Dan Nevans: steal this article…

Dan Nevans

by Dan Nevans.
Piping Today #90, 2018.

I feel like a lot of my articles are complaints. I sit here behind my laptop like some whingeing granny in the hairdressers, bleating on about how the world has changed and how uncomfortable I am with that concept. Because of the often cantankerous comedy voice I use in my writing, I worry you’ll dismiss whatever I write as dross from the mouth of some “wee laddie” whose mouth is more expansive that his understanding. 

Stop it. You’re dooming us all.

What if… John MacDonald of Inverness never taught the Bobs of Balmoral? Would our piping landscape be anything like it is today? Very often our personal understanding is defined by one or two sources, although it is really the men and women who teach us from whom we glean the tradition of our music. I don’t mean to start this piece sounding as if I’m about to have a massive go at The Bobs. I certainly am not. This article is about the dissemination of knowledge, a search for meaning in it all and to fly the banner for those who have kept the history of our proud art form alive.

What do you really know about piping? Some of you reading this know a great deal about the structure, history and performance of the music and the mechanical set-up of the Great Highland Bagpipe. By and large, the vast majority of pipers are quite ignorant when it comes to the journey that the pipes took to become the beloved animal cruelty kazoo it is today. Most of us got taught to play in a community hall (although as time goes on I suppose a lot of you will be taught at school). I learned the basic basics in the cloakroom of Auchterarder community hall (next to the bowling club). In the early days of my piping, there was no time to talk about the tradition and history of the music, we spoke a little about the composers of some of the pieces. (My tutor when I was wee was Bob MacFie of the Veteran Pipers’ Association. Bob is a pupil of Peter MacLeod Sr and when I learned a Peter MacLeod tune Bob would tell me stories of lessons with Auld Peter). I was always interested in stories and the stories I was told early on were tales like The Silver Chanter, faery stories mostly, but if they had a piper in them, damn sure I got told them. As I got older my dad, would tell me tales of competition pipers like Alasdair Gillies getting the red light at Oban when tuning up or the 78ths in 87 using portable hair dryers to keep their drone reeds in decent shape before their historic win. These tales would be spun into epics on the car ride to Carluke and District Pipe Band practices. 

I am often confronted with the notion that we haven’t really moved on as an art form. There’s a quote from a book by David Keenan called This is Memorial Device and it reads “Then I had this awful feeling. Like it was all a drug. Something for sleepwalkers. Dreaming their way from generation to generation” and when I read it, I had to go and get a fresh pair of shorts. It’s easy to think negatively about the culture of competitive piping especially. I love being a competitive piper, in fact I probably wouldn’t be playing at all if I wasn’t competing. That being said, we do have a tendency to err on the side of caution when it comes to our music. Every few years someone does something a bit left-field and is condemned but then a few years later it’s suddenly the norm. Bonkers stuff really, we often fail to appreciate what is being done right in front of us until it’s too late. As if a person or group has to be “sacrificed” before anything changes. That can’t be true, look at the career of Donald MacLeod, he innovated throughout his career and is lauded as one of the great pipers of all time. 

Here’s the thing about piping that really upsets me – generations of pipers are actually quite short. The vast majority of the children who start learning the pipes only play competitively or at least publicly for maybe 10 years. How many folk do you know that put the pipes away when they left secondary school? How many once they got into their career path or got married or had kids or developed a sudden and inexplicable love for golf (eww)? My point is that piping sieves out folk whose heart isn’t in it and that leaves folk like you (well done, aren’t you handsome, my how you’ve grown since I last saw you *ruffles hair*) and folk like you should be informed. Once you have informed yourself (that’s the crux of the matter, you need to do a bit of leg work to find this stuff out), you can create your own opinions and maybe in a couple of generations we could get some straight answers around here. 

AND ANOTHER THING! Why is it that when the Greats got old, stopped competing and started judging and really had some time to think about and quantify their thoughts on the whole Zeitgeist did we stop listening to them? I’ve been poring over Piobaireachd Society conference proceedings dating back to 1974 over the past three weeks and there’s some amazing things in there. Seamus MacNeill and John MacFadyen verbally duelling over the family tree of piping, General Frank Richardson’s memoirs of John MacDonald of Inverness, the list goes on and on and it’s gold!

If the music of the Great Highland Bagpipe can be described as anything in terms of its artistic value, it’s as a device to ensure the social history of the instrument is preserved. Think about this – there is no way we can verify that the piobaireachds of the 16th to 18th centuries were composed anywhere near to the events they memorialise. This fact haunts the dreams of many academic piping specialists and aficionados. Yet, their existence serves as some proof of these events taking place, and these individuals having lived. 

What is it the Native Americans say? “Live not in fear of dying but of your second death, when your name is spoken aloud for the last time.”

Do us all a favour and think on these names:  

• John MacKay (The funnel through which all piping flowed)

• Colin Campbell of Netherlorn (You owe him formalised canntaireachd) 

• Angus MacKay (Modern type settings of piobaireachd, doublings and classic tunes like the Highland Wedding

• Donald and Alexander Cameron (The Cameron School)

• John MacDougall Gillies, Robert Reid, Robert Hardie, John MacKenzie (Pupils of the Cameron school, champion pipers, leaders of great pipe bands and teachers of many a great and influential piper)

• Calum Piobair’, John MacDonald of Inverness, Robert Brown, Robert Nicol (The MacPherson School,
champions and responsible for an incredible amount of the great pipers of the 20th century)

You’ve just done all of piping a favour. Now Google the hell out of them. 

What do you really know about piping? What do you really know about the bagpipe? One of the most frustrating and ignorant things ever said to me was this: “You just set your drone reeds right and they work.”

If you are nodding to that statement then strap in, you’re about to get your feelings hurt. If this is the kind of advice you give to other pipers about how they should manage their instrument, then you should stop giving advice. It’s ignorant and unhelpful. If you simply lack the verbal capacity to explain how you maintain and improve your instrument, then pick up a thesaurus and take a seat. I’m not going to type out the process by which you should test and set your drone reeds, it would be useless, mainly because Captain John MacLellan did a much better job in his Pipers’ Handbook (wait for it) than I could. 

When it comes to the dispensation of knowledge in and around the piping world misinformation is rife. Everything from the origins of tunes being fudged to advice like “If your reeds are drying out in the summer put your chanter in the fridge” (Real thing that happened btw, I’m as shocked as you). I called this feature Steal this article because I want to pass you a short list of places to find information, methodologies, histories and hopefully some inspiration. 


Because on March 24, 2018, I presented a talk to the Piobaireachd Society conference in the Birnam Hotel and I was terrified. The talk I gave was part of the delegation for the Competing Pipers’ Association is about the use of “Modern” piobaireachd in competition. At first I was like “Whaaaaaaa?” then I was like “Dang!”.

I have always known that the culture of competition piping moved at a slow rate but I fear I did not appreciate till now how slow. I began researching the subject and hit upon some pretty interesting ideas: Ever think of piobaireachd by era? Seamus MacNeill did, he had it set pretty much that from 1500 to 1745 we could call this the “MacCrimmon” era then 1745 – 1880 the “MacKay” era and anything after that was “modern”. He said this in 1974. Are we honestly going to call a period of 140(ish) years the “Modern” era? What will we call the next era or is that us now in the “Modern” era forever? The questions seem to never stop cresting the horizon of my mind. Which, for the record, I think is good. Wouldn’t it be awful to wake up one day and be bored by piping?

So here is the list. This is probably a very, very, very, very, very short list compared to the amount of stuff that is out there and some of it you will have to hunt for with some real energy if you do not live in the UK (even if you do you may have some difficulties). But I can assure you that it will be worth it in the long run. In fact, many of these books and materials reference each other and add corrected information in different formats so it’s worth taking the time to look at them all, even if you can only take certain things from them. 

The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor. Sorry Piobaireachd Society, this isn’t about the tunes inside but for the foreword, there is a whole lot of information here about the history of piping and the structure of the art form. (Although somewhat dated, it’s still a pretty solid place to start.)

History and Structure of Ceol Mor by Prof. Alexander Haddow. This book is pretty dated now in some aspects of the epistemology of the instrument but there are a lot of useful insights in here for anyone really trying to get a shape of the history of the art form.

The Highland Pipe and Scottish society 1750 – 1950 by Dr William Donaldson. Some real strong opinions in this very weighty book. Again this text is invaluable because of its point of view. It’s an academic’s take on our history. 

Piperspersuasion.com. Join Alan Hamilton in a series of interviews with some of the greatest living pipers and from these interviews we can really piece together the piping culture of the 20th century. 

Piobaireachd Society/piobaireachd.com. The Piobaireachd Society has created such a wealth of information on our music. From the side notes in every collection through to the Piobaireachd Society conference records and in fact the event itself.

Noting the Tradition – James Beaton was the librarian at The National Piping Centre and curated a series of interviews available for listening through The National Piping Centre archive.

A Professional Piper in Peace and War by John Wilson (Toronto) and Preposterous:Tales to Follow by Bill Livingstone. Both of these entries are biographies which show two different piping lives at the top level of competitive art internationally over the course of a century from the perspective of two very influential but very different players. John Wilson’s early life in Edinburgh and his incredible influence on North American piping is equalled by the journey taken by his pupil Bill Livingstone. 

Ceol Mor – Major General C.S. Thomason. This legendary tome is where John MacDonald of Inverness allegedly got the settings he played. Very difficult to get your hands on but if you hunt around your local libraries or booksharing websites you might find a copy and the opening of the book is well worth a read to fill in the blanks between the beginning of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. 

Piping Times/Piping Today. Piping magazines were written by the players and give unprecedented insight into what is happening at the time of writing. You can read all the back issues on The National Piping Centre archive here.

The Pipers’ Handbook by Cpt. J. A. MacLellan. This publication was given out as part of the induction kit for the Army school of bagpipe music in the 1960s and 70s. Cpt MacLellan wrote this as a pretty solid FAQ guide and it includes insights into everything from tying on bags to manipulating reeds. It enjoyed a reprinting a few years ago I believe and there are a few copies floating around the world now. 

Tear this article out of this magazine and put it in your pipe box. The next time you get into a conversation about the history or structure of the music of the Great Highland Bagpipe please hand your stolen article to the other piper. They might chuck it in the bin or eat it right in front of you out of spite but that won’t matter, you will have given another piper an opportunity to find out some really cool stuff about the instrument.

I feel like I’ve done a really bad job of describing the kind of information you will discover when you begin to explore the materials in the list above. I kind of don’t want to give the game away or put thoughts in your head before you see anything. 

I love piping, I cannot see my self doing anything else and the more I discover about the history of the music and the people that wrote it, the more in love I fall. If all you take from this article is that there’s a whole lot of information out there, then that even is better than having no knowledge of the depth of information available to you.

Like G.I. Joe said: “Knowledge is power.”