More Power to Its Elbow: happy 40th to the LBPS

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As we reported in April, the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society (LBPS) this year marks 40 years since its inception.

Founded in 1983 in Glasgow, the organisation is solely responsible for the revival of Scotland’s bellows-blown bagpipes – the instruments played historically mostly in the Lowlands – and of its associated repertoire. In its 40 years, the LBPS has successfully revived these instruments and published many collections in addition to staging concerts and releasing recordings.

Bagpipe.news caught up recently with LBPS Convenor, Stuart Letford to chat about all things bellows piping.

Bagpipe.news: Firstly, how are things at the LBPS? How does it feel to be 40?
Stuart Letford: I think I speak for all of us in the LBPS when I say, ‘very well, thank you’. Our membership remains high and covers all the continents. We have a strong committee, too, which is very important. I first came on to the committee some time in the 1990s when we had marked only a decade. We’ve achieved a lot since then. As of this spring, we now have an eponymous tune, too, thanks to Colin Melville who was the winner of our 40th anniversary composing competition.

BN: Yes. What has been the highpoint, do you think?
SL: Oh, it’s impossible to single out one thing from those 40 years. Several publications have been important none more so than our More Power To Your Elbow tutor book, which continues to sell well and which has helped hundreds, probably thousands, of pipers. We have the late Jock Agnew to thank for that. For anyone wishing to play Smallpipes or Border pipes it really is the ‘go to’ tutor book.

Stuart Letford
•Stuart Letford, LBPS Convenor.

The first Grand Concert of Piping was a pivotal event for the LBPS but also for many individuals who were there, including me. It took place in 1995 in Edinburgh and the bill was top notch: Angus MacColl, Martyn Bennett, Gordon Duncan, Iain MacInnes, Allan MacDonald and Gordon Mooney (our first Secretary). The concert was organised by Hamish Moore and recorded by Greentrax. I vividly remember sitting there at the time thinking that it felt more than just a concert. It was truly ground breaking and gave the LBPS real credibility. I still listen to the recording today. Incidentally, Allan MacDonald is playing at one of our Fringe concerts next month.

The choice of venue for that concert – the old Royal High School, the building that in the 1970s was intended to house a devolved Scottish Assembly – was hugely significant politically. Cultural organisations have always sprung from a desire of people to take pride in their national identities, particularly if aspects of their identities have been diminished or almost forgotten. I’ll leave it to others to discuss the influence of culture on the development of self-determination and self-identity, but given the success of the folk revival since the 1960s and the gradual increase in support for self-determination, I’m only surprised that the LBPS took so long to get going. The founding members of the LBPS all had one simple aim: to revive the instruments and repertoire of the bellows-blown bagpipes played mainly in the towns of Scotland’s lowlands.

Another highpoint has been the recent initiative of a university in Poland to allow music students to sit their final exam performing on Border pipes or Smallpipes. Even here now, it’s virtually expected that students on the RCS’ BMus Piping degree course will own a set of bellows pipes.

BN: The instruments do seem to be played everywhere these days but what of the repertoire?
SL: That’s a good question. Go to a session these days and you’ll inevitably hear bellows pipes. We have some superb pipe makers to thank for producing excellent instruments and the LBPS still holds an approved list of pipe makers if anyone wishes to contact us for advice before buying a set. It’s interesting to find that Highland pipe makers have now branched into making bellows instruments. With varying degrees of success, it has to be admitted.

•The LBPS Collogue, 1998: Finlay MacDonald, Finlay Napier and John Saunders.

However, we still have some way to go to have the music played more. In the early years of the LBPS, it was Highland/pipe band pipers who drove the revival. They wanted something different, for various reasons. Sometimes they were disillusioned Highland pipers and sometimes they were simply curious. The early competitions saw a lot of Highland tunes played on what are essentially Lowland instruments. That’s fine but it has meant the Lowland pipe repertoire has taken much longer to take hold more widely. We’ve published much of the old repertoire so it’s there to be discovered. In addition, some of our members have published books, and I’d recommend those of Gordon Mooney, Matt Seattle and Pete Stewart to anyone who is curious about this wonderful music. They can be purchased from the LBPS website.

BN: Some say the Lowland pipe tunes are harder to play.
SL: Nah. That’s just not true. Some of it is but most of it isn’t, and this is the same with all music. One feature of the Lowland music of the Borders area is that many tunes have loads of variations, at times more than many Highland pipe tunes. Some are easy and add to the music, but it has to be admitted that some are intricate to the point of self-indulgence.

•Jimmy Wilson pictured in 1965. Jimmy was the first LBPS President. (Photo courtesy of Jeannie Campbell).

I remember in 1996 the late Iain MacDonald (Neilston) showing me his collection of European bagpipes. He picked up a French bagpipe and played a tune called Cuckold Come Out Of The Amrey. It was bonkers! I lost count of the number of variations it had. He played the tune exceptionally well but when he finished he remarked something to the effect that some of the variations added nothing musically to the tune. He was right. Pipers have always wanted to show off!

Then there’s the issue of playing a high B. A small number of Lowland pipe tunes include this note but unless you have Border pipe chanter (and reed) which can reach that note with careful pressure or unless you have a keyed Smallpipe chanter, you can’t play it and therefore have to play a B thus losing some of the beauty of the melody.

A lot of this music is simply wonderful to play, whether solo or in a duet or in a session with other musicians. Pipers really are missing out by not discovering this music for themselves. Incidentally, Highland pipers drove the revival but it should be recognised that we’re not in a revival period now; we’re in a post-revival period. The remaining issue for us is to continue to encourage pipers to discover and play more of the Lowland pipe repertoire. This is a fundamental reason for the existence of the LBPS.

Pipe Majors and band Musical Directors looking for some ingenious music for their band medleys or concert content would do well to delve into this repertoire. The pipe band medley has become staid, conservative, predictable and quite often, boring. Most would agree with that. Why not include some Lowland classics? This is quintessentially Scottish pipe music, after all, and most of it is exciting to hear – and to play.

•The 2004 World Pipe Band Championships: Julian Goodacre and Hamish Moore.

I remember arriving at an LBPS conference in the late 1990s It was held in Birnam and Roddy Cannon welcomed everyone on arrival by playing outside the hotel. He rattled through a set of Lowland tunes – all from the Dixon manuscript, I think – but he was playing on Highland pipes, an old set of Glens. Later, I commented on this to him and he replied: “Does it matter?” Exactly! If Highland pipers can play Highland tunes on a quintessentially Lowland pipe then they can play Lowland tunes on a Lowland pipe. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is the music. They’re just bagpipes.

BN: You mentioned the first Grand Concert of Piping recording. Are there any other recordings you could recommend to readers?
SL: Gordon Mooney’s O’er The Border and the LBPS’ Reclaimed spring to mind immediately. Other recordings that feature Lowland tunes that I’d recommend would be Iain MacInnes’ Sealbh and Harta’s Harta.

BN: Does the LBPS still hold teaching events?
SL: Yes, but we held them online for the past couple of years due to the pandemic. With that being officially over, we’re looking at holding them in person again from next year. The online sessions have been really good. We had a different individual hosting them and we held them in the winter months, but we all want to get back to playing together, don’t we?

•Annie Grace in full flow during the LBPS concert at the 2021 Piping Live! festival. Photo: John Slavin.

BN: The Society has held some events to mark its 40th anniversary – such as the recent composing competition you mentioned earlier – but what else is coming up?
SL: We have three concerts next month, two at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – on the 11th and 12th of August – and one a few days later at Piping Live! I’d encourage your readers to attend these, as they’ll hear some great music played by some of our leading musicians including Allan MacDonald, Brìghde Chaimbeul, Fin Moore and Calum Armstrong. In September we have our annual conference – the Collogue – and we’ll finish with a Burns Supper in January. I’ve attended a few of the LBPS’ Burns Suppers over the years and they’ve all been outstanding. And not a kilt to be seen! Our next one will take place at The Globe Inn in Dumfries. As some of your readers will know, it was Burns’ ‘local’.

As I said earlier, publishing has been important features of the LBPS’s work since its inception and next year we’re considering helping with the publication of a collection of tunes taken from the David Young manuscripts. Most of your readers will be unfamiliar with that name but David Young’s manuscripts are quite possibly one of the most important sources of much of our music. His manuscripts contain mostly fiddle tunes but there are plenty of pipe tunes in it. We may also consider publishing the entries to our recent composing competition.

Two of my aspirations for the LBPS are to have a permanent site for its work and to introduce a certification structure and syllabus. We’ll see. There remains much for us to do regardless.

BN: Thank you, Stuart.