Simon McKerrell: What’s the story?

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By Simon McKerrell

At this time of the year, most pipers around the globe are busy learning the tunes they’ll play during next year’s competition season. Band and solo competitors are working hard on mastering the music, working on the the technical improvements in their playing and hopefully, as my old tutor the late Kenny MacDonald used to say, “putting the song into the tune”.

As a player, I have often found that the stories surrounding the tunes can make a real difference to how I play them; knowledge about the tune’s composition or the composer often lends itself to an improved performance. Many pipers will be learning or re-learning march, strathspeys and reels for band performances, and also trying to master a number of faster jigs and hornpipes for band medleys and solo competition. There are now thousands of bagpipe tunes and books of music and increasingly, more music available for free online that has never been printed. Today’s composers generally can publish almost instantaneously online, but in the past, our best composers such as John MacColl, George S. MacLennan, Hugh MacKay or Donald MacLeod were writing wonderful tunes crafted in some cases over decades. Understanding this and some of the lore of the tunes and the composers can really help us as players.

Willie Lawrie.

One of the greatest pipers and composers was Willie Lawrie (1881-1916). Prior to his untimely death at the age of 35 he wrote some of our best loved marches including John MacDonald of Glencoe, John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage, The Braes of Brecklet, The Pap of Glencoe and the strangely uplifting, but ever popular Battle of the Somme. Lawrie (sometimes spelt ‘Laurie’) was one of the outstanding pipers of his generation and, in 1910, was only the second piper to win the double gold medals at Oban and Inverness. His pipes and medals are still on display in the Argylls’ Museum in Stirling Castle.

Lawrie was very much one of the famous Argyll pipers, and looking back today part of a very robust musical tradition that includes key players such as John MacColl, Ronald McCallum, John MacLellan of Dunoon, Ronnie Lawrie, and the inheritors of Argyll’s musical heritage, Willie McCallum, Stuart Liddell and Angus MacColl.

Before joining the army and going to fight in France, Lawrie was a slate miner in Ballachulish. One of the really fascinating stories I was told as a young player learning the tune John MacDonald of Glencoe was that pipers like Willie Lawrie and his contemporaries spent a great deal of time perfecting their tunes and refining them. I am sure this is right; the fantastic marches of G. S. MacLennan, John MacColl, and others must have taken time to craft and refine.

The abandoned slate quarry at Ballachulish today.

Willie had a unique method for this in that he used to write down phrases and small musical ideas on broken slates during the course of his working day. These he would collect together in a little pile that he would take home and transcribe onto paper, many of which became the melodic foundations of his most revered tunes. I can well imagine how this early form of musical note taking worked, as I myself regularly record fragments of tunes I am composing onto my smart phone – although more than a century apart, the compositional process cannot be very different, albeit of a very different quality!

What this also taught me as a young player was that really top class bagpipe music takes time to refine, adapt and improve much like as any novellist or artist will tell you, the finished tune, song, painting or narrative is really the product of much previous invention and adaptation, yet they are usually presented complete, with the complexities and misturns of creative labour hidden from view.

Donald MacLeod.

Donald MacLeod, who was, I think, the greatest composer of pipe music in the 20th century, wrote hundreds of tunes: He was in the army for the first half of his life and then worked in a bagpipe makers’ shop in Glasgow and taught many pupils in his later years. Pipers from Glasgow have often recounted stories about Donald writing sometimes two or three tunes a day and many of them ending up discarded in the bin in Gillanders & MacLeod’s bagpipe shop in Glasgow. He also reputedly used to enter three different tune titles at highland games competitions and the judges, knowing his reputation as a composer and looking forward to hearing his latest piece of music, would select one of the tune titles. Donald would proceed to perform it, having only composed one tune but given the judges three titles – would have thereby publicly named his tune!

There is also another wonderful story about him performing at The Northern Meeting at Inverness, where he had only written the first two parts of the famous jig The Seagull, and after it was selected, he realised this and in an effort to meet the competition rules of playing a four parted tune; he composed the third and fourth parts of the tune right there and then during the competition. I often think of that when playing this tune and some of his other tunes, remembering the spontaneity of the composer’s life can definitely improve one’s playing.

Both Lawrie and MacLeod like so many in the first half of the 20th century were army pipers, bringing their own musical skills into a military environment. Tragically, Willie Lawrie died young in a hospital in Oxford like many hundreds of pipers in both world wars. Donald survived the war by masquerading as a diminutive Belgian farm labourer speaking Gaelic and escaping across the channel in a fishing boat. However, it is remarkable to think that their music is still played on a daily basis by thousands of pipers throughout the world.

So, when preparing your final pieces for competition or performance next summer, it is worth remembering the composers and the stories surrounding the tunes. To be sure, the settings from the original composers are a good place to start; the books of Willie Ross, Donald MacLeod and G. S. MacLennan are filled with well-known tunes carefully crafted. But it is really from one’s teachers and friends that you get a sense of the pipers and the stories of the tunes that can help to frame your own approach to playing today.