Jim McGillivray shares a tune

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NINE NOTES AND MORE…
by Stuart Robertson.
Piping Today
#46 2010.

More than 20 years of international prizes in all branches of pipe music between 1971 and 1991 lend credence to Piper & Drummer magazine’s claim that Jim McGillivray is “one of the best all-round pipers – ever”. 

Jim began piping in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1966. By 1972, he had risen to the top of the amateur competition ranks and began competing as a professional. Over the next two decades he won the major piping prizes on both sides of the Atlantic, including the coveted Gold Medals at Oban and Inverness, the Clasp at Inverness, the march, strathspey and reel at the Glenfiddich Championship and the North American Championship.

•Jim McGillivray Photo by Paul Mosey

The pipe band world also felt his influence. For 10 years in the 1970s he played a prominent role in Guelph Pipe Band’s rise to the top ranks, leading the band in 1981 to its second North American Championship. From 1988-92, he was a member of the groundbreaking 78th Fraser Highlanders, winning three more North American titles with this illustrious band.

In recent years, Jim’s attention has turned to teaching, publishing and performing. In 1992, he made a solo CD — Volume 10 in Lismor Recordings’ World’s Greatest Pipers collection. His tutor and companion CD, Rhythmic Fingerwork, published in 1998, became an immediate bestseller and set a new standard for piping tutors. It is now in its seventh printing. His two instructional videos, Pipes Ready and Pipes Up were released in 2000 and 2001 respectively and have attracted attention from pipers worldwide.

Jim has also become an accomplished performer on the Scottish smallpipes, Border pipes and Northumbrian smallpipes. 

From 1998 to 2019 Jim was the Piping and Drumming Program Director at St. Andrew’s College, an independent boys’ school near his home in Aurora, Ontario. He also co-founded the Ontario School of Piping at St. Andrew’s College, one of the leading piping and drumming schools, from 1998-2004. Jim is semi-retired from St. Andrew’s College now, still teaching and helping out with the band part time and is a member of the brand new Grade 2 St. Andrew’s College Association Pipe Band.

He is an active international piping judge, having adjudicated across North America. He has also judged such prestigious events as the Clasp at Inverness, the Gold Medal and Senior Piobaireachd at The Argyllshire Gathering at Oban, The Bratach Gorm at The Scottish Piping Society of London contest and the March, Strathspey and Reel at the Glenfiddich Piping Championship.

His current labour of love is pipetunes.ca, a website where pipers can download individual pieces of sheet music. He also played with the Spirt of Scotland Pipe Band in their World Championship debut in 2008.

When did you start composing?

Actually, virtually all of my composing was done in a brief period between around 1990 and 1992 when I was playing with the 78th Fraser Highlanders. It was a very vibrant and creative environment and a little competitive, I suppose. Bill Livingstone, Bruce Gandy and Michael Grey were all writing tunes. You had great incentive to write there, because if the tune was good you had a prize-winning Grade 1 band playing your stuff right away, and most likely recording it. Of course, having feedback from the other composers right at hand was very valuable. I have to say it was a little scary to come to the chanter table and play a new tune for 15 guys sitting there. We weren’t very sensitive about telling someone when they just played us a dud.

What inspires you to write?

The environment I described above was my greatest inspiration. Hearing very original and stirring new tunes is inspirational as well. I remember there was something about Bruce Gandy’s jig Annette’s Chatter that I really liked, and that got me thinking about the more unusual note combinations I used In Michael MacDonald’s Jig. Of course, if you produce a good tune and people like it, you’re inclined to try again. Positive feedback certainly inspires! Once I get started though, there’s a drive that has to come from inside, not outside.

Modern day composers…who do you rate?

I don’t really keep up with who is making new tunes for bands. There is too much and a great deal of it is not very inspiring. Having put a lot of Bruce Gandy’s tunes up on my pipetunes.ca sheet music site, I have to say I have great respect for Bruce’s work. Roddy MacDonald and Gordon Duncan, of course, have made many very original tunes. Allan MacDonald and a number of Michael Grey’s tunes are superb. 

How do you mould a tune from conception to completion?

•Jim McGillivray, left with Michael MacDonald who was the subject of Jim’s Michael MacDonald’s Jig.  

Alasdair Gillies once told Jim that he won five straight jig contests playing Michael MacDonald’s Jig on the Scottish games circuit some years ago. The judges picked it each time, and each time he won.

My tunes have happened mostly at the editing stage and I’m afraid it hasn’t been a very enjoyable process, which is why I don’t really do it any more. I didn’t like it. I don’t start until I have something that I feel is original. For Duncan McGillivray, Chief Steward, I started with the F grip to high G in the ending because I hadn’t heard that done. For Michael MacDonald’s Jig, I came up with the E-low-A-low-G and D-C-low-G note combinations that I hadn’t heard used much either. Then I started building phrases around those. I tend to ‘try out’ lots of phrases and parts. Once I come up with two or four parts, I try to set it aside, then come back and change or eliminate phrases that I don’t think are very original, or which don’t move the tune forward tonally or emotionally. I may write 15 parts to end up with my final four. I may change a phrase 10 times. The final version of a tune I come up with is often quite different from the first draft. For me, making a good tune means being ruthless with non-original or non-inspiring bits. I’m afraid I really obsess over a tune at this stage. I can’t get it out of my head. It’s quite unpleasant but it has worked for me. I’ve thrown out four times as much as I’ve written. Having someone you can trust to give good feedback is important for me too. When we went to play Duncan McGillivray in the band, Bruce suggested that I simplify a few phrases to make it easier to memorise. They were great suggestions as the tune had become a bit convoluted. So that was how I published it, although you can hear the original version on Iain MacInnes’s Tryst CD.

The tune you have given us, how did you come about writing it and what was the inspiration?

It’s a long time ago but this one was written to order. The Frasers needed a little jig and I came up with the first five notes and just built off that. It was a two-parter for the longest time but I thought it could stand a couple more. When Michael Grey wanted to publish it, I worked up the last two parts. The fourth part took forever. Michael offered to write the last part, but I ended up finishing it. I’m terrible with titles, and Michael suggested this one. We both travelled with Bill and Lillian Livingstone from Glasgow to the Silver Chanter at Dunvegan in a rented Land Rover. I drove back to the hotel that night because I was the only one sober. We got quite lost. I had a lot of trouble driving a standard transmission car with my wrong hand in the dark, so we drove aimlessly around Skye while the guys in the back seat, who were supposed to be navigating, did nothing but giggle at nonsense for an hour. I thought we were getting to be in dire straights when suddenly and magically the hotel just appeared in front of us and we were saved. In retrospect, I think the tune still works better as a two-parter. 


Other articles in this series published so far:
Chris Djuritschek with The Pingat Jasa Malaysia
• Lorne MacDougall with Scalasaig
• Murray Blair with Ross’s Farewell to Pangnirtung, New Year in Noosa and PTE Joe McConnell
• Bob Worrall with Last Train to Malaga and Bob Cooper of Winnipeg


Stuart Robertson is originally from Ardrossan in Ayrshire and was previously Pipe Sergeant with Torphichen & Bathgate Pipe Band in Grade 2, and played under Robert Mathieson at Shotts & Dykehead Pipe Band in Grade 1. He moved to Australia in 2010 to work for WAPOL as a piper in the band and was Pipe Sergeant under PM Jim Murray and Pipe Major for seven months until a full time replacement for Jim could be found. He is currently at the police mounted section.

Stuart released a solo album called North to South last year which can be downloaded at all the usual streaming platforms (Apple Music, Spotify etc) and also available from Bandcamp. He is also a member of the high octane traditional music band, Spirit of Alba, who are currently recording a few tracks for release sometime in 2022. You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram @spiritofalbaband. He is still enjoying life down under and composing now and again.