Finlay MacDonald is Director of Piping at The National Piping Centre and that is a role he manages alongside gigs such as piping with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and rock bands Biffy Clyro and Primal Scream.
He was one of the first graduates from the BA Piping degree course in 1999, and a very busy musician on the trad/folk scene. He toured with his own Finlay MacDonald Band and guested with the likes of Deaf Shepherd, Old Blind Dogs, Battlefield Band and many more.
Finlay’s day job now has him at a desk dealing with NPC admin but there is also plenty of music playing in his weekly routine. His previous position at The National Piping Centre was Head of Piping Studies on the BMus Traditional Music – Piping degree, and he still gives a lot of tuition on that course, and he looks for chances to get himself ‘out there’ playing gigs.
Opportunities to perform come along as part of his NPC role and independently as musician in his own right. He most recently popped up on TV at Hogmanay as the house band piper on the BBC Alba Live Hogmanay ceilidh, which was an invite through his friend, fiddler Iain McFarlane, who he has played with over the years.
Finlay will be part of a group of Scottish musicians heading to the Celtic Arts Foundation Winter School in February, to offer tuition in a wide age of traditional instruments. The CAF is based in Seabeck, Washington State, US and every February they invite musicians from all over Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the US for two weeks of workshops with a Masters of Scottish Arts Concert concert in the middle weekend. This year Finlay will travel with two other NPC staff members, Willie McCallum and Ailis Sutherland, and he will have some work to complete for the Celtic Arts Foundation as part of his NPC duties while in the US.
In 2023 Finlay and Willie McCallum played at the Aspen Music Festival in the US on behalf of The National Piping Centre, and it was a bit of advanced preparation for The National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland visit in the summer of 2024. Finlay explained: “Aspen is at 9,000 feet above sea level and we also played a gig at 12,500 feet and the thin, dry air was a nightmare with the pipes. Willie’s pipes were not so bad, but I am a really dry blower. At home I can play for an hour or more without any moisture control, but over in Aspen my reeds were drying out almost instantly. I would be soaking my chanter reed before playing, but by the time we got to the third part of a 6/8 it had dried out and was effecting the higher notes on the chanter. And it was the same with the Border pipes. Willie and I learned a lot from the trip, so the NYPBS are planning to arrive a couple of days early and take chanters and reeds to allow us to set the pipes up for the conditions in Aspen, rather than taking instruments that have been set up for the Scottish climate.
“I’ve been finding a balance of doing NPC work and gigs that keeps me out there playing music. For more than a year I’ve been playing with Allan MacDonald’s band and performing the We’re a Case The Bunch of Us concert. It is great fun playing Allan’s music, and there was such a buzz about the concerts. The concert first debuted at Piping Live! 2022, and since went on to play at Celtic Connections 2023, Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton, the William Kennedy Festival in Armagh, a couple of gig for the Blas Festival in Gairloch. It culminated with a really special performance for Dr Angus MacDonald’s 70th birthday celebrations in Glenuig, with the three MacDonald brothers performing with the band.
“Every so often a few gigs will come along for Tryst, who are really a collective of 10 pipers rather than a band. We enjoy getting together periodically to play and perform new pipe music composed by the Tryst members, without the constrictions that a band would bring.”
Finlay has never stopped writing music, and is promising his own tune book will be completed and available at Piping Live! this year. His previous book was a collaboration in 2008 with Simon McKerrell called, The McKerrell / MacDonald Collection of Bagpipe Music, so an update is long over due. His tunes are popular and have been played by top bands and trad musicians such as Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band, RURA, and Phil Cunningham & Aly Bain. As well as writing new tunes to satisfy his own creative needs, he has also written pieces for pipe bands, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and as part of his six-year stint as Director of Music of the Avenches Tattoo in Switzerland. Finlay feels that he would like his own definitive tune collection to bring his work up to date and then draw a line, to allow his next creative chapter to begin. Once the book is done there may be an album with the new line-up of The Finlay MacDonald Band, and like the tune book situation, a new album is well overdue with the previous recording Reecho being released by Greentrax Recordings in 2007.
Celtic Connections 2024 allows the chance to bring Finlay’s focus back to performing his own music live, with his own band. The line up has Finlay on pipes and whistles, Ailis Sutherland on pipes and vocals, Ali Hutton on guitar and Paul Jennings on percussion. Finlay said: “Myself, Ailis and Ali performed a gig in Italy at the end of 2023 and we have now added Paul to complete the band. I’ve not performed as The Finlay MacDonald Band since 2011, and it is so good to be doing it again. There are bound to be some special guests who make an appearance with us at Celtic Connections next week, and it is great to be sharing the bill with José Manuel Tejedor. We often met when touring with our bands in the past and it will be great to catch up and have a tune with José.
“The concert set list will be mostly my own tunes – a mix of old and new – and some which will be recognisable from the playing of RURA or Phil & Aly, but very much my versions of them. We are well prepared as I’ve played a few gigs with Alis over the last couple of years, and we both had plenty of rehearsals with Ali Hutton on the build up to the gig in Italy, and have been developing a sound for the band that we are all comfortable with. It’s important that all the musicians have input into the creative process, and we hear everyone’s musical personality coming through – I want to play with these musicians because I love their playing. I like things to be fairly reactive on stage, so that I can express myself and improvise knowing that everyone else is comfortable with it. The music can change in the moment, with musicians reacting to the audience and atmosphere, and to me that is the beauty of a live gig – it needs to be alive!
It’s going to be a special concert, not to be missed. Tickets are available from Celtic Connections online here.