An en-chanting evening

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By Keith Mumby

I’d like to communicate a very pleasurable experience I had recently which took me nearer the heart of the spirit of piobaireachd than anything so far to date.

I was at the College [of Piping] for a couple of days’ tuition under Duncan Johnstone (my, doesn’t he make it exciting? He was out of his seat more than in, waving his chanter, yelling and singing, but it was wonderful). On Thursday evenings there is a pipe tuition class run by Kenny MacLean which has acquired a reputation for being a damn good social affair as well as excellent for teaching, and I had timed my visit to include this.

After we duffers have clicked our way through our studies out come the pipes and — over a few glassfuls — pipers take it in turn to entertain the rest.

Well, this particular evening nothing changed. Kenny played a couple of marches and lost his way several times through The King’s Taxes. But I didn’t care, I felt wonderfully elevated listening to top rank piping. I cannot hear it in Manchester and there is no doubt that this is a distinct handicap. There is a charisma about piping and unless you can keep in touch with it I think one would always play indifferently. I rejoiced in every movement he played well and sympathised when it wasn’t. After all, I can see MacCrimmon in my mind’s eye once in a while saying “D… it” and spitting at the dog.

A College of Piping evening class some time in the 1970s. The duo playing appear to be Dugald MacNeill and Kenny MacLean.

But that wasn’t the experience I am talking about. Others played. Mr. Pearston was there but he couldn’t be badgered into playing that particular night.

The atmosphere was pretty lively and we all got merrier as time went by. Then someone, who I think was called Dugald MacIntyre, stood up and blew his pipes in. If I have it wrong perhaps he will forgive me. I don’t know him as a renowned player and the point is it doesn’t matter that he isn’t. Indeed there was nothing distinguished about his playing technically, but the devil must have got into his fingers that night because he excelled himself in musicianship. He played the Lament for Mary MacLeod, which happens to be high on my list of favourites. It is a very graceful and feminine piece, an exquisite memorial for a renowned poet, with no blood, guts and thunder in it, except one or two fierce and almost inappropriate high Gs (at the end of each doubling variation).

Magically, everyone in the room began to pay attention. The pipes were sweet and the notes flowed like balm. The air began to tingle and vibrate with the thrill of it. As if by common consent there began a low humming accompaniment from the listeners, which gradually swelled in intensity and passion, urging on the piper and sending shivers down my spine. For the first time the connection between piobaireachd and plainsong chanting, mentioned by Seumas MacNeill, became vividly obvious and I felt I had already learned something of great value. But it didn’t stop. The beauty of it got stronger and stronger, and as I looked around the room I noticed most eyes were closed and faces were showing a rapt expression of enjoyment and every sign of being transported.

This was confirmed when he went wrong in one variation, cutting the Fs in the second part. It stopped the flow of melody and everyone bumped down to earth with a start, eyes popped open and the chanting stopped. But then he got back to it in the next variation and everyone nodded off to happy land again. The unique feeling of the power of the chanting and the pipes is inexpressible, but I can say unhesitatingly that it was one of the best musical experiences I have ever had, and I thank the piper for it.

The point I would like to make from all this, if it’s worth making, is that musicianship is a quality distinct from playing ability. No matter how good your technique, if you haven’t got it you must fail. Conversely, if you have it, it will shine through and give pleasure, no matter how bad your abilities. (Of course the better your technique the better you can convey the music you want to play.)

I was very moved that night and the excitement died away slowly, taking over a week to do so. Something to do with the very nature of music got stirred up and my exposure to it was a little awesome I do admit. I have been keen on music all my life and played in bands and an orchestra, but it has taken the pipes and piobaireachd in particular to bring me this reward. I am grateful.

For those of you who are entirely familiar with these feelings, excuse me. I do not wish to appear to be talking down. But as with any grand experience, one wants to tell of it, and there are many pipers who have never been that near to the heart of piobaireachd, and more is the pity. I’m only sorry I didn’t start years ago, when I was a youngster.

• First published in the May 1977 edition of the Piping Times.

The teachers on the College of Piping’s legendary Thursday evening class for much of the 1990s. Left to right: Alan Minty, Willie Gilmour, Kenny MacLean and Gordon Wilson.