Iain MacInnes seems to possess some of the best features that Scotland has to offer: a soft Highland accent and sentiment; a great sense of humour that’s pure west coast; a dedicated Edinburgh student committed to lively debate and academic research; an appreciative consumer of Gaelic culture. These are the personality traits of a man most known in piping circles now as the creator, producer and occasional presenter of BBC Radio Scotland’s Pipeline weekly broadcast.
A trim man, MacInnes’s light frame embody the lightness of his hands. Known as a piper with incredible supple fingers, able to throw in embellishments wherever and whenever, he a long time back chose folk groups and concerts over competition fields and platforms as his performance stage. In 1988, MacInnes completed a MLitt thesis at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, exploring the evolution of Highland piping in the 18th and 19th centuries.
He has also had a strong interest in the revival of bellows-blown pipes in Scotland, and has taught bellows pipes at a number of summer schools, both in the UK and North America. He is currently working with the singers and gifted instrumentalists Mairi Campbell and Jenny Clark, and recently worked as producer on Inveroran, a recording with Stuart Liddell, due out on the Macmeanmna label, which, according to MacInnes, “is lovely stuff: one man and his bagpipes, and none the worse for that.”
Born to parents Calum and Mary MacInnes, from the village of Gravir on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, Iain MacInnes learned his piping at Glenalmond School, a boarding institute in Scotland’s Highlands. His main teacher was the Gold Medallist, Pipe-Major Jimmy MacGregor, who also served as the Sovereign Piper for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. His academic life took him to Edinburgh University, where he earned an MLitt in 1982 in geography, and then an MLitt research degree in 1988 through the School of Scottish Studies.
While a formidable light music performer, MacInnes only dabbled in solo competition for a year or two, but played with several Grade 1 bands, including the Woolmet & Danderhall Pipe Band, the now-defunct colliery band from the Edinburgh area, and then Scottish Gas when the band found new sponsorship. He also played with the Power of Scotland/ScottishPower band in the 1990s. Iain MacInnes is better known, though, for his work in folk music.
He played pipes and whistles with the Tannahill Weavers from 1985 to 1990, making three vinyl LPs along the way: Land of Light, Dancing Feet, and Cullen Bay. In 1995 he formed Smalltalk, another Celtic folk band, which made what MacInnes says is his favourite recording, “Since it was simple and straightforward, and relatively easy to make.” In 1999 he went solo and made the highly acclaimed Tryst on the Greentrax label. He’s also recorded with the famous Scottish folk musician,
Billy Jackson, and with Ross Kennedy’s group, Canterach. “Time for another recording project, I reckon,” he says. Since 1990 he has worked with the BBC, primarily on the folk music program, “Travelling Folk,” presented by Archie Fisher, and “Pipeline,” which has been presented at various times by MacInnes and Lt-Col. David Murray, and currently by Gary West. Always experimenting with piping, MacInnes is now playing in Hamish Moore’s all-pipe band, “Na Tri Seudan,” which assembles various pipers with a folk backgrounds. MacInnes describes the project as “more a concert party rather than a straightforward pipe band, and involves songs and dances, as well as piping.”
We recently sat down with Iain MacInnes, one of Highland piping’s most underappreciated, intelligent, kind and gifted personalities for this, the inaugural pipes|drums interview.
pipes|drums: Where do your piping roots come from?
Iain MacInnes: Very much at school, actually. I grew up in North Borneo, Brunei, which used to be a British protectorate, so I didn’t really hear any piping as a kid. Both of my parents are from Lewis, and they were enthusiasts of Gaelic music, but didn’t have any specific knowledge of piping. The British Army pipe bands used to come through Brunei. We had the Seaforth Highlanders out once and the Ghurkhas used to come out, oddly enough, because they were stationed out in the Far East. But I and my older brother both went to boarding school in the UK. My dad was Director of Education in Brunei. He was responsible for the education system there, but it was fairly common for children of the colonial service, if you like, to come back to boarding school. So my older brother, Angus, went to a primary school near Huntly, called Blairmore, and he took up pipes there. It was one of the things offered on the curriculum, and like so many younger brothers I just followed in his footsteps, and that’s how I started playing.
p|d: Who first taught you?
IM: The chap who used to come out and teach us was Colin Forsyth, who was a member of the Huntly Pipe Band, and he’d had one star pupil already, and that was Duncan MacGillivary, who was at the same school. And then both my older brother and I moved on to secondary school, Glenalmond College. It used to be called Trinity College, Glenalmond. There’s a school pipe band there.
p|d: Was that when Jimmy MacGregor came into the scene, since he taught at Glenalmond?
IM: That’s right. Jimmy worked at Glenalmond. We were very fortunate actually, because on the whole these boarding schools were enthusiastic about piping and pipe bands, but weren’t terribly good at producing good quality pipe bands. But Glenalmond at the time was very lucky in that Jimmy MacGregor had been up working with the Earl of Airlie, and then he’d moved down to Glenalmond, where he was working as a sort of groundsman and gardener. Jimmy took over the pipe band and it was great.
p|d: Wasn’t Jimmy MacGregor also the Queen’s piper for a while?
IM: Yes, as I understand it, Jimmy and his brother were at Balmoral with Bob Nicol and Bob Brown. You’ll see quite a few of the old photos of royal occasions with Jimmy and Nicol and Brown piping together. So he was very much out of that Balmoral school. He’d also, like so many people of his generation, served through the Second World War and risen through the ranks in the Gordon Highlanders to become Pipe-Major at a very early age, in his late-teens, early-20s. He’d had a pretty remarkable young adulthood. He served in North Africa and later in Germany. Though I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, Jimmy had a very distinctive style, which was out of the northeast, the Balmoral style and the other influences he might have had in the Gordon Highlanders.
p|d: You’re known for your light music. Did Jimmy MacGregor teach you piobaireachd, too?
IM: Yes, he taught me some piobaireachd at school, which I played, and even when I left school, I used to go up to see him and his wife, Mrs. MacGregor, in Blairgowrie. But I didn’t compete with piobaireachd as far as I recall at any time. I’ve got a few tunes still knocking about in my head.
p|d: Did or does piobaireachd appeal to you?
IM: There’s certainly no conscious decision not to play piobaireachd. It was more that in my early adulthood I started to get interested in other things that took me away from piobaireachd. Who’s to say that one day I might not go back to it? I might just be of the right sort of age to get into it. But I’ve always listened to a huge amount of piobaireachd over my life in various guises, not least going to the Northern Meeting for the past 15 years. I enjoy listening to it and it’s there in my head. I wouldn’t say that I’ve disavowed piobaireachd in any way. I’m very keen on ceòl mòr.
p|d: On the subject of competition, you competed in the 1980s for a relatively short spell. What made you move away from competition piping?
IM: I did compete a little bit, and certainly when I was at school I did the school circuit of that period. We used to go to the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society once a year, and to the Northern Meeting when I was a kid because Lewis, the family home at that time, was in the Northern Meeting catchment area. I competed a bit when I was at university, but I don’t know, I just hadn’t gone down that route, and when I did compete I wasn’t terribly good at it, to be frank, mainly because I was probably under-rehearsed and not too well prepared. When I did do it, once I graduated from Edinburgh University, I did do a little circuit round Inveraray and Luss and Tobermory and Morar and up to Skye, and had a lovely time. Didn’t win any prizes, but I had a fantastic time and it’s nice to at least experience the competition circuit once in your life.
p|d: What about bands? You’ve listened also to a lot of pipe bands through your work with the BBC. You also played with Woolmet & Danderhall, Scottish Gas and the Power of Scotland.
IM: I’ve had a tremendous time in pipe bands. The chronology was that I went to Edinburgh University, and the university had a nice Officers’ Training Corps pipe band, loosely affiliated to the army. That was a very good pipe band. There was a chap called Findley MacLeod from Oban who was its driving force. I then went with many of the students to Woolmet, possibly in my last year as an undergraduate, and that was, again, a very interesting experience. Norrie Summors was the Pipe-Major. Woolmet at that time was Grade 1. There was the Edinburgh City Police, which became Lothian & Borders Police, and Woolmet: those were the two Grade 1 bands in the area. Danderhall’s a mining village just outside Edinburgh, and it still had very much the feel of the old mining pipe bands, and a proportion of the members of the band were actual miners, so it had a nice feel, and it was a great education musically and otherwise. The last band I played for was Power of Scotland for two years when Hugh MacInnes was pipe-major. That would have been in 1992, ’93 – about then. That coincided with a time I was very busy at work and at a sort of point that I’m sure many of us come to in our lives where I just couldn’t make the time. I lived in Edinburgh and the band was practising in Glasgow. But, again, a tremendous experience. Just being in amongst such wonderful pipers with a real ear for a good instrument and a good tune, and a rigorous approach to their personal playing. – that was an inspiration, and it helps attune your ear to what a good bagpipe should sound like.
p|d: Did you ever feel compromised being the host of Pipeline and playing with a band?
IM: I don’t think that was a conscious decision and in certain ways, leaving the pipe band meant that I was leaving the pipe band world, and you don’t have quite the same access to general information about what’s going on. But to be very closely associated with one particular band could potentially compromise, but I don’t think that ever happened. It’s certainly easier to stand back from the pipe bands and just take them all at face value and on the performance on the day.
p|d: You’re really known musically through your work with the Tannahill Weavers, Ossian, Smalltalk, and your own recordings. Do you see Highland pipers gravitating more towards the non-competition performance?
IM: Certainly more pipers are exploring a variety of avenues in piping. One great driving force has been the inauguration of the piping degree at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama, and before that the general music, Scottish Music Degree, which now I would imagine is seven or eight or nine years into its existence. From the very beginning there have been pipers involved in that course. Students on the course are required to have a lead instrument, but also a secondary instrument. So it’s really been a requirement of pipers that they’re exploring other instruments or Gaelic song or Scots song, and it’s put them in a tremendous position to create music of their own, and put their own stamp on it. Having said that, that has not impinged on the general piping culture in Scotland in any sort of detrimental way. The core of what we might describe as traditional piping – the stuff we all grew up with learning – big competition music, playing in pipe bands, playing in competitions, learning the core repertoire – that’s as strong and as rigorous as ever. On the whole it’s been pretty beneficial, and if nothing else, there’s work out there for loads of people playing the pipes.
p|d: If you think back 20 years ago, Battlefield and the Tannahill Weavers were about the only bands really integrating Highland pipes with other instruments. Now it’s everywhere. And you don’t go to a pipe band concert without hearing creative, new integration with other instruments. How is that impacting the traditional idea of a pipe band? Do you see other instruments entering into pipe bands, and do you think it will become a part of competition?
IM: Going back to the late 1970s, 1980s, two people really got things going in that direction. One was Dr. Angus MacDonald, who played in an early line-up of a band called Alba. He was a medical student at the time, and I’ve got a feeling that was maybe a band put together to do some broadcasting work at the BBC. It was, in a way, brought together for a specific purpose. The band then took off with a piper called Alan MacLeod, who is now living in Canada. Alan had a fiery and wild style. He moved on to the Tannahill Weavers, and it took off from there. An important thing early on was the folk groups tapping into the unexplored pipe music repertoire, and suddenly pipe tunes were sucked up into the musical culture of folk groups. It worked the other way, as well, so that when these bands went out and started playing in Brittany or northern Spain, their music started coming back with the folk groups, and then also with the pipe bands once festivals like Lorient got underway, and there was this explosion of knowledge about Breton, Asturian and Galician music.
p|d: So would you personally like to see Celtic folk musicians and those instruments become part of pipe band competitions?
IM: I’m not sure I would. I’d be quite interested in seeing the competition format evolving a bit, possibly say even if it were just at the very pinnacle at, say, the World Pipe Band Championships. Keeping the format in general as it is, but maybe at the Majors or at the World’s allowing pipe bands to explore other avenues: give them a 20-minute slot, or something like that, and ease off the regulations and the restrictions. Allow the drummers to play by themselves, allow the pipers to play by themselves, possibly using the Breton Pipe Band Championship as a model, and allowing anything to go. Real tight playing should be in there, and the sort of things that work in medleys should be in there as well. I don’t necessarily see that imposing another instrumental framework, like stringed instruments or basses or whatever, would be a particularly fruitful way to go. Works well in concerts, most of the time, but it has to be done well. And the power of a pipe band is the sheer majesty and the volume and the thrill – the sort of visceral impact they have on people. That can be diluted by adding other things to it.
p|d: You’ve had more than 15 years now working directly on piping-related Celtic programs at the BBC. It seems like every year there’s talk about changing Pipeline. What sort of challenges have you been faced with within the organization?
IM: We have a strong commitment to the program from the management here, and there’s never been any question – certainly not in the last 15 years – that there won’t be a slot for piping. In fact, if we look at it, the slot has expanded. Fifteen years ago we were making a half-hour-long program, moved up slowly to 40 minutes, to 45 minutes, and now to what’s essentially an hour’s worth of pipe music. Of course, in so doing that has allowed us to explore more avenues than we might have been able to do when we had half-an-hour. All we could do then was allow someone to do a recital, and we’d broadcast it with a few links in between. Every new director of the station will look at schedules and try and find something that suits his style and the station’s style. But the commitment is in place, and on the whole things are going very well. One obvious development is the fact that the program is now available on the Internet, and that’s been a great boon to us, because lots of people do listen to it around the world through their PCs, and the program consistently falls in among the top two or three in terms of listener figures on the Internet. That’s across the entire BBC Scotland output, and includes programs like football, popular music, news programs and everything else.