Who doesn’t love a good magazine? Colourful. shiny pages, interesting articles of easy-to-read length and pictures … lots of pretty pictures, if you’re lucky.

Magazines have been printed for almost as long as the printing press has been invented. So for 500 years we’ve had the world’s cupboards, attics and doctors’ waiting rooms as the final resting places of some of our most-published periodicals. A magazine captures moments in time and becomes a sort of barometer for social customs, manners and convention of the time of publication. If you need convincing, check out the adverts in any old magazine of times past. Cigarette ads are among the most memorable.

Of course, the best magazines are packed with a good variety of interesting bits and bobs to appeal to readership. In fact, the word magazine is born of an Arabic word meaning “to store”. I think it’s for this very reason that so many people have trouble throwing away a once-read magazine. It’s a storehouse for much information.

When I was a kid my read of choice was Mad, an American cartoon-filled magazine that was all about satire and parody. When I look at an issue of Mad today it strikes me as dull and a little corny and, well, not all that funny (and you’re right in thinking it would be a little weird if I still grinned at its cartoons). Anyway, as a 12-year-old, Mad was the best dollar I could spend. And I wasn’t alone. In its 1970s heyday every month would see over two million people head to a newsstand for their copy.

“The U.K. tops the world’s league table for hard-copy preference.”

With images, maybe, of an old timey news-kid shouting, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” while flogging hard copy issues, talk of print magazines and newsstands may seem quaint, amusing even, to some. Maybe to the ‘digitally native’ – those of us who have never known a time without the internet. If so, buckle up for a surprise: a 2020 report by the Association of Magazine Media (AMA) revealed that 94% of people under 25 read magazines. As for digital or print, magazines readers in the United Kingdom are especially sure of what they like: the U.K. tops the world’s league table for hard-copy preference: 78% prefer print with less than one out of five people saying they read a digital magazine at least once a week.

So what’s that about?

First, we know not all magazines are created equal. Mainstream publications like Radio Times and Good Housekeeping have generally weathered the digital storm better than those catering to special interests. And, as in most things where a percentage sign is featured it’s likely complicated. On that, let’s have a little look at science.

There’s been no shortage of comparative academic studies that have assessed the different ways people respond when reading either digital or print copy. In her research linguist, Professor Naomi Baron, found that the main element that keeps people connected to print is its aesthetic appeal. Her study subjects loved the feel of the paper and the experience of holding the pages. There’s growing evidence, too, that while printed words are more appealing we also find them more memorable. In part, due to fewer distractions; think Messenger and Facebook pings. Printed pages may crease, rustle or roll but they never ping (and “ping” surely is our stupid word of the day).

In thinking about magazines today it’s interesting to note that The Scots Magazine, first published in January 1739, is the world’s oldest magazine still in publication. And, until recently, the Piping Times was the world of The Great Highland Bagpipe’s longest running magazine.

1948 saw the Piping Times make its first appearance. Seumas MacNeill was its editor until his death in 1996. He was a make-it-happen force of nature who co-founded the College of Piping in the 1940s, launched a revolutionary bagpipe instruction book (“the green book” – the book that gave me my first tunes), a summer school pioneer, recording artist, radio and television broadcaster, academic and, likely, for a time, the most famous person in the piping world. A self-aware sort, he was known to occasionally refer to himself in the third person: “Famous Seumas”.

I first got to know him through letters. I’d occasionally post results and various bits of news to him for the Piping Times. He appreciated that and would never fail to write back with a few paragraphs of news and general drollery (see pictured). He was a top-line writer and an unblunted wit. Later, I’d visit him at the College on Otago Street. He was always a genial host. In print he was not always so kind. In the 1990s he wrote in one of his PT contest reports, “… the only thing missing from Michael Grey’s MSR performance was Alex Duthart playing behind him.” Indeed.

MacNeill’s print creation lasted over 70 years. The National Piping Centre (NPC) is now the keeper of what is a priceless repository of generations of piping life and lore. Together with the near-20 year run of Piping Today, the NPC’s former print voice, these printed magazines stand as invaluable cultural records, in place for generations to come. Of course, to make them accessible these many pages need to be digitised. And therein lies a big challenge.

Seumas MacNeill

If the internet and digital world stand as The Grim Reaper of our print piping magazines then, I think, there’s a little irony in knowing it is in digitising each volume that each will be given life – forever life. I can only imagine what Seumas [pictured] might have to say about the whole situation. In the prospect of immortality, in transforming his words to bits and bytes, I’d have to think he’d be all over the project like hands on a chanter.

He’d always think big: “The MBE is of no interest to me. I expect a Knighthood at least”.  And who doesn’t love a good magazine? Especially those digitised for the ages.

The NPC’s Crowdfunder appeal to raise funds to digitise the Piping Times, Piping Today and The International Piper magazines remains live until the end of this month (May 31). Donations can be made directly by clicking here.