By Elizabeth B. Somerville, Edinburgh
This article originally appeared in the December 1984 Piping Times.
I was seven years of age when I went for my first piping lesson from Pipe Major James Sutherland, late of the 2nd Batallion Seaforth Highlanders. I didn’t learn much in the first few weeks for I could already read music, and the ebony chanter, ordered from McDougall, Aberfeldy was much too big for me, as I was not only very young but also small for my age. My mother was instructed to take me to Alex. Glen’s shop on the Mound, Edinburgh, and have me measured for what my teacher called a ‘baby’ chanter. And so my beginning was delayed for several weeks.
I remained with Pipe Major Sutherland for several years, catching up eventually with my McDougall chanter, and graduating, about six months after my beginning, to a half size set of pipes, purchased from Robertson in Grove Street, Edinburgh. I had a fair repertoire of tunes, mostly marches, with a few simple strathspeys and reels, and one or two easy slow airs. After three years I left Pipe Mayor Sutherland, and had a series of lessons from a very fine civilian piper called Willie McLeod who introduced me to more advanced music.
When I was ten I was sent to piano lessons – not very good lessons, I am afraid – but sufficient to let me feel my way among the larger amount of notes. I carried on however playing pipes, very frequently for Highland dancers, and less frequently as a soloist. At 13 I got my first full set of pipes and felt I was getting somewhere. I became a member of two pipe bands – the East Edinburgh, usually called the Abbeyhill Pipe Band, and the Highland Pipers’ Society. I had been a dancing member of the latter for some time. The standard of the latter was very much higher than that of the former, and from time to time there were solos from gifted members of the band at the fortnightly meetings, and sometimes even from outstanding visitors.
And so, I came to hear pibrochs. At first I didn’t think much of them, except that they were long and dull, but from conversations among the band members I gathered that they were very important, and that no one could really call himself a piper if he could not play pibrochs and so I listened to them more carefully. Then, joy of joys, at the age of 16, I had my first pibroch lesson from no less a person than Roderick Campbell
I felt then that I was getting down to real work, I practiced diligently, and two years later I played my first pibroch in public, The Little Spree. Roddie wrote it out for me by hand, and I have the copy to this day
After my performance one of the ushers said a gentleman wanted to see me, and that is how I made the acquaintance of the man who changed the whole of my attitude to piping. He was Captain Ian MacLennan, father of George and Donald. He was quite elderly. He said he had quite enjoyed my playing, and he made me an offer which I have never regretted accepting. “If you will come to me I shall teach you for the sheer joy of teaching you”.
I went to him and I learned about pibroch – the history, the meaning, and above all, how to play it. He loved his subject, and he certainly passed on that great love to me, and I am eternally grateful. He attended to the slightest details and I used to emerge from his lessons feeling revitalised. There was one of his remarks I have never forgotten. He said “I don’t want any payment for these lessons, but if you ever have the chance to play before musicians, please let them know that the bagpipe is really a great instrument.”
I have played the pipe in France, when it was received with wonder by the more serious members of the community although the more ordinary members thought it was an accompaniment to a circus. I have not played the pipe in Germany, but I have played the chanter (I never go on holiday without it) several times, and it has always been received with great interest, and my listeners have plied me with all sorts of serious questions.
In 1936 – a long time ago now – I played a pibroch to the assembled staff and pupils of a summer school for musicians playing all orchestral instruments. Most of the staff are now dead, but among them were Carl Flesch, the great violin teacher and soloist: Charles Hambourg, world famous cellist, and very talented, though not professional, French horn player; Ernest Read, who has done so much for the teaching of music and who conducted the Music School Orchestras; as well as many other outstanding musicians. They were delighted and very interested. For most of them it was quite a new musical experience, and afterwards they crowded round to examine the pipe and ask questions.
In the commemorative photo of the school, I had a place in the very front, displaying as my instrument, not the violin with which I was enrolled in the School, but the bagpipe. I felt my former teacher would have been really proud.
Almost 30 years later I attended a summer school in violin playing arranged by the Hungarian violinist Kato Harras, and we were talking about national music. I asked if she was interested in Scottish music. I explained about pibroch, and asked if she had ever heard one. She said no, and on my chanter, which goes everywhere with me, I played “The Lament for the Children”. She was deeply touched by it, and a year or two later when I asked her to sign a copy of a book she had just published, she wrote, “To E.— whose bagpipe playing remains so fresh in my memory”. A few years later, I was able to play a pibroch on the full pipe at one of her schools to which pupils came from all parts of Britain, a few from European countries, and from the United States. That also was much appreciated.
I could go on writing about how I have tried to pass on to others what Capt. MacLennan gave to me on those wonderful Saturday afternoons so very long ago, but I shall just mention a school pipe band which I organised for 27 years, often against strong opposition from the official music department of the school. I am very proud to lave been a piper. I am now close on 84-years-old, an Associate of the Royal College of music, and a woman.