All too often in the piping world those who don’t conform to tradition, to the ways things are routinely done, are moved to the side, their beliefs and work conveniently swept under the rug. We have an unfortunate knee-jerk habit of dismissing what’s unfamiliar, even if the concepts that seem so foreign now were commonplace hundreds of years ago.
The example of James McColl perhaps fits that dismissive tradition. Born in the mining village of Shotts, Scotland, in 1928, piping fame came quickly to this unlikely piobaireachd devotee who emerged after 12 years in the ranks of Tom McAllister Sr.’s Shotts & Dykehead Pipe Band to win the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1953.
A precocious lad of 15 who regularly travelled by himself by train to Glasgow, McColl was absorbed into piobaireachd culture and research by attending Glasgow Pipers’ Club meetings and basically introducing himself to such luminaries as Iain MacPherson, Robert Reid and Willie Ross. Through formal and informal instruction, Jimmy McColl shaped his piobaireachd ability, every day engrossing himself in the music.
McColl’s fortuitous discovery and bargain purchase of a “pile of old music books” in Peter Henderson’s shop in Glasgow led to his personal study of piobaireachd as an art form before it was standardized by Archibald Campbell and the Piobaireachd Society in the early 1900s. Pouring through the published works of Donald Macdonald, Lieutenant John McLennan and G.F. Ross, McColl has made sophisticated deductions on how ceol mor was originally played, and how it differs from the near-uniform approach taken today.
Indeed, especially for someone with little formal education, Jimmy McColl’s intellect is substantial. He took it upon himself to learn canntaireachd and Gaelic, and his research into Scottish military history, poetry, and literature is remarkable. We must be careful to take his conclusions on piobaireachd seriously; his deductions are carefully considered, extremely well researched, and further validated by his exceptional piping talent.
Just as Allan MacDonald has established the direct link between piobaireachd and Gaelic song, just as William Donaldson has shown that the Piobaireachd Society of 1900-1950 altered and controlled the music so that it could be more easily judged by relatively unaccomplished gentry pipers, Jimmy McColl, among other things, illustrates the direct relationship between the “GDE Gathering” tunes of the 17th and 18th centuries and the modern 2/4 march.
When his parents suddenly passed away in 1955, a 27 year old Jimmy McColl left the depressing confines of Shotts for the sunshine state of California, where he settled into a remarkable burgeoning Los Angeles piping scene.
Jimmy McColl is important proof to pipers and drummers that different can indeed be better, even when “different” means simply trying to determine what occurred before, and showing its validity in a modern sense.
Living in California, Jimmy McColl’s views have not been heard as clearly as he would have been had he stayed in Scotland. Then again, if he were in Scotland, the piping establishment of years gone by would probably have actively discredited and disowned him as a heretic.
Jimmy McColl, piper, scholar, dissenter, once again calls into question today’s so-called “traditions.”
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