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On September 17, several members of the committee made their way to Arbroath Abbey to mark the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. Readers will recall that the Society had originally planned to mark this milestone in Scotland’s history by inviting half a dozen professional pipers to play in a one-off winner-take-all contest to be held at the end of our annual competition in March.
Alas, as we all know too well, this had to be cancelled due to the corona virus pandemic.
As we entered summer, it looked likely that this major milestone would pass unmarked. However, Pete Stewart, editor of this journal, had composed a tune for the anniversary – see the previous edition of Common Stock – and the thought occurred to us that we could simply perform his tune at the place the document was actually written all those centuries ago.
We obtained permission from Historic Environment Scotland (HES), the quango that cares for and promotes the 12th century Abbey in the county of Angus. Apparently, we were the only pipers or piping organisation allowed to play at any of their properties this year. All others had been refused and the reason we were allowed was because our instruments are bellows blown, thus no issues with aerosol transmission. We were, however, asked to provide a Risk Assessment and take out public liability insurance. HES also asked us to maintain the latest Scottish Government rules and guidelines. HES staff at the Abbey were very helpful on the day and our thanks go to them.

On the day itself, we were lucky to enjoy superb weather conditions. The skies were blue and the temperature warm. Bill Bennett and I had arranged to pick up Dundee-based Scott Campbell, a snare drummer with the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band, on the way. Scott would add sympathetic beatings to Pete’s tune by using an old rope tension drum.
Arbroath looked splendid as we drove through it in the late morning sunshine. Once inside the beautiful Abbey grounds, we maintained the official social distance guidelines, masks at the ready. We had a run through Pete’s tune while Stirling-based film-maker Alan McMaster prepared his recording equipment. The idea was to first of all capture footage of us playing the tune and then to record the sound separately with a view to Alan then placing the recording ‘on top’ of the footage. This would be interspersed with a reading, in Scots, of the Declaration itself. The well known Scottish broadcaster, Ally Heather lives locally and he had agreed to do this. The finished video will be available on the website.
We had a fairly tight schedule and Alan wasted no time in capturing the necessary footage. It gave us all a few attempts to perfect the tune as well and the acoustics bouncing off the Abbey’s mediaeval walls were a joy.
Then, while Alan and Ally remained inside the Abbey recording the Declaration reading, we pipers had time to relocate around the corner to the public park to run through the tune a few times before Alan was ready to record us. As you will hear on the footage, Ally was quite superb and we thank him for his contribution. After a clumsy first take we nailed it at the second attempt – to a round of applause from dog-walkers in the park! A few more film snippets for Alan and we were done. Time to head home … but not before three of us stopped off at a local fishmonger for one of the town’s famed delicacies, a pair of smokies** each for the road!

Stuart Letford.

** A ‘pair of smokies’ is two salt-dried haddock that have been smoked by tying their tail ends together and then hanging them over sticks. A ‘smokie pit’ is prepared by setting a half whisky barrel into the ground. The base of the barrel is lined with slates to protect it, and a hardwood fire of beech and oak is lit inside. It’s a method of smoking going back to the 1800s and originated in a small fishing village a few miles north of Arbroath. Delicious!