Piping Today #71, 2014.
Willie McCallum is one of the piping world’s true greats. The music he makes is universally admired and reliably, over the course of his lifetime, he has performed at the most precise and astonishingly highest levels of sustained excellence.
In the solo piping world he’s won the lot — often many times over. He has deep experience in pipe bands too, with his most recent adventure in pipe bands taking place with the much talked about, Spirit of Scotland Pipe Band. Hailing from Campbeltown, and connected to a great piping line in his Uncles, Ronnie and Hugh, Willie McCallum is a true son of Argyll and the Argyll piping tradition. In 2014 he took a few moments from his busy family life and world piping travels to talk to Piping Today about thoughts about life — beyond piping.
PT: Aside from home, what’s your favourite place in the world? Why?
There would be a few contenders for that one. One of them would obviously be Kintyre, having been born and brought up there. I go to Campbeltown to see my dad and each time I pass Clachan I always get a different feeling from going anywhere else. When you cross over to the west and can see Jura, Islay, Gigha, Cara and the north coast of Ireland, you are reminded it’s an incredibly beautiful part of the world.
For all of us there is a home town and I’m proud to have been born and brought up in an area steeped in music and language. Not only has Kintyre had a huge influence on piping in every way, but also other areas of culture like art, Gaelic singing, fiddle, accordion and poetry.
I don’t get down there as much as I would like. Having spent the majority of my life in and around the Glasgow area, I’m used to Glasgow, and it’s handy for all the main things in my life other than family, which is piping and ‘the football’. I don’t see myself moving back to Kintyre for these reasons, but one thing you learn in life is never say never.
PT: What is your happiest childhood memory — and what makes it so special?
Hard question, I had a happy childhood in general. Living in Campbeltown there was much more
freedom for me then than many kids have growing up today. I had more freedom to roam than my
children ever did growing up in a more populated area. There’s so much to protect kids from now than there was then.
I was never happier than being out playing with friends, especially in the summer where you’d be out morning to night, the only time indoors would be for meals or being called in at night for bed.
Endless games of football and all sorts of other games meant never a dull moment — and not a care in the world.
So there’s not one single thing that stands out.
PT: What was your first job?
My first job was a part-time job I had delivering butcher meat in Campbeltown. I rode one of those black bikes with the basket on the front. I had to wait until I was 13 to get a job. It was before school and after school every day and on Saturday mornings. I would get off on a Saturday if I had a contest. I am fortunate that I had parents who worked very hard for everything they had, and I think that work ethic was very important in making me want to work.
PT: What would be your last supper?
A very Scottish traditional meal: the starter would be a plate of lentil soup made with a ham bone. Main course: lamb bhoona, fried rice, mince paratha and for dessert: Crème brûlée.
PT: What are you most proud of?
Definitely my children, Hailey and Scott. I am very fortunate in that they have grown up to be very good citizens, and I have a fantastic relationship with them. It hardly seems any time since they were born, but to see them where they are now makes me very proud.
PT: What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
P/M Ronnie McCallum once said to me ‘never disgrace the instrument’. I’ve tried to keep to that my whole piping career. It’s a hard game to be in as there are many peaks and troughs. Dignity in victory and defeat is extremely important to me.
PT: Aside from the music you make, what kind of music do you like to listen to?
My favourite artists are: Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Coldplay, Bob Dylan, Echo and the Bunnymen and AC/DC. Always on in the car and usually loud except when other people are in the car. I hate listening to quiet music, you can’t hear all the things that are in the recording. For traditional music I love Alasdair Fraser’s music.
PT: Who’s your favourite band, artist?
The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.
PT: Are you superstitious? If so, do you have one in particular you find yourself believing?
[Laughs] My mum said never cut your toenails on a Sunday. I’ve never done it yet, so it seems to be working.
PT: If you could meet anyone in history, who would they be? Why?
My grandfather, Willie McCallum. He died before I was born and I would have so loved to have learned from him and what he knew, he’s the immediate link to the family history that have never met.
PT: What possession do you value most? Why?
My silver mounted Henderson pipes from the 1890s. I’ve played them all my life and they are a family heirloom.
PT: Where are you most likely to be at 8:00 on a Saturday night?
Watching TV — a movie or football, with a couple of beers.
PT: Your favourite sports team? Why?
Rangers. My dad was a great Rangers man and I suppose that’s what happens. My Scott is the same. Growing up as a wee boy in Campbeltown I remember my first game, which involved a long journey — August 4, 1969: Rangers versus Tottenham Hotspur. Jim Baxter, Willie Henderson and John Grieg all played that day. Three all-time greats. I was born the day Rangers beat the great Wolverhampton Wanderers to reach the first European Cup Winners Cup Final. There is a Rangers song about that day! I have match programmes for each of these matches.
PT: What makes you happy?
Just being at home, pottering about in the garden, watching TV, having a few drinks with friends, having a tune on the pipes when they’re going well and pupils getting great results at the piping. Just normal stuff.
PT: List five people you know and describe each of them in five words.
Willie McCallum, senior [Willie’s father]: A man of boundless energy
Christine McCallum: Keeps me from big-headedness
Roddy MacLeod: Great company and great friend
Peter Hunt: Grumpy (and a great friend)
Angus MacColl: Tomorrow will do; genius
PT: That’s four words for Angus
Now who’s grumpy? Four will do.
PT: Indeed. Thanks for your time, Willie.