Roddy MacLeod MBE is keeping busy since leaving his role as Principal of The National Piping Centre in 2020. Roddy held the post since 1996, and his work at TNPC over those 24 years has been recognised by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland who awarded him a fellowship in a ceremony on October 27, 2022.
Roddy’s guiding hand was on many of the high profile projects launched at The National Piping Centre and included the BA (Scottish Music – Piping) degree programme at RCS – now the BA Traditional Music: Piping degree, the HNC in Piping, the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland, CLASP, the Piping and Drumming Qualifications Board and the Piping Live! Glasgow International Piping Festival. In addition to editing and co-writing the Centre’s Tutor Book and Piobaireachd Tutor book he was editor of the Centre’s magazine, initially called Notes, before expanding to Piping Today.
Roddy said: “I’m really quite grateful to Josh Dickson, Head of Traditional Music at RCS for his thoughtfulness in sponsoring me for this award. He put a lot of effort into the words of his speech, and it was a lovely moment for me. To have this recognition from RCS is really special.”
Roddy has just returned from Canada where he was judging at the George Sherriff Invitational, and he has other trips in the 2023 diary for Winter Storm in January, the Mastery of Scottish Arts in February and the Celtic Festival in Barbados in May. He is also teaching online at workshops such as the Piping Hot Summer Drummer Winter Launch Pad in February.
Roddy said: “I’m as busy as I want to be in order to have a good balance of my time. I’ve got a fairly large group of piping students who mostly visit me every two weeks.
“I find it personally rewarding to teach students of all levels and to see them them progress. I would say I am currently teaching a full range of ages and abilities. I have an international mix of students, some from the US, Australia and Hong Kong, so I need to manage the time zones as I don’t want to be teaching late into the night.”
Roddy balances his working day between teaching and promoting his own range of RJM Bagpipes which are made by David Naill & Co. The collaboration started 10 years ago when Roddy developed his own RJM pipe chanter with the company, which led to a development of the RJM Bagpipes three years ago with Martin and Les Cowell who are the owners of David Naill & Co Bagpipes in Minehead, Somerset. Roddy explained: “Whenever I would go down to test the chanters, Martin would be very interested and impressed in the workmanship in my own Lawrie Bagpipes which were made in 1907 as a presentation set.
“The external aesthetics of the RJM pipes are based on my Lawrie Bagpipes, but internally the dimensions are different from my Lawrie set, and they had to be different. I got the Lawrie pipes 40 years ago from John D Burgess who was selling them, though they were not his own pipes. Back then there were no synthetic reeds, only cane, and I initially struggled to get a bass drone reed working as the bore of the original bottom joint was very wide. That bottom joint would have been fine in 1907, but it wasn’t suited to 1980 as the pitch of where pipers were tuning their pipes had risen over the years. I was having to push the pitch of my bass drone up so much that the middle section of the drone was tuning so low, it was almost touching the mount of the bottom joint. The effect of that caused the drone to growl.
“So I experimented by swapping the Lawrie bottom bass joint with a Hardie bottom bass joint and it solved the problem right away. I had the Lawrie mounts transferred onto the Hardie bass joint. As the years went by, I discovered that two very well-known pipers who played Lawrie pipes, Donald MacPherson and Andrew Wright, had done the very same thing to solve the problem.
“With the introduction of synthetic reeds, I was able to play Ezeedrone Reeds in my tenor drones, but I could never get a synthetic reed to play in my bass drone. No matter which synthetic reed I used in my bass drone it was unsteady. The drone would get to a certain point and change radically. Until very recently I would still be one of the few people who was playing a cane bass drone reed.
“When it came to designing my RJM pipes I knew that the bass drone had to be redesigned internally so that it would take any reed, whether it be cane or synthetic. And it took a lot of work to achieve this. The final result meant that every part of the bass drone is very different to a Lawrie Bagpipe and completely different to a Naill Bagpipe.
“The tenor drones are similar to the Lawrie and the Naill Bagpipes, but there are lots of unseen details such as how the tenor drone fans out underneath the ring cap or the dimension of the bottom section bore.
“Initially the tenor drones were tuning too low, so there were further changes to get them tuning to the pitch that most people in top level competition are now playing, whether it be solo or pipe bands.
“And the drones had to tune to my RJM chanter, so that was another consideration. We eventually got there, but because of the covid lockdown, I wasn’t able to play the pipes in public and let people hear how they sounded. So I took to posting videos on Facebook each time a new model was ready. I wanted to show people that each model sounded the same and it was just the external ornamentation that differed between the nine models in the range.”
Over the years Roddy has become highly regarded for the sound that he produces from his Lawrie Bagpipes, and when developing his chanter and drones he wanted to maintain those high standards. Roddy said: “It wasn’t till 2022 that I was able to get the new RJM pipes out in public and let them be heard in competitions, recitals and workshops. I got good feedback, and people told me they couldn’t hear a difference between my Lawrie pipe and the RJM set. And that was my objective, as I didn’t want to create a new sound, but rather give people the opportunity to set the pipe up to recreate my sound.
“I first played them in competition at the Skye Games in Portree in August and I won the overall light music against strong competition. The pipes went well and the judges commented on how well the pipes sounded, so that was a significant endorsement for me.
“I also played the pipes in a recital in Lewis this year to celebrate the launch of a new book of tunes for the music of Pipe Major Alex MacIver. The recital was recorded for a CD and is also available on YouTube, and gives people a chance to listen to the pipes if they have not heard them yet.”
The RJM range of pipes is available directly from his website here, and the range is named after Hebridean Islands. The website also contains information on pipers from the islands that Roddy had connections with, and for example, the Barra pipes are styled after the set of pipes that Roddy’s tutor, Duncan Johnstone of Barra played.
Roddy also has more than 50 piobaireachd sample recordings on his website, and the full tune recordings and sheet music for each piobaireachd is available to buy for a small cost.
Roddy was originally taught piobaireachd by Duncan Johnstone, but when Roddy was 16 years old he got a year of tuition from Angus MacLellan when Duncan took a break with health issues. Roddy explained: “Angus was clearly a student of Donald MacLeod, but Duncan got his piobaireachd from several places such as the Gold Medalist Roddy MacDonald from South Uist. Roddy MacDonald was the brother of another Gold Medalist, John MacDonald, who was Pipe Major of Glasgow Police. I believe both Roddy and John MacDonald and Donald MacLeod could link their piobaireachd to John MacDonald of Inverness. I know that Duncan Johnstone was also a faithful attender of classes that Bob Brown would run in Glasgow, and Bob Brown can also link his piobaireachd to John MacDonald of Inverness.
“I have always liked listening to the recordings of Donald MacLeod and used him as a point of reference, as well as Bob Brown and Bob Nicol. As time went on I would also listen to more recent generation of pipers who I was fortunate enough to compete against including Iain MacFadyen, Murray Henderson, Hugh McCallum, Donald MacPherson, John Wilson, Gavin Stoddart, Iain Morrison, Bill Livingstone and Angus Macdonald. When I was a young competitor these were the guys I was looking up to, I couldn’t help but be influenced by what I was hearing.
“So my piobaireachd playing is likely a melding of styles of what I feel comfortable with and want to put across.”
Roddy is planning to take part in a full programme of competition in 2023. His competing year usually begins with the Uist and Barra competition in March, so look out for those details being announced and get along to hear his RJM pipes and piobaireachd playing in person.