December 21, 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.


  1. I wonder how many of us started out with those same $600 Hardy drones back then?

    I’m always amazed at the dedication American parents show their children, I wished I had some when growing up as Scottish parents seem to think their kids should lead a life of servitude. LOL

    I was hard pressed to get the old man to drive me from Brantford to Guelph for band practice, a whopping 30 miles which was unheard of back then.
    Looking back, he probably gave up a lot of things in his busy weekend schedule to drive us to games and attend the Brockville School of piping.

    Good point Andrew, the best gifts never come in a material form!

  2. I imagine that there are many great “piping-gift stories” out there. I remember clearly the year I got The Master Method, Donald MacLeod Book 3, and Glen’s Irish Tunes for Christmas, and also the year I got a fibreglass pipe box [which is still working well] from J.T. McHardy in Vancouver. Now that I teach a few people, I annually post a web page with suggestions for parents of up and coming pipers and drummers in the band I teach. Not sure if it gets used much, but at least it’s a possible source!

  3. Excellent post. The part about being woefully out of step with peers and pop music really cut deep. When I was in 9th grade and finally assembled my first real stereo system from used pawn shop pieces and skillful trash collection, the first tunes to come blaring out of the 6 speakers were the tracks of Simon Fraser’s “Nous Sommes Pretes.” You never get those years back. And if I did, it would probably play out the same. Merry Christmas.

  4. Good for a trip down memory lane, thanks Andrew. I’ve just looked inside my copy of the Scots Guards, and found the remembered inscription: “To Michael, Love from Dad, Christmas ’71”. As a three year veteran of the pipes at that time, I was thrilled to get so much new material, especially stuff from the records we had around the house; Shotts Champion of Champions, Powell River pipe band etc….

    Merry Christmas all!

  5. Andrew,
    Warm wishes for the holiday season. You brought out a ton of memories with ‘A Gift’.
    I grew up in Milwaukee, twenty years ahead of you, so you can only imagine the odd
    piping related gifts at CHristmas. NOBODY knew what to give me….so I wound up with
    a strange collection of some of the worst pipe band records ever made, an occaisional sgian dhu, a Glengarry etc….or if I specified what and where to get them, reeds. My
    SG is the 1954 edition…kilt pins and the like were also big. I got into contempory music in high school, thanks to a couple girls who were highland dancers, and not as seriously lost in the tartan madness as I had become. Thank you.
    Bob Young

  6. Great momories, Andrew.

    In 1965, I spent $106 for my first set of pipes, Imitation ivory mounted Hardies. What a small world!

    That baby puke, billious yellow color of aged, imitation ivory is such a unique color!

    I also resorted to lists of music books and vinyl LP’s for the family and the phone number of the local importer!

    Merry Christmas,

    PS now that the first grandchild has arrived, they’re ready and waiting for the little guy!

  7. Andrew –
    Thank you for the touching tribute to your parents. I find it a nice model for us parents to keep focused on what is really important in our kids lives and strive to support them in all worthwhile arenas – whether we ourselves are well versed in it or not. Merry Christmas to you and yours, my friend.
    Rob Bishop
    PS: I think I remember your old Hardies!

  8. Welcome to the club. From a pop music point of view, I lost the second half of the seventies completely.
    My Mum was smart. She asked my teacher and under the tree of 1975 was a brand new ivory soled practice chanter from Hardie. In the Autumn of 1977 all of a sudden a set of Ivory Hardies appeared. They are long gone to where I don’t know, but the support was definitely there. Like when the neighbors where complaining (piping being very exotic in Denmark then) she would defend me no matter what.

    Happy Holidays

  9. Great story Andrew! I totally missed out on the late ’80’s-early 90’s, MTV, etc., because I was up in my room listening to bagpipe records. My folks got me a Fisher Price record player when I was 4 and after a few months of “Little Red Riding Hood” being played at 33 and 45 I think they’d had enough and out came the box of bagpipe records. Dad, though he never played, had a relatively big collection of bagpipe band records and not all bad ones either. I know I would never have gotten where I did in piping with out them…buying my pipes, driving me to practice (~35 mi.) each week, traveling to all the games with my Mom , shipping me off to bagpipe camp every summer…I know I’d never trade it for anything, no matter how much everyone raves of the ’80’s!

  10. I got my first practice chanter for Christmas in 1965. My father (not a piper) went to a local piper and learned the scale. On Christmas morning, dad taught me the scale. He drove me and 2 others to Kincardine (26 miles away) through many Bruce County blizzards to band practice. He also taught me to march with his piping albums crackling away on a portable record player in the basement of his church. In my teenage years when I thought I had better things to do, my dad gently encouraged me to pick up the pipes now and then and go to band practice once in a while just so I wouldn’t lose the touch and perhaps I might in the future get keen again. I am glad he did as I have enjoyed a great life of grade 1 and 2 bands, trips all over the world and most of all finding a wonderful wife in Scotland 31 years ago on a band trip.



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