River crossing

Mine would be 40 years ago, my first solo piping competition. It was 1977, about 18 months since I’d laid hands on a practice chanter. I’d been “on the pipes” – a set of imitation-ivory-mounted Hardies – for maybe six months.

I don’t remember having a choice in the matter. I was geared to compete from the get-go. It was what we pipers and drummers did. What one was supposed to do was described to me: salute like a boy soldier, tell the judge your tune, march up and down, making sure you don’t turn your back on the judge when turning, don’t play too fast, make all the doublings clearly, blow steady, try to keep in step with the beat or at least the beat-notes, keep going, don’t stop. Keep going.

The event was the Under-15 march at the St. Louis Highland Games organized by the local St. Andrew’s Society. Fresh from the United States’ Bicentennial celebrations, everything was still red white and blue, at a time when, unlike today, everything in the USA wasn’t always red white and blue every year. The games program was red white and blue, the ribbons on the medals were red white and blue. I think there was even a red white and blue Bicentennial tartan adorning an unfortunate drum-major.

I was prepped to confront my main competition from Kansas City: a young upstart named Kurt (or was it Chris?) Atwell. Everyone seemed to talk about how good this kid was. He must be beaten. Some sort of St. Louis vs. KC pride was at stake. Rivers vs. fountains. Beer vs. barbeque. Cardinals vs. Royals.

I diligently practiced my tune. For some reason, I was playing the obscure 2/4 march, “The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” Gordon Speirs, from whom I got lessons early on, assigned it to me in his often unconventional way. Something about it being a good test of my fingers, or my diligence, or maybe my sanity. I’ve never heard anyone play it since, and couldn’t tell you how it goes, mainly because the tune’s melody isn’t memorable, much less good.

At any rate, I rehearsed “The 12th etc.” every day after school. Marching back and forth. My parents and brother and sisters must have been going crazy listening to me struggle with the instrument and tuneless tune as I got set to do battle against Mr. Atwell, KC Kid Genius.

Games day arrived. If you’ve ever been what you think is the hottest and most humid place on earth, double that and you have St. Louis in July. I was decked out as one was when one played in lower-grade American bands in those days: hose tops, spats, thigh-itchy horsehair sporran, glengarry with cock-feather, epaulettes, khaki shirt, dorky embroidered band patch sewn to the short sleeve, floppy size-13 black dress shoes that I would have to “grow into.” It was the height of cool for this 13-year-old getting set for the eighth grade at Hanley Junior High, since then mercifully demolished in favour of a cracker-box suburban subdivision.

The judge was the truly terrifying Sandy MacPhee. Sandy back then, as he is now, was larger than life. At that time his son, Donald, must have been a toddler, destined for greatness, but Sandy’s legend as a pioneering American piper was established from his years in Detroit.

Yes, this is it. Sandy MacPhee judging, my mother pacing in the background, my sister, Clarissa, dreaming of Olympic balance beam gold.

Still not quite comprehending the occasion’s gravity, I approached Mr. MacPhee. “Name?” he asked in what I was sure at the time was a growl, but was probably just him asking my name. Name given. “What are you going to play?” “The 10th Argyll’s Crossing the Rhine.” “The what?” ” The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” “The 10th Battalion HLI Crossing the Rhine?” I really didn’t know what to say. At that time I’d never heard of that excellent Donald Shaw Ramsay march. “Um . . .” “It doesn’t matter; just play whatever you want.” Someone must have stopped me from breaking down in inconsolable sobs.

I vaguely remember bumbling through the tune, still searching for the elusive crappy melody, my mother pacing in the distance with my younger sister, and my dad, as always, snapping pictures. But I “got through it,” as they say, albeit out-of-step and with drones blaring like the simultaneous horns of three Mississippi River barges.

There couldn’t have been more than three or four in the event. I placed second. Atwell was first, which was okay, since I sussed that he was much like me, a kid plodding along in the heat in spats, epaulettes and itchy sporran. Someone contended that it was fixed and I should have won. I didn’t care. It was over and I received a shiny gold (not silver?) medal with a Bicentennial ribbon, and I was hooked by the will to do better, to exceed and succeed with music. Welcome to piping.

The next year I ditched that dreadful march for the more sensible “Atholl Highlanders March to Loch Katrine,” thinking it was pronounced ka-TREEN, as in latrine. It’s a more difficult tune than “The 12th etc.” but, with a discernably good melody, it seemed easier. The stub-fingered, one-lunged legend John Wilson, who was judging, bizarrely mentions me by name in his autobiography, A Professional Piper in Peace and War, playing it for him at the Kansas City Highland Games where I once again confronted Atwell. I was again second, but Wilson wrote that I was the best player of the day and would have won had I not made “catches” in the final phrases. Best player: second prize. Welcome again to piping.

A more catchy tune.

I’m always interested to hear first competition stories. When more established pipers mention to me now that I judged their first contest, there’s not a certain amount of satisfaction that I, like Sandy MacPhee, didn’t completely scare them for good from the competitive piping avocation. It’s nice when they reassure me that I wrote positive things on their scoresheets.

Like the 12th Royal Scots or the 10th HLI, we all cross our rivers, theirs to military glory, ours to a glorious piping and drumming life awaiting us on the other side.

 

Touch blackwood

“There’s plenty of time for despair,” a friend likes to say when playing golf after someone hits an iffy shot. Rather than assuming that the ball went into the bunker, he encourages you to err on the side of optimism and enjoy the moment.

After hitting tens-of-thousands of bad golf shots and competing in hundreds of piping and pipe band competitions, I’ve learned to take a different tack: assume the worst, because getting your hopes up inevitably results in having them crushed at the prize-giving. In other words, lower your expectations.

Some might see that as a “glass half empty” outlook. Far from it. It’s a line of thinking that’s as much about superstition as it is peace-of-mind.

When competing, I would actively disabuse myself of the idea that I’d be in the prizes, so that in the event that I or my band did win, it would be gravy. And, if we didn’t, well, then, that was no surprise. No matter how well I or the band played, I thought that it was a jinx to expect to win.

I have plenty of small superstitions in piping. Actually, it’s debatable whether they’re superstitions or an attempt at psychological strategy. You be the judge.

When submitting four tunes to a judge, say the one that you’d most like to play third. Why third? Well, listing it first automatically suggests it’s at the top of your mind, so you’re not getting that. Saying it second makes it an instant afterthought to the first. “What was the second tune again?” many judges will ask, proving the point. It takes a cruel judge to pick the last tune you say (of course after you paused to make it look like you can’t even remember it), and contrary to what you might believe, judges are nice people. Trust me, it’s the third tune that on average is the most likely to be picked.

In a draw at the line in a band contest, always pick the right hand. Most people are right-handed. They favour the right side. Chances are the right pick will be in the right hand. Did you know that the Latin word for “left” is “sinister”? Enough said.

Forgetting, or – much worse – consciously deciding not to take your rain cape means that it’s sure to rain. It’s all your fault. Yes, you can be all-powerful and control the weather just by thinking of or forgetting things.

Never wear sunglasses while competing. Okay, it’s not exactly bad luck, but unless your vision is impaired, few things communicate arrogance like sporting shades in a contest. Playing well should be cool enough. What are you hiding?

Prizes are better announced in order. People often think that announcing in reverse order builds suspense. It just creates more despair, since we all like to live in hope that, Hey, maybe I’m first! only to find yourself and 10 other competitors crestfallen. Vice versa can be true, but by the time they announce third or fourth I no longer care much. That said, I’ll never forget many years ago at the World’s when Grade 3 or something was announced in order. The band next to us got increasingly more agitated when their name wasn’t called out with each prize announced. After they were not even sixth, the lead-drummer screamed out an ear-splitting obscenity at the poor RSPBA Executive Officer that rhymes with Truck My Flock! But overall, announcing in order is better for everyone.

A perfect tune-up invites disaster. Warming up on the golf range or the putting green, hitting everything well or going in brings one thing: a terrible round of golf will follow. Similarly, tuning that seems to be flawless right out of the box inevitably results in a performance that craters on the field. Get out the flaws. Miss a few attacks. Fly around madly searching for that bad F. Get a bit unsettled. It focuses the mind at crunch time.

Eagerly checking the prizes results in your not being in them. Most solo competitions post the results somewhere. You can tell newbie competitors. They’re the ones hovering around, anxious to see their success. Experienced competitors hang back. Many never even look and instead wait for someone to say later in the day, “Well done on the prize(s)!” And then you say, “Oh, was I in? I didn’t even look.” Nonchalance is key to playing the part. Your bag might be bursting with anticipation, but under no circumstances should you actively seek out the result. Often, the only result is embarrassment.

When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition is the way.

Are you superstitious? Carry a talisman in your sporran? A lucky tie? Idol thoughts? Feel free to share.

 

Fall out

David Murray’s reported (but as it turned out, incorrect) passing got me thinking again about the military and piping. Looking back, I believe Murray is the last of the pure military men who had a major influence on the judging of piping competitions.

This is no slight against great pipers like Gavin Stoddart, Brian Donaldson, Gordon Walker, Niall Matheson, Stuart Sampson, Michael Gray and others who combined a decorated military career with piping. Long after retiring from the military, they remain terrific contributors to the art, and there will continue to be great pipers who also serve in the military.

But Lieutenant-Colonel David Murray isI think the last of a long era when big piping competitions and military events were confused and even conflated. The Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering until the 2000s routinely saw competitors currently serving in the military, actually on-duty at these events or even around the Scottish games. In some cases, such as with Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald and Major Gavin Stoddart in the 1970s and 1980s, soldier-pipers were ordered to compete, to go out and win medals to make the Scots Guards or Royal Scots or other Scottish regiment look good.

On-duty military competitors were commonplace and part of Scotland’s solo piping tradition for at least a hundred years. It was just the way things were. But as solo piping moved from being largely connected with the military, to being a thing mainly for civilians, the glorious sight of soldiers competing in the immaculate uniform of their regiment dwindled.

And the judges were almost all men who had served with the military, often as commissioned officers, such as David Murray. The UK practiced military conscription until the late 1950s, when the required two-year “National Service” began to be phased out. Anyone born after 1939 did not have to do their stint, and 1960 was the last year for the demobilization of National Service, or “De-Mob.” In fact, if my calculations are right, Iain MacLellan and Andrew Wright are the very last of the great pipers (and now judges) who went through National Service.

So, at solo competitions throughout the UK, judges on the benches very often did their service or were commissioned officers with a Scottish regiment. There would be a lot of talk with the competitors that so-and-so was with the Camerons or Scots Guards or Dragoon Guards or Seaforths, so anyone with [insert regiment here] might be listened to with a different ear – and not necessarily to their advantage. An officer judging a soldier when he knows the competitor is there to do well for his regiment? It’s a bit like the pipe-major judging his own pipe band and those competing against it.

The infamous “ordering off” in 1991 of the late and truly great Corporal Alasdair Gillies, Queen’s Own Highlanders, by (retired) Lieutenant-Colonel David Murray, Queens’ Own Cameron Highlanders, was a bizarre conflation of events. Was this a military exercise or a civilian solo competition? Was Gillies on duty? Did Murray have the right to order him or any competitor off stage? What might have happened if Alasdair were to have given Murray a two-fingered salute and carried on with his tune?

Alasdair being commanded to stand down in the middle of the Gold Medal competition has gone down in history as a permanent part of piping lore. In truth, this kind of confusion routinely happened in smaller ways. Military men who were competing were on some sort of different plane than the rest of us and, if anyone bothered to stop to think about it, someone might or should have called BS on the whole exercise. But, like so much in piping and drumming, it was just the way it was, and you’d better not ask questions if you want to get the benefit of the doubt, which is so crucial in contests that come down to slicing hairs.

At any rate, Lieutenant-Colonel D.J.S. Murray’s death this to me marks the end of a hundred-odd years at least, when civilian piping competitions and military events were confused. It’s for the better that we’ve moved on, but I will still miss the charm and pageantry of immaculately decked-out pipers strutting their stuff before their military superiors, providing a fascinating extra dimension to these events, holdovers from a bygone era.

 

Hatred unwelcome

The Highland pipes draw attention. The volume and distinct sound of the instrument – especially when played poorly – get a reaction from people, so pipers are often seen in protests and parades.

Pipers who work their entire lives to be the best musicians they can be are invariably annoyed when “pipers,” who only want to be a spectacle by making as much kilty-noise as possible, go out and give the musical instrument and all of those who strive to be excellent musicians a bad rap.

It’s disturbing that things Celtic often seem to attract a certain racist element. Skinheads donning “utilikilts” and Celtic knot tattoos often add a noisy “piper” to the mix.

It makes my skin crawl.

The latest is a racist in Oregon who happens to use the Highland pipes to draw attention to his disgusting views and spitting vitriol. His MO seems to be to use Highland wear and the pipes to stand out from other hate-mongers, and, evidenced by the media attention he’s receiving, it seems to be working. (If you must investigate, you’re on your own – I won’t promote him any more than necessary here.)

Someone in the musical world of Highland piping needs to say it:

This hatred has absolutely no place in the culture of true pipers and drummers.

The world’s pipers and drummers are utterly and completely inclusive of all race, economic status, religion, sexual orientation and political belief. If you meet one who does not subscribe to inclusivity, kindly tell them to do us all a favour, take up the triangle and go away.

Real pipers and drummers enjoy and nurture the common bond that our music creates. We are colour-blind and completely tolerant – uninterested, actually – in what our fellow pipers and drummers believe, unless, of course, it is a “piper” or “drummer” who refuses to be part of that ethic. The only people we exclude are those who are not inclusive in their thinking.

Real pipers and drummers reject intolerance and racism. Those who embrace those things are not welcome.

Six kinds of pipers

After many years of judging solo piping competitions, one tends to notice trends. In places like Ontario where it’s typical to critique more than 50 performances in a morning, you can’t help but start to see certain types of competition personalities come forward. I say amateur, because the professional contestants all tend to be of a workmanlike, get-it-done-and-move-on consistency, whereas the amateurs are much more of a mixed lot of attitudes.

By and large, amateur competitors are fairly non-descript and don’t fit any of the types below. But for roughly the other half I think there are five basic distinct characters. These personalities don’t necessarily mean that they are better or worse as pipers, and for sure each performance is assessed on its own merits. The traits tend to be seen before and after the actual tune or tunes.

1. The Name-Dropper. Without fail, there is at least one amateur competitor in every event who someway, somehow slips in the name of his/her teacher. “I got this from Rory MacDingle,” the player will say. I’m pretty sure it’s an attempt to intimidate. The player’s letting you know who will be reviewing the scoresheet, or, if you criticize the tune you therefore criticize the teacher. There must be some sort of sociopathic thing here.

2. The I-Don’t-Really-Want-to-Player. There are always one or two whom you just know don’t really want to compete. They tune forever. They can’t remember the names of their tunes. They’re visibly forcing themselves to do it. Hard to understand why they’re self-inflicting such misery.

3. The Inflated. These folks have a certain strut to their demeanor that belies their true abilities. Often they have impressive and well-practiced tuning phrases. They’ve studied the pros and ape their pre-tune routines. They inevitably elevate the judge’s expectations only to perform at a grade-level that’s less than required.

4. Mr. Piobaireachd. These are usually older amateurs who spend a lot of money travelling to two-week schools and weekend workshops to be instructed by the world’s best. God love ’em. They almost always dress to the nines and have the latest silver-mounted instruments, drone valves, drying gizmos, and gold-plated $300 reeds. They have the music they want to convey rattling in their head, but little of the technical ability to deliver it. These folks keep the piping economy growing. They always fancy themselves hard-core piobaireachd aficionados and are often also . . .

5. The Obscure. These pipers just love submitting tunes that no one else plays, or has even heard of. The tunes are published, but no one else ever learned them, much less played them in competition. “What do you have today?” “I will be playing ‘The Ogilvies’ Gathering.’ ” “The what?” ” ‘ The Gathering of the Ogilvies,’ and here is the music if you don’t know it.” They then produce a photocopy of the manuscript. This often includes crazy notation on phrasing, with circled cadences and arrows to single notes that say “HOLD!!!

6. The Whatever . . . These competitors are maybe the most confounding. They’re aloof and carry on like they don’t really care at all. Strangely, they almost always have great potential, and either don’t realize their hidden talent or are just too lazy to cultivate it. They’re not nervous; just completely apathetic. They usually vanish from the scene altogether after a few years.

Your observations will vary. These six personality-types give otherwise excruciatingly bland competitions variety and spice. If you know of others, feel free to suggest in a comment.

Untied united

Who the hell decided that pipers and drummers should wear ties? Probably the same Victorian sadist who dressed us in a one-inch-thick tunic, plaid, cross-belt, spats and feather-bonnet.
I’m sure that The Style Guy would have something to say about it, but the necktie is completely restrictive to pipers and a nuisance to drummers. No tailoring in the world can accommodate a neck that gains three inches with every blow, like some giant comical bullfrog. (I bet most of you have witnessed at least once someone in the crowd point at a band and say, “Wow! Look at that guy’s neck!” as a piper overflows his collar with each puff.) The tie flaps around the chanter and sticks while playing. There is no practical reason for it. It is inconducive  to making good music.

I’m all in favour of getting rid of ties, or at least making it more acceptable not to wear them in competition. They’ve been doing it for ages in Australia. And just as kilt-jackets were shucked off a decade ago at the World’s, so too should pipes be unknotted. Some associations even have it in their antediluvian rules that a necktie is a mandatory part of “Highland” dress. Associations are supposed to promote the arts of piping and drumming. They can start by loosening stupid rules like the necktie.

All this said, because I was an inveterate collector of things, I used to accumulate pipe band ties. That was in an era when custom-made band ties were something special, and usually something only the top-grade bands could afford, or make a priority. I still have a decent collection, and I wonder if someone out there has the equivalent of a T206 Honus Wagner trading card – maybe a 1968 Muirheads, or a ’75 Edinburgh City Police.

Trading pipe band ties was always fun and usually happened over many pints. Quartermasters must have gone crazy after big contests when every other player would swap ties. Because custom ties are commonplace through all the grades throughout the world, I doubt tie-swapping occurs much anymore. Custom ties are a dime-a-dozen. Some bands seem to change designs every few years. There’s nothing much special about them.

So all the more reason to call it a day on requiring pipers and drummers to perform while wearing these nuisance nooses. Let us stand united and untie ourselves from the tie.

The market dictates

The TyFry company’s introduction of new tenor mallets claiming to be patently aerodynamic, balanced and a “new dawn” for the instrument – and available in a spectrum of bright colours – sparked lively dialog, debate and not a little consternation.

Piping and drumming still struggles with marketing and product development. We are borne of custom and tradition, and not a little Scottish austerity when it comes to drawing attention to one’s self, or outwardly selling hard. Even before new-world-style assertive marketing and promotion entered the fray, pipers and drummers lived a life of irony: one shan’t be seen to be showing off, but one must wear an ostentatiously colourful Victorian Highland get-up while (not) doing it.

Self-promotion is still a fine line to walk as a competing piper, drummer or pipe band. Pipers seen to be lobbying their ability are still tacitly knocked down a notch or two in the estimation of their peers. The tradition is to let playing ability do the talking. If the product is good, the tradition goes, then the judges will buy it.

We struggle with our own globalization. Makers of piping and drumming products compete in an ever-more-crowded market. “Innovation” when it comes to our instruments, music and apparel comes in microscopic steps. Foist too much change too quickly on too many and many will take the knee-jerk traditional reaction and reject it, cutting it down a peg or four.

Piping and drumming is used to dictating the market. This is what you will buy. This is all that is available. This is the way we do it. Don’t ask questions. Just do it like we always do it.

But the market now dictates piping and drumming. Makers of instruments, garb and tunes now take risks. They push things. They need to rise above the crowd, whether with bright colours or wind-tunnel-tested efficiency or tiny little Allen keys to adjust a carbon-fibre bridle. Changes that were once glacial, now happen in a single season. We are warming to globalization.

Day-Glo pink tenor mallets? Great! Aqua snare sticks? Wonderful! Red ghillie brogue laces, powder horns and a rack of medals on the chest? Good enough for John MacColl and John D. Burgess; good enough for me.

I would think that chanters can be made in a plastic of any colour, and that kids might be more prone to practice with a bright blue chanter than that black thing that everyone else has. I love the look that Boghall & Bathgate created with their orange drums and tenor mallets. I would have no trouble with a band playing chanters of any colour, or even a rainbow array. Bring it on. If the market likes them, they will sell. Things that were once simply not available, even unimaginable, are now marketed. We have choices.

No auld baldy bastard dictates to us.

The tradition that is perhaps hardest to break in piping and drumming is the one that says we must do things in a certain way. The customary notion that a very, very few dictate the music, the look and the instruments is increasingly a thing of the past.

The market is us, and we will tell it what to do.

The 5 O’clock Tune

The British Army doesn’t already have a memorial to pipers and drummers killed in action over the country’s long history of wars? I guess I assumed that there was one somewhere, since there are so many tales of the heroism of courageous pipers, like George Findlater at the Heights of Dargai or Bill Millin at Normandy, who risked everything for the sake of motivating the troops with a tune. (And let’s not forget about the pipers and drummers killed by the English when they were fighting for an independent Scotland, but I digress.)

That there does not appear to be a record of pipers and drummers killed in conflict is also strange. After all, these soldiers were there, yes, as soldiers, but most of them carried a specific and important distinguishing role as pipers and drummers. There are probably records of orderlies killed in action, but none for pipers?

And the British Army won’t even contribute to a memorial? I can just hear it. “Well, if we do that then we’ll have to make one for orderlies, and then one for cooks, and then where does it end?”

Anyway, it’s all good. I hope enough funds are collected for a memorial cairn at Redford Barracks. But here’s a better proposal:

Build a memorial cairn for pipers and drummers killed in action, and erect it at Edinburgh Castle where so much piping history and teaching has occurred. And, like the traditional 1 O’clock Gun that’s fired from the Castle ramparts every afternoon of every day, create a tradition of a “5 O’clock Tune.” Every day of the year, like clockwork, an army piper appears at the cairn at 5 pm to play a lament.

What a great thing this would be for piping and the British Army. Hordes of tourists would collect at 5 o’clock for the daily tune. They can snap photos and perhaps even learn a little about piping and hear how a good Highland pipe sounds. The British Army can showcase how thoughtful it is, and shed positive light on one of its great traditions to, eventually, millions of people around the world.

“The 5 O’clock Tune.” The British Army can thank me later.

Sheepish

Highland pipers and pipe band drummers owe so much to . . . sheep. And it’s high time we thanked them.

The bag: nothing beats a natural sheepskin under the oxter (or so say the purists, traditionalists, superstitious, discerning or  paranoid; take your pick). Flocks of pipe bags go in and out of makers such as Begg and Bowes, and even support a rather smelly fellsmongering industry in China.

The tunes: “Shepherd’s Crook,” “Ca’ the Ewes,” and “The Ewe wi’ the Crookit Horn” (not really about sheep at all, but the inspiration’s there). We used to commemorate sheep in one way or another, but we’ve been quiet recently. Call it a silence of the lambs. Here’s a call to the Armstrongs, Sauls and Greys of the world to pay homage to these blissfully ignorant creatures that make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of all of us.

Seasoning: did you know that Airtight Seasoning is made of mostly lanolin? What’s lanolin, you might ask? It’s a by-product of sheep and, strangely or obviously, depending on your perspective, absorbs moisture . . . or something . . . making it a perfect ingredient for soaking up slavers. Sheep stand out there in the rain, seemingly impervious to a soaking. It only makes sense that this animal, which does not demand an Inverness cape, should contain a substance that makes getting wet tolerable.

Drum skins: okay, so these are no longer made from super-stretched sheepskin, but they used to be. The poor old sheep made original pipe band drumming possible, and some purists (see pipe bag above) pine for the days of rope-tensioned drums with true “skins.”

The 20 pounds of wool we must wear: Pipers and drummers, unless they come from Brittany or Pakistan, in order to compete are almost always required to don a garment from head-to-toe made from the hair of at least a small family of sheep. This is a reasonable idea when lowing a lament in the horizontal rain in the north of Scotland, but quite absurd in 40-degree heat in July in Chicago or February in Sydney. All the same, thank you, sheep, for making us so colourfully uncomfortable.

Powder Horns: Donald Cameron famously had one, and the late, great John D. Burgess acquired and jauntily sported it, only after Donald MacLeod memorialized it in one of the greatest jigs ever written.

Trophies: some of the world’s greatest piping trophies are designed somewhat bizarrely using the curly horn of a ram that ended up mutton. The overall trophy at the Glenfiddich Invitational – perhaps the biggest award in the solo piping world – is an award for the horny, who are of course turned on by piping perfection.

Haggis: let’s not forget this staple of the serious piper and drummer’s diet. While it’s completely acceptable for regular people to consume putrid hotdogs and bio-engineered Chicken McNuggets, the mere mention of “haggis” sends punters into mock-convulsive retching, even though it’s made from all-organic innards and oats wrapped in an ex-sheep’s stomach.

So let’s all say, Thank you, sheep! You make our art all the more interesting and notorious.

True-love giving

“Twelve drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping” . . . these are maybe the greatest connections to piping and drumming we have when it comes to bridging to the non-playing public. Everyone loves “The 12 Days of Christmas.” It’s the “Scotland the Brave” of Christmas Carols.

I’m not sure about your part of the world, but it seems that Christmas windows at big department stores have made a comeback in Toronto. That’s nice. I’d hate to think that kids never get the chance to gaze dreamily at the mechanized glittering windows before they become completely inured to consumerism. It used to be that department store Christmas windows were a marvel of technology; now, they’re a quaint throwback to the days of Hornby trainsets and Meccano.

The fancy Holt-Renfrew store on Bloor Street this year has a really clever series of windows that have a fashionista take on “The 12 Days.” Their interpretation of 11 Pipers Piping is quite brilliant: 10 female mannequins in plaid/tartan with “drones” sticking out of their designer handbags. Get it? Bag-pipes. (The eleventh mannequin appears to be a man smoking a pipe, to keep everyone honest, since I’d imagine about one out of every eleven Holts customers is male.)

Sadly, the 12 Drummers window is made up of mannequins in a tin soldier motif. Drummers can be many things, while pipers to most punters, at least in the western world, are Highland bagpipers. Ed Neigh said many years ago that pipe bands must be eternally grateful to drummers, who have so many other musical options, but instead chose to play in, of all things, a pipe band.

Every year you see financial calculations of how much it would cost to buy or rent the entire 12 Days. For the 12 drummers, they always seem to go with a marching band of some kind, while the cost of 11 pipers is mainly that which the local pipe band would charge for what today would often mean about half of its pipe section. I’d imagine that hiring 11 of SFU or Field Marshal Montgomery’s pipe section would set you back at least a thousand dollars, or about the price of five decent gold rings — six if you throw in both Lees and a Parkes.

Swans, a partridge in a pear tree, geese a laying – all very doable, and I’d bet you could wait around Westminster to get 10 Lords to leap on their tea break. I’m not sure what eight farm-girls go for what with the cost of their dairy cows, or if eight wet-nurses are even possible in this age and day.

“Eleven pipers piping”: a true gift to our art.

Dead men don’t wear plaid

Land of maits.This is a story about a tartan. Not just any tartan, but the tartan that I have worn the most since 1983 when I happened upon a very fine kilt in Fort William, Scotland, where I spent the night before competing at the Glenfinnan games (got nothing) as a wide-eyed 19-year-old.

While killing time meandering around the town I came across a Highland wear place. It was my intention to get a kilt while I was in Scotland as a third-year student at the University of Stirling studying pipin . . . er . . . I mean, English. I went into this place without meaning to buy anything, but there was a kilt lying there in a tartan that I very much liked. I asked about it, and the manager (who I recall was a bit of a dink, probably beaten down by American tourists like me all day) said that it had been made for a man who quite unfortunately died before he could claim it or, I suppose, be buried in it.

It was a bit ghoulish, but what the hay, I tried it on, and it fit perfectly. So I somehow cashed in enough traveler’s cheques to take it away later that evening. The tartan was Maitland. As far as I could recall, I’d never seen it before, and in the 27 years I’ve worn the kilt I have rarely seen it on others.

That’s because the tartan is exclusive to those with a direct link with the Maitland “clan.” My dad discovered this when he tried to find a tie in the same tartan. One has to prove one’s right to wear the tartan before a mill will weave it, he found out. So, being the historian he was, he researched my Scottish mother’s genealogy and discovered a relative named Maitland.

I’d forgotten all that until I’d decided this summer to replace the now frayed and faded kilt with an exact replica. When the kiltmaker took the order to the mill, they refused to run it for fear of being fined for breaking the rule of the Earl of Lauderdale, the head of Clan Maitland.

So, I have had to go through the process of formally joining the Clan Maitland Society. Its North American branch is headquartered – of course – in Las Vegas. I submitted my case and application, and after a month or so, I received a letter of welcome from Lauderdale himself: “Greetings, Kinsman!”

I like this. Anyone in theory can wear any tartan he or she chooses, and that’s originally what I intended to do, but we Maitlands carefully protect ours. None of this commonplace plaid for us!

I’ve played in at least one band that had a quite extraordinary tartan that became a symbol or brand of the band itself, but gradually other bands started to wear it, so my idea was to have an exclusive tartan custom designed and registered, which is what happened. (I left the band before I ever actually wore it.) Other bands, like FMM and SFU, have followed suit, creating their very own exclusive look.

But I wonder whether any of these bands protect their trademark tartan as steadfastly with weavers as my very own Clan Maitland, with an earl upholding the rite.

Been there

All uphill from here.We all have to start somewhere, and this week I’ve been carried back to my earliest days as a piper as I’ve been going through and scanning family photos that my dad left behind. I’ve actually taken a full 10 days of vacation to work through them, since he was a keen amateur photographer and, perhaps because he was a professor of history and wanted to keep a record of things for history’s sake, he pretty much took a photo of everything. Everything.

He missed the digital photography age, and used only film. But he never used print film; strictly slide film, and would pick out the best to have enlarged. He used slide photography like we use digital – no big deal if you mess up the shot. The result is about 40 years of slides, numbering I think about 15,000 images. That’s a lot scanning, but it’s kind of now or never.

Hell? Hello? Is this thing on?But here are a few shots of my first years on the pipes, circa 1976-’77. I think the one of me with the natty plaid shirt on is the very day that my new R.G. Hardie pipes arrived directly from Glasgow. I remember the bag loosely tied to the stocks, and made of cowhide as thick and tough as beef jerky. My dad was upset that they sent it with the wrong tartan bag cover – MacFarlane, not some family sett.

My dad, ever the promoter of his kids, used to volunteer me for various piping performances. I’m not sure exactly what these two events were, but see the people in the one of me playing in the parking lot. Next stop: The Argyllshire Gathering.They are almost totally oblivious to the noise going on around them, even the gents merrily having a conversation within a few feet of me. Note the 1970s pimp-chic with the guy with hat. Maybe they’re hoping that, if they ignore it, it will go away. Maybe it’s an event for the hearing impaired.

The one with the guy in the clever robin’s-egg-blue suit is a wonder. It looks like the Jim Jones Cult needed an official piper to lead the members to something. I don’t remember any Let's play ball instead . . .Kool-Aid being served, thank goodness.

The other is perhaps the first day of spring warm enough for me to regale the neighbors (American spelling, since it was in the USA) with my sight-reading stop/start tunage. I’m wearing the St. Louis Cardinals’ retro 1876 cap in honor (US) of the 100th anniversary of the National League, brown corduroys and yet another tartan shirt. That’s my friend Nathaniel Heidenheimer in the Giants’ cap probably a bit freaked out by the scene: me squalling away on the imitation-ivory-grinding Hardies; my dad snapping away at his own hobby; Nathaniel frozen, wondering where to look.

But we all start somewhere and I think we’ve all been there. The instrument begins as a lark, progresses into obsession, then, if you’re lucky, transforms into a passion. We persevere.

Dead lament

Pure dead brilliant, that.The newspaper image of the late motorcycle fanatic dead and embalmed astride his bike as a fulfillment of his last wish gave me the heebie-jeebies this morning. But, then again, why should it? Dead is dead, and the usual supine “sleeping-inside-the-coffin” pose is every bit as disturbing, when you think about it. Death is creepy, no matter what.

So why not encourage people to have a final image of you doing what you love to do? I suppose for some people their favourite pastime is sleeping, so the pancake-makeup casket thing is appropriate. But, given that so many of us pipers and drummers are obsessed with our hobby (our “avocation” as Michael Grey once aptly described it to me), perhaps one of us will include instructions in our will to kit us out in Highland dress, prop us up and somehow attach the instrument to us in  a lifelike pose.

Since wearing dark sunglasses is okay for motorcycles but taboo for piping/drumming competitors, we could conveniently have our eyes closed, looking for the life (or death) of us like we’re really into the music. I suppose it would be a challenge to stand a cadaver upright and keep the hands on the chanter or the sticks, but we’ll leave that to the morticians to negotiate.

I remember in the 1970s Ian Cohen, a friend in the now-defunct Invera’an band (he still plays with the current St. Louis Caledonian Pipe Band, I think) with a last name at the time as unlikely as my own for a piper, had “George” – a life-size mannequin that stood in his living room in number-one dress. It was a bit creepy, but also wonderfully campy. (A decade ago I gave up trying to convince Julie to get me a mannequin for my birthday or Christmas, on which to hang my kilty gear when not in use. “Not in ma hoose!”) George would be there watching over us as we played vinyl LPs of the latest Shotts album on his Marantz turntable.

One of the most selfish things I’ve ever heard of in piping is Robert Reid’s famous wish that all of his piping manuscripts and what-nots should be buried with him. I suppose he didn’t want to share his secrets with anyone. Perhaps like Donald Shaw Ramsay making wholesale deletions of truly helpful material in the interview I did with him in 1989, maybe he rationalized it by contending that he had to learn the hard way so no one else should have it easier. Unfortunately for Reid, some people’s lasting impression of him as a result of his miserly wish is of a bitter and unsharing man, which may explain why the Cameron-MacDougall-Gillies style is all but dead, at least relative to the all-sharing MacDonald-Nicol-Brown approach. 

Anyway, there are many in the piping and drumming world whose identity as a person is piping or drumming. Their instrument is as much a part of them as that guy’s motorcycle was. So what better way to create a lasting impression than making the final image the one that defines you?

Downturn

Looking prosperous.The barrage of bad economic news just keeps on coming and, unfortunately, the pipe band world will not be exempt. In fact, the pipe band world as we’ve come to know it, will be hit hard and will likely change dramatically in the next few years. I wish that weren’t so, but it is, so let’s talk about it.

We have seen over the last 15 years an era of unprecedented pipe band prosperity. Rosters have expanded to sizes unimaginable just two decades ago. Bands of all grades have traveled the world to support their hobby in the name of fun and glory. Bagpipes have been developed with every imaginable ornamentation by dozens of pipe-makers that didn’t even exist in 1998. Pipe band associations the world over have raised fees without raising services. Pipe band mid-sections have come from the brink of extinction to, some would contend, almost running bands themselves.

Nothing like a severe global recession to fix all that.

Bass-sections might actually be a bellwether of band prosperity. Up until the early 1970s, when bands wore nothing but ornate and expensive number-one dress, tenor- and bass-drummers were kitted out in (and this is hard to imagine today) the pelts of exotic animals. Leopard-, tiger- and bear-skin “aprons,” replete with canine-baring heads, would adorn the then most musically insignificant playing members of the band. Far more money was invested in the traditional bass-section players than in pipers or snare drummers.

It might not be a coincidence, then, that the pipe band uniform changed dramatically around 1974 when the last comparably major world economic crisis struck. Pipe bands started to cut costs, and looked to uniforms first. “Number-two” dress was adopted from the solo piping world. Not only was it a lot cheaper, but it was far easier to maintain and, most importantly, perform in.

Bands were feeling an economic crunch, and adding a player was a serious commitment. Perhaps not coincidentally, band members were shed, too. Departing tenor drummers often were not replaced.

Fast-forward, then, to the most recent economic boom, starting about 2001 after the last “mini-recession.” Again, not coincidentally, band rosters increased faster than the stock markets. The expansive modern bass-section was invented and, in fact, renamed. “Mid-sections” of four, five, even nine players were added, each drummer adding new tones, each playing an expensive instrument that utilized cutting-edge drum technology.

People still argue about whether such additions help or hinder pipe bands, whether they add or detract from the music, whether complex mid-sections have enough musical return on investment to warrant their inclusion. Robert Mathieson loves them; Richard Parkes is less keen.

If history is any indication, though, the piping and drumming times may reflect the economic times. I dislike the notion as much as anyone, but there is no doubt that the next year or so will present major challenges to pipe band events, pipe band associations and pipe bands themselves. For bands – and I hope I am wrong here – addressing those challenges could well start with the mid-section.

Cap’s on

Formidable!Judging from the dozens of comments about the pipes up-down-up rule and the thought of changing it, the subject of dress and deportment in competition is surprisingly contentious as piping and drumming evolves.

A few years ago I wrote a Blogpipe post that was intended to be funny about the fact that pipe bands from Pakistan and Spain come to the World’s and are allowed to wear their national costume. Now, reading it again, there’s a lot to that.

The Breton bands wear quite smart trousers and double-breasted waistcoats. It’s all allowed, since the RSPBA has no provision for bands having to wear “Highland” dress; they simply say bands should be in uniform.

So, in effect, bands can wear what they want as long as they strive to have every player look the same (which never happens, because there are always two or three odd sporrans and a few folks with a tie from another band after they traded their own), and provided the RSPBA’s National Council approves it.

I don’t know one piper or drummer who prefers to compete while wearing a jacket. The more encumbered a piper or drummer is, the more difficult it is to play his or her instrument, and playing the instrument is the task at hand.

Besides, the uniforms of bands from Brittany and Spain and the like are a welcome added variety at the World’s. People I think enjoy seeing a change from the conventional ersatz Victorian-military derivative ensemble that makes the Scottish, US and Commonwealth-country bands look pretty much all the same. Now that Bagad Cap Caval has won the Grade 2 event and may well be required to compete in Grade 1 next year, does their more comfortable uniform give them a decided playing advantage? I think so, and they have the right idea.

Why can’t the currently kilted pipe bands have two uniforms – the predictable tartan one for performances, and another one – equally smart – that’s more conducive to good playing in competition?

To bring about this change, most people think a Grade 1 band will need to do it first. And that might well happen in 2009.

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