CLASP profile: Gill Cairns

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The next member of the Competition League for Amateur Solo Pipers (CLASP) to be profiled is Gill Cairns, who is currently domiciled in Malta.

Where are you from and how did you get into piping?
I’m originally from Inverness, Scotland. I’ve lived around the world, most recently in Singapore, Madrid and now Malta. I could say I got into piping twice with the first time being when I was about ten and Highland Council appointed a piping teacher for the local schools. We had to go through an audition process and the teacher, Alasdair MacAffer selected me to learn. After a few years I stopped playing and my next venture into piping started about ten years ago when I got talking to a man in an Irish pub (where all the best stories start). He invited me along to the local pipe band and for the next four years I enjoyed playing in Irish-based bands.

In 2014, I was back in Scotland, half-heartedly looking for a new band and without any sense of direction. It seemed like a good time to get a teacher while I decided what to do next. I not only found a teacher but a whole new musical direction: I discovered piobaireachd!

• How has the pandemic affected your piping personally?
Having returned to Europe from Singapore in 2018 I really enjoyed being able to go to Scotland to compete so mostly the pandemic affected me because travel stopped and any competitions I did enter were online. I have been able to continue playing through the pandemic although I had to take a bit of a break while we moved from Madrid to Malta in the summer of 2020.

• What’s your favourite international food?
I recently discovered Maltese bigilla. It’s a dip made from ground beans, garlic and herbs and it’s probably my favourite thing right now. I have to give special mention to the olive oil that we pressed from olives grown in our garden. We worked out that it would cost hundreds of Euros per litre if we paid ourselves for the hours of picking and pressing but that didn’t stop me making my Christmas roast potatoes with it. They were the best ever.

Gill played in the Inverness Schools Pipe Band.

When you travel is there something you particularly miss when away?
As I’ve lived abroad for a few years I really look forward to going back to Scotland. My family are all in the north of Scotland so I make a trip home to see them as often as I can. Whether it’s a family visit or to compete I try to allow a bit of time to visit the National Piping Centre, Yo Sushi!, Asda and the cinema. It’s the regular things I miss such as the sleeper train, the weather, hearing Scottish accents, walking round Glasgow or Inverness … just everyday life. I indulge in as much of that as I can then I return home to wherever that is and I’m happy to be back there, too.

• Do you have a set practice routine you could share with readers?
With everyone at home during the pandemic I don’t currently have a set routine. I do, however, try to do two things every day: technique practice and singing. I work my way through a lot of my music by singing it; it’s quite exciting to sense something coming together and then picking up the pipes to see if I can make it work there, too.

The benefit of focused technique practice speaks for itself and is something I’ve been taught to approach diligently. While it’s lovely having the family at home, I’m looking forward to getting the house to myself again during the day and an uninterrupted practice schedule. 

• Who has been the biggest influence on your piping?
That’s an easy one! Murray Henderson. He’s the teacher I found back in 2014 and early on we realised that I love the music of Donald MacLeod. We spend a lot of time developing my interpretation of the music I play and I’m always fascinated at the musicality he helps me develop. We sing a lot and I also listen to the Donald MacLeod recordings, particularly the ones where he sings. While I take inspiration from and admire many more, those two gentlemen have been the greatest influence on both my playing and my appreciation of piobaireachd. 

• How do you relax and do you have other interests or hobbies?
I love going out for walks with my husband, Nick and our very energetic boxer, Rosie. Our daughter, Meadow is studying archaeology and we are really enjoying learning the history of our new home. We love travelling and have been to lots of beautiful and interesting places. One of our favourites is Florida and when we go we always visit NASA. It’s one of my favourite places in the world. I read a lot about the Apollo missions and the International Space Station. The British astronaut, Tim Peake wrote a fascinating book about his adventures and I was struck by how similar his mindset is to that of a serious piper.

• Have you taken part in any show, concerts or recitals since the pandemic?
I found this question quite funny given the year we’ve had and then I remembered that yes, I actually did take part in something. I might be using a bit of artistic licence here but last April, at the start of the pandemic, I was asked by Helen Urquhart at the National Piping Centre if I could video myself playing Scotland the Brave for the NHS ‘Clap for Carers’. There had been some media interest in the plan for pipers to do this and she thought my living in Spain might be an interesting addition. Public performances are not something I have ever felt confident doing but I made a video, part of which was included in a compilation that was televised. 

Gill, Meadow and Nick on holiday in Key West.

• What’s your favourite destination, either for a holiday or on a piping trip?
I’ve been very fortunate to see a lot of the world and a recent highlight was a trip to Vietnam while we lived in Singapore. For a piping trip I’d love to play in New Zealand or Australia. I’ve competed in America, Asia and Europe so it would be cool to add that continent. I guess Africa would complete the set, I lived in Cape Town a few years ago but it was at a time I wasn’t playing. 

• Do you have a go at the local language when abroad?
I do try and as a family we are really keen to learn Maltese. I’ve picked up a couple of words already:  “Mella” (OK, that’s fine) and “Idjota” (idiot). I learned both words from taxi drivers and there’s at least four ways to say “idiot” so I think it could take a while to learn Maltese. Thankfully, we’ll have time, as we finally feel ready to settle down here in Malta.

• Thank you, Gill!