Most excellent 2008

Very swift.I wish I could listen to more music than I do, but here are my favourite songs and albums from 2008. My choice of favourite CD of the year surprises me, too, maybe, but this is one of the most likeable albums imaginable, whether you’re an eight-year-old girl or a 45-year-old dad. Just about every one of the songs on Fearless could have made my top five tracks. (Thanks to my colleague, Lorna, for late-year suggestions!)


  1. Fearless – Taylor Swift
  2. Jukebox – Cat Power
  3. Asking for Flowers – Kathleen Edwards
  4. Modern Guilt – Beck
  5. Lochbroom – Alasdair Gillies


  1. “Song to Bobby” – Cat Power
  2. “L.E.S. Artistes” – Santogold
  3. “Breathe” – Taylor Swift
  4. “Nothing Ever Happened” – Deerhunter
  5. “Profanity Prayers” – Beck

What were your favourites of 2008?

A gift

Four scrawling birds.My Mother and Father, gone now, when it came to our worthy interests, would do anything to support my brother and sisters. My Dad was a child of the Depression and my Mom a Glasgow Blitz evacuee, so they knew what doing without was like. For my Dad, the next economic crash was always just round the corner, and his austerity with money had no limits. But if my brother needed a top-of-the-line acoustic guitar, they found a way. A sterling silver flute for my older sister? It became so.

And when it was time to move from my set of imitation-ivory-mounted 1975 Hardie drones to a vintage R.G. Lawrie instrument, well that, too, happened without question. They wouldn’t throw money at things that they considered frivolous or mind-rotting, like a colour TV or a microwave, but if it involved the arts, second-best just was not acceptable.

The first few years of my scrawling away at the practice chanter and the aforementioned pipes (which I remember eventually arrived directly from the 1970s-era Renfrew Street shop replete with the wrong tartan bag-cover and a laughable hide bag that was as tough as a Rottweiler’s chewy-toy; back then non-UK pipers truly got the crap products and service), they would always get me a few piping-related things at Christmas. But, not being in the piping club, they didn’t exactly know what comprised a “good” piping product, the things that a well-taught kid, already sensitive to piping peer-pressure, would really welcome.

I appreciated their attempts, and they tried their best. But when you’re hoping for the latest LP from Shotts and under the tree sits The Best of Scotland’s Military Pipes & Drums, well, it’s hard for a moody 13-year-old to keep a smiley façade. After a few years of Christmastime guesswork, they realized that this piping thing is a club that only playing members can comprehend, and demanded explicit details from me as to what piping stuff I needed to uncover further whatever unknown talent I might have.

My Dad, as an inveterate collector, started collecting for and giving to me. Pretty much any in-print pipe music book was acquired, including all of the Piobaireachd Society releases, the Kilberry Book and the large Guards, Queen’s Own and Irish Rangers collections. He would place orders for all of the best vinyl records, solo and band, so those of Burgess, the Edinburgh Police, Dysart, Donald MacPherson, John MacFadyen – you name it – were played non-stop on our crackly lo-fi record-player. (When I got to the eighth grade, I realized I had missed crucial years of pop music and was woefully out of step with normal kids.)

As a historian, he knew how to get research material, so my Dad set about collecting every magazine on piping and drumming there was. Eventually every issue of the Piping Times was his/mine, as were the International Piper, the North American Scotsman, the Piper & Dancer Bulletin, the Pipe Band and several periodicals that flamed out after a few issues. I can’t remember doing much schoolwork between the ages of 12 and 18. Instead I pored through these magazines, played the proverbial grooves off of piping records, and spent hours on end playing tunes from books.

I can imagine all the parents of young pipers struggling to figure out what to give their sons and daughters who have consumed this weird Airtight-flavoured piping Kool-Aid at this time. They should know that their support some day will be realized as the greatest gift.

Competitive instinct

Competition wins . . .The interview I did with Donald Shaw Ramsay nearly 20 years ago is one of the most memorable – perhaps for the wrong reasons.

 The legendary former Pipe-Major of Invergordon Distillery and Edinburgh City Police pipe bands just happened to be on an August, 1989, flight from Glasgow to Toronto, and I was returning from the World’s on the same plane.

I didn’t know Ramsay, and only had seen photos of when he was a much younger man, but someone recognized him and pointed him out to me. I boldly introduced myself to the great Ramsay in the departure lounge, told that I put together a piping magazine and asked if he would be interested in passing the travel-time with an impromptu interview. I had heard that his favourite subject was DSR; thankfully, he was all for talking about himself for a few hours.

I can’t remember why I had a tape recorder with me, but I did, so we agreed to meet on the plane. He had an aisle seat in economy. A nice lady agreed to change places with me, so I sat across the aisle from him, and, in between passings of bladder-bursting passengers and trolley-pushing attendants, we chatted on tape. It was an exciting interview, and I was thrilled to get the chance to speak candidly with the famous man.

A few weeks later, once the interview was transcribed, I was in for a shock. I sent (back then, by post) the proposed final text to him, only to get back a marked-up version of which entire sections, and maybe even whole pages, were deleted. It was as if he couldn’t even remember doing the interview, and, sure enough, a year or so later I was told by someone who knew him that he claimed he didn’t realize the conversation was being recorded and that he claimed he never agreed to an interview. Bizarre.

But, back to the editing process . . . When I received his edited version I called him up to discuss it, since deleting major chunks of a lengthy article inflicts havoc on the planning of a printed magazine. Among the passages he wanted excised were hundreds of words of insightful and helpful advice to up-and-coming players and pipe-majors.

Totally confused, I asked him why he would want to remove that material. He replied with, something to the effect of, “I had to learn the hard way, so why should I make it any easier for others?”

I couldn’t believe it then, and the comment remains one of the most amazing things I’ve heard. I’ve spent almost 20 years trying to understand why, at age 65, he would not want to help others by passing on some of his knowledge.

Perhaps there were other reasons for such a strange decision, but I tend to think that it was because Ramsay, like so many pipers and drummers, was so competitive that he just couldn’t see past the feeling of possessing some insight that he wanted to keep from the competition.

I was reminded recently that the ultra competitive piping and drumming world remains just so today. I often ask the leaders of today’s top bands to share their knowledge. Thankfully, the large majority are more than pleased to do so. But still very occasionally I get a DSR-like response from those who just can’t overcome their competitive instinct, and would rather take their knowledge to the grave than share it with “the competition.”

Full up

As a precocious (read: naive) 14-year-old, I was encouraged by Gordon Speirs, who gave me lessons at the time, to play with a top-grade band. Gordon had no shortage of chutzpa, sometimes verging on the bombastic, and he didn’t seem to think that it mattered that I’d been playing for only three years and was from the (then) piping-nowhere of St. Louis.

Gordon thought that I and another piper from The Loo should go to Scotland for a summer. He said, “Muirhead & Sons needs pipers. I’ll get you Bobby Hardie’s number, and you can call him up.”

And he did, and I actually called the legendary Robert G. Hardie, and gave him the pitch.

I can’t remember if my parents even knew what I was up to, and I’m sure they would have quashed such a cockamamie concept before they even would agree to pay for a long-distance call. In my heart, I knew that the idea was absurd, and I think I secretly wished and expected that Hardie would say no.

No, indeed. I remember Hardie on the other end of the line letting us down gently. After politely listening to our warped reasoning, Hardie said, “Sorry, but I think we’re full up at the moment.”

“Full up.” Gordon had said that Muirheads was on the ropes back then in the late-1970s, suffering from declining numbers. Hardie had been taking in pipers from Canada in particular who committed to playing with Muirheads for a year or so, and these folks included very accomplished guys like Scott MacAulay, Michael MacDonald, John Elliott and Hal Senyk. When it came to nonentities from nowhere, Hardie I’m sure just couldn’t be bothered with such a thing.

I doubt that there’s a Grade 1 band today that would say that they’re “full up” for pipers. “Traveling” band-members are common in most upper-grade bands today, and some even have the majority of pipers and drummers coming from a long way away.

From what I understand of the Band Club Sydney, many of its members travel from far outside of Sydney, even other continents. It looks like the band’s sponsors grew weary of not being able to field a band for functions, so want the group to go in a different direction.

The idea of “community” I still think is important to a typical band’s identity. (I say “typical” because a band like the Spirit of Scotland, which I play with, is based on the unusual premise of assembling far-flung members for periodic flings.) A pipe band that practices, performs and competes throughout the year ultimately needs to have a place that it can call home. It’s important that the band contributes to that community, and it’s essential when the band features a city in its name.

The Band Club shake-up may well be the beginning of the end of the never-full-up ethic of accepting players from wherever. It’s a short-sighted approach that often results in few members truly sharing in the satisfaction and camaraderie gained from winning.

Compose yersel’

The pipes|drums music archives.I was just re-visiting the comments posted in response to the review of The Warning Collection, a compilation of tunes (some of which are very fine) by Paul Hughes and his friends. James MacHattie makes a really good point; one that I’ve thought about in the past. James points out the attraction of a site like Jim McGillivray’s, which is essentially an iTunes for pipe tunes.

Instead of forcing people to buy a whole book, pipetunes allows people to pick and choose only the compositions that they want. It’s a great idea, since it also allows composers with a really good one-off tune to get it out there, without having to wait years to compile 50 or more compositions, scrape together enough money for expensive printing, and then hope that they sell enough books to at least break even.

About 10 years ago I compiled a book comprising almost-lost tunes by some of the greatest composers of the past. I spent a lot of time researching the old collections, playing through stuff by Roddie Campbell, John McLellan (Dunoon), James Center, Willie Lawrie and others, and picking out the ones that I thought should be preserved. The book did quite well, and I put the profits into a fund and eventually just put the money towards the development of pipes|drums. It was a long and painstaking process. Setting the tunes myself with the engraving software du jour made my right hand teeter on the brink of overuse syndrome.

Would I do it again? Probably not – at least not in print form.

But there is something to be said for a complete book of music. When it comes to music on iTunes, I almost always download the whole album. Most artists whom I listen to still put lots of thought into assembling a cohesive product, with a logical, musical sequence of songs, and, more often than not, my favourite songs on the album aren’t the big hits.

I still like to page through collections of pipe music, and I don’t really mind the chaff among the wheat – or the “potatoes,” as Simon McKerrell refers to tunes that aren’t really up to snuff. It’s all up to the compiler/composer. If Donald MacLeod or Willie Ross had nonchalantly allowed potatoes into their collections, they probably would not have the same stature that they carry today as collector-composers for the ages.

In their day, music “engraving” was actual engraving. Some poor engraver would actually pound out the music on sheets of metal. It was an expensive and time-consuming process, and the number of revisions were usually limited, hence the mistakes that we see in the older collections. Older collections were usually backed by actual music publishers, like Mozart-Allan and Paterson’s. You needed to be a big-time famous piper before they would entertain investing in your collection.

Music collections today, whether print or electronic, can still have the same quality through-and-through, provided the composer-compiler has a sense of purpose and a clear eye for their place in posterity. But for everyone else, there’s always the one-off route.


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