The treasure-house of the Piping Times

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By Hugh Cheape

No profession of substance and reputation can be without its magazine or journal. This supplies the focus and forum for discussion for an interest group and gives shape and expression to its identity. The Piping Times performed this function with its regular output of news and current affairs in the world of piping. It was first published in October 1948 as the ‘organ’ of the College of Piping and continued its monthly series with barely any interruption until Volume 72 (Number 7) in April 2020.  At the simplest calculation, this must amount to 864 numbers.

The College of Piping was a vital institution and organisation. It was founded in Glasgow by Seumas MacNeill and Tommy Pearston and became a focal point for pipers the world over. Without exaggeration, the College claimed to give “a service to Pipers everywhere”, with the practical support of instruments and accessories, reeds, music and recordings. It published the annual calendar of events, principally the competition calendar with all its customs and rituals. All its features added to the consolidation and strengthening of the tradition.

Piping Times carried a logo that offered a worldwide symbol of identification. The ‘motto’, ‘College of Piping’, sat above and below an circular badge with the silhouette of the head and shoulders of a young Highlander in bonnet and cockade. The image conveys a message augmented by the targe and sword in an ‘attack’ position – or alternatively in a ‘defence’ position. You could be forgiven for suggesting that this had a sense of being modelled on the young Seumas MacNeill. This was, of course, the badge of the College and was carried on all paperwork as well as on the journal. 

The badge of the College.

Piping Times served what had become by the 20th century a worldwide interest, passing news and information to practitioners and building a creed. It was founded on a belief in the antiquity and continuity of the tradition and its fundamental value and meaning to Scotland. It was the guardian and gatekeeper of this creed. ‘Letters to the Editor’ also fed this and offered a different stage for the exchange of robust opinion. In protecting and building an understanding of what piping means, it was constantly taking the temperature of the tradition and was critical of shortcomings and threats to it. As a regular journal, it was notable for its editorials and no editorial has much worth unless it is opinion, let’s say, robustly stated. Seumas MacNeill was the begetter of Piping Times and its editor, regularly authoring 7-800 words and more of comment. By any standards of authorship and sustained input this was remarkable.

The journal sets a mirror to what was happening in the world of piping and an example of its editorial tone, more or less chosen at random from Volume 40 – marking the 40th birthday of Piping Times – offers a word of warning to faithful practitioners and casts a cynical eye on impending change:

‘The Third World of piping has now had another dimension added to it. There are the solo performers; there are the band players; there are the non-competitive lads who play for the hell of it; and now there are the ceilidh boys who seek to dazzle the non-piping audiences. Each is apparently going to have his own place in our culture, but crossing from one to another is not as simple as might be imagined.’ 

I began reading the Piping Times in the 1970s. I was recruited into the Grade 1 Bilston Glen Colliery band under Pipe Major Archie Pinkman, which folded a year later, and I moved down the road to Woolmet Danderhall under the leadership of Pipe Major Norman Summers. At the same time I was employed in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. Robert B. K. Stevenson was its Director – an inspirational leader as an archaeologist with a passion for the Art Nouveau! He was a guardian and promoter of Scottish history and culture. He asked me, as a piper, to give him some account of bagpipe items in the national collections. As a very junior member of staff, I was dismayed to find that I honestly could not offer any explanation of an odd assortment of about 20 instruments and part-instruments beyond a hesitant opinion that none of them seemed to be surviving in an assumed original form which, in a then state of knowledge, I could only guess at.

Four editions of the PT from the mid-1970s.

Summoned to the Director’s office to deliver my account, this was not a comfortable experience in the severely hierarchical atmosphere of the old-world civil service. I was fearful because the evaluation and interpretation of evidence and lucidity and accuracy of delivery were of cardinal importance. I knew that he would have to conclude that he had employed a dud and could only hand me my P45. Consequently, I was amazed when he asked me where were collections of historical bagpipes to be found and commented that he believed that we as a national museum had a job to do!

What evolved from this comment is another story but I was able to return my Director’s trust by composing an essay of 20 pages in 1978 on ‘The Making of Bagpipes in Scotland’ for a volume of studies in his honour – what is called the Festschrift in scholarly circles. Getting 36 authors to meet a publisher’s deadline is a vain hope and the finished book was not published until 1983. Its title, From the Stone Age to the ’Forty-Five, adopted the title of Dr Stevenson’s first exhibition (in 1945) as Keeper of the National Museum.  In a 630-page volume by the British and Irish leading lights of the archaeological world, an essay on bagpipes is a curious historical postscript but the criterion of ‘material culture’ provided an overall rationale to the book.

Archie MacNeill.
Archie MacNeill.

This then was an early personal attempt in bagpipe research where the available literature had little or nothing to offer and the primary sources were the instruments themselves.

Critically, the secondary literature was often ‘poor history’ but in selecting a fresh source, I turned to Piping Times. Given that I was under pressure to produce the goods in quick time, this was my salvation. Here was a contemporary view of the present and the recent past and an ‘oral tradition’ of piping as it then was, expressed in a straightforward style and demonstrating neither fear nor favour. Seumas’ Uncle Archie [MacNeill, the Blind Piper – Editor] was a valuable source, for example, and his ‘Pipe Chanters’, ‘More about Chanters’ and ‘Old Chanters’ was a precious version of what in modern parlance is called Knowledge Exchange. This quality of information allowed me to construct a reasonably original account and to try to set it in the context of a European-wide craft evolving between individual turners and grandiose woodturning ‘schools’. This was tentative but conversations with three pipe makers whom I knew made it ‘real’ for me and I was able to include a relatively detailed account of turning and assembling a Highland bagpipe. This, I hoped, was ‘material culture’ and ‘musicology’ from first principles.

Jeannie Campbell’s authoritative book.

Jeannie Campbell has, of course, now taken the subject into new realms in her Highland Bagpipe Makers and More Highland Bagpipe Makers and we are indebted to her for opening up the subject. The pace and excitement of contemporary change has revitalised the world of piping and no more so than in the last 30-to-40 years. A measure of this might be detected in a comment I made in 1978 in discovering that Scottish museum collections were full of old and discarded Lowland and Highland bagpipes:

‘Bellows-blown Scottish bagpipes are seldom seen or heard today and the fashion for them must have evaporated by the middle of the nineteenth century as the Great Highland pipe developed acoustically and became so popular.’

• Help the National Piping Centre digitise the Piping Times and Piping Today archives and produce Volume 1 of a new Piping Times annual. There are 15 days left to donate to the Crowdfunder.