A delve into the treasure trove of Piping Today

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Piping Today Cover Images

By Chris MacKenzie

Piping Today sprung to life in 2002 as a development of The Piping Centre’s Notes pamphlet and went on to document the multifaceted world of piping. The casual observer may wonder what on earth there is to fill one issue of a piping-related magazine, let alone 101 – and, conversely, those involved in any of piping’s myriad branches wonder how on earth you cover it all in only 101 editions. This article takes a reflective look through the back catalogue. 

Photo feature and review of the Worlds 2009 when Inveraray won Grade 2.
Inveraray & District march off Glasgow Green as Grade 1 World Champions in 2017.

One of the joys of poring over old issues is coming across articles that, with hindsight, seem almost prescient. One such was an interview in issue 18 (2005) with Stuart Liddell, where he announced he was setting up a new pipe band. As he said: “I’ve started up a young novice juvenile band – the Inveraray and District Pipe Band – which only has six or seven young pipers just now and a few drummers. I get a great deal of enjoyment from teaching and it’s so rewarding seeing them come on. I don’t know what’s ahead. I just want to keep chipping away and see what happens. I’m curious to see how far I can take them. It might all fall flat on its face next year or it might take off. Who knows? But I’ll certainly give it my best shot.” While there was an ‘air of expectation’ that Stuart might produce a very good juvenile band, there were few who predicted the band would be performing its Ascension Worlds Concert just eight years later (review in issue 63) and that it would be World Champions (2017) just 12 years after starting. It can be safely said that it took off.

Interview with Terry Tully on the eve of the Worlds 2010.
Field Marshal Montgomery play for the March Past at the World Pipe Band Championships 2011.

Issue 18 also featured the news that Roddy MacLeod was stepping down as Pipe Major of ScottishPower Pipe Band, but that wasn’t to be the end of his adventures as a Grade 1 Pipe Major as he memorably captained the Spirit of Scotland Pipe Band. The international all-star band got together in the week of the 2008 Worlds and achieved a very impressive 12th place overall. The story was captured in the On The Day DVD and the tale of how that came about was recounted in issue 38. Naturally, interviews with some of the elite of the pipe band world have been a big feature of the magazine, luminaries such as Robert Mathieson (issue 10), Terry Tully (issue 43) Ross Walker (issue 51), Richard Parkes (issue 54), Nat Russell (issue 59), Alex Gandy (issue 73), Duncan Nicholson (issue 81) and Iain McLeod (issue 82) have shared their opinions on all things piping. 

One of the great things about Piping Today is that it spreads its wings further than than the elite in the pipe band world and has featured many bands across the grades over the years including Linlithgow and District (issue 14), Grampian Police (issue 27), Toronto Police (issue 47), Scottish Borders (issue 55), and the Isle of Islay Pipe Band (issue 58), to mention but a few. Issue 37 saw a report on The Diary of a Pipe Band an STV (Scottish TV) online production featuring Johnstone Pipe Band, then in Grade 2. The piece ended with broadcaster John MacKay musing about the upcoming competitive season: “How will they have fared? Will they have attained the improvements sought by the Pipe Major?” In hindsight, the answer to that was clear.

St John’s College Pipe Band from Harare are Grade B Novice Juvenile World Champions 2018.

Those in the pipe band world who want an insight into the mind of a judge should seek out the Bob Worrall interviews in issue 46 and issue 61.

ABOVE: The National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland with Director, Alisdair McLaren, after his final concert in 2020.

The idea of a non-competitive pipe band featuring the very best young talent from all over Scotland may originally have seemed a ‘pipe dream’ but the National Piping Centre put this into action, first under Paul Warren as Director then, for the last 10 years, Alisdair McLaren.The development of the band has been closely followed in Piping Today – the magazine incorporates ‘Youngstars, The NYPBoS newsletter’ – and it has been fascinating to watch the band mature into one of the finest concert bands in the world. There is no other band whose development has been so well documented. The ‘NYPBoS Question time with …’ feature has had many promising players who have gone on to do great things, none more so than the young player featured in issue 44, a 14-year-old Connor Sinclair. When asked, “What do you want to achieve in piping?”, he responded: “To win the Glenfiddich Championship more times than Willie McCallum.” Given his win in the MSR competition at the 2019 Glenfiddich, he would seem to be still working hard at that.

Connor Sinclair playing at The Glenfiddich 2019 where he won the MSR.

As you would expect, the solo competitive piping scene has been very well covered in the magazine and many of the top performers have featured over the years, such as Chris Armstrong (issue 7), Bruce Gandy (issue 8), Murray Henderson (issue 13), Alastair Dunn (issue 28), Callum Beaumont (issue 54), Finlay Johnstone (issue 83) and Connor Sinclair (issue 100). 

Although most of the results from the competitions are covered in the news section the most prestigious event of all, the Glenfiddich Championship, has always been given extensive coverage and Fergus Muirhead’s reports from Blair Castle have been the next best thing to being there on the day. Issue 9 (2004) saw piping legend Willie McCallum commenting on the small pool of winners at the big events: “In the 14 years since (and including) 1990, the Ram’s Horn trophy for the overall winner at the Glenfiddich Piping Championship – the de facto world title of solo piping – has been held by just five people: William McCallum (six times), Roddy MacLeod (three times), Alasdair Gillies (three times), Angus MacColl and Jack Lee.” To this list of stars should be added the names of Gordon Walker, Mike Cusack, Bill Livingstone, Stuart Shedden, Stuart Liddell, Finlay Johnston, Dr Angus MacDonald, Robert Wallace, Brian Donaldson and a few others. It may have taken the better part of 16 years but only one of the above, the remarkable Jack Lee, featured in the 2019 Glenfiddich, so it looks like the tradition has passed into safe hands. 

Allan MacDonald at Piping Live! 2019.

As you might expect from a magazine at the epicentre of the piping world, the history of the Great Highland Bagpipe has been very well covered with such topics as Piping Traditions in North Uist (issue 17), Ian Dàll MacKay’s (the blind piper of Gairloch) chanter (issue 21), Allan MacDonald on Piobaireachd and its origins (issue 9, issue 98), the Development of Competitive light music from 1947 (issue 80), the Campbell Cantaireachd Manuscript (issue 40), and Decker Forrest’s snappily titled The Grip, birl, and rodin early notation methods (issue 8) for those who want to get deep into the history. Aside from being a historical artefact in its own right, Piping Today has done a great job in providing a window on piping’s past.

ABOVE: Mike Katz at a session at Sandy Bell’s pub in Edinburgh.

So far, so ‘piping magazine’, however one thing Piping Today has done from the outset is open its pages to the broader piping tradition. It has showcased the revival of bellows pipes in Scotland, and further afield, with many articles on the history and the players of those instruments. You can find the exact date of the formation of the Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society (LBPS) in issue 3. Issue 7 had an article on the LBPS’ go-to manual for bellows pipes, More Power to your Elbow, issue 14 had Fred Morrison discussing the development of his Border pipes with McCallum Bagpipes, Pete Stewart discussed his seminal book The Day it Daws – The Lowland Scots bagpipe and its Music, 1400-1715 in issue 21, Pete reappeared in issue 38 with an article on his book Welcome Home My Dearie – piping in the Scottish Lowlands 1690-1900, issue 37 had a feature on ace Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell, and Gillian Chalmers’ excellent article on the revival of the Border pipe featured in issue 40. Add to all that interviews with such key players on the scene as Fred Morrison (issue 44 and issue 78), Ross Ainslie (issue 75), Gary West (issue 59), Mike Katz (issue 87), Callum Armstrong (issue 85) and Finlay MacDonald (issue 97) and you build a picture of a magazine that has done its bit to acknowledge the impact bellows piping is having on the tradition.

Zexuan Qiao at St Cecilia’s Hall Music Museum in Edinburgh.

The twin festivals of Celtic Connections and the National Piping Centre’s own Piping Live! have helped fuel the growth in popularity of bellows piping. Both these festivals have been given extensive coverage in the magazine which has helped build the bridge from the competitive scene to the folk scene so that both are recognised for the great music they produce. 

ABOVE: Stuart Liddell entertains a packed street cafe audience at Piping Live 2019.

From the outset Piping Today has featured articles that help pipers be better players. John Slavin’s excellent Playing the Highland Pipes with other instruments (issue 50, issue 52, issue 53, issue 55) should be compulsory reading for all pipers, Jori Chisholm shared the Secrets for making your pipes easier to play in issue 46, and he gave hints on How to get the most out of your practice in issue 44, and How to achieve a world class sound in issue 65. However, the doyen of technical advice to the piper is undoubtedly Timothy Cummings who picked up on John’s thread and kept going. Whatever you need to know about musical theory, Timothy has covered it in his Theoretically Speaking features, whether it is how keys work in medley construction (issue 63), or talking about tunes in A-Mixolydian (issue 71), getting down and dirty with compound time (issue 72) or demystifying time signatures (issue 95). Those who have read, and re-read I suspect, Timothy’s articles will be all the better musicians for that. 

Michael Grey at Saltcoats Harbour with the Isle of Arran in the distance.

Every good magazine needs a good opinion column and the best always put that on the back page, and that is exactly where you would find Michael Grey’s thoughts on all things piping, both technical and philosophical – although mainly philosophical. Whether it is relating how he spent a night in Captain John A. MacLellan’s study (issue 51), asking what have the pipes ever done for us (issue 61) or just musing on the piper’s life (issue 49 to issue 100) Michael’s articles have brought a very welcome dose of perspective, and humour, to those in the piping bubble.

Of course, the magazine has also had many, many one-off articles and over the years you could read about: a piping in prison initiative (issue 4); piping in the sunny climes of Hawaii (issue 15); the bagpipe of Anatolia (issue 37),  piping in South America (issue 28); Jim Kilpatrick on drumming (issue 5); how to practice the Alexander Technique for musicians (issue 21 and 22); the effects playing the bagpipes had on a Tahitian King when Captain Cook visited (issue 11); the visit of three piping monks from Papa Stronsey to The National Piping Centre (issue 78); The Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade Pipe Band (issue 84); traditional music sessions in Edinburgh (issue 63); and women in the piping world (issue 46) to mention but a very small selection. In short, if there was a piping connection, the magazine probably covered it.

The above is but a very short canter through the treasure trove that is around 5,000 pages of piping related material. If you are lucky enough to have the magazines (or even a subset of them), do yourself a favour and sit down with a large whisky and browse back through them and you will enjoy them all over again. Special thanks from all contributors over the years go to esteemed editor Roddy MacLeod MBE, and to the original features editor, Mike Paterson, and the current features manager, John Slavin – you can be exceptionally proud of the magazine you produced. 

NB: answers to the questions posed at the start: William McCallum played with Heidelberg and District Pipes and Drums in 2011 through a teaching connection he had with the band (issue 53), harmonica player Donald Black persuaded Hohner to adapt one of their instruments to include G and high G to create the Hohner Highlander (issue 28), LA’s session piper is, of course, Eric Rigler (issue 11), and Roddy MacLeod’s Beast from the East delay led to David Colvin’s play Thunderstruck being performed at Piping Live! (issue 96).

The Crowdfunder to digitise the Piping Times and Piping Today archive is live from now until the end of this month (May 31). Donations can be made directly by clicking here.