Alisdair McLaren: Ten years after

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It’s been a quite a decade. I took over as Director of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland (NYPBoS) in 2009 shortly after moving to Scotland from Australia. Ten years later, I’m looking forward at marking that decade with an NYPBoS concert on February 8 in Edinburgh at the Corn Exchange.

I had visited Scotland before, of course. My first time was in the late 1980s as a child on a family trip but my first one that I can actually remember was in 1997 where I performed at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (REMT) with the Western Australia Police Pipe Band (WAPOL) as a young and eager 18-year-old. During that month in Scotland I met Donald MacKay who was with The Highlanders regiment at the time and who was taking part in the Tattoo. In 2005 Donald became the Pipe Major of the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band and invited me to be a guest player so I jumped at this opportunity. Who wouldn’t?

That season I flew in to compete with the band on three separate occasions where the Police band finished fourth at the Worlds, second at the Europeans, third at the British and third at the Scottish Championships. As a result of all the travelling back and forth and the busy schedule, I ended up with pneumonia but if it wasn’t for my decision to play with the band I would never have been introduced to the pipe band season in Scotland. Just over a year later, I decided to uproots and move to Scotland to further develop my piping. 

Alisdair McLaren. Photo: Piping Hot Photos

I bought a one-way ticket and in the beginning was very lucky to be able to spend a little while at McCallum Bagpipes, learning about pipe making. Aside from competing again with the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band in 2008, I also competed in the solo piping events at a few highland games, something I hadn’t done since I was 16. I also was fortunate in being able to attend a few Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band (FMM) practices which was an amazing learning experience. 

When Donald MacKay stood down at Strathclyde Police in 2008, I took the opportunity to audition for a place in FMM. This was around the same time that I began working at The National Piping Centre. I originally started out in an administrative role but very soon the position of Director of the NYPBoS became available so I took the opportunity and applied for the job. The rest I guess is now history. A small story I don’t mention very often was that if it wasn’t for becoming the Director of the NYPBoS I probably would have moved back home.

The NYPBoS has performed at concerts all over the world now but I can remember well the first 12 months in charge. One of my objectives was to produce a new concert repertoire for the band. We only at the time just 10 senior pipers and a handful of drummers as the band was in a bit of a transition period. We held auditions and also promoted many of the members of the newly formed Development Band. There was new music to learn as well as new backing arrangements for the concert. The concert was titled The Dragon’s Lair and its success attracted quite a few more talented young pipers and drummers to the band the following year. I think we ended up with more than 40 pipers in the senior band by 2010. There are now more than 100 members in the project. Looking back, our largest shows to date have been our performances at the 2011, 2013 and more recently 2019 Celtic Connections festival where we’ve performed on our own and alongside other top class musicians.

For the up and coming NYPBoS show in Edinburgh, both senior and development bands will be performing a mixture contemporary and traditional music and revisiting some of our classic sets, including my Annihilator suite which was one of the feature sets from 2009, my first year.

It took a while for me to settle in Scotland. I left a hot Western Australia in late October – where the temperature at that time of year averaged around 26˚C – and I found Scotland to be cold, wet and dark. I was sick a lot, probably because I tried to maintain my running schedule in weather that my body simply wasn’t used to. I kept getting ill; it was a struggle. The weather was certainly a shock to my system and I wasn’t used to the short days either. Did it ever get sunny over here?

My first proper winter was particularly hard. I just wasn’t used to the lack of sunlight. It would affect my mood quite a lot. It took quite a bit of time to adapt but I’m definitely used to it now. People think I’m actually mad when I go running out in the snow or pouring rain these days. I imagine others coming to Scotland would have similar experiences especially if they are coming from a warm country such as Australia.

At the start I actually gave away my weekly training routine because I just lost the motivation to keep it going and running in the rain and dark just didn’t seem appealing at the time. It took about a year before I got back into it. After travelling back home for Christmas and New Year I went along to a few triathlon races that my brother was competing in and I caught the bug again. Before I flew back to Glasgow I joined a local triathlon club (Fusion Triathlon Club, Glasgow) and then just over a year later I decided to register for my first ever Ironman event and that was the start of me getting back into shape. Since then I’ve been lucky to have completed five full distance Ironmans at different locations around the world. My last one being in Klagenfurt, Austria in 2018. This year I’m focusing more on the shorter triathlon events and most of my training is done now up at the Scotstoun Leisure Centre.

When I first moved to Glasgow I lived on the south side and even though I now live near Partick, Pollok Park is still a favourite place to run through. I used to run there regularly and still do sometimes on my long weekend running venture.

I enjoy living where I am now. There’s some good bars and cafés close by, some that have regular music session nights. I’m not a big drinker, although when I moved to Scotland I certainly embraced the pipe band culture of bad food and being very sociable. If pushed, I’d say my two favourite bars in Glasgow would probably be the Pipers’ Tryst – not being biased there at all(!) – and on a night out finishing up at Cosmopol for a bit of karaoke. Song choice would always be Enter Sandman by Metallica … just to revisit the days when I used to play in a heavy metal band.

My first decade in Scotland has seen me play and be involved in a lot of recordings and concerts. I’d say my most memorable recordings have been the Illumination and Thunderstruck albums by the NYPBoS because I think the band is very unique and one of the most innovated out there.

The NYPBoS in 2017.

Impact with FMM in 2016 would be my most memorable concert. That was a fantastic show and is up there with being one of the highlights of my pipe band career so far. A lot of work went in to that show and I was extremely honoured to have been involved in the logistics as well as being able to perform on stage with one of the best pipe bands in the world. I’ve been very fortunate to have won the Worlds on five occasions with FMM, with 2011 and 2013 being definite highlights as we won all the major pipe band championships both seasons; a rare Grand Slam.

I know it’s become something of a cliché to say this but being Pipe Major of the Glasgow Police (formerly Strathclyde Police) is such an honour. After growing up listening to the bands performances at the worlds on tape cassettes under Ian McLellan BEM I was mesmerised by the sound the band produced and quality and accuracy of the bands playing. This inspired me to keep working hard and to aspire to maybe one day being able to play at the highest level. I never dreamed of ever achieving what I have done so far in my piping career and I guess I just put it down to my determination to succeed and do the best I can once I commit to something. Something I learnt from a very young age through my dad.

WAPOL at the Worlds.

When I was appointed Pipe Major of the Western Australia Police Pipe Band (WAPOL) in 2006 I was quite inexperienced. I was confident enough that I could do the role but did feel a little out of my depth at the beginning. I was still developing a lot of skills especially with regards to tuning and setting up a band. During my nine years at FMM I tried to learn as much as I could observing one of my idols, Richard Parkes MBE, skills and knowledge that I implemented with the NYPBoS. Certainly, the NYPBoS’ sound developed correspondingly during this period. Many of the officers have gone on to have leading roles in Grade 1 bands, such as Callum Watson who is the Pipe Sergeant of the Grade 1 Boghall & Bathgate Pipe Band. So, I feel I’m now ready for the challenge ahead with the Glasgow Police.

Richard Parkes. Forres 2018.

I’m under no illusions to the hard work that’s ahead but I’m going to give it my best as I’ve always done in life and hopefully I’ll see the improvements and rewards come over time. At the moment my focus is on improving the consistency and quality of the pipe sound produced from each set of bagpipes. I’m also working everyone very hard during the winter months on styling and technique with the hope that this will strengthen our performances when the season comes around especially our MSR playing which I see as a fundamental part of the band improving technically. On my arrival the band changed to Shepherd chanters and will continue to compete with them. We’re also playing Chesney pipe chanter reeds and are all on similar sheepskin bags. I eventually would like all of my pipers on cane drone reeds but for my first season in charge we will be set up on a cane bass and two synthetic tenors.

My goal is to get the band eventually back to the top. As I said before, I’m under no illusions as to the work required to achieve that with so many strong bands and amazing pipe corps currently out there. It’s going to take some time but we’re putting the framework in place now that will hopefully see improvements over time. I have some relatively young and inexperienced players in the ranks who are keen, hardworking and very ambitious. Hopefully they stick together and grow as a team. The band is obviously going through a rebuilding process so it’s not going to happen overnight. As they say, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. At the moment we essentially have two bands, one that competes and one that carries out police engagements. That said, quite a few members feature in both bands which is important from a police perspective.

I have a new generation of youngsters coming through the NYPBoS at the moment and my aim is to provide them the same opportunities that those in my first decade as Director have had. I’m sure that the band will continue to develop and produce some great new music that they feel proud to have been a part of. Throughout my piping career I’ve also been a keen composer. I’ve written about 60 tunes now, and more recently I composed Semper Viglio (the police’s motto, which means literally ‘I always watch; remain awake’) which will be in our number one medley for 2020.

I’ve been all over Scotland with pipe bands but not really on a holiday basis although fairly recently I did a bit of trail running in Glen Nevis. I drove to Fort William and ran the reverse bit of the West Highland Way to near Kinlochleven and back; about 25km during the summer. It was a gorgeous, sunny day. The scenery was amazing, the path quiet. Simply beautiful! One of the reasons I love Scotland.

At the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo with The Pipers’ Trail.

Recently, I was in Edinburgh for the launch of the 2020 REMT. My image has been wrapped onto the side of a Lothian double decker bus! It was quite a weird thing to see. I do wonder if I’ll see the bus out and about the next time I’m over that way. I’m still involved with the Pipers’ Trail aspect of the REMT and enjoying it. As Pipe Major, my goal is to continue to increase the quality of the band and to provide opportunities to pipers and drummers from around the world, giving them the platform to being able to experience their dream of performing in one of the greatest shows in the world. The same dream that I had as a young 14-year-old growing up Perth, Australia when I picked up the pipes for the very first time.

On a personal note, this year has been possibly one of the most challenging of my journey through life so far. Towards the end of last year I was diagnosed with having depression which came as a massive shock to me. Originally, I was embarrassed about it and kept it to myself because I was afraid that people would look at me in a different way. I definitely wouldn’t have mentioned it in a blog. A massive ‘thank you’ has to go out to my close friends, who know who they are, as their unselfish support has kept me on the right path. I really don’t know what I would have done without them. An important step has been accepting that I have this and being more open about it and the way I’m feeling. Hopefully, I can be an inspiration to other people suffering from the same illness. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my ups and downs but I feel that I’m now heading in the right direction, which is important.

Anyway, here’s to 2020 and my next decade. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite mantras which I’ve lived by most of my live: ‘Conceive. Believe. Achieve.’

* The NYPBoS is playing at the Corn Exchange in New Market Road, Edinburgh on February 8. Tickets are priced £11.00-£16.50. Click here for tickets.