Winner of the earliest and the latest border piping competitions, Paul Roberts talks to Common Stock about his piping and his music

Paul Roberts at this year’s competition

Where, when, why and how did you start piping?
When I was 16 in the summer of 1965 I was struck by an overwhelming urge to play the GHB. Me and a friend clubbed together and bought a cheap Pakistani set from a local music shop. They were junk, but somehow we managed to get them up and going. Then I bought a Practice Chanter and a copy of the College of Piping Tutor and I was away. Eventually my mate lost interest and I bought out his share.
Then another friend introduced me to a couple of pipers who drank in his dad’s pub, and I ended up in the Oxford pipe band. There I was mixing with these hardcore, heavy-drinking, middle-aged ex-Army guys. Farewell innocent youth!
This was in Oxford?
Yes, we moved down from Stockport when I was 5, when dad got a job in the car factory. I moved back up north when I was 18. I’m Lancashire and West Yorkshire, though apparently there are Borderers on both sides of the family, including Northumbrian Allans. I’ve often wondered if there’s a link to THE Allans, that would be something!
How long did you play the GHB?
About two years. In 1967 I moved to Leeds and got heavily into guitar - country blues, old-timey, bluegrass, western swing. The pipes simply fell off the plank, though I was still interested in British traditional music. I’ve always maintained a parallel involvement in British and American music.
By the late 70s I had pretty much lost interest in the guitar. By now I was  playing the whistle and mouth organ a lot and deep into English dance music. But really I wanted to play the fiddle. Eventually dad gave me £25 and told me to go and buy one….that would be in 1979 or 1980 when I was 30. That’s been my main instrument ever since.
So how did you start playing Border Pipes?
I first became aware of them in the 1960s during my GHB phase - long before you could just go buy a set! I was a regular visitor to the Pitt Rivers Museum bagpipe collection, and I read about them in books like Collinson’s Music of Scotland.
Throughout the 1970s it was always in the back of my mind that I’d love a set, but as far as I knew they were a historic instrument that only existed in museums and books. But I really liked the idea of a dance-centred, non-militaristic bagpipe that I could use to explore my growing interest in older styles of English and Scots music, and that would fit in with other acoustic instruments.
Sometime in the late 70s I got wind that Rab Wallace actually had a set, and that John Addison had made a set for Jean-Pierre Rasle. I remember meeting Jean-Pierre at Sidmouth festival and having a good drool over his pipes, but there was no way I could afford a set myself.
Then in 1982 I heard that Grainger & Campbell had started making them, and in spring 1983 I wrote off for a catalogue. They were listed at £350, way beyond my means. A few weeks later I saw a second-hand set advertised in Exchange & Mart for £250. I realized it was probably my only chance and sold a beautiful Victorian bookcase for £200. I phoned the guy up, he accepted the £200, and the rest, as they say, is history..…..the pipes were a freebie really as the bookcase hadn’t cost me a penny, I’d rescued it from the dump.
English piping: tell us about your time with Red Shift
Red Shift was started by Pete Coe in 1985. Initially it was Pete, Colin Wood, Pat and Jamie Knowles, and me…..then Pat and Jamie dropped out and Johnny Adams and George Faux came in. Pete’s idea was to combine a concert band, featuring his songs, with a dance band specializing in Northern English music. I had long been researching Northern English bagpipe and fiddle music so I was well up for the dance half of the project.

Red Shift, 1985

In England back then there was a lot of interest in Irish music, and a growing interest in southern English and Northumbrian music, but no one else was doing what we were doing, digging out music from all over northern England. We never got as deep into the oldest stuff as I’d have liked - the 3/2s and 6/4s - because as a working band we had to play what the dancers wanted, so it was  Jigs, Reels, Hornpipes, Polkas, Waltzes …basically the late 18th to 20th century repertoire.  
With the dance band we were developing a nice old-time style and repertoire with a proper old-time line up: button-box, pipes, cello, piano, and up to three fiddles. However, I wasn’t that interested in the concert/song side of things and quit when that started to become the main focus.
Lowland piping: how did you get into that?
Well, from the start I was into researching Lowland Scots bagpipe music as well. I felt you couldn’t really draw a line between Northern English and Lowland Scots music. It’s basically the same type of music with a large shared repertoire.
Funnily, it never, ever, crossed my mind to play the modern GHB repertoire on these pipes. I still don’t quite understand why more players don’t want to move beyond that repertoire, wonderful as it is. To me it’s logical to think “we’re reviving this old instrument - so what did the old pipers play, and how did they play it?”
I suppose at heart I’m an antiquarian, with more of an Early Music than a “Folk” approach. I have always been looking backwards: if I discover a form of music my first question is “where has this come from?” For example, I grew up on 50s Rock ‘n’ Roll which inevitably led me back to 1930s/40s Hillbilly, Blues, Jazz. It’s been the same with folk music: I’d hear Martin Carthy or the Corries and think “but where did they get this from?”, which would take me back to Harry Cox and Jeannie Robertson. I’ve spent my life discovering all sorts of fantastic and often forgotten music this way.
Tell us about the early days and the first competitions
I got my pipes in April 1983 and joined the LBPS in summer 83. I still remember the excitement of hitchhiking to my first meeting in Thirlestane Castle. It was a fantastic trip in beautiful summer weather. The final lift was with an Australian couple who played Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love album all the way: every time I hear it now it reminds me of driving through this gorgeous border scenery in brilliant sunshine, and ending up at this stunning border castle.
I attended meetings regularly for about two years and also entered and won the first three competitions in 1984, 85, and 86. The LBPS was busy compared to today: meetings were bi-monthly, well attended, and usually culminated in a pub session. I remember it as a wonderful period, with tremendous enthusiasm and energy in the Society - we were reviving these new-old instruments, discovering this new-old music, and of course we were all still fairly young.
 However, I’m afraid that even by the 1986 competition I wasn’t playing much anymore, and I pretty much stopped altogether when I quit Red Shift in February 87. It wasn’t that I lost interest, life just got in the way: work, family…and musically I was too busy as a fiddler. I simply didn’t have time to play the pipes, especially as there is neither money nor social life in playing 300 year old extended variation sets in 3/2 on a Bb instrument! It didn’t help that we’d moved  to a small inner-city flat where the kids could hardly run about without arousing the ire of the gangster living below, let alone dad play bagpipes.

Outside the School of Scottish Studies, with the Hamish Moore Cup, 1986 (courtesy of The West Highland Free Press, 6 June 1986)

After we moved to Hebden Bridge in 1994 I did make a few short-lived attempts to start playing again: for a couple of months in 1995, for about 6 months in 2004, and more seriously for about a year in 2000. But basically, apart from these three short interludes, I stopped playing in 1987 and didn’t start again till 2008. One of my greatest regrets, but that’s the way it is: life is short and there isn’t time for everything.
So how did your return to piping: come about?
It was around May 2008. It was my 59th birthday that triggered it, that sense of time slipping away ever faster and the arthritis getting ever worse. I realized that if I didn’t do it now I never would. To encourage myself I made a deliberate decision to buy a new set of pipes in A. My G&C pipes are in Bb so they’re difficult to play with other people, which obviously discouraged playing. Also, I reasoned that committing myself to spending £2000 that I didn’t actually have would help keep me focused. I opted for a Moore set in ebony and silver - a beautiful instrument, but I had to sell my soul on eBay to get it!
You’re the only person I’ve ever heard play George Skene’s music: how do you approach it?
Most of this period variation music is based on dance forms, so I try to approach it with a dance sensibility. Whether or not it was actually played for dancing seems to me irrelevant, though I think it probably was.  
I originally played all four of Skene’s “bagpipe” pieces but Gird the Cogie and Cauld Kail soon fell off the plank. I still regularly play Malcolm Kaird’s Come Again and Wat Ye What I got Late Yestreen , two beautifully crafted and fascinating pieces.
I love Wat Ye: it’s very ambiguous, it seems to hover somewhere between 6/8 and 6/4 and between A and  D tonality. Ultimately I’d say it is in A and 6/4, yet it keeps resolving on the D and it’s written with tied notes and based round classic 6/8 motifs. And I love the way it starts as a series of melodic variations with a few runs, and then suddenly mutates into two extraordinary division passages.
As for Malcolm Kaird, I’d interpret things like his note values and gracing symbols to mean Skene meant it to be played at a stately march pace with a lot of grip type movements, especially in the final part. However, I found I preferred doing it faster, with lots of birls and cranns - with more of a dance feel. It really jumps when played like this.
Tell us about your interests musically now.
As far as piping is concerned I’ve always been interested in the idea of the extended variation set. Long before I started playing I’d been smitten by Northumbrian pipe variations, so from the start I tended to hone in on the variation sets in Marsden, Riddell, Peacock etc.
When I started playing again I initially got very into Dixon, but for a while now my main interest has been the so-called “border pibroch”. Leyden and Collinson’s references to this “lost” music have always fascinated me. Even when I’d stopped playing I kept my eyes and ears open on the subject, and started noticing these pieces like Washington’s March,  Lancashire Pipes and Alisdruim’s March which seemed to be linked by similar structural ideas and recurring motifs, and which seemed to match Leyden’s criteria - extended bagpipe pieces that were not division sets; that would strike anyone educated in western art music as “wild” and “irregular” (Leyden’s description); that could be seen as “Gathering Tunes” or narrative pieces; and that paralleled Piobaireachd in certain ways as regards both structure and function.
I have several good examples now, and numerous simpler tunes that were probably once extended pieces. Most aren’t that obscure, I think people haven’t noticed them because they’ve been presuming a specifically Border music, whereas most of this material comes from everywhere else but - the best examples are from Lancashire, Munster, Aberdeenshire. In fact I suspect I’ve probably stumbled on the remains of a medieval art form that was at least pan-British Isles and probably pan-European, of which Highland Piobaireachd is the only serious survival. But wait for the article!..  
Thanks Paul, we look forward with keen interest to this article - hopefully in our next issue?