By Fergus Muirhead.
Piping Today #49.
Rona Lightfoot and Faye Henderson had remarkably similar beginnings to their piping careers. Rona had the pipes on her shoulder in South Uist when she was nine-years-old. Her father, brothers and uncles all played and, in fact, at times Rona thought that it was compulsory for everyone in her family to play the pipes. Well, all the males anyway. “Even although girls and women didn’t normally play the pipes I just copied my father and brother and picked up the chanter and learned by ear,” she explained.
Faye’s beginnings were very similar. “It was almost impossible for me not to be a piper with both my mum and dad playing but it was never, ‘Oh, here’s a chanter, play it’. But then my sister started playing and I thought whatever she is doing, I want to do as well so I started playing the chanter.”
Both Rona and Faye were initially taught by family members, and in Faye’s case this has continued with her illustrious parents Murray and Patricia Henderson still guiding her career.
“My mum and dad have always taught me. When I was at primary school it would just be whoever was around at the time – if dad was working then mum would do it and vice versa. If a competition was coming up they would both sit in and give their different comments,” said Faye.
Rona and Faye came together to add an unusually feminine feel to this year’s Glenfiddich Championship. Rona was acting as Bean an Taighe for the day at Blair Castle and Faye was the first female competitor to appear at this prestigious competition for 20 years. Not only that but Faye, who qualified for the competition by winning the Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering this year, was also the youngest competitor ever in the Championship, some 40 years younger than the oldest player on the day.
So it was a good time to talk to these two musicians and find out how they feel as the ‘minority sex’ in the piping world and to glean from Rona the changes she has seen since she started competing almost 40 years ago.
According to Rona, Faye should consider herself lucky that conditions for females have changed since Rona’s young days to actually allow the new Gold Medallist to take to the boards so easily. Rona explained: “In my day I was only allowed to compete in certain places. I competed in South Uist and in some Highland games but I wasn’t allowed to compete in the Northern Meeting or the Argyllshire Gathering because of my gender.
“Women were not allowed and that didn’t make me feel very good. I wanted to be allowed to play because I loved playing. But then sex discrimination legislation was introduced and we had to be allowed to play.”
Rona’s first foray into a major competition was a few years before the sex discrimination legislation was introduced and it was a great day for her.
“The Northern Meeting in 1972 was my first major competition and I felt good. I got third in the jig, the first prize for a woman. I’ve still got the £5 that I won — actually it wasn’t a five pound note it was a five pound cheque.” Having won a prize in the jig competition the rest of the day didn’t go smoothly for Rona.
“I didn’t get to compete in the march because a gentleman at the venue told me I wasn’t properly dressed,” she explained. “I was dressed kind of like a Highland dancer – I was wearing a waistcoat with long sleeves. They sent me home and by the time I came back they told me I had missed my place in the march. I said that I would play last but they told me that I couldn’t change my position and just couldn’t play.”
I wasn’t around the competition circuit at that time and I have to confess that I found Rona’s story about being refused permission to play because of her dress a bit hard to believe.
However, when I was recounting the tale in the bar during the Glenfiddich competition I was told that the secretary of a band due to play at the Braemar Gathering in 1969 had received a letter from the organising committee.
The letter explained that the committee had heard that this particular band was intending to play a female at the Gathering and asked if they knew they had to have permission for this to happen.
The irony of the situation was that the secretary of the band was the female who was going to play on the day.
Rona’s views on the way female pipers should dress while competing haven’t changed in the last 30 years.
She said: “There’s no need for a girl to wear a collar and tie and skean dubh and flashes and brogues. She can wear a kilt with a frilly blouse and a jacket. She doesn’t need to wear a sporran and can show off the kilt beautifully without it. The bagpipe is a musical instrument — you don’t have to dress like a man to play it.”
Faye agreed: “I don’t wear men’s dress. I don’t wear brogues or a sporran. I wear what I would class as female attire. Obviously it’s a different time and there was obviously a transition period when sex discrimination legislation came in but 20 or 30 years on it’s been done and there are not a lot of females who wear the brogues or the sporran.”
Faye reckons that the changes that have come about since Rona started to compete effectively mean that both sexes are now treated equally.
She added: “I don’t see myself any different from the guys that play and I don’t think the guys see me as any different – I don’t think there’s an advantage or disadvantage about being a girl. I know from experience that I haven’t been treated any differently and I can only go from my own experience.”
Looking at Faye’s record this year it would be hard to argue with that last statement. Not only the youngest competitor at Glenfiddich, and the first female for 20 years, but she is also the first female to win a Gold Medal at Oban. She seems to take it all in her stride.
Faye explained: “When I came here to watch my dad playing I thought that it would be really cool to get to that level. It feels really weird now that I am here to play. It’s obviously something that every piper aspires to and I don’t really think it has sunk in yet and I don’t think it will until after the competition – it’s still quite a surreal feeling to be here.”
Faye reckons that appearing at Blair Castle is on an equal footing to winning the Gold Medal, and although she was overjoyed with her success at the Argyllshire Gathering,
winning is not always her ultimate goal.
“I don’t really see it as a competition,” she explained. “I’ve practised to play a good tune and if I play a good tune I’ll be really happy with it. It’s not that I’ve really come here to win and I really want to win this prize – I just want to come and play for me. That’s really important. I don’t think I would enjoy it so much if I only saw it as a competition that I should be able to win. I want to play for myself and I’ll just keep doing that.”
Of course as well as playing for herself, she will no doubt get a critique from her parents and teachers afterwards.
Faye said: “I always ask my mum and dad for feedback because I always want to improve and they are always totally honest with me which is how I would want it to be.
“If you can’t have a teacher that tells you straight ‘that wasn’t good’ then there is no point in them being your teacher. You go to them to improve and you want to make progress all the time so I do really appreciate their feedback and it is that feedback that has got me to the gold medal standard.”
Rona paid tribute to Faye’s achievements this year and, ahead of the competition, urged her to keep up the good work.
Said Rona: “I congratulate Faye for getting the Gold Medal this year. I’m really delighted for her. I hope she plays well and shows them that a woman can play the pipes equally as good as a man.”
Of course it was a big day for Rona as well. Although she has chaired the Springbank competition in Campbeltown and the Donald MacLeod competition in Stornoway, it was her first time on duty at Blair Castle. Rona said: “The competitors submit six piobaireachd and don’t know until the night before which one they are going to play. As the chairperson you have to know a little bit about all of the tunes so I had quite a lot of swotting up to do. I have notes on all of the tunes from books, Piobaireachd Society records and other stories like that.”
Rona and I acted as comperes at the same concert was at Piping Live! in Glasgow in the summer and that night Rona told me that she didn’t really care what she said as long as she got to tell a joke in Gaelic.
But the Glenfiddich is a much less frivolous undertaking.
Rona said: “I think it will be serious this time. You have to remember that it is a serious competition for the competitors and I wouldn’t want to make light of that, having been a competitor myself. It wouldn’t be fair to have the pipers standing in the wings while I have some fun and tell the audience a joke or two.”
Having listened to her say that the night before the competition, she opened proceedings with a fabulous story about her phone ringing all night and not really knowing how to switch it off. She said she threw it in the wardrobe and it was fine the next day because the battery was flat. She is a natural storyteller.
In the bar before dinner on the night of the competition, she had John Wilson, Bob Worrall and I in stitches with a tale of how she fell off her bike and hurt her wrist just before she was due to play at her first ceilidh.
“Were you not disappointed at missing the chance to play at the ceilidh?” one of us asked. “Oh, I didn’t miss it. I played at the ceilidh all right, I just didn’t tell my parents until the next morning that I thought I had a broken wrist!”
While travelling to Armagh for the William Kennedy Piping Festival in November I got into conversation with some young musicians from Skye who were over to play for a few days.
One of the adults with the group, who will remain nameless, told me a fascinating story about a post-Mod party where whisky had to be drunk out of the bottle as there were hardly any cups and a policeman’s hat got knocked off halfway through the night.
It was a hugely entertaining tale and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that one or the participants in the late night revelry was one of the subjects for my piece on this year’s Glenfiddich Championship. It wasn’t Faye Henderson!
There were no such signs of broken wrists or tomfoolery with the long arm of the law from Faye at the Glenfiddich.
So how did she prepare for the big day?
“I don’t have any superstitions, but I like to just go to my room to have a few minutes to myself to think about the tunes and just to look forward to the day,” she said.
“I want to enjoy the whole day because it might only happen once.”
Was she pleased with the tunes chosen for her debut appearance?
“I’m happy with my tunes – Battle of Waternish in the piobaireachd and The 74th’s Farewell to Edinburgh, Lady MacKenzie of Gairloch and Bessie McIntyre is the MSR.
“I was happy with all of the tunes I submitted and whichever ones were chosen I would have thought ‘perfect’. I like to have all of my tunes at the same level. I’ve never gone into a competition thinking ‘Oh, I don’t want this one I’d rather have that one’.”
She had every right to be happy, as did Rona.
Faye’s debut at the Glenfiddich was a fitting end to a great season and Rona’s Balvenie Medal at the end of the day was a fitting reward for a lifetime of service to piping.
Two great debuts and then we all retired to the Atholl Palace Hotel for a cup of tea and to dissect day’s events. There were a few tunes from the competitors – all nine men and a lady. While the other lady looked on with her medal safe in her long since fully-healed wrist.