By Stuart Letford and Dan Nevans
Please accept our collective apology for this review having taken so long to write. This was because one of us has only just been released from the Southern General Hospital having had his sides stitched and the other one refused to come out from behind the couch for weeks.
The life of a piper is like no other. No performer boasts such a position that allows them to fart in the halls of the mighty and disappear into Celtic mists with dignity and poise. In the search for a legitimate, communicable vision of what being a piper means, Hector Thomson’s Hector of the Glens is definitely who dealt it.
Hector, pictured, is a well-known piper in Scotland. A native of darkest Ayrshire, he is a former Scots Guardsman and a current member – and winner of prizes – of the National Piping Centre’s Competition League for Amateur Solo Pipers. His book is part one of a trilogy that is a somewhat fantasied version of his life. This first volume concerns Hector’s childhood and early time in the British Army, becoming a piper. It is quite a read.
The first line of this book is harrowing: “I don’t know if I was beaten because I was bad or if I was bad because I was beaten”. Immediately, the reader is put on the back foot. Knowingly or not, Hector has just intoned the bittersweet vibrations of life that ripple through the pages of the book from start to finish.
Throughout, Hector tells us some whopping, cracking, amazing lies. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story? Somehow, he has pulled off an incredible feat. The truth of his experience shines out of the prose. The reader can tell the difference between the small truths and the big lies. Hector has accomplished this style of writing without jarring us from grave sentiment to extreme pantomime. This is a difficult thing to pull off in a book where the titular character is wont to light matches off his scrotum. That said, his retelling of how he, a young recruit, avenged a beating is a first class piece of writing and, we suspect, utter truth.
The book contains many comedic anecdotes. We particularly enjoyed Hector’s account of his Pipe Major asking him to explain to a fellow piper the accent of a strathspey. This is laugh-out-loud stuff and there’s plenty of it in this book.
Hector of the Glens is a big book; some may feel it’s too big. Hector has crammed a lot in this book and the reader will feel exhausted about a third of the way through it. He is a fine storyteller, though, and his use of language is fluid enough to keep you reading. However, you may need a day off in between sessions to reset. The timeline gets a bit woolly in places. A clearer narrative would have helped the reader to engage with the development of Young Hector. This would’ve been solved by engaging a good editor but it must be said that, overall, Hector has made a good job of this himself.
This is probably one of the few piping publications that is written expressly for adults. There may be some readers who will find themselves shocked or offended by some of the content. We would ask the reader to consider the context and setting of Hector’s tales. This book is the best piping autobiography in many years. So far, it is a contender for our Book of the Year.