May 31, 2005

Tom Speirs

Tom Speirs’ father taught him to play. Tom Speirs taught his sons, Iain and Gregor, to play. And there’s not much doubt that Tom Speirs’ sons, or Tom himself, will teach their kids to play. In fact, minutes after we concluded the following interview with Tom Speirs at his home in Edinburgh, the phone rang with the much-anticipated call from Iain that a healthy boy—John Gregor Colin Speirs—was born to Iain and his wife, Suzanne.

“We have a piper,” were the first words from Tom Speirs’ upon hearing the news. “We have a piper.”

Tom Speirs was born in the lace-making town of Darvel in Ayrshire, Scotland, on March 19, 1941, the son of Jock Speirs, a prominent figure in the piping world. A practice chanter was put in his hands by the age of four, and his path as a superior player was carefully carved out by his proud father.

Indeed, Tom Speirs would go on to achieve great things on the competition boards, not least of which were winning the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal (1980) and Clasp (1983) for piobaireachd at the Northern Meeting. At the Argyllshire Gathering he was frequent runner-up in the medal, but he made his name in light-music also, particularly marches. Called “Abercairney Tom” for being closely-identified with that complex, prize-winning tune, Speirs won the marches at Oban in 1975, and then the Strathspey & Reel there, too, in 1976. He subsequently gained prizes in the Former Winners MSR contests at both events.

Tom Speirs took a 10-year break from competitive piping as he built a career in banking. When he came back to the competition boards in the 1970s it was as a young with a professional career, making him part of a trend where the Scottish solo piping scene was seeing more and more players without military, police or trades backgrounds.

Speirs’ piobaireachd pedigree is first-rate: taught originally by his father, Jock, he went on to gain tuition from Jim Jeffray and then Donald MacPherson, Donald MacLeod, and James McIntosh. It was the final three who shaped his playing to win the top prizes, and it is MacPherson who today teaches Tom Speirs’ eldest son, Iain, who has captured, among other prizes, the Argyllshire Gathering Gold Medal and two Silver Chanters.

A family man to his core, Tom Speirs has managed and nurtured the piping careers of his two sons. While he is almost always present at contests his boys compete in, he rarely stays in the room when they actually play. He maintains that he doesn’t want to risk distracting them in any way, even though he himself is a bag of nerves even away from the competition hall or platform. With his sons often competing, Tom Speirs is a relatively infrequent adjudicator of top solo events in Scotland, and, consequently, junior players more often get the benefit of his judging prowess.

Tom Speirs lives comfortably with his wife, Carol, on the eastern side of Edinburgh. Now retired from his banking career, he is a prolific teacher, imparting his knowledge to almost every level of piper.

His conversation is punctuated with his sharp and quick wit—a trait that his sons have inherited, and which their children will no doubt also gain. His piping room is full of personal memorabilia, ranging from the grandfather clock that his great-grandfather had in his house, to a painting of his father in military regalia, to pictures of his two piping protégés. His own family is dedicated to the bigger family of piping, and, on the morning when his first grandson was born, we met with Tom Speirs in Edinburgh for an exclusive interview.


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