February 05, 2010

Image that

You're great. No, you're great.Most famous pipers and drummers have very few photographs of themselves. I know this to be true because of the struggle it almost always has been over the last 22 years to get images from interview subjects. Digital cameras are changing that but, still, older luminaries generally produce, if we’re lucky, a handful of blurry snaps, often of them in a crowd or playing in a band – slim pickings to support these in-depth, multi-parted features.

You’d assume that the opposite would be true, at least with pipers and drummers whose fame was gained mainly through solo competition. I can’t think of many things that are as self-centred as solo competition, since the whole point of the exercise is to be noticed, liked and rewarded by others. I’m not criticizing it, and I competed in solo events for a long time (and may yet again), but the reality is that chasing solo prizes is a total naval-gazing, narcissistic, self-indulgent conceit. No one except you much cares where you rate in the prizes.

And the irony doesn’t stop at a lack of photos. I find that the majority of pipers and drummers are loath to draw attention to themselves. They generally prefer to hide, and not discuss their experiences or success, much less take pride in their prizes.

Why is this? Maybe it’s due to a Scottish tradition of pious humility, but the last thing most pipers and drummers want to be accused of is self-promotion. Those who do are accused of wearing the proverbial fur coat and nae knickers. There are great exceptions (and, again, that’s okay with me) whom we won’t name here, but marketing does not come easily to the majority of us.

Things are slowly changing, though, and I think we can credit the non-Scottish influence for a rise in marketing and promotional prowess or, at least, willingness. Self-promotion is perhaps more culturally acceptable to Canadians, Australians, Kiwis and, certainly, Americans. Consequently, piping and drumming is coming out of its shell, albeit at the pace of tortoise.

As an American learning not just piping, but the culture of piping, I realized that one does not outwardly promote one’s self at the risk of being accused of trying to curry favour. One sets expectations low, and humility and not a little self-flagellation is generally in order at competitions. Those who come off the boards gloating about how well they played are doomed to fail, either when the prizes are announced or in their fellow competitors’ eyes.

But back to the photo-deficiency of famous pipers and drummers. There are only a scant few images of, say, John McLellan, Dunoon, or Willie Lawrie or Roddie Campbell. From that era, we generally can thank the military for the photos that do exist. Granted, cameras and photographs were relatively few and expensive then, but I tend to think that these humble pipers would have few pictures of themselves today, even if they had an account on Facebook.


  1. Hello Andrew,
    I agree with you on your opinion of old time pipers and drummers being shy of having their picture taken, l think myself it was more a case of “och…..l dinna like” The comment you made about “fur coat nae knickers” is not exactly right though.
    Being born and raised in Glasgow, when we said that about someone it usually referred to them as living beyond their means, in other words flaunting their wealth wrapped in a fur coat but not really having the price of a pair of knickers to wear underneath. And the fur coat was usually a cheap knock off, and l don’t mean an imitation, l mean “knocked off”………stolen

  2. Isn’t there something written in the small print at many competitions saying something like ‘no photography allowed’ – didn’t I see that in a Worlds programme. And at indoor competitions, you wouldn’t be taking photos for fear of distracting, but you would think that out on the steps at the end, there would be photos galore. What about John D Burgess- wasn’t it he who was most particular about his attire- did he not like to pose for the cameras? On the general note of pipers being backward about coming forward, I think that UNconciously, pipers certainly do want to be noticed, have something to say, a point to make. By taking up pipes you can potentially shout it from the rooftops, be as big as you always wanted to be, be ‘heard’, vent some ‘aggression by volume’, be part of a family, or even find in the bagpipe itself something you’ve never found in any living person – look at the way some pipers mould in with their bag and how close they are to their instrument. So while pipers may conciously be saying ‘don’t photograph me, I’m a shy wee mousy person who doesn’t want to be noticed’ I think unconciously they would love to be photographed, noticed, heard, applauded. Snap on!

  3. Our family photo album consisted of about one page until we left Scotland and came over to Canada. Where it began to grow in leaps and bounds. Perhaps it is something of a privacy and and inherent shyness that was part of the Scottish character.

  4. I think it’s more related to the availability of compact cameras capable of taking good pictures in any conditions. Regrettably, my wife and I don’t have many photos of our family of 4 children and, generally speaking, neither do others in our generation. We just never got into the habit. But our children and grandchildren have hundreds of photos of themselves. Many people, frequently those who don’t have cameras (there are some!), are still shy about posing for a photo and with the older cameras you had to pose.



Forgotten Password?