Andrew Wright in conversation with the Piping Times 2019



With the very sad news of the passing of Andrew Wright on October 23, 2022, we are republishing an interview Andrew gave to Piping Times editor, Stuart Letford, in late 2018. The interview was published in two parts in the January and February 2019 editions of Piping Times, and is republished here as one complete interview.

Stuart Letford: You’ve lived in Dunblane for over 30 years but you were born in the Govan area of Glasgow, an area famed for its ship-building.

Andrew Wright: Yes, most folk in Govan had a shipyard connection.

SL: Did you ever work in the shipyards?

AW: No, but I worked in the engineering support industries.

SL: Where were your parents from?

AW: My father was from Glasgow and my mother from Ireland.

SL: What’s your earliest memory growing up in Govan?

AW: My earliest memory would be the noise of the machinery from the shipyards as well as the Glasgow Blitz*. Another early memory was joining the Lifeboys and then the Boys’ Brigade [BB]. In those days most youngsters in Govan and elsewhere in Glasgow joined one of the youth organisations, such as the BB and the Scouts. I went into the BB and the Company had a pipe band. They wanted learners and so I was put in to learn the pipes. That was the 213th Glasgow Company, the Boys’ Brigade.

*In spring 1941, one of the most intense Luftwaffe bombing raids of World War II took place in a few miles downriver from Govan. On March 13 and 14, over 200 German bombers attacked, aiming to destroy naval, shipbuilding and munitions targets.

SL: The BB in those days had a really strong piping tradition. Did any of the other lads in the 213 take their piping further?

AW: Yes, a number or them were stalwarts in the pipe band scene for many years along with lads who came from other BB companies. Most of the other bands had ex-BB members in their ranks. The BB is still there, of course, although part of the main teaching load of piping in Glasgow was gradually centred on the College of Piping. In my day if you wanted to be a piper you joined the BB. At that time I was open minded about things and went along with the flow. After a while I played as a young boy in the Glasgow Battalion piping competition and got a prize. The judge was the Pipe Sergeant of the Red Hackle band who recruited me for the band. I wasn’t really up to the grade for it right away so the Pipe Major suggested I receive some extra tuition and sent me to Peter R. MacLeod of Partick.

•Andrew Wright in 2018 at the interview with Stuart Letford for Piping Times

SL: So it was almost by accident that you went to Peter MacLeod?

AW: Oh yes, purely by chance. Call it fate, perhaps.

SL: Had you heard of him?

AW: I’d seen his name on some music and he had given instruction to others in the band before my time. Peter worked in the shipyards at Partick on the other bank of the River Clyde.

SL: And how long had you been going to him before you realised his standing in the piping world?

AW: I picked up on that fairly quickly. He was quite a forceful elderly man and strong minded. He was originally from the Isle of Lewis and learned his piping there. He came to Glasgow in the early 1900s. After this he joined the 7th Cameronians where he was appointed Pipe Major. He cleaned up my finger work through the MSRs and taught me all the finger technique for piobaireachd and put me on to Lament for the Only Son. Looking back, it’s quite a big tune to start off but that was the one he chose. After that I went through about half a dozen more with him. I started to compete in some of the amateur competitions at the Highlanders’ Institute in Glasgow, including the SPA Amateurs, and I got a few prizes in those.

SL: Did Peter prefer the Piobaireachd Society’s settings to those of others?

AW: No, it was just that the Piobaireachd Society’s collection was easily available. He took me through the setting out, the structure of the tunes such as Kinlochmoidart, MacLeod of Raasqy’s Salute and Tulloch Ard. I also had lessons from Peter MacLeod Jnr.

SL: That must have been quite unique, having Peter Snr. and Jnr. teaching you at the same time?

AW: Sometimes that was the case, and Peter Jnr. was marvellous at tuning and setting up the pipe. He eventually went to work in the London area when Peter Snr. passed on. By this time I was in the Red Hackle band, too and the first season I played with them would have been 1955. The time then came to do my two years’ National Service and I was posted to the Royal Scots, 1st Battalion at Glencorse Barracks near Edinburgh.

SL: Did you do much piping in the regiment?

AW: I joined the pipe band after I completed the initial training. I served under Pipe Major Robert S. Burns form Edinburgh. Burns was a very good composer and a fine player. I served in Berlin for a year and a half with the 1st Battalion. We were part of the British Forces Network in Berlin. This was during the Cold War, of course, and not like the Berlin of today. When I came out I went back into the Red Hackle and played with the band for some 15-16 seasons.

SL: And at this time you were starting to compete around the solo piping circuit?

AW: By that time I was trying to break into the scene and was caught up in the music of piobaireachd. Whenever I was working in the centre of Glasgow I’d go up to the College for a practice, and Seumas MacNeill would ask me to do a bit of teaching as well. This would be in the early 1960s. At the time, the College was the main place to go. The band practiced across the road at the Hepburn & Ross warehouse.

SL: You simply walked across the road …?

AW: That’s right. And I got to know Donald MacLean (Oban). He played with the Red Hackle band for a couple of seasons and had previously won the Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering. He had a huge repertoire at light music that he played in a beautiful, rounded style.

SL: Who else played in the band in those days?

AW: Angus MacLeod was my first Pipe Major then Donald Murray took it on. When Donald left the company managed to get John Weatherston to take over.

SL: What was John like to work with?

AW: He had a magic touch. He had a couple of good Pipe Sergeants working with him, too. John would select tunes for us to play that we didn’t like initially but he would force the tune through and the tune would take off. Musically, he had a great vision that way. He had won the World Championship with the 277 Light Regiment at Belfast. He didn’t get it with the Hackle but he won practically everything else with the Hackle. When John retired Malcolm MacKenzie was appointed Pipe Major. I left the band because I wanted to concentrate more on the solos and on piobaireachd. I was enjoying going to Donald MacLeod. Eventually, I moved on to pipe band judging.

SL: Regarding judging, where did you find you were more comfortable, with solo piping or pipe bands?

AW: I was equally comfortable in both camps.

SL: As a competitor did you prefer one to the other?

AW: Well, by this time I was caught up in the solo scene. The great interest took over and I was very fortunate in going through a lot of material with Donald MacLeod who had come to Glasgow at this time. He very much focussed me and inspired me with the music and the solo piping scene for many years.

•Andrew on the front cover of Piping Times in November 1970 shorty after he won both his Gold Medals at Oban and Inverness.

SL: For the later generations that never heard Donald play, we have his recordings, of course, and the listener is sometimes struck by the way Donald played. He certainly didn’t hang about. Your recordings suggest you perhaps took a more considered, for want of a better expression, approach.

AW: Your teacher shows what to do and how to do it but your own touch and thoughts are there and eventually come through based on the teaching received. With Donald, his playing always sounded ‘fresh’ and searching. He had a great gift of spontaneity and could do something just out of the blue and do it again on the repeat. Bob Brown’s playing was extra expressive; his style was more elongated … a beautiful player. Bob Nicol did seem to try to play in a more ‘forward moving’ way. On reflection, after listening to their recordings, I would think that the man who was most consistent throughout was Nicol. His conception of the music in general remained firm through the whole repertory. I got to know them both very well, more so R. B. Nicol.

SL: Were you in a group that travelled up to Deeside regularly for the lessons? Was it group tuition?

AW: No, I used to drive up on my own. At that time my full-time job often took me into the area and I was able to combine the two. Anything I got was one-to-one. All teachers have their own way of putting their views across. Bob Nicol did a lot of singing and directing with his arms when he as teaching. I have found that in teaching different students, they respond to different methods of putting things across to them. Many students prefer to play along with their teacher on the practice chanter. It is up to the teacher to get the message across by whatever method suits the student. Singing is usually very helpful although some students are reluctant to sing or even hum the tune.

SL: I’ve heard some dull performances at the highest levels. Technically flawless but flat musically.

AW: I think competing tends to make all of us careful. Generally, it makes the piper concentrate on over correctness, but the best players put a lot of themselves into it and this comes over in the playing. Competition tends to make pipers – solo or in pipe bands – over-rehearse and to steer players into ‘automadc pilot’ in competitions. If you take the Grade 1 bands today they’re not going to be experimenting the night before the Worlds. They’re going to get it right down the middle in the weeks prior to getting there. Let us not forget that exactness takes a lot of preparation, too, and that is the starting point.

SL: Compositions from Capt. John MacLellan and Pipe Major Donald MacLeod have been set in recent years, so it seems that the Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society is now more open to modern compositions.

AW: My main interest has been in studying the existing repertory and getting to know as much about it as I can. I find a great deal of interest in the old stuff. The source material is always important.

SL: Certain tunes will always be set for very good reason.

AW: The total repertory is round about 350 tunes of which about one-third are heard. There is fine material in the others and they should be heard and we can learn from them.

SL: Tunes that got prizes at Oban and Inverness in the 1950s and 1960s seemed to be, on some occasions, of a low challenge. I think someone got the Gold Medal once for playing Alasdair Dearg, for example

AW: The year you’re referring to was an ‘own choice’ year but let’s not denigrate Alasdair Dearg. It is a short tune – about seven minutes in duration – but has great expressive scope, and expression is the main thing. Players today are performing much more difficult, longer tunes, which are now set by the Piobaireachd Society. Things move on.

SL: One of the first ceòl mór recordings I bought was the one you made for the Pipers of Distinction series. This recording contained some ‘small’ tunes and some, to me at that time, obscure tunes.

AW: That was part of a series put out by Klub Records about 20 years ago. I confined my contribution wholly to piobaireachd, comprising eight seldom heard and short pieces. The other discs in the series recorded by other players comprise light music and probably sold better at the time although the piobaireachd recordings still sell.

SL: You recorded a series of CDs in Ireland which also still sells well.

AW: The Northern Ireland Piping and Drumming School produced these. They contain examples of piobaireachd on pipes and keyboard with harmonies and canntaireachd. We covered 23 pieces of ceòl mór. Most pipers are stuck for time and there’s only a certain amount of material that a lot of us are able to address. A great deal lies beneath the surface. In Ireland it was hoped to be an educational project.

SL: There are always those that value conformity over individuality. I believe individuality is everything, that and enthusiasm. In life, not just in piping. There seems to me to be a wider style of playing in your day rather than today. Is that an accurate perception or is that a myth?

AW: Looking back, in the early days a lot of the players were searching for what to do but nowadays there are so many recordings which gives the up-and-coming players a good picture of how to play a tune and that is a starting point. I’m sure that what John MacDonald taught was really the method and conception not just the tune, and how the tunes are all related; that the same musical grammar applies to all piobaireachd when played on the pipe. The Piobaireachd Society’s collection was, of course, amassed over a number of years and things change as we find out more about the tunes. We’ve had the benefit of what those 70 years ago knew. The advent of the tape recorder in the late 1940s at least preserves how things were played or viewed at that time. There is a lot of material, and most pipers, at least in those days, had full-time jobs, but even full-time pipers, professional pipers, get a certain level of content in the repertory and they don’t want to push past that. A lot of good tunes out there are not played.

SL: When did you go begin judging for solo piping competitions?

AW: When I stopped competing. That would be around 1998. I retired from pipe band judging in 2012.

SL: Were you losing your enjoyment of the bands?

AW: Well, I came to the end of it really, judging bands is quite demanding mentally and physically.

SL: You judged Grade 1 at the Worlds on many occasions.

AW: Yes, over the years I must have done a good number, both the MSR and Medley, but I never kept count.

SL: What do you think of the concept of ensemble that’s had more prominence these days?

AW: I was never involved with ensemble judging, only the piping. That was always my terms of reference when asked to judge. The bands now have improved in all grades. It’s a different scene. There’s no doubt that ensemble has influenced it all, and for the better. Drummers play a major part in the performance. It’s very technical and rhythmical. A good drum corps adds an extra dimension to the band. Ensemble isn’t overrated but when I was judging I concentrated only on the piping. I wasn’t focussed on the bass section. My terms of reference were always the piping but no doubt these other factors inadvertently affected the piping.

SL: Why do bands with good soloists not always produce the results?

AW: Well, all of the leading bands today have soloists or players of that calibre in the ranks but the most important man is the leader, the Pipe Major. The standard of the Grade 2 bands of today is as good as the Grade 1 bands of my day, and that’s not all that long ago.

SL: What do you think of the gap at the top of Grade 1? There’s been talk for a while about a Premier grade?

AW: The top six are always often very close and don’t vary much but the bottom six aren’t that far behind. The gap isn’t wide. All the Grade 1 bands are excellent. Even the bands coming up from Grade 2, which may end up low in Grade 1 for a while, they’re still top quality. I think Grade 1 is OK as is. There isn’t a huge gap between them. The very good bands often have only mere detail separating them.

SL: I remember reading an article by sculptor, Henry Moore. He was talking about being sensitive to the arts, and appreciating the arts, and how if one can do that then it is a gift to you. Some don’t appreciate art, any art, but Moore said that what you can appreciate and to what extent you appreciate determined the richness of your life. It seems to me that you have had a rich life certainly in the artistic sense.

AW: If so, I have been fortunate.

SL: You do it for altruistic reasons. You are a person who appreciates good piping, therefore good art, and in that sense you’ve been quite lucky.

AW: If so, it’s all due to good instruction received.

SL: Excluding yourself, what performances do you look back on and think, “That was superb; quite unforgettable?”

AW: I remember some great performances but it’s in some of the old recordings where I find that sense of satisfaction.

SL: On judging, there’s a principle that many solo piping judges believe in and that’s in the collective responsibility of the bench and that decisions should be arrived at in confidence. Surely, there’s nothing wrong with disagreement among judges and for that to be made public? I know of one ex-judge, for example, who believes in that principal absolutely but who doesn’t always put it into practice.

AW: The individuals on the bench need to work as a team. You may not always get unanimity but what must come out is a collective decision with a high degree of confidentiality and respect for all who played. There is nothing wrong with discussing an individual’s performance with him or her afterwards.

SL: I heard a young piper bemoan recently that few members of the general public attend the main competitions at Oban, Inverness and London and that organisers should try incorporating other instruments and different ways of presenting the music. But that surely is missing the point? We’re talking about competitions here, not concerts or shows.

AW: Exactly, and it’s the competitions that make us all practice and learn, not concerts and shows. Competitions have been instrumental in preserving the music. Piobaireachd doesn’t appeal to everybody but the appeal it does have is perpetuated by the competition system. The competition system, since 1781, has preserved the music and the art, of that I have no doubt.

SL: Have you many pupils yourself Andrew?

AW: I always have two or three or so that I take individually. I also get involved in lectures and classes.

SL: It was in the early 1980s that David Murray asked Donald MacLeod to judge the Clasp at Inverness on his own albeit with a reader beside him to consult if necessary. I think that sounds like a good idea: someone of the stature of Donald reaching a decision on his own. Today, there are some who have a similar stature to Donald. As David Murray said, at least we’d have a decision that wasn’t arrived at by compromise. Now, this happens today anyway at competitions like the Donald MacDonald Quaich, the Capt. John A. MacLellan, and the Silver Chanter so perhaps it’s worth considering for the big three?

AW: Definitely not. Those events have small invitational entries with a maximum of six players. The big three have the Clasp, the Gold Medal, Silver Medal … and 30 performers, lasting some eight hours, for example. It’s two entirely different situations.

SL: Music versus sound? How much latitude do you give to a piper in front of you playing with a less-than-great instrument but with excellent interpretation and no note errors? Do you agree with the principle that the first essential for good piobaireachd playing is a good instrument?

AW: Yes, today that is a basic requirement. It would depend, though, on what like the other performances were. It’s a matter of give and take. You have to have some latitude. It’s all about judgement. I would not want to base my judgement purely on instrument quality.

SL: Given your background with Peters MacLeod, Donald MacLeod, the Bobs, looking back who would rate above the other?

AW: I wouldn’t rate any of them above the other. They were all great in their own sphere and all willing to share and impart their knowledge.

SL: You don’t come across to me as someone who chased the prizes.

AW: I got my share of them but was always interested in the music and the interpretation using knowledge from those who taught me. I would not alter a tune to suit the casual listener.

SL: Did you have any favourite tune of Donald MacLeod’s? AW:

My favourite is his book of piobaireachd where the tunes are beautiful yet original. It contains some 20 tunes against the traditional repertory of about 350 tunes, a proportion of which are stereotyped. Donald’s tunes are a breath of fresh air and my favourites would be A Son’s Salute to his Parents and The Sound of the Sea, which, to me, projects the rhythm of water against a rocky shore.

SL: You mentioned at the Piping Times discussion event held at last year’s Piping Live! festival that of all the pipers in history the one you’d most like to have met was G. S. MacLennan.

AW: It is the light music that attracts me with the high degree of originality. Any of the older players I knew and who had heard him play spoke so highly of him and his musicality and technique. Going through his published book, his scores are written with many consecutive notes of equal value. I spoke of this once with R. B. Nicol who had heard him play but he assured me that G. S. played with the notes cut and dot and with punctuation. Perhaps the important thing was the degree of cut and dot, but let me state my awe of all the composers of our music.

SL: You have written books and contributed to many others — such as your own General Principles of Piobaireachd book, and the MacArthur-MacGregor transcription. You clearly have studied the whole art and are interest in it. Many find that refreshing.

AW: I think if you hear too much of anything you’ll switch off and that’s where some pipers lose out, because they restrict themselves to just a few tunes. They seldom get outside the circle.

SL: Who made your pipes? Are they a set of Lawries?

AW: Yes, made in 1904 by R. G. Lawrie. I also have a set by David Naill.

SL: Where did you get your drone reeds back in the day?

AW: Usually from lain ‘Inky’ Gampbell in Glasgow who taught me how to make my own which I did for a while, but it was time consuming. Today’s synthetic reeds are first class.

SL: These days more children are being taught to play than ever before, which is a great thing. Do you have any views on the difficulties many youngsters from less better off families still have in taking up the instrument? For example, both you and I learned through the BB and my first set of pipes belonged to the BB. But there seems to me to be an attitude from a lot of parents these days that the school should provide everything whereas before the avenue was the local BB or pipe band.

AW: Well, the biggest problem is that there is a high drop out rate from beginners and for all of those who come through there is a massive number who don’t make it or give up. The bagpipe is an expensive instrument.

SL: Is there any piping book, or rather, are there any books you simply couldn’t do without?

AW: The Piobaireachd Society collection of some 250 tune in the 16 books along with editorial notes for all of the tunes is a gold mine. All of the work on these was done on a voluntary basis.

SL: Finally, can you relate one humorous story to us?

AW: I often had to manage time to practice and would forego a lunch break to do work on the practice chanter in the car instead. I would drive to a lay by near to where I worked. I was doing this one day and observed in the mirror a police car pulling in at the rear. Two officers got out and approached the car carefully. I opened the window and asked: “Is there something wrong officers?” One of them said, “It’s all right, sir, we received a call that there was a man sitting in his car with a shotgun in his mouth.” We all laughed and I carried on with my practice.

SL: Andrew, thanks for your time.