From the archives: Letters of Robert Reid
The following letters from the great master Robert Reid to Dr. Norman McLeod, the first President of the Pipers Society of Ontario, were forwarded to us by his son, Norman McLeod Jr. We reprint them here strictly as a fascinating insight to Reid’s thoughts about piping, the Piobaireachd Society, and his role in the piping world towards the end of his life. The opinions expressed are solely those of the late Robert Reid.
The first letter is not dated, but, given the second letter was written in May 1958 and alludes to the fact that McLeod had not written “for years,” we can assume it was written from between 1954 and 1956.
Robert Reid’s most famous pupils were Bob Hardie and Willie Connell. In the 1950s, Reid recorded more than 10 hours of his piobaireachd playing, yet refused to part with the tapes and decided not to make them commercially available. Reid also purportedly demanded that his priceless manuscripts from his instruction with John MacDougall Gillies be destroyed upon his death. As far as we know, the recordings and his pipes remain with his son, Robbie.
Throughout his life, Robert Reid was at odds with the Piobaireachd Society for various reasons, and the late Willie Connell, in his excellent Piper & Drummer interview of May 1996, stated that, “He didn’t agree with the way they dominated pipers by dictating to them, by holding up these Gold Medals as carrots and forcing pipers to prostitute themselves just for the sake of winning.”
The letters printed here exactly as they were orginally written, and any grammatical mistakes are Reid’s.
Dear Dr. McLeod,
I regret being so long in writing you, but will make an excuse for my neglectéI could have many.
I enjoyed some of the reading in the “ulletin” you sent me but I agree with you when you talk of its merit.
I’m afraid our own publications are on the same level, and it’s such a pity we have nobody with a sufficient interest, and knowledge of piping, to take up an able pen and write a good book. I know this would be difficult and not worth while from a financial point of view, but some of the stuff we read in “Piping magazines” is really poisonous.
I note in the April issue of your “Bulletin” (this issue came to me also) that John Wilson, Geo. R. Duncan & Seumas MacNeill put themselves to a lot of trouble to justify themselves in quite a few things. Knowing things as I do, each of them were more amusing than informative but at the same time may be quite convincing to others less initiated than myself.
Between ourselves, neither are “perfectionists” to use your word, but that is not their fault, each lack the teachings of the old masters. Its’ not sufficient just to follow the notes – one must follow the teachings of the “ld masters” to get the proper expression. The Piob Socy have become alarmed at the decay in the Great Music and some of the “heads” have confessed to me that they don’t know what to do about it.
I was in London last week and I met, and had a long talk with Campbell, Kilberry and the poor old chap has no answer to the decline. His answer seems to be that I should be teaching regularly but I’m afraid he was very disappointed at my reply. Of course he is aware that I have something better in the form of six hours of Piob playing which I have on Tapes. At my own expense I purchased one of the finest Tape Recorders (German) and had them all done before they thought of it. When Campbell (Shirvan) and Sir Douglas Ramsay of the Piob Socy heard a Recital on this they admitted its the most perfect they have ever heard, and many more agree. It certainly was a lot of work but it was well worth while. My idea was to have them put on discs to sell but the monopoly here forbids that and I can’t get them done unless at the Gramophone Corps price which doesn’t suit me. The Piob Socy spokesman told me they are so perfect that they are too valuable for me to hold, and advised me to put them into the museum for safe custody and for the benefit of future generations. That, in my opinion is impertinence and they will remain in my possession.
All these things apart piping is going as strong as ever over here but although we have many fine young players we don’t have the teachers. The days of the “old masters” have passed and we are now living in the period of “book learned” teachers who lack a background. The real decline set in on the death of MacDougall Gillies who should have established a real College which would have, or could have been a monument to the Piob Socy. On the other hand the Pipe Bands are making great strides and so far as I can see will oust the Soloist in due course. Some of our better class Games are going off and I will be surprised if we have Solo Piping at Bridge of Allan this year, they are turning to bands. Cowal Games gave prizes in kind last year to the Professionals and it will be interesting to see what happens this year. It may have been another way of putting them off but we’ll see. Personally, I’m not unduly worried about it all as I’ve had a lot of pleasure from playing Piob and I’m as keen as ever. I’m still President of the Scottish Pipers Assocn and we are doing very well and try our best to keep the tradition going, but next Competition is for the Veteran Pipers in September (from 55 upwards) and it is our most interesting of the year. I intend having a Championship Gold Medal for this year and if I manage this it will ass to our already good entry. We usually have about 10 – 12 competitors and it makes a great night. Well Sir, I’ve said enough and trust you are fit and well as this leaves me at present in good condition. I’m pleased to say I’ve been quite good generally over the winter and never even had a cold.
144 Academy Street
Dear Dr. McLeod,
not having heard from you for years your letter arrived to me like a bolt from the blue. Nevertheless, it leaves me with a feeling of sanity from an otherwise “insane piping world”. I have long given up hope of reading anything sensible, written by a piper on the “great music”, hence the reason your letter gives me such pleasure.
However, as its so long since I heard from you please let me start a bit back and keep you up to date on my news. As you already know I had a serious illness seven years ago, and although I didn’t recover 100% to run my business my piping still retains its 100% playing quality. Under the circumstances, and with a bit of pressure from my wife I retired from business at the end of May 1954.
We had settled down happily and got everything organised for the happy retired life (including one or two sessions per day) on the Bagpipe when the sudden “blow” fell. My dear wife passed away after a short illness exactly a month ago – Imagine! I won’t dwell on this, nor bore you at the moment with the details – I’m really too hurt!!
Now, let me say I do get the “per & Dancer Bulletin” and although I suspected it was yourself who was sending it, I wondered why you have never written me. It gives me quite a bit of amusement to read the “senile” letters of John Wilson with probably a little Scots quotation such as “guess whaur I’m awa tae”, and also the letter of Donald S. Ramsay late of Edinburgh Police, advising all and sundry that a great piper is arriving in America and that Gold Medallists can be churned out by this great expert. If its all so easy why not win them yourself? And how do you teach something you don’t know? As I’ve already said the piping world has gone mad for lack of knowledge!
Steve MacKinnon (Grapevine) serves quite a purpose and keeps some of the people in touch but he should gibe no opinion on “Piob” or the Piob players. Being a Bandsman under John MacDougall Gillies is not just the best qualification to get into print with an opinion. Yes sir, Willie Gray did a good job for the “Great Music” and what he said was completely true, and to my knowledge has never been questioned nor contradicted. Willie Gray has an extensive background to his piping and is most knowledgeable which is apt to place him in the “crank” category so far as the crotchet, quaver & Bar boys are concerned, you’ve already mentioned that and I fully agree the written notes can only supply a reference to the notes being played. Piob, especially Urlar or Ground should be played in passage & phrase form – not “arred Music” as we have today! I’m quite sure you will agree it requires the teaching of a Master to cultivate this, but we no longer have any Masters. I’ve met them all since Sandy Cameron and nobody would admit that the “Expression” required, and essential to good “Piob” can be written in “Barred Music” – it just can’t be done. Up to a point I can agree with you on the good work done by the Piob Socy, but at the same time I just can’t reconcile myself to the thought that they rescued the “reat Music” from oblivion. Please keep in mind that when the “Piob Socy” started we had such great players as the Camerons, MacPhersons, MacDougall Gillies, Robbie Meldrum, etc, and I scarcely think it required a collection of Amateurs, no matter how enthusiastic they may have been to urge these great men on.
I’m not disparaging the Amateur in any way, I’ve a great admiration for him but please tell me this – Why should the Piob Socy assume proprietorship of a great music which belongs to the people?
You may question this statement but I can assure you such a claim was made by one of the heads of P/Socy. Now, let me put your mind at rest regarding my “ape Recordings”. I can’t understand where such a rumour originated that I had passed these to the P/Socy. In fact only one of my “Tapes” has been heard by the P/S Gentlemen and to quote from those who heard them. –
Sir Douglas Ramsay – too valuable for one man to hold.
Campbell, Shirvan – Everybody who presumes to play “b” must hear them.
Seton Gordon – Claimed I’m the only man he has ever heard who could make a song from beginning to end of McIntosh’s Lament – heard nothing like these and many other remarks which were very flattering.
I have roughly 10 -12 hours playing on these “pes”, also some Talks which are interesting I think, and as the P/Socy gave me no assistance in any way, financial or otherwise, I see no reason why they should even know what I’ve done – they don’t! My son, a piper of sorts, with a fairly good knowledge gave me every assistance in the making of these and I venture to say every one is a real gem and played in the Cameron tradition. The “apes” now belong to my son and my guess is that it would take much more than the P/Socy to separate him from them. These are definitely in our possession and should you come over in 1959 as you suggest, I can promise you a real treat should you care to call on me. You ask me about any Piob Recordings worthy of interest – unfortunately I don’t know of any and can only endorse what Willie Gray said.
I have been informed that my fried Willie Ross is very ill and I’m hoping to get some more news later.
I’ve been playing a few “ecitals” and other things during the past winter and had myself in grand trim. Naturally, I haven’t played for the past month but I’ve no doubt the urge will come back to me with the progress of time. My daughter was in Canada on holiday a couple of years ago and she had a most pleasant time in Banff, Alberta. I have a dear old Aunt up there (86 years of age) and we have toyed with the idea of making a trip to see her but I’ll wait and see what happens. I’m fortunate I’ve got a son & daughter at home with me and I must count my blessings. My own hard work plus my dear wifes foresight assured us of four good meals a day, we run a small car for pleasure so we were happy but – at the moment we mourn our l”eline.
My best regards and wishes and your letter gave me