By Ken Pickles
O tell me, Harper, wherefore flow thy wayward notes of wail and woe,
Far down the desert of Glencoe, where none may list thy melody?
Say, harp’st thou to the mists that fly, or the dun-deer glancing by,
Or the eagle, that from high screams chorus to thy minstrelsy? – Sir Walter Scott
Are you lucky enough to have been one of those pipers who just play for the sheer love of it? In present times one could be forgiven for believing that the sole purpose of piping is to pass examinations or take part in that old blood-sport, competitions, whether as a bandsman or solo. It does seem that competition dominates our world. Even beekeepers are encouraged to pass exams and compete with their wax or honey. It won’t make them better beekeepers or better individuals. I’ve seen drummers throw their sticks into the turf like spoilt children when the judge has not awarded them a place — and the language!
Oh, I would agree, competition has its place, but once our pleasure, our hobby becomes part of an obsession to win each time, perhaps it’s time to take up the caman. You’ll get all the competition and excitement you want there and it’s as old and as celtic as the pipes!
I’ve known quite a few pipers who never did tread the competition boards, nor salute a judge, but they could play. One such was a friend and instructor of my youth. His name was David Imrie and he hailed originally from Montrose. He came down to Cumbria between the wars to work on the estate of Lord Rochdale as gamekeeper. He lived in a hut in the woods near Braithwaite, Keswick, not far from Portingscale and was known by the locals as ‘The hermit’! David was no hermit, but he was the most contented man I ever met in this life, quietly wise, erudite and talented as a piper, poet, and author. His book, Lakeland Gamekeeper [Batchworth Press; 1949] is now a collector’s item and has a short chapter on piping. He wrote regular articles for the Shooting Times and other magazines and during the daytime got on with his regular countryman’s job around the Newlands Valley, Lake Derwentwater, Catbells and Blencathra.
David’s hut was spartan but adequate. Shelves of books, a table and chairs, bare wooden floor, typewriter and bagpipes on another shelf and his 12-bore gun in a corner of the room. He also had several manuscript books of his own compositions. An open fire provided warmth and when you called, the old black kettle was always half on the hob and a cup of tea and ample slice of fruitcake soon appeared on the table. What more did a man need! Once, he had a set of pipes in for renovation that allegedly was played at Waterloo. The widow of the last owner had asked David to tidy them up. He had been a piper with the Atholl Highlanders at Blair Atholl and they still bore the Murray tartan ribbons. I cannot recall the chanter and wish now I’d taken more notice. I think they had been with the Camerons (79th Highlanders) or my own regiment, the Gordons. When you come across such relics I hope you’ll take more notice than I did.
Unexpected visitors found their way to David’s hut and one such was the famous Scottish naturalist, piper and piping judge, Seton Gordon or Satan Gordon as the late, great John D. Burgess told me the top pipers of his day called him. I thought that a wee bit unkind but no doubt they had their reasons. I used to see Seton Gordon at the various games. He was very recognisable in old age. I asked John if he had ever heard him play. “No”, said he, “nor did anyone else hear him play that I knew”. Well, David heard him play piobaireachd and he played well by all accounts.
In the early years of my own piping, David helped me more than he realised especially with the Logan’s’ Tutor (old style) which could be a bit tricky with the piobaireachd exercises at the rear. You could not easily learn them alone and I for one found them a bit daunting. I once broke him off from clearing rhododendrons alongside Derwentwater and we sat with our backs to a tree poring over the book, he demonstrating the fingering on a piece of stick and me with the 30 shilling Henderson chanter trying to produce the right noises.
Another gamekeeper-piper lived but a couple of miles from David. His name was Sandy Coutts. I believe he’d been a Pipe Major with the Royal Air Force during the war. Many a good night was spent making the night air ring when the three of us were together. Like the Highlands, it is often very quiet and still in that region and there are many similarities with the north. David and I would take it in turn to play, Sandy, listening appreciatively, the time passing all too quickly. On such nights the pipes would almost play by themselves. I expect you have had that experience. Sandy did not believe that military pipe bands improved a man’s playing. In the war, they were expected to learn tunes quickly and get out playing them.
Alas, both men are long gone. I wonder where their pipes are being played now? All those tunes that David composed, several hundred of them. What became of them? Playing from the heart, in good company, without pressure of any kind, is one of life’s greatest joys. When there are two or more it can reach such a height of sublime bliss, especially when harmonies are thrown in, that it is almost on the level of that other exalted human experience, perhaps even beyond it. Certainly, it is up there with the Gods.
I’ve often thought it would be a good thing for every games field to have a place set aside for those pipers who wish to play away from the judges, the prizes, the stresses and frustration that goes with competitions to have a go. I’ll bet even the professionals would play better than ever away from the scrutiny of the judges. We know they do! I bet the spectators would love it too. Imagine it at Braemar, Oban or Cowal, a little corner away from the melee. Why, even the judges might be tempted to play there alongside any Angus, Calum or Jeannie — just for the love of it.
• From the August 2009 Piping Times.