William Donaldson’s “Pipers”: a new loved book in my library

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By MICHAEL GREY.

Let’s get this over with at the start – the boiler plate line from almost any positive review of a book that lands in the orbit of the piping world:  the “new edition” of William Donaldson’s Pipers: A Guide to the Players and Music of The Great Highland Bagpipe, released earlier this year by Edinburgh’s Birlinn, is an absolute must for any piper’s library. There: said and meant.

I own the first edition of this book, I guess, really, a first edition of the first edition of Pipers, published in 2004. This copy, with cover featuring a study of Willie McCallum in acute mid-performance concentration, has – I’m a little embarrassed to admit – the distinct look of most of my university text books: perused but barely cracked. Unloved in my bookcase. Thanks to bagpipe.news I’ve found myself with a second chance of sorts to properly read Donaldson’s work. Willie McCallum’s been relegated from the cover of the new edition and a romantic painting, “Major Grant’s Piper”, bedecks the cover (though with blowpipe at a crazy corner-of-mouth cant that has always puzzled me: how can pipers play like this? I digress).

In his research, thinking and publications, William Donaldson has done more than most to add to the published body of knowledge of the Great Highland Bagpipe. His The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950 (Tuckwell, 1999) is a seminal piece of writing that, among other things, enables easy access to piping history and tradition to students and enthusiasts.

As you should expect from a noted academic (he is an honourary member of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies) Donaldson’s research is thorough and from that comes some of the most appealing elements to his latest book, Pipers. While the first 20 pages or so was a slow start for me (I acknowledge these pages include necessary context and groundwork on the instrument for any non-piping reader) the book is beautifully written drawing on an engaging, articulate and distinctly insightful approach.

His discussion of oral tradition alongside the perceived merits of rural-urban field sources is superb reading, “… the central notion,” he writes, “is that writing and print are corrupting agencies … folklorists have therefore tended to act on the principle ‘oral good; written bad’. In checking noted mid-twentieth century researcher, Calum MacLean’s 1959 field recording of one, Donald Kennedy, “noted tradition-bearer and piper” and his story connected to the piobaireachd, A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick, Donaldson found Kennedy’s story, “… incident for incident, that published by the Aberdonian journalist James Logan in Angus MacKay’s Ancient Piobaireachd (1838)”. Donaldson contends that, “At some stage the possibility may have to be faced that much of what has been gathered up into the tape-recorded archives of the School of Scottish Studies during the past half-century … may be little more than oralised transcripts from the columns of The Oban Times”. A tantalising thought, indeed.

There is nary a piping stone left unturned in Donaldson’s Pipers. The games, pipe bands, competitions, publications and piping dynasties all come into discussion. Peppered throughout are priceless quotes – all thanks, again, to first-class research. Consider the shared first impression of Robert Brown and Robert Nicol of their teacher, John MacDonald, Inverness: “… that man surely canna be a good player, he’s far too fat”.

His brief foray in discussing the pipes and other instruments leans, maybe, to the old-man-waving-cane end of the music-loving spectrum. I likely flatter myself imagining I am among those he references when he says, “…the advent of amplifiers, synthesisers and midi-devices gave birth to the folk-rock movement where instruments of shudderingly different tonality and timbre were yoked together … frequently also characterised by frenetically rapid tempi, crassly thickened textures and grossly inappropriate harmonies”.  Everyone has an opinion, we know, and, agree or not, it is Donaldson’s candid take on things piping that gives his Pipers colour – a little bounce, even. The MacCrimmon memorial cairn at Borreraig ugly? It never crossed my mind. Amazing Grace, “awful”? I wish I’d made that tune.

Donaldson’s descriptions of the lives of some of the greats of the last 120 years or so gives the reader a trove of concise detail and canny perception that will leave many readers with fresh insight. On the McLennan family, “In terms of direct and traceable influence, the McLennans were at least as important as the MacPhersons or the Camerons, yet they have been largely excluded from the picture for much of the twentieth century”. Donaldson lays much of the blame for that on The Piobaireachd Society of the time. The PS and it’s long-time adherent, Archibald Campbell, especially, continue with the firm admonishment first laid out in his 1999, The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society.

Willie Laurie for my money was an unarguable compositional genius. I suspect in dying young any biography that might be written would be naturally brief. Still, his place, to my mind, has parity alongside John MacColl’s, who Donaldson duly notes. At the same time, in noting Brown, Nicol – the later, one of the author’s teachers – I suggest the door is opened for other pipers of note who might have been included. My own teacher (for a time), John Wilson, comes to mind. Though, this is nit-picking, to be fair. Of note, too, are the outstanding selection of photographs that fill the book: rarely-seen images of so many of our maestros, all in one place.

A high point of this book of many high points are the five pages Donaldson offers up: “conventional beliefs in piping”. I’d have to think there was some satisfying fun on the author’s part to pick off, like clay pigeons, so many common piping assumptions that, from the author’s perspective, are simply not true. Each “assumption” full of controversy and, so, a good topic of conversation for any piping enthusiast: the army saved piping. Discuss.

Congratulations to William Donaldson and his Pipers: A Guide to the Players and Music of The Great Highland Bagpipe (New Edition). A new loved book in my library.