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ANDY HUNTER, who features on this issue's cover, takes a personal look at the changing face of piping in Scotland today...and leaves us with a warning.

SEVERAL articles in last year's Piping Times make extremely interesting reading. Both editorials and feature "articles" display preoccupation with  he state of piping (Highland) in Scotland and the world. It is obvious that the piping establishment is seriously concerned about some recent innovations in technique and interpretation which have been introduced by certain pipe-bands (to be expected) and certain professional soloists (to be deplored). The worst feature of all is that the bands are receiving public acclaim beyond the serried ranks of the RSPBA, and are therefore coming under the influence of the worst possible taste, while gold-medal-winning young soloists are participating in lower forms of Scottish music (i.e. folk bands). Add to this that the fact that leading pipers have recently lent themselves to “competitions" where the stated aim is to "entertain", and you have the worst possible scenario of the decline and fall of the great Highland war pipe.

It is interesting to consider the arguments being advanced, both for and against innovation, as they are stated in Scotland's only magazine devoted to the solo piper, if only that the Lowland and Borders Pipers Society finds itself in exactly the opposite position. Perhaps we can learn from the predicament of our friends and fellow-pipers in Otago Street, especially when we feel tempted to lay down ground-rules about such nebulous things as "the Lowland tradition", style, gracing, innovation and development etc.

Seumas MacNeill in the edition of August 1986 points to the beginning of the rot when the Highland pipe emerged from its Gaelic speaking homeland some two hundred years since. This was indeed the end of a golden age:

"If we use the term ‘'‘piper' to denote only a player of the Highland bagpipe, then every piper at that time was a Gaelic speaker, and every one of them played piobaireachd." Contact with the outside world brought the little music, but this in itself was not a bad thing:

“This expansion of the repertoire, and the fact that the music is played by those whose language is not that of the garden of Eden, do not in themselves inflict any serious damage on the culture of the bagpipe. The scale has remained the same, the range and volume of the instrument is little altered, the Highlands have lost nothing and the rest of the world has gained a great deal.”

There are enough assertions being made here to fill several volumes of Common Stock, and some attempt will be made to place these comments in the context of the living tradition of Scottish music, but of more immediate interest to our members will be the following remark which puts us fairly and squarely in our place:
“The Highland bagpipe has remained Supreme among the family of bagpipes, purely because it has not altered where it alteration found, and so is neither a museum piece nor a minority activity tacked on to shawms, flutes and fiddles. It remains the noblest of instruments, with a historic lineage, the proud boast of our country, unique, unchanging and unyielding."
There is worse to come:

"There is, in Scotland at least, a move to class our instrument along with guitars, fiddles, accordians - and anything else which can produce what is called the "traditional music of Scotland". True, ours is also traditional music, but on such a higher level that to be classed along with fiddlers and whistlers - many with little or no formal instruction ~ is a slur to ceol mor and to the men who have given up years of their lives to the meticulous training which this discipline requires."

I think you will agree that seumas has probably said enough. Let us examine the origin of some of these extraordinary ideas and at the same time, attempt to define some of the motivation which has brought about the revival of the bellows-driven, common stock pipe in Scotland today.

It is true that the Gaelic language had a lot to do with the sustenance of a Highland piping tradition, but not quite in the simplistic way that Seumas implies; the language was important in that it was the vehicle of song which in turn fed and fed off pipe music (and, incidentally, fiddle music). Language was important too because it was part of the bricks and mortar of the whole way of life of the Highlands which also sustained the musical traditions of that culture.

There is a strong assertion that despite the displacement of the Highland pipe (and the destruction of Highland society as it was then known), piping had continued to do very well under the careful supervision of the initiated. This could be looked at in another way; after all, it is not unreasonable to state that the Great Music, for example, had been embalmed for posterity by the Piobreachd Society using a similar petrifying process to that employed by the Scottish Country Dance Society as it went about the country disinheriting the people of Scotland and signing over our  considerable treasures to a petty bourgeoisie intent on raising the national art forms to something more than peasant carousing and therefore worthy of its patronage.
Scotland abounds with such examples of hidebound narrow cultural sectarianism. Is it not the case that the self-appointed body which claims to uphold the standards of the Highland tradition of dancing has only recently set its face against accepting the newly revived (from authentic sources) Outer Hebridean step-dances, because they do not fit into the standard scheme of things?

How did such a situation arise and survive to become so important to modern Scotland? The answer is no doubt a complicated one and Seumas supplies part of the answer when he points to the disintegration of the Gaelic culture; it is partial only because the same process of rapid social and economic change was taking place at the same time in the rest of Scotland, when large numbers of our people gathered in the industrial heartlands, leaving the countryside in large numbers. This process of depopulation of the country areas has received near fatal blows in the mechanisation of farming which has destroyed the natural communities which created song and made instrumental music as well as dancing. Ever since the founding of the British Empire and the nineteenth century nation state of Great Britain, the Scots have been indulging in role playing for their own benefit and that of the greater national community. Piping was essential to the British army and the British army was essential to pipers who wished to make a career out of their musical ability; there was a price to pay and that was the militarisation of our national music. Standardisation became the order of the day; standard settings, standard styles, standard teaching, standard instruments, and standard fingering.

Perhaps it is altogether too much to lay this at the door of the military establishment, since after all, an equally constricting civilian establishment was also beginning to set itself up, but as an extension of the other. Yet it could be said that the military had succeeded in providing a total environment which re-created a living role for the pipes.

Pipes for waking, pipes for eating, pipes for parading, pipes for advancing, pipes for retreating and pipes for dying; all of human life (and death) is here. Seumas and those who support his stance on the maintenance of values, represent, at one level, merely the civilian extension of this mentality.

Within the pages of his own journal, there are signs that the rot is spreading. The tradition of Kitchen piping competitions in Rosyth established by that indefatigable champion of enjoyable piping, Neil Cameron, is viewed with some envy by contributers (c.f. the article by Andrew Berthoff in the 1986 December issue of Piping Times). Nearer home, a wistful comment upon how enjoyable and relaxed the LBPS's own competition can be is even more ironic:

“What of the competition itself? It is the antithesis of a competition for the Highland pipe. There is a relaxed informal atmosphere. The competitors announce their tunes, some of which are their own composition or arrangements. Most of the instruments have been pretuned so that the performance commences without further ado. The judges are invisible.

"Since there is freedom to choose their tunes and freedom to express them, the audience is hearing many of the compositions for the first time. No one feels constrained to say, ‘I was taught to play the second line with an emphasis on the E.' The corporate intake of breath which accompanies a choke lasting a split second had no place in the Lowland Brigade."

World literature abounds with examples of expressions of civilisations under threat, in which a few, but totally dedicated heroes undertake, come what may, to uphold the old values. These themes which are as old as the first records of creative writing, also assume the existence and disappearance of a golden age; it is at this point we return to our Great Highland Pipers, and in a sense, to the rest of Scottish culture at the present time. By some miracle, Scottish people have continued to make music which brings them indescribable joy; Scottish people have continued to dance with the vitality and grace of true corporeal expression. Pipe bands have broken away from the military carapace and solo pipers, eager to enter into contact with a real and vibrant public (as distinct from a panel of judges eliminating by mistake...usually grace notes), have joined folk groups ...folk groups which have learned a great deal from them and who in turn, have restored the organic links between the branches of “the national music of Scotland". These are exciting and stirring times; it is only ironic that while we are rescuing our instruments from the museums, the sterile brand of "scientific" piping is heading straight for the catalogue room.

But let us not be complacent. There is reason to believe that, unless we take very conscious steps to do otherwise, our society could fall into the same trap.