after playing a solo at a regimental dinner and being offered by the chairman half a glass of neat whisky, he refused, saying that he could not make music if he drank it. There is no doubt at all that he was right, but he was a brave and honest man to risk the consequent displeasure of the said chairman,
The custom of standing drams to pipers is widespread and has accounted for the downfall of many young players in the past. It is based on the ignorance of the public who imagine that pipe-playing is an exhausting task, which is quite untrue. If a pipe is going as well as it should there is not the slightest need to offer the piper a dram. There is some truth in the old saying that if a pipe is going well you can blow it through your nose. At any rate the sooner the custom, which is still too prevalent both in the public and in officers’ regimental messes, of standing drinks to pipers is given up the better for everyone. Happily the younger generation of players and indeed of the public seems to be less given to drink than the older generation.
There is another curious aspect of this matter: the sound of the pipe in public places appears to draw like a moth to a candle every ‘drunk’ or ‘drouth’ within hearing. Who has not experienced their unwelcome attentions? For instance we all know the (usually middle-aged) drunk who butts in at ceilidhs convinced in his own mind that he is running the show. If the audiences had a bit more courage they would throw him out on his neck, when he might begin to realise that his attentions are regarded as an infernal nuisance. One unfailing instance occurs annually on the S.S. Lochmore travelling across the Minch to attend the Games in South Uist. There are usually on board pipers whose custom is to hold a piping ceilidh which is much enjoyed by most of the passengers. Almost invariably a ‘drunk’ appears performing his usual antics. On one occasion he met his desserts at the hands of a hefty Dundonian piper; the drunk was on the point of embracing the player’s drones; he was firmly seized by one ear and led away to the cheers of the on-lookers, and did not appear again.
Social habits as regards over-drinking have greatly changed for the better in the last generation. Among competitors at piping competitions it is now almost unheard of for the younger men to appear ‘under the influence,’ whereas a generation ago it was pretty common; but still regrettably there may be found some of the older players the worse for wear who ‘let the side down’ and lower the profession in the eyes of the public.
To look at this situation from the opposite end of the telescope, in a generation of pipers too prone to mix their music and their drink, the late Pipe Major John MacDonald [of Inverness] – himself a traveller for many years for Youngers the Alloa brewers – added enormously to the prestige of the profession in the eyes of the public by never mixing the two things; he had too much respect for the pipe and its music and himself.
I have deliberately refrained from the moral question of over-drinking. There are plenty of organisations whose job it is to fight for temperance or even total abstinence. My object in writing this letter is solely to point out to the piping fraternity that if they want to raise the status of professional piping in public estimation they should be careful not to associate their music with their drinks, nor allow others to do so – be they C.O.’s or Mess Presidents or anyone.