Dan Nevans reviews ‘A Wee Bit o’ a Tune’

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Dan Nevans

A bagpipe is an investment. If you are lucky then you’ll get a return out of that investment either for yourself or for whomever gets the pipe after you. The mystique of the antique bagpipe is much like the sword ‘Excalibur’ in Thomas Mallory’s epic, Le Morte d’Arthur: the object retains some of it’s previous owner and the new owner will be elevated by that power.

On A Wee bit o’ a Tune we have our own piping parallel to the Arthurian legend in a century old set of pipes made in Aboyne, Aberdeenshire by cabinet maker and tutor of John MacDougall Sr and Bob Brown of Balmoral, Charles Ewen. The pipes are full ivory and African blackwood and can be seen being played by John Sr. and Scott on the front cover of the album. The ‘Glentanar’, pipes as they are known in the family, were made by Ewen for John Sr. when he was Ewen’s pupil.

The idea behind the project is to showcase the sound of the pipes across three generations of a family, utilising a family archive of recordings. We hear pieces from Father, Son and Great Grandson. The album features mainly the playing of the ‘Highland Hoover‘ himself, John A. MacDougall (so called for his consistent success around the highland games circuit). From him we hear March, Strathspeys and Reels, Jigs and Hornpipes, Slow Airs and 6/8 Marches. All delivered with the kind of clinical accuracy and musicianship one would expect from such a successful competitive player. The pitch of the bagpipe may seem lower to some but the steadiness of the pipe quickly settles the sound into the listeners’ ear. There’s a crackling high A, which I have been assured was the style at the time, is the only note to stand out as not clear within the tonality of the instrument.

The short recordings of John Sr. are an interesting listen as they showcase the fashion of tuning in the early 20th century; the D and High G are quite out to our contemporary ear and yet there is something musical to it. We can forget any notion that the player simply did not know how to tune the pipes as the drones are steady and together, although they do shift around in the light music recordings and there’s some ‘blowing for tone’ in the fine, musical excerpt from Lament for Captain MacDougall. Recognising that these recordings of John Sr. were made in the house and not for commercial release allows us to appreciate the care taken over the playing and the relaxed nature of performance.

I take no joy in telling you the least polished performances on this record are by Scott. There are technical and musical issues throughout and the bagpipe is often out of tune from the beginning of a set.

Scott has spent a lot of time digitising recordings made by his great-grandfather and grandfather from reel-to-reels and cassettes. The sound quality has been tweaked in places to allow for clarity but that old analogue sound still comes through rich and warm. The recordings of Scott himself were made on Uist in 2015 and are also of a high quality and allow us to get a clear listen to the quality of the pipe.

I have one more gripe I’m afraid. The liner notes in the album sleeve needed at least one more proofread: sentences that start and end in different contexts, different years given for the same event and spelling errors and other errors pop up in every section.

All in all, though, A Wee Bit o’ a Tune is an enjoyable tour through the musical lineage of the MacDougall family. I wish Scott all the best in the process of digitising the family archive and hope that more gems fall from it into the public arena soon.

On my scale of 1-5 (1 being The Doors’ Soft Parade – unlistenable garbage – and 5 being Hot Chocolate’s Everyone’s a Winner – unattainable brilliance) I give A Wee Bit o’ a Tune a 3: enjoyable and interesting but I feel that for many the sound of the pipes and styles of playing will not be satisfying enough.

A Wee Bit o’ a Tune is available priced £13.50 from the Burgess Bagpipes Ltd. website.

* Dan Nevans is a full-time Piping Teacher at the National Piping Centre. He is a music graduate from the BA Applied Music at the University of Strathclyde. As well as being a familiar face around Scotland’s solo piping circuit, Dan plays with Glasgow Police, having played previously with Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia and Vale of Atholl.