Bill Livingstone: the music and the land


by Bill Livingstone
Piping Today #99, 2019.

It is said that unless one can speak Gaelic, one can never understand or hope to play piobaireachd. I would not like to go as far as to say that, but before anyone could describe this ancient form of Highland bagpipe music, he must of necessity be born in the Highlands. Happily I was born there where my home was surrounded by thousands of acres of moorlands and lofty mountains. I have traversed hundreds of miles on the lonely moors, and sat in the cory listening to the dimpling stream. I have reached the summit of many of Scotland’s majestic bens, and wandered in the green dells where the zephyrs moan, and the chief lies cold beneath the sod.From Piobaireachd: Its Origin and Construction; 1915: John Grant, Edinburgh

THERE IS A hint of truth in the quote above from Mr Grant’s book… I believe strongly in those parts that pertain to the influence that the geography and landscape of the Highlands has on the nature of piobaireachd music. 

As to the musings about needing to be a Gaelic speaker, or a Highlander, I invite readers to study the lists of the prizewinners of the greatest piobaireachd competitions in Scotland, who claim as home New Zealand, Canada, the United States and Australia – these great pipers prove that piobaireachd is music, only music, and can be learned and mastered as any music can. This happens regardless of place of birth, Highland background or otherwise.

The year is 1972, and my father, Bill Livingstone Snr., and my wife Lily are in Scotland on a long planned trip to have me perform in piping competitions in August and September. My mother had died suddenly only a few weeks previously, and there was a gloom of sadness over the three of us.

Landing in Prestwick as was the way in those days, the general plan was to make our way north to do the competitions in Cowal, Aboyne, Braemar, Ballater, Oban and Inverness.

We were carrying my mother’s ashes, and with the constant reminder of her death, and the shortness of life, a pall of gloom hung in the air as we made our way north and west. But as our journey progressed, some things started to happen, things that I was not prepared for. Perhaps it was my history of growing up in one of the bleakest landscapes in the world…the rolling landscape of the treeless terrain of my home town, Copper Cliff – denuded of all greenery by decades of sulphur dioxide killing anything green. It was so forbidding that it was used as the training ground for the first astronauts to go to the moon. And that was followed by a long time in the concrete wind tunnels of downtown Toronto during my law school years. Without sounding too schmaltzy about this, something I had no way of recognising  began to form in me, bit by bit, mile by mile, mountain by mountain, by loch, by stream, by river and finally the drama of the sea in the west. That something was the indelible impact of the landscape and geography of Scotland upon its greatest music, piobaireachd.

There is no attempt in this piece to connect pre-existing harp or fiddle music, or Gaelic song to piobaireachd as it ultimately became. These subjects are beyond the ken of this writer, and in any case are well catered for by scholars such as Roderick Cannon, Allan MacDonald, Barnaby Brown and others. Rather, this is a meditation on how hearing piobaireachd evokes grand and often melancholic images of Scotland, and whether that geography itself served as a guide for the creators of this music.

Can anyone climb the A83 highway from Tarbet to the peak of this road called the Rest and Be Thankful, and not wonder at this amazing bit of geology and its influence on those who saw it, and more to the point here, travelled it when it was a mere track through Glen Croe and Glen Kinglas. Over its length of some 10 miles, it rises 860 feet above sea level and, when the summit is reached, offers stunning views of Glen Croe to the north and east, and Glen Kinglas to south, with the Arrochar Alps looming.

•Looking east down Glen Croe from Rest and Be Thankful on the A83 in Argyll

Or visit the Cairngorms and Grampians and feel the tug and pull of the land. On my first trip to Oban I passed Loch Awe, encountering first the north end with its rugged and daunting features, shielded in part by Ben Cruachan at 3695 feet above sea level. This was followed by the drive through the Pass of Brander with its near vertical mountain faces plunging into the loch, with road construction under way leaving folk to drive within a few feet of the edge, and a glum and stark road sign warning: “The loch at this point is 400 feet deep. You have been warned.” And Skye… where history tells us that the MacCrimmon family created the art form of piobaireachd music. Climb to the MacCrimmon Cairn at Borreraig and wonder at the sheer wildness of the place. I played my pipes there one time and was nearly swept into the sea by the wind. A long while ago I had a piping friend who joked that they invented the crunluath in an attempt to keep warm.

Not many forms of music offer a clear and convincing narrative around the initial creation and inspiration for that creation. But an exception, unlike piobaireachd, may be the origin of the blues. It came into existence in fairly recent times, recent enough that its growth and metamorphosis can be traced despite the lack of much in the way of written records. Still, clever researchers have sussed out that the blues developed from a call and response style adopted from field shouts and hollers. Much of this call and response style of voicing can be traced back to Africa. And rather amazingly one Willie Ruff, a jazz musician, ethnomusicologist and professor at Yale, uncovered links between traditional black gospel, and unaccompanied psalm singing. And now for the great surprise:  blended into this was their adoption of the Scottish Presbyterian practice of “lining out” when a precentor, (one who leads in worship) sings a line of Psalm which is then sung by the congregation, and thus was born the call and response form of black music. From these scarce beginnings, various scholars have been able to trace the development of the blues from its origin in the Mississippi Delta, just upriver from New Orleans, all the way up the Mississippi to Chicago, where it morphed into electrified Chicago blues with the likes of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters emerging as the giants of the genre.

Sadly we don’t have a similar detailed history of piobaireachd and its development. Instead we have the mysterious and cloudy stories of the many generations of MacCrimmons with the accompanying uncertain authorship of some of our greatest music. But how did the music get to its present complex and sophisticated form, and perhaps even more importantly, how did piobaireachd develop so consistently in tonality, atmosphere and feel? I would argue that the places where so much of it was created had an indelible impact on the forms of music that came about.

•The Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye

Piobaireachd can transport me to Portree in Skye, with the view from the odd feature called The Lump, bringing into view the Black Cuillins brooding in the distance beyond the sea. Or drive through the Cuillin mountains and sense their powerful reflection in the music. What is it about the light in the Isle of Lewis that can evoke strains of some of the most poignant piobaireachds? Who can listen to the Massacre of Glencoe and not have an image of the blighted place in mind? Play for me The Lament for the Harp Tree and see me transported to some place long ago (for it’s a very old tune) as my imagination wanders, looking over so much of Scotland guessing what the composer of such a magnificent piece was looking at. 

All I know is that when I see so much of Scotland, and just absorb its grandeur, beauty or melancholy features, I hear piobaireachd in my head. I’m listening to what I see. Call me a romantic fool if you will, but I believe that in no place other than Scotland could this remarkable music have been born and raised to its grand and lofty place. Look at the landscape while listening to the Lament for the Laird of Annapool with its crashing and broken rhythms, and eerie tone row, and know that you are listening to what you see.