Father James McTavish, 53, is a catholic priest working for Verbum Dei Missionary Community in Rome, and he has recently completed the Italian Spring School where he came face-to-face with piping tutors for his first time ever.
The story of what got him to that stage is unique, and it’s safe to say that he will be the only person ever to walk that path to finding the pipes.
A long time ago he was a surgeon working in Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, or sometimes in Glasgow Royal Infirmary in Casualty, and he would find himself in Glasgow City Centre or on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile listening to the pipers and finding the music relaxing him from the stress of his work. Apart from a short period having a blast on a chanter 20 years ago, he never seriously considered playing the pipes till lock-down happened in 2020.
At that point James was working as a priest in Manila, on a mission to work with the poor in the local community and he had been there for 18 years. But all that stopped because of COVID-19 and James had the sudden idea that he could learn the pipes: “I don’t know where it came from,” said James, “but I knew I needed a hobby to pass some of the extra time at home. Lock-down lasted about nine months in Manila. There was only one other piper that I vaguely knew of in Manila, but I asked the local music shop if they had chanters and they said, ‘yes!’ I thought that was a miracle. It said ‘Made in Scotland’ on it and it had the right number of holes and it made a noise, and it was delivered on the morning of the day when lock-down was to start that afternoon.
“Quite soon after I started online lessons with Andrew Bova at The National Piping Centre. It was my only option for lessons and it was nice to be in touch with Scotland again from the other side of the world, as it felt like a reconnection with my roots. I was born in Renfrew, and my family is from there, but I left with my parents when I was six.
“The lessons gave me extra discipline to practice and also the chance to connect with someone outside of my world in the Philippines.
“Music is very much part of the culture of the Philippines, with lots of celebrations and feasts with guitar playing and singing, and I thought it would be good if I could maybe learn the pipes.
“So I progressed with the lessons and was faithful at putting aside 20 minutes every day to practice, making slow progress, but steady.
“Then I had a switch of tutors to Dan Nevans which I found very interesting, with the different style, chats and background. That continued for about nine months, till we were just about out of lock-down in Manila and I got the chance to visit my family in Norwich. I have a twin, who bought me a set of McCallum plastic pipes for Christmas. I arranged to go to TNPC for a five day immersive course to make the transition from chanter to the pipes, but it coincided with restrictions coming back in the UK and I couldn’t go. So we did it all online with Dan Nevans talking me through it. That was of great benefit to me, as it meant I was fully hands on and I had to do everything myself with Dan explaining step-by-step. So I was taking hemp off, and putting it on, and dropping it on the floor and finding my wax, and the drones were too slack on the tuning pins, so I had to take them off and couldn’t really handle the pipes correctly, then I was adjusting the bridle and blowing the reed. But Dan was very patient and slowed me right down and taught me what had to be done. In hindsight, if I had been in the Centre I would have handed Dan my pipes and said you do it, but it was really beneficial that I had to do it all myself.
“My immersive course was meant to be five days of three hour sessions, but online we turned it into nine days with shorter sessions.
“I hadn’t memorised any tunes by that point, but I had all the drones corked off and was learning to blow the pipes and then started taking the corks out and trying to blow steady while going up and down the scales.
“On the last lesson just before Christmas 2020 Dan wasn’t available, so I had my final lesson with Margaret Dunn. Lock-down continued in the New Year so I was caught up in the UK from January till May 2021. My community in Manila wanted me back but my parents were delighted they had me for another six months. I continued my lessons with Margaret and have been with her ever since. She is super-professional and meticulous on any mistakes I make. She really focuses on technique rather than just getting me through a tune. I like the precision of her approach and it speaks of professionalism.
“It was Margaret who told me about the Italian Spring Piping School in Tuscany this year. I added it to my bucket list and I really wanted to go, and then the dates worked out fine. It was a great experience, even just being with other pipers for the first time was important for me. The structure of the tuition, workshops and informal moments was perfect. And I found out there is no ideal routine of practice, as everyone has their own distractions in life that interfere, whether it be work or travelling or family – and it helped me a lot to understand that.”
James is in the unusual position of playing the bagpipes as a priest within his order, and he is keen to use them in services when ever possible. He got a chance to go to the Philippines eventually to say goodbye to the community he had worked with, and to collect his belongings before moving to a new mission in Rome. During that final visit to Manilla there was a celebration for a new priest being ordained and he got to play a few tunes and was almost bowled over by the interest shown in the tunes and the instrument and the tartan cover and people asking about the significance of the pipes in Scottish culture. James said: “They were amazed by it, and full of questions.
“I decided that when ever I got a chance to play in public I would take it. At 53 years old I didn’t want to wait forever before playing in front of people – who knows what life has in store for you?
“Before I travelled to Philippines for the final time I went from Norwich to our community on the Isle of Wight and played the pipes as part of the Pentecost service to represent the spirit, or the breath of life, so that was my debut in public and I played Amazing Grace.
“Once I arrived in Italy I was asked to play at a Christmas mass at a school and was told by a priest friend that I must walk from the back of the church playing my pipes at the end of the service. Up till that point I needed my sheet music, so that was the time I had to let go of the comfort blanket. The acoustics in the church were amazing, and when I finished at the front of the church the children were wide eyed and were saying ‘maraviglioso!’
“At the New Year mass I asked to play Auld Lang Syne at midnight at the end of the service. I was approached by a reserved member of the community who asked if it was OK to play the bagpipes in church? I responded by saying, ‘Have you never read Psalm 150? It says, praise the Lord with the pipes.’
“I was at a service in the Vatican recently to mark the Day for Consecrated Life, and the music was exceptional and the acoustics are phenomenal in that basilica. And I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be lovely to hear the pipes playing in here?’ So I have a thought, that the next time I go to this celebration I’m going to speak to the Choir Master and suggest that we need to hear the pipes in the basilica – though I might invite Margaret Dunn to play along with me and ease the pressure.
“I have a chance to travel to Mexico this summer, and I will take my pipes as it is a musical culture. I have found that any where I take my pipes, the opportunities come for to me to play them. The bagpipes for me spells adventure.
“I am grateful for the adventure so far, and look forward to future opportunities to play my pipes. All this would not have been possible without TNPC and its tutors. Thanks to you all. I pray that you can keep sharing the gift of the pipes to many more.”