Stuart Letford

2020, Bliadhna na Cobhid (the Year of Covid to those unfamiliar with Gaelic), the year that almost all piping activity took place in front of a laptop or Smart phone. Where every competition or band practice began like a seance:

“Hello? Can you hear me … can you hear me? ”

Sitting here at home in my isolation inspiration station on the cusp of a new year, I think back to the Uist & Barra solo piping competition which took place in early March. The virus reached the UK a few weeks previously (on January 31. I was one of about 100 people enjoying the piping in a packed auditorium at the National Piping Centre Otago Street (the old College of Piping building) and I imagine none of us thought that within a few weeks society was to enter the most challenging time of the modern era.

It was Bill Shankly, the Scots-born legendary manager of Liverpool Football Club, who said famously: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” It’s a quip I’ve always been contemptuous of, particularly given that Shanks was born and raised in an Ayrshire coal-mining community, which you’d expect would have given him a good sense of perspective. Be that as it may, it felt this year that the sentiment behind Shanks’ quote had been carried into some parts of the pipe band world.

Some of the competitors at the 2020 Uist & Barra held in March.

By the middle of summer, some piping commentators – not just the usual ‘experts’ found on social media – had lost all sense of proportion – and reality – in calling for a resumption of piping activity as normal, as if a respiratory pandemic was nothing more than a mild inconvenience. It was with more than a little bemusement that we saw them take a fit of the vapours with their harrumphing against the measures taken by political leaders on scientific advice. They only made fools of themselves.

Football is not a matter of life and death and neither is piping but our hobbies and pastimes certainly make life worth living.

Writing here in July, I sensed that there may not be a pipe band season in 2021. I hope I am wrong. The RSPBA has optimistically pencilled in the British Championships, the first ‘major’ of the season, for the third week of May. As things stand, though, I think all the major championships should be put back a few weeks and take us through to September instead of mid-August. We’ll see. (While we’re at it, how about a change in name for the majors? They each have nothing to do with geography and nothing to differentiate each from the other: the British, the UK, the Europeans, the Scottish … it’s a nonsense.)

The piping world – in fact, the world! – looks to New Zealand and Australia with envy. Particularly New Zealand. Its political leaders have handled this pandemic superbly from the outset. They acted quickly and implemented strict border controls that allowed their citizens far more freedom under them. Gatherings, including piping, have pretty much resumed as normal there; tomorrow sees the Northcote Invitational Solo Piping Competition. Here in the United Kingdom, on the other hand … we are still in varying degrees of lockdown and you don’t need me to tell you why. Writing this as the year ends it feels that, despite vaccines being rolled out, we’re essentially where we were in the spring.

While I, presumably like you, will be glad to see the back of this year, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Get the jag – in Scotland we call it a jag; a jab is something a boxer does. Keep a sense of perspective. COVID-19 is highly contagious and is deadly. Bear in mind, though, it was only the 25th commonest cause of death (in the UK) in August and at the time of writing – late December – is now the 11th. Earlier in November I spoke with an acquaintance who is an epidemiologist. He warned that the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines may be only partially effective and it’s possible that they might provide immunity only for a limited period, even as short as 12 to 18 months. There is no doubt, though, that the first effective vaccines, even imperfect ones, can have a major impact and be a precious commodity. We now have three vaccines.

A computer rendering of a coronavirus. As expected, there is now a new mutation.

Over 99% of us have not died from this virus. There was a lull after the storm which was squandered and now we’re in another storm. Vaccines must not be an excuse to carry on as before. What this pandemic has revealed is the appalling state of public health in Scotland and indeed in western society as a whole. There is an urgent need to reduce the risk of dying from the effects of obesity, smoking, alcohol, junk food, inactivity and air pollution. According to the British Medical Journal, there is increasing evidence that indicates obesity is an independent risk factor for severe illness and death from COVID-19. The obesity pandemic is the result of living in food environments where it is difficult not to over-consume calories. Given that our pastime is such as unhealthy one, perhaps we should all be using this down time to get ourselves healthier?

Risk can never be eliminated but it can be managed. Also, our tolerance of risk is influenced more by experience than listening to scientists and politicians. If you’re a GP, a nurse or doctor and you’ve spent the last 10 months treating people fighting desperately for life with this virus, you’re highly unlikely to participate in any mass gathering. If you’re a piper or drummer who hasn’t any first-hand experience of this virus, you’re likely to shrug your shoulders and insist, “I want my social life back.”

Don’t shrug your shoulders.

This virus – SARS CoV2 is its proper name – is fragile. It breaks up simply by us using soap and water. Hand washing is therefore extremely effective. Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Be aware that you’re safer outdoors: wind, heat and UV light protect us. Hopefully, the political leaders in the west will learn from how those in the Far East and Pacific managed this crisis so well, such as those in Taiwan, Japan, New Zealand and others.

Band practices will return. When it is safe to do so.

• Play your pipes.
• Keep the heid.
• Wash you hands.
• Play your pipes.
• Avoid social media ‘experts’.
• Avoid social media.
• Avoid the media: get health information directly from the horses’ mouth and not via the media’s filter.
• Wear a mask.
• Play your pipes.

See you on the grass in 2021 … hopefully.

I wish you a happy new year when it comes.

P.S. Play your pipes.

Piper(s) of the Year, 2020

Speaking with the rest of the team here at Bagpipe.News, we have agreed that three individuals will share our Piper of the Year for 2020.

Ian Duncan, Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton.

In what has been the worst year of his life, Ian Duncan continues to support and advance piping in Scotland financially through the Gordon Duncan Memorial Trust, the organisation he founded in 2006 shortly after the death of his brother. As I’m sure will be the case with you, my thoughts are with him, wife Chris and the wider family at this time.

In the modern era, musicians – all musicians – need to tour and perform concerts in order to make a living. For Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton, professional pipers both, their livelihoods were devastated this year through not being able to play concerts and to tour. Despite this, last month both donated a day’s merchandise sales to a food bank in Glasgow.

We salute this trio.