1. How are you these days?
I am doing fine, thanks. I think this second round of lockdown restrictions has been far more challenging and there are days when motivation is low, but in speaking to friends and colleagues, I think many people are feeling the same – it’s always nice to remember you’re not alone in this!
2. How are you teaching pipes in this new virus situation?
I believe the positive to come from the pandemic is that it has forced us all to look at what we do and how we do it. There will be some things that stick from all of this. Last March, we moved to online lessons at Strathallan [the boarding school in Perthshire, Scotland, where Craig teaches pipes – Editor] using Microsoft Teams. It was really successful and many of the pupils progressed further than they had been in person. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching online for the first little while, but the big challenge was getting the pupils on to the pipes. I don’t know if laptop microphones can’t deal with the volume, or if it was down to poor connection, but it was really difficult to hear the pipes properly in lessons. We spent a lot of time on chanters though, learning tune after tune and sorting out technique.
Then came September and our return to school. Strathallan invested in electric chanters and we could hold lessons in person. It was just great to have that face-to-face interaction with the pupils. Again though, no bagpipes! There were ways we could have interpreted some rules to allow us to play, potentially outside, but we thought it best to stick as closely to the guidance as possible.
Heading for a year since the first lockdown and we are back to online teaching. The same issues apply, but I’m happy to report that numbers have stayed up!
3. Is there anything you can’t leave home without?
My phone, which is ironic as I am well known for being hard to get a hold of!
4. What’s your favourite destination, either for a holiday or on a piping trip?
I love Tenerife for a holiday. They share our patron saint, Andrew and our flag, so one day I’d love to organise a pipe band to take part in the San Andrés festival at the end of November!
5. You’ve travelled a fair bit. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I’ve been really lucky and travelled lots. The strangest thing I’ve eaten was an ox testicle in Kenya. It was a pretty unpleasant experience!
6. What’s your favourite international food?
Certainly not ox testicle! I am a curry man. I love Indian food and when I was living in Glasgow took full advantage of the incredible curry houses around town.
7. Do you have a go at the local language when abroad?
I have a go, my Swahili is legendary in the Kenya Childrens’ Home … as in they enjoy laughing at how poor it is!
8. When you travel is there something you particularly miss when away?
I love travelling but I always look forward to returning home. It’s usually food I am thinking about. A good Saturday night takeaway. When I was on tour years ago, I was always scared of missing out on what my friends were getting up to. Every time I got back when I asked what I had missed, the answer was, “Nothing”.
9. Do you have a set practice routine you could share with readers?
When I was competing often I was mad on practising in the run up to competitions and did very little otherwise. I like to play big sets of tunes so if I am practising light music, I would happily play through four marches, four strathspeys and four reels in one go – and sometimes six. I still spend a lot of time on the practice chanter (but am lucky that’s part of my job) and quite enjoy working on technique. I think that is always important, but also to properly stretch and look after your hands.
10. Arrangements of yours have been played by a fair number of bands over the years. What’s your most satisfactory one so far?
My most satisfactory arrangement was probably Queen Elizabeth the Second’s Salute which was first performed by ScottishPower at the Pipes of Peace Concert in the Clyde Auditorium [in 2013]. One of the world’s best bands playing a beautiful piobaireachd with harmonies, piano and some strings … it was pretty special. There have been lots of competition sets that I have really enjoyed and been proud of but I got the biggest buzz from that one.
11. What do you set out to achieve in your arrangements for pipe bands?
This is a really interesting question. When I first started doing this sort of thing in my teenage years, it was actually more about being a part of the team than anything else. Some of my peers were great with sound, some had great chat, I had the knack for arranging music and came at it from a different angle. So in doing that, I felt like an important part of the team which was important to me as a youngster.
With some higher profile arrangements, you are then asked to do the same for others. From that point, it was about creating something that I enjoyed listening back, hoping from that, others would enjoy it, too.
If it is pipe band harmonies we are talking about, I am always wary of it being too much and taking away from the medley. I’m sure some crit sheets in the past will have accused me of that. You don’t want any big, heavy technique – it’s not a tune you are writing, it’s something to hopefully support the melody.
12. What’s your most memorable performance, either band or solo?
There are a few performances right up there and none of them are in a traditional piping setting. A stand out is down at Buckingham Palace with Roddy MacLeod, Wilson Brown, Finlay Johnson, Finlay MacDonald and Kyle Howie. A memorable performance in the throne room, but the day was even more memorable, stuck in the dungeons of the palace in a 40˚C London heatwave. Never mind, we rehydrated at the hotel bar afterwards!
Having said that, Commonwealth Games Closing Ceremony in Delhi in front of a billion people. I don’t think I’ll top that.
13. Who has been the biggest influence on your piping?
If you thought my last answer was indecisive, I’m about to get worse. I have honestly been so lucky to have spent quality time with some of the greatest pipers on the planet. There are little snippets I could take from speaking to lots of them in hotel bars, or waiting on a flight at an airport, passing remarks from those guys, but things that have influenced me.
There were a group of old boys who taught me, for free, at the Royal Burgh of Stirling Pipe Band. Stuart Cassels was there at that point and got me involved in the Chilli Pipers much later on. I was taught by Gavin Stoddart, Chris Armstrong, Allan MacDonald and Stuart Samson throughout my time at the RSAMD, that’s when I started really taking things seriously. I learned so much from Willie McCallum, going to his house from lessons – something I keep saying I want to get back to. There is no better confidence boost than Willie telling you you’re playing well! Roddy MacLeod has been a bit of a mentor throughout my piping career and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I really cannot say who has had the biggest influence out of all of those names but I would say my family support me in everything I do and have helped shape my career.
14. What pipers did you aspire to?
I aspired to many of the players I have mentioned – Roddy, Willie, Chris – and before that, Stuart Cassels, who was working closely with me as a youngster.
15. How do you relax and do you have other interests or hobbies?
I took up running about two years ago and subsequently lost about two and a half stone (which was much needed). I love getting out with the headphones in, usually listening to piping it has to be said, and clocking up the miles. That has also been a bit of a saviour throughout lockdown. I enjoy writing tunes and some of my best ideas seem to come when I’m out a run!
16. Did you take part in any online show, concerts or recitals last year or this year? Burns Night, perhaps?
I did play at a few online events last year and also posted a fair bit on social media to publicise my new book of compositions. The school twisted my arm in to being one of the hosts of an online Burns Supper which showed off some of the kids talents.
17. You’ve worked in piping for most of your adult life but was there a time when you did something else?
No – I always tell people, I’ve never had a proper job. I played my way through university, did a bit of touring and playing (albeit there was a lot of piano gigs in there too) and then started teaching, which was always the end goal. I started at the age of eight after meeting the Royal Burgh of Stirling Pipe Band out in Lorient at the festival. Before that, I don’t think I had really considered playing. By age 13 it was pretty clear that I wanted to take it seriously. I was lucky enough to try lots of activities as a youngster, so I’m sure my parents thought it would be just another hobby for a few months.
18. Do you recall the very first competition you competed in?
I can tell you what my first band contest was: Dunbar Games in 2000 and I vaguely remember my first solo contest being run by Denny and Dunipace – or at least it was at Denny High School. I was placed third in an event I didn’t play in … It turned out I should have been third in my event and some poor youngster had to be stripped of their bronze medal. I’m sitting here chuckling thinking about that. What a shame!
19. Where are you living these days?
I live in Bannockburn which was where I grew up and my friends and family are all close by. I lived onsite up at Strathallan for six years but have my own place now and travel in to work each day.
20. What’s the thinking behind the free YouTube lessons for beginners?
The Lockdown Piping Club came from a very real concern about bagpiping going forward. I know from speaking to friends with piping related businesses that they are struggling, I know from speaking to teaching colleagues in other schools that numbers of participants are down and there were very few new starts this academic year. I’ve mentioned already how I was taught for free at my local pipe band and those are all on hold, so the realisation hit me that we are in real danger of missing out on two years worth of beginner pipers.
Maybe I’m a pessimist, but with potentially two years of no contests/pipe band practices, decisions to retire from piping may well have been accelerated. I am hearing lots of chat that ‘I haven’t missed it’ etc. There will undoubtedly be a group of players who are anxious about coming back in to piping and in to large groups. OK, the top 10% will probably just get on with it as it is just our lives, but it’s the other 90% who help support the entire piping community and help preserve the tradition.
With all that in mind, I thought we could set up a Lockdown Piping Club and get a few new starts involved. They might tell their friends, they might buy some piping related products and support some of our businesses and a few might even stick at it and make a positive contribution to the piping world. I was completely overwhelmed by the uptake and the media attention that came with it. We now have over 1,000 new starts taking weekly online classes through various platforms. I never want us to lose this idea that piping is for everyone. We’re also in the process of teaming up with CHAS [Children’s Hospices Across Scotland, the Scottish charity that offers support to children with life-shortening conditions] to offer chanter classes to children and young people associated with the charity and I’m thankful to the piping club members who have fundraised to buy the chanters for them.
Thank you, Craig.