Ailis Sutherland is a very busy instructor at The National Piping Centre. She teaches all levels of player on Highland pipes, bellows pipes and whistle. This includes students on the University of Glasgow Study Abroad programme, the bellows pipes as part of the Specialist Evening Class programme, and First Study Piping on the HND course. If you are lucky she may have some space left in her tuition diary for more students… but be quick!
In January she was part of the The New Tradition: Rejuvenation concert at Celtic Connections 2022 which involved a commission to write some new music. The concert involved six other young Scottish musicians with new music commissions, including piper John Dew.
In 2019 Piping Today magazine published an article on Ailis, and her band Hecla, who had played at the Piping Live! festival that year. They also played at Piping Live! in 2021 and here is a wee blast of them at last year’s festival. The Piping Today article from 2019 is published below and we look forward to seeing more of Hecla as the music scene and the world in general opens up in 2022.
By Elizabeth Ford • For Piping Today magazine in 2019
Known to many who enter The National Piping Centre shop, flute player and piper Ailis Sutherland knew from a very young age she wanted to play pipes. Having now completed her BA in applied music at the University of Highlands and Islands – Benbecula, she is embarking on what will certainly be a highly acclaimed musical career.
Ailis grew up surrounded by pipes. Her father, Alec Sutherland, learned to play in the Uddingston Strathclyde Pipe Band and was her first teacher, pointing her towards sources. She started playing at eight and received her first set of Highland pipes when she was 10. While her enthusiasm for music and her parents’ support was without question, she had to convince her parents that music was something she could and should study at university level, not something for her free time. She has established that it was worth her while.
“Piping was always a distraction in high school,” she said, “my life was very much revolving around pipe bands.” Growing up in Kirriemuir near Forfar, she was in the Brechin Pipe Band with her friend Laura Nicoll for eight years.
Just before her graduation from UHI in August 2018, Ailis became involved with the Young Stars School at The National Piping Centre. This is a summer programme for pipers under the age of 18 to have a week of intense tuition with a variety of guest tutors. This, and her involvement with The National Youth Pipe Band’s Outreach programme, enabled her to gain a great deal of teaching experience. Ailis credits National Piping Centre Librarian James Beaton with helping her to set up gigs in greater Glasgow. This started with a one day a week teaching position at Cleeves Primary, then the job in the shop at The National Piping Centre. She said: “I was speaking to James Beaton one lunchtime at the Young Stars School and he asked me what my plans were after graduating. I mentioned that I wanted to move to Glasgow, so he got me set up with some piper hire gigs in the city, which meant that I was well-positioned to go and view some flats. Shortly after this, I got a call asking if I would like to take over as the piping tutor at Cleeves and then the job came up in the shop.”
Ailis loves this position because it puts her at the frontline of all things piping, building on her time with pipe bands including winning the Worlds with Shotts and Dykehead in 2015, and currently with the Islay Pipe Band. She could work at any shop to keep her afloat while her music career takes off, but this forces her to know all the products and people. Any day she could be meeting or advising a beginner piper, a tourist or a big name in the piping world. She is now sometimes recognised from her trio, Hecla, and enjoys meeting people who know their music.
Hecla are three musicians who all met around the same time. Ailis was on the Cairngorms Cèilidh Trail, a summer position for young traditional musicians, when she met Ilona Kennedy. Discovering they had a lot of common repertoire, they did some support slots together. Ailis said: “Part of the Cèilidh Trail involved an exchange with a music group in Donegal – we were playing in a session and realised we knew a lot of the same tunes. We had been playing in an eight-piece band for three weeks but this was the first time we had heard just the two instruments – smallpipes and fiddle – sounding at the same time and we really liked the way they blended together.”
While at university, they decided to make the group more formal and official. Hecla was formed in 2016 and features Ailis on pipes and flute, Ilona on fiddle and Caitlin McNeill on guitar. Hecla is essentially “three people saying the same things at the same time.”
Hecla’s sound and repertoire are perhaps a bit different from other new traditional ensembles: they focus on unison and the melodic line, rather than the heavy backing favoured by many bands. Ailis said: “Of course I would love to go on big tours, but I would rather do fewer gigs in a lovely setting that’s appropriate for the band if to do it louder meant losing the essence of the sound.”
Ailis believes that human connection and communication are the best and most positive outcomes of music and wants audiences to enjoy themselves. She added: “I met so many new people at Piping Live! this year – some in the shop who had been in the audience at a concert I’d played at, and some at a gig who I’d helped choose a new pipe case earlier on in the day. It was a total learning curve and required a lot of forward planning in order to be in the right place at the right time! I would be working in the shop first thing until the late afternoon, then would have to rush off for a soundcheck or a rehearsal, then do the gig before booking into a practice room late at night to have a run through the Islay Pipe Band MSRs for the Worlds while everyone else was at the festival club!”
As a group, Gaelic singing and pipe bands have had a major influence on their sound. This feeds more into the structure of their sets, especially with transitional sections and links. Ailis also finds the music of ABBA and Stevie Wonder to be major influences on her work and integrates this as much as possible. She added: “We have been nurtured in a culture mixed with people of all backgrounds and ages, and these people can provide life guidance as well as musical guidance as we develop professionally.”
Ailis is also inspired by the land, and traditions of music and land. She reflects on a tradition on Islay of learning a piobaireachd while ploughing a field – singing it and working to learn. She said: “James McEachern, one of the pipers in the Islay band whose father was a Gold Medallist, was telling me about how piping was part of everyday life for him. Social values and principles were instilled through the music and its environment from early on and the piping was as important as any work that had to be done. A few of the youngsters would go for piobaireachd lessons which sometimes took place at the top of a field which was being ploughed. They would take it in turns to go down and back with the plough which took almost exactly the same amount time as it did to sing through a pìobaireachd with the tutor before the next person had to go down the field.”
Ailis has three long-term goals in mind. The first is to record an album with Hecla. She says it’s at the planning stage, which will be followed by rehearsals, recording and a host of other processes to get everything ready for when the CDs go to print. She also wants to record a solo album, inspired by her time on South Uist. This album will not necessarily be exclusively her own material, but it will form a significant part of it.
Another goal is to spend time in Brittany. At the age of eight she and her father saw Bagad Kemper performing at Celtic Connections, and it made a lasting impression. Ailis said: “It was the first concert I ever went to see. I’d heard a pipe band before, but this was on a different level. We were quite near the front of the concert hall and the sounds I was hearing were jaw-dropping! I have such a vivid memory of that evening and remember being in complete awe of what was happening on the stage.
“Funnily enough my mum was pregnant with me when she went to Kemper on a trip with Scottish Gas Caledonian, the band my dad played with at the time – so I guess I was listening to Breton music before I was even born!
“I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to perform at Festival Interceltique de Lorient with Hecla in 2017 for the Year of Scotland. This made me think about the possibility of going over for a while and becoming better acquainted with Brittany’s music and languages.”
James Beaton said: “Ailis is one of a group of emerging young talent, and is looking to develop new musical horizons with her bandmates, Ilona Kennedy and Caitlin McNeill in Hecla, as well as with her solo and pipe band playing. She also works hard to pass her skills and experience to the next generation though her teaching, and this is underpinned by her strong social conscience.”
No matter what she does in the next year or so, Ailis will undoubtedly become one of the major names in traditional music.