December 31, 2011

Gaelic College shuts down piping, drumming teaching programs

Nova Scotia’s Gaelic College of Celtic Arts, one of the world’s first organizations outside of Scotland to offer formal teaching in piping and drumming – and the probably originators of the summer school concept – has pulled the plug on the curriculum, choosing to focus on “non-competition” aspects of the institution.

The St. Anne’s-based Gaelic College started in 1939, and in the 1950s launched a summer school program, with the likes of piping and drumming luminaries like Seumas MacNeil, John MacFadyen, Wilson Young and Finlay MacNeill coming in from Scotland to help with the teaching.


Along with the elimination of piping and drumming, the Gaelic College has also discontinued its Highland dance teaching programs, leaving it to concentrate on Gaelic language, step-dancing, Cape Breton fiddle and “Cape Breton style” piping.

The move follows the hiring of former Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald as CEO and Tracey Dares MacNeil as Director of Education and Programming.

The Gaelic College has not yet responded to inquiries from pipes|drums.


  1. Barry Shear’s book and music books are excellent reading and fantastic sources for Cape Breton styles of music. He makes compelling arguments also about what may have been lost when CB pipers adopted the styles of piping from Scotland during wartime service and also after the advent of summer schools. What hasn’t been stated is this: Cape Breton piping also gained tremendously. There is no question that the musicality, technique and tonality of modern CB players is far superior to anything that came before. Listen to the recordings that come with Barry’s book. Lumpy rhythms, crossing notes, slurry technique generally, and very rough sounding bagpipes. A piping tradition like Cape Breton’s may have preserved certain musical elements, but it also failed to develop the broader musicality [encompassing musical ideas, technique, tonality] of its players for many years. Older isn’t always better, it’s just older. Fair enough for the College to focus its programs on Gaelic and local tradition, but I’d say after 50+ years that the happy combination of studying various forms of piping together IS a Cape Breton tradition. I can think of a number of CB pipers who are excellent Highland pipers” and also outstanding “Cape Breton” pipers. Outstanding

  2. Maybe someone can be so kind as to explain the definitions of competition-style piping” and “Cape Breton style piping”. I think I’m with it on the Cape Breton thing

  3. @caseylane and Mr. Grey. Maybe one should ask, why is there a target on competitive piping” which in all honesty is a term I’ve never heard before this article. Any time you try to play better than someone else it’s competitive

  4. This debate is the type which goes on constantly in ethnic diasporas when the culture in new homelands diverges from that of the place of origin. If Cape Breton music is stuck in the place it was in the 18th century it is nothing more than a museum piece. It may be nonetheless interesting and important to have, as is Baroque music played on authentic” Baroque instruments. But the instruments are copies made to modern standards and the music is interpreted according to modern understanding of eighteenth century standards. Few of us would wants to play on the average eighteenth century bagpipes

  5. I wonder what the new management seemingly has against Scottish culture? Oh, they’re promoting Cape Breton culture (which has it’s origins in Scottish culture) alright, which is a good thing to do, but seem to have eliminated the parallel Scottish/global elements. Now, I say global because piping amd drumming has been influenced and improved/advanced by ex-pats and their family/friends around the world. Perhaps the economy forced some hard decisions? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

  6. Just a clarification on this. Highland dancing will go ahead for 2012 but the future is unknown after this. You should talk to Kelly MacArthur, a Gaelic College Highland Dance instructor who has been the catalyst in bringing the new direction of the college to the attention of the piping, drumming and dancing communities in Nova Scotia and beyond.

  7. Perhaps they are foccussing on the regional style of piping (Cape Breton), to keep that alive, rather than letting it get submerged or wiped out be modern world view or pipr band piping, now that does make sense !!! and is a good thing…..

  8. No biggey! The Gaelic College is merely returning to its original mandate. There has been a ressurgence of interest in Gaelic culture in Nova Scotia and after a long seperation at the institution it is about time Highland piping was brought back into the fold.There are a half dozen summer schools in North America where one can go to learn competition piping and drumming so what is the problem. If there is no interest in it, than it my also be dropped or modified

  9. @piperjde – Although I agree with you that eliminating these programs at the Gaelic College is a horrible idea, I will argue your comparison to the happenings at The College of Piping after Scott’s passing. There were no cuts to programming, whatsoever. There was a period of ongoing transition at the administration level before Karen Hatcher took the reigns as Director (and has done a fantastic job, might I add), but the programs remained firmly intact. James has also done a great job as Director of Education, bringing cohesion to the disciplines. These are two very different situations, in my opinion. Perhaps the similarities you mention lie within the struggles of a new administration, but I would respectfully contend that they end there.

  10. @Coleman… I whole heartedly agree that it has been a fantastic tag team effort at the college, and that what made it so hard after Scott was that he possessed the skills of not only a teacher but also a financial advocate for the college. My hat goes off to Karen hatcher just as much as it does to James, but there are other similarities. Such as the bringing in of penny whistle, and rumblings of the College not needing to be all about the pipes and the all of the sudden non exsistant games and festival (say what you will about the economy, but it didn’t take long to get back). As a former student the College was anything but what I had remembered in those couple of years. One thing no one has asked though, is what do the students think? Maybe they are raising their voices for performance based instruction with an emphasis on jam session style shows. Still lost on the drumming though. Would love to hear a students take on all of this.

  11. OK, I’m a little puzzled. Why does one HAVE to pick only ONE style of music exclusive or” the other? Is it not possible to teach and learn both CB and GHB style music? Why be so narrow minded? Just sayin’…”



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