Finlay Frame: A good day’s piping

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It doesn’t happen very often, especially in the climate we are in at the moment, but occasionally one of these days comes along: a good day’s piping. With so little to look forward to at the moment, sometimes the motivation to practice and work is born purely out of boredom.

Picture the scene  – it’s raining outside, it’s a Saturday and the pubs are closed. I’m staring vacantly around the sitting room and my eyes come to rest on the little pile of piping books by the window. I pick them up and head through to the kitchen, pour a fresh mug of Barry’s Tea and set down to work with the practice chanter. Idly leafing through the pages of various books and playing a few quick bars of Captain Campbell of Drum a Voisk here and a bit of John MacDonald’s Welcome to South Uist there, and then remarking, “Oh look at that, they’re kind of similar…” before moving on and just having a general leaf through the pages with no other goal other than to have something to do.

Eventually, though, the persistent nagging at the back of the head takes over, and I gaze grudgingly over towards my laptop. Time to do a bit of university work. I can’t complain, really. For my third year Research Project I am writing about the life and lasting legacy of Pipe Major Angus MacDonald MBE which is as good and interesting a research project as I could’ve asked for, especially in comparison to friends of mine who spend their time writing about biochemical engineering or economics.

Once I get the first few words down, the rest flows easily and I decide to take a break for fear of finishing all my work so far before the submission date. Part of my project involves me learning some of Angus’s compositions, so with that in mind I went back to the practice chanter and played through his two collections of music and then a quick skim through the Scots Guards (volume 2).

I then take a lunch break. Spaghetti Hoops and more tea; nice. In the background my laptop is playing The Battle of the Pass of Crieff, the new piobaireachd I’m learning. With that fresh in my head and my bowl of Hoops demolished I have a play through the Pass of Crieff on the practice chanter.

Finlay enjoying a good day’s piping.

Now, all of a sudden, I’m in a piobaireachd mood. I look out the window and it is still raining. I turn back to the Kilberry book in front of me and flick over the page to The Vaunting, a tune I learned last year but hadn’t played since the MacGregor Memorial Competition in August. I’m pleasantly surprised to find I haven’t forgotten all of it and am able to play through it on the chanter, with only the occasional glance at the book. Next I play MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart, No.1 and then just for good measure, MacLeod of Colbeck.

It is still raining and it occurs to me that I’ve been sat here for hours, and have been practicing for longer than I have in … forever? All because of the sheer enjoyment of it. Just playing for the sake of playing. And I haven’t even touched the pipes yet.

I came to realise that this day would and should just be a day for immersing myself in pipes. When I’d not been on the chanter I’d been writing about piping, or eating Spaghetti Hoops and listening to piping, so I picked up the pipes and just played. I played for maybe about an hour or so. There’s not really much point playing any longer than that really. It’s not terribly enjoyable for you or your pipes and, in many cases, your neighbours as well.

The nature of my university course and, of course, the COVID-19 restrictions, mean that every week I have to submit a quite a few recordings of my tunes – ceòl mòr, ceòl beag and the odd bit of ceòl nua (Mathew Welch’s gift to the piping world). This, combined with the sheer volume of material required to be covered over the year, puts quite a lot of pressure on one, especially when that ‘record’ button on the Smart phone is pressed. (Why is it that as soon as you press the ‘record’ button your pipes somehow know how to start misbehaving?)

Today, though, I didn’t record anything – I probably should have but that’s a job for tomorrow – and I had the best practice session I’ve had in ages. I enjoyed playing the music and the pipes went well. I played through The Vaunting and MacLeod of Colbeck better than I ever could in a competition setting or for a class. Just playing for pleasure. It was brilliantly refreshing to have that pressure lifted.

It was still raining when I finished so I sat down to another mug of tea. After an hour on the pipes and a full morning of practice chanter, I was quite happy to go back to some of my writing for the research project. After that I sat and read the first few pages of A Highlander Looks Back by Angus McPherson of Invershin. It was just a day immersed in pipes with no pressure to perform or compete. A day surrounded by piping. A very calm, refreshing day. It is very rare for a day like this to come around, a day in which I felt like I’d consolidated, absorbed and began to understand a little more about our great art. 

I’m not sure I’ll see another day like this for a while. Perhaps it’s the same for most people or perhaps every day is like this for you. Anyway, it was a good day’s piping.

I’ve just realised that the reason this all happened was probably because there was no Six Nations rugby international match on this weekend …

* Finlay Frame is currently on his third year of studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland/National Piping Centre’s BMus (Traditional Music – Piping) Degree course. He lives in Ayrshire, Scotland and is a member of the Glasgow and Strathclyde University OTC Pipes and Drums.