Bruce’s reflections on Iain Morrison / A 2021 band season? / No visa-free EU tours for musicians


Bruce Hitchings MBE BEM has spoken of his fond memories of his fellow Queen’s Own Highlanders piper, Iain Morrison, who died a few weeks ago.

The recently married judge and proprietor of Highland Reeds told Bagpipe.News: “I was fortunate to have served with Iain when I joined the 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Highlanders in January 1979 after finishing my basic training. Iain was the Pipe Major. The Battalion went to Northern Island that summer but we two were required to stay behind to compete around the highland games circuit. It was a magical time for me. 

“In 1980 I was sent to The Army School of Piping at Edinburgh Castle to do my Senior Pipers’ Course and then stay during the summer at the castle before undertaking the Pipe Major’s Course later in the year. Iain spent several months at the Castle before taking over as Pipe Major of the joiner piping and drumming wing at Bridge of Don, Aberdeen. I did my time at the Castle under Pipe Major Angus MacDonald MBE and Captain Andrew Pitkeathly. At the end of the Pipe Major’s Course, in June 1981, I then went out to Honk Kong for six months before the Battalion returned to Tidworth in England. Again, things were going well for me and I was posted as an instructor for two years to Bridge of Don under Iain as Pipe Major.

“Some of the best – if not the best – performances I have heard were from Iain. When he was on form, he was outstanding. I have never heard anyone play a strathspey as good as him, even on recordings. He not only oozed music his technique was exceptional, and his bagpipe was musically full of harmonics and resonance on every chanter note. 

“This probably came from the music he grew up with and his natural talent but he worked harder than anyone else. He started very working day doing at least two hours of figure/doubling exercises. He attended to nothing until this was done and it was reputed that even the Commanding Officer would not call him until his exercisers were finished. He did not play his pipes that much, preferring to practice tunes more on the practice chanter. Even and almost every time we travelled on a bus he would be practicing away in the front seat. I found his teaching was more about the student understanding what he was playing and saying than going over tunes again and again. I do not believe enough pipers today listen to the great players and work out what they are doing. 

“My good friend and fellow judge, Ian Duncan sent me this recording of Iain winning the Gold Medal in 1969 with Lament for the Viscount of Dundee:

“Listen to the harmonics from the drones giving such clarity to the chanter notes. Also to the clarity of the playing and the preciseness and balance of the movements. Above all, listen to the subtlety given to each note in its length and musical flow. In this recording, Iain goes on to play a wonderful MSR.”

The Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association’s plans for a competition season this year remain cautiously optimistic – despite the United Kingdom government advising that autumn (fall) will likely be the time when it hopes to have completed its COVID-19 vaccination roll out.

Isle of Islay marches into the circle during the 2019 European Pipe Band Championships in Inverness.

The Association says grants from the Scottish Government and Northern Ireland Assembly may even be possible for promoters.

A spokesman said: “The planning for a 2021 season needs to be progressed as we all desire a return to normality. The [Scottish] Government guidance for the events sector on social distancing requirements to combat the spread of COVID-19 are making the planning of our events difficult for ourselves and our promoters. The prognosis is constantly changing as to when outdoor events will be able to take place and as such, we can only be reactive by preparing ourselves by considering likely scenarios.

“… Paisley is keen to host an event [the British Championships on May 22] but like many promoters are waiting like ourselves for Government guidance. There is a possibility of some funding for promoters (c. £5K) to bring back an event. The Ulster Scots have received some funding for Northern Ireland.”

At this early stage, the Association has hopes that the World Pipe Band Championships will go ahead, “in some form”. As Stuart Letford predicted here a few weeks ago, this may mean some of the ‘majors’ being held in September. It may also mean some being held online.

A spokesman said decisions on a season will be taken at the forthcoming AGM in March.

A proposal to exempt performers and musicians from the cost and bureaucracy of touring in the European Union (EU) for 90 days has been rejected. The proposal was made in the final days of the recent Brexit negotiations.

Bands wishing to tour the EU now face more bureaucracy.

The United Kingdom government rejected the offer, with the revelation sparking bitter recriminations after music industry representatives had been reassured repeatedly that a deal would protect touring performers, as well as their support teams and equipment.

Musicians must no, apply for visas to visit for more than 30 days as well as providing proof of savings and a sponsorship certificate from an event organiser.  They fear their plans for longer tours in the future will have to be scrapped at a time when they are already reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deborah Annetts, chief exexcutive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) said she was “horrified” by the evidence that an offer on music was spurned. She said: “The music sector feels deeply let down and we want to get to the bottom of what happened.”

It appears the stumbling block was the UK’s immigration crackdown that has introduced tough restrictions on tours by EU musicians.

A petition has been launched demanding visa-free tours. Almost 250,000 people have signed it so far.

Musicians in the United States enjoys a permit-free exemption in their deals with the EU. It is now a matter for each EU member state to decide whether to demand work visas, in the absence of a bloc-wide agreement.