I became a Piping Times subscriber in 1974 although I had bought occasional copies before that whenever I was in a piping shop. I joined the College of Piping’s evening classes in 1976 after playing in a band for six years and was soon helping with the enrolment of pupils and the teaching. In 1979 I was invited to become a member of the College committee. I already had keys to the building in order to open up for the evening classes and was able to go in to practice on evenings and weekends.
One afternoon in May 1980, I was in the College and asked about buying back numbers of the Piping Times in order to complete my collection. Mrs Gresham and Mrs Thomson in the shop said they didn’t have the time to sort them out for me but they phoned through to Seumas’ office and he came down to see me. He said I could have one of each if I sorted them all out and made a list of which were sold out. I agreed to this and he then asked me to help with painting the booths and to teach at the summer school.
I started work on Tuesday, May 27, 1980. All the back numbers were in a downstairs storeroom in cardboard boxes on wooden shelves. Each box was the length and width of the magazine and about six inches deep with the date, volume and issue number written on the end of the box. Some boxes were not full as copies had been sold over the years so I was able to get several different issues in some of the boxes and saved a lot of space. The boxes could then be re-used for later copies.
During the day I would join Mrs Gresham and Mrs Thomson for tea breaks. Seumas would be in for brief visits and he and Margaret Gray had an office upstairs. Various tutors would be in each day. Each evening I had a pile of back numbers to take home and would be reading late into the night. After a week I’d finished the back numbers and Seumas asked me to make a card index of the photographic blocks. These were metal plates on wooden blocks and were stored in large cardboard boxes. A block had to be made before a photograph could be printed and as this was expensive often the same photographs were used again and again. Some blocks had names written on the back but others just had the Piping Times volume and issue number so I had to look up the names. Some blocks had nothing to identify them so I had to ask Seumas if he recognised the people pictured. I made a card index under the names or places and gave each block a number. After that I began to help with other jobs as well and by 1981 I was getting paid for some part time teaching during the day. By 1986 I was employed full time with teaching, staffing the shop and working on the Piping Times.
The despatch of the Piping Times was a big task and helpers were always welcomed. Metal plates were made for regular subscribers. The trays of plates were loaded into an addressograph machine. The operator then loaded a pile of envelopes and pulled down a handle and the plate was inked and impressed on the envelope then the plate was ejected. This was noisy with the clattering of metal and machinery and was quite physical work. Making the plates was expensive so they were not made until a subscriber had renewed for a second year. During the first year of a new subscriber envelopes were typed by hand. The addressed envelopes had to be checked against the book and renewal forms put with the envelopes. There were three of these, for expiry next month, this month and last month. Some people thought that if they waited for the last month renewal they would get 13 copies for the price of 12 but this didn’t happen. The subscription was renewed from the date of expiry. It was only if they didn’t renew at all that they got a free 13th copy. If a subscription had not been renewed the addressed envelope would be used again by typing over the address and typing another address alongside it.
The books had removable pages with one page for each subscriber. The books were arranged by location with separate books for USA, Canada, Europe, Scotland, Rest of the World, and UK. Within the walls of the College, Scotland was not classed as part of the United Kingdom and to Seumas this was how it should be. The filled envelopes had to be put through the franking machine, sorted into countries, divided into surface or airmail, tied in bundles of 50 with string, and carried across to the Post Office further along Great Western Road. Anyone going out at lunchtime or going home would take two or three bundles to drop off. Overseas envelopes had to be left unsealed, with tuck in flaps and stamped, ‘Printed Paper’. Other envelopes could be sealed. Glasgow addresses had to in a separate bundle from the rest of Scotland. There were also parcels and invoices to make up for the bulk orders for shops around the world. These were posted but the orders for the Glasgow shops were delivered by hand.
The Piping Times was also sold at competitions and at the weekly meetings of the Scottish Pipers’ Association. The final monthly task was the advertising. All the advertisers were sent invoices with a copy of the magazine.
From February 1986 onwards a computer printed the labels. Later, the envelopes were pre-printed with the postage and the Post Office came to collect the mailbags.
As the number of subscribers increased more copies would be printed but they were ordered in multiples of 100 so after some months of hardly any being left over there would then be a large number of spares. This was why some issued were completely sold out and others had lots of spare copies. When a photocopier was eventually purchased we were able to supply photocopies of sold out issues.
My first photographs were printed in Vol. 34, No. 2 (November 1981) and my first article in Vol. 35, No. 12 (September 1983). Regular articles, photographs and crosswords continued from then onwards. Seumas had been compiling the crosswords but only had time to do this occasionally, so sometimes I would contribute one. I was not allowed to type in the College. I was, and still am, a one-finger typist, but Seumas said it looked unprofessional if I was seen typing. We employed typists for that. If anyone was caught addressing an envelope by hand to save time, there was trouble and if I was caught typing an envelope in front of customers or students I was in trouble, too.
If Seumas attended a competition or event he would often offer me a lift but if he didn’t go he would pay my travel expenses on condition that I obtained the results and photographs for the Piping Times. Trips to Oban, Inverness and other games counted as working time and were not deducted from my holiday entitlement. As Seumas often said, it was like the story of the bus conductor: “The wages are poor but look at the hurls you get.”
In the summer for several years I was allowed to spend a couple of extra days in Oban to research in the back numbers of the Oban Times, which provided material for many articles. I was also able to go to Register House in Edinburgh several times to assist Seumas with the research for his Masters of Piping book.
The putting together of the Piping Times material was done literally as a cut-and-paste job. The articles were typed and delivered to the printer who then returned the material as long strips of text [‘galley’ form – Editor]. These had to be checked word by word against the original articles. Usually, Margaret and Seumas did this but if he was away or was busy, one of us from the rest of the staff would have to do this with Margaret. The strips of text were then cut up and stuck on the pages of an old copy of the magazine. This was then returned to the printer. In the case of Ayton [for a few years in the early 1980s the Piping Times was printed alternately between Ayton and Hugh K. Clarkson – Editor] it was merely a matter of going outside into Otago Street then through the next close [alley] adjacent to the College building, across the backcourt and into Ayton’s print works. For Clarkson’s, which was located 32 miles away at West Calder, Seumas would drive over or, whenever he was away, I would go.
During the two years, 1996 and 1997, when I worked at the Piping Centre I had no reason to write, as I had no outlet until in 1996 Magnus Orr started his Piping World magazine. He asked me to contribute occasional articles and to compile a crossword for each issue. By 1998, I was back at the College, with Dugald MacNeill in charge. Those years were a golden age for me. I had known Dugald since the day I joined the College when he had been my main tutor. He was easy to work with and interested in piping history so anything I wrote would be printed in full, with virtually no alterations made.
The subscription list at this time was about 2,500 but the following years saw a general decline in the popularity of printed magazines and an increased use of internet sites. When Dugald handed over to Robert Wallace there were many changes. The method of production and the appearance of the magazine were changed and modernised, although volunteers still helped with the despatch. I was asked to compile a monthly crossword and base the clues on the previous month’s issue so that people would not pass copies on. I also had to do the monthly diary page, the annual highland games guide and collect and type the results of all the competitions. I had never used a computer but now I had to pick up this new skill.
I now wrote to order, with requests for 200 words on this or 100 words on that. Robert had less interest in historical articles and although some did get used they would often be altered. Now, if I wanted to go to Oban or Inverness it counted as part of my holiday entitlement although I was still expected to obtain the results and take photographs.
During Dugald’s time in charge, I had started a series of articles on bagpipe makers. However, Robert intimated that he didn’t want any more and because of this I turned the articles into a book. Magnus Orr published the first edition in 2001. A second edition and a second volume have followed, produced by Stuart Letford.
Also during this time, Annie Grant took on the computerised indexing of the Piping Times. Previously, we had a card index under the names of the authors and a subject index but these had not been kept up to date.
After I retired in 2010 I continued to compile the crossword and help with the despatch but now I could choose what else I did and if asked to write about something in which I had no interest I could refuse. When Stuart took over as Piping Times editor in 2014 there were changes, with some of the original appearance and features restored. I had already known Stuart for a long time and I like to think we have got on well together over the years since then.