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report from Jim Gilchrist

Photos of:
ian MacInnes
Stuart Morison
Willie MacPhee
Sheila MacGregor
Ian MacGregor

The autumn fogs that made a damp squib of bonfire night failed to smoor the lowe of     music, colloquy and guid crack of this, the Society’s fourth Annual Collogue. As out of the mirk, members converged on the Duchess Anne rooms in the heart of this beautifully conserved village, ragged clouds were rolling off the autumn woods that clad the surrounding hills. There was a comfortable sense of being hemmed in, surrounded by corbie-stepped gables, hills and mist. but there was nothing parochial or insular about the day's proceedings, which ranged widely. Historically and geographically.

Unfortunately I arrived late, just catching the end of Andy Hunter's talk: happily it is being published in full in COMMON STOCK [June 1995.Ed] so I’ll leave off reporting on the final strands I caught. except to say it was good to hear him singing his fine song, The   Aboyne Games, with its concluding admonition: “But drunk or sober, never miscaa another gadgie’s pipes ...”

History caught up with Andy, in a manner of speaking, when he was followed by old Willie MacPhee, Sheila MacGregor and her son Ian, who gave the Collogue a fascinating glimpse into the rich traditions of the traveller folk. Willie had been present at the post-games pub fracas, back in the Sixties, which prompted Andy to write the song, and was able to give his own version of the story - “Aye, it was quite a scene right enough.”

Although she’s renowned as a singer and can’t play the pipes, even Sheila cut her teeth on a chanter, she said. While Willie stressed that he and his peers were all taught piping orally, using cantaireachd, as Willie put it “tae get intae your noddle”, and there was discussion and demonstration of cantaireachd and how it could vary from family to family. Sheila sang with characteristic power, accompanied by her son on mouth-blown small pipes that he’d made himself, although she said that singing with pipes was something she’d done only comparatively recently.

Willie referred to his old set of chamber pipes (with a beautifully mellow old set of

Henderson drones) as “miniatures” and further discussion on terminology produced the less complimentary term “bumbee pipes...aye bizzin”! Asked what made good piping, Sheila delivered a sly broadside against current trends by commenting: “Guid clear, crystal notes, wi’ nae chewing gum on the fingers...and nae slides frae one note tae anither!”

Hamish Moore had re-titled his talk on Cape Breton piping styles and their relationship with dancing to simply An Older Style of Piping. He wanted, he said, simply to show that there had been a very valid style of piping which had not been military based: “I’m not ramming it down people’s throats as the only way we should be going.” He read a long list of pipers who were among the masses who emigrated to Nova Scotia in the 18th century and, playing tapes of Cape Breton musicians and others in Scotland who were carrying on styles untainted by “establishment” approach, he put forward the persuasive argument - encapsulated in his current record Stepping on the Bridge - that Scottish piping, for dancing at any rate, was once played in a far more exuberant and forceful manner than we have hitherto been led to believe by the champions of the restrained “march, strathspey and reel” school.

What happens when four pipers of grade-one band ability get their mitts on small pipes was forcefully demonstrated by the quartet Sciddlebreeze, all former Vale of Atholl players, who opened their performance with a wildly birling set of Bulgarian tunes. This entertaining concert ranged blithely through Breton tunes, some memorable jigs, the statutory M, S & R, even a cheerful snatch of Handel. The level of expertise, naturally, was impressive and   generally exciting. Occasionally, however, I felt I was simply hearing a pipe band which had switched to small pipes, although in at least one number, a Breton tune, there were some lovely harmonies, and it is in the area of harmonies, I think, that a small pipe           ensemble such as this has much to explore. Talking to one of the group later, I suspect they would agree.

If Sciddlebreeze represented the young Turks of the Perthshire piping scene, Duncan MacDiarmid, a member of the Atholl Highlanders since the 1950s, could be said to be one of the old guard, particularly through his lineage from the MacDougalls of Aberfeldy, pipers and pipe makers of renown. He had with him a set of Highland pipes made by his granduncle, Duncan MacDougall, before 1890, and he talked about his considerable research on the family, tracing MacDougall bagpipes back to 1700 and enlightening us on what was far more than a family of pipe-makers, but a piping institution, with distinguished players and composers.

Getting back to cauld-wind piping, Jock Duncan of Pitlochry, originally from New Byth in Aberdeenshire, talked about Francie Markis, the celebrated North-east athlete, strong man, buffoon and musician, who as well as the fiddle and cello, was well known for his Lowland pipes playing [See Common Stock Vols 4 & 5. Ed].

Unfortunately Jock wasn’t able to throw any light on the redoubtable Francie’s repertoire. However he evoked a forgotten North-east world of meal-and-ales and formidable characters such as Francie and another musician Joseph Sim, “The Wonderful Boy”, and famous feats of strength - the only race Francie ever lost was apparently against a train... All of this was delivered with infectious enthusiasm and affection, which with Jock’s broad Doric made it a pleasure to listen to,

Finishing the day’s events, the trio Smalltalk gave an impressively accomplished performance, with Iain MacInnes’s small pipes and Stuart Morison’s fiddle providing an extremely tight melodic line, backed by Billy Ross’s guitar or Appalachian dulcimer, Ross, of course, is a fine singer, in Lowland Scots or Gaelic, and included here Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s lovely Cumbha Cotre A’Chcathaich - “the lament for the misty corrie”. In view of the event, this was mainly the instrumental set, particularly featuring pipe tunes, although at the end Stuart shone with a lovely Niel Gow air on fiddle. Other highlights included Iain’s     delightfully convoluted version of Highland Laddie and a French-Canadian set that had the small pipes and fiddle fairly louping along together. I was unable to stay for the ceilidh in the Atholl Arms, although by all accounts it was a memorable night, if that isn’t too         inappropriate a term under the circumstances. Possibly if anyone can remember the proceedings accurately enough, they’ll do a supplementary report on it.

Hamish Moore is to be congratulated on organising this collogue, which didn’t really have a weak moment. If it ventured into Highland piping territory rather than cauld-wind piping, in doing so, it put a good few things into perspective, and it was good to see what’s happening to the now hugely popular small pipes. Much thanks also to our sponsors, particularly Strathmore Water, whose excellent product was, I suspect, being severely whisky’d down by the end of the evening.

Thanks also to the Bank of Scotland, Perth and Kinross District Council and the Scottish Arts Council.