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David Fraser

At the 1996 Concert and Collogue, some things came full circle for me and I decided it might be worth darkening the pages of COMMON STOCK with my thoughts. If you find some of what I say thought-provoking then I will have achieved my aim. If stray into inaccuracy then I am sure you will let me know!

I write from the perspective of listening and playing rather than technical or historical detail and also as one who considers music to be about enjoyment and participation. What follows is my reflection on three years’ involvement with the Society set against a background of fairly broad knowledge of Scottish music and witness to our Chairman, Hamish Moore’s crusade, if that is the word, to help us all rediscover our piping heritage.

The Society is, rightly, a broad church and confronts a number of issues. One is how and to what extent to promote ‘Border’ piping. It seems to me there are two aspects to this: Firstly, promoting the Border pipes as an instrument, and secondly, encouraging Border piping as a style of playing and a repertoire of tunes.

As with the Scottish smallpipes before, the popularity with the Border instrument has been boosted by its adoption by a number of ‘Highland’ pipers for public performance. I think we should be pragmatic and continue to rely on this to bring the instrument itself to the attention of the pipe buying public.

Fostering the repertoire and style regarded as ‘Border’ is more difficult. Recently, Matt   Seattle has made a major contribution in reviving the Dixon Manuscript. I feel the rest of us could usefully invest more time in exploring this music and give it more of a chance. It may be some time before we discover its full appeal since we lack the benefit of a direct aural inheritance. Like many others, I suspect, I find the collection inaccessible, but I have faith that patience will be rewarded. After all, some Highland tunes pass by our eyes or ears many times without connecting before they suddenly make an impact and we go on about what ‘great tunes’ they are.

What is a Border’ tune anyway? Personally I doubt we can be at all certain about this. Ignorantly perhaps, I had assumed “The High Road to Linton” was of Border origin until I heard it sung with Gaelic words at the Ceolas in South Uist. Fred Morrison insisted the tune was Hebridean.

Given the antiquity of some tunes, can we really be certain where they originated? There seems to have been more interchange among musicians in past centuries than we perhaps imagine (1). Just because early musicians did not have the motor car, does not mean they did not travel - on the contrary, it seems they went on tour rather a lot, albeit in a slower and more lingering manner!

Over the Collogue weekend, I was reminded, not for the first time, how much more rewarding and useful it is to encourage the positive than to denigrate the negative. Two guests of mine at the Concert, who had no predispositions other than a broad knowledge and liking for Scottish music, felt that John MacLean ‘stole the show’. Hearing their views, I could set the link to Cape Breton in context for them, merely by pointing out that John’s style, with its relationship to step-dancing, is exactly what Hamish is trying to encourage.

John is directly descended from early 19th century emigrants from the Outer Hebrides and Hamish reports that his playing is highly regarded by the ordinary people in the community back home - a discerning audience. John himself later expressed to me his uncertainty that his Cape Breton style playing would be well received in the concert. I did my best to impress on him that what he was doing was of great importance to piping in Scotland and elsewhere. The combination of John’s reticence and my guests’ enjoyment of his playing really brought home to me the significance of the threshold at which we stand. The link to our own piping past through John and the very few others like him is incredibly precious and could easily be lost. The sweep of outside influences through Cape Breton means that our own past is not going to be there for us to tap into for much longer.

At the Society’s AGM, some reservations were expressed about the predominance of Highland piping at the Concert, but it seems to me that in the case of John MacLean, in particular, the effect is to bring Highland piping back towards the styles the Society would consider more its own i.e. Border. If the Society happens to be in a position to rescue long-lost piping culture surely it should not duck the opportunity. Sales of the CD from last year’s concert at 500 per month represents both proof of the pudding and a tremendous opportunity to influence the piping world and beyond. I wish we had heard more of John playing over the weekend.

Part of the message Hamish has brought back from Cape Breton is the need to reconsider the arrangements of the tunes we play. Hearing the conventional arrangements challenged comes as something of a shock if, like me, you grew up with band piping. My own convictions about the unreliability about ‘standard settings’ and the detrimental effect of competition on the musicality of some tunes came in learning ‘The Ale is Dear’ (Lady Margaret Stewart’) from the Scots Guards Book. Playing from the given setting, I just could not achieve the musical effect I had heard others obtain until I remembered that Hamish had been going on about ‘tachums’ and the way they often distort a tune. When I listened more carefully (another lesson) there indeed was the explanation - changing the ‘tachum’ in the first, third and fifth bars of the second part in the Guards (back) to a simple run completely changes the character of the whole tune.

Reproduced below is the setting from the Scots Guards and (with his permission) the       traditional arrangement Hamish has recorded on ‘Stepping on the Bridge’.

There are other changes to the ones I have described, but it is by far the most significant, in my opinion, apart from the simplified ornamentation. Personally I have become very aware of how ornamentation can use up valuable ‘note-time’ which you really need to savour to bring a tune out, and not just in reels. The temptation to put in all those hard-learned movements can be hard to resist but the result is often a tuneless clutter.

Paradoxically, I find that fiddle music is often the best guide to playing pipe tunes in a more musical and, arguably, traditional way. Before I start to learn a new pipe tune, I now compare the pipe music with a fiddle version if I can. I am not embarrassed by that. Of the three media, pipes fiddle and song. the fiddle seems to have been least affected by competition and other “improvement” and has strayed the least distance from the original social and community style. For example, ‘John Morrison of Assynt House’ is thoroughly enjoyable on

Dr Angus MacDonald and Gordon Duncan’s respective pipe recordings but listen to the Cape Breton fiddler, Buddy MacMaster playing it on his album Glencoe Hall for a much more invigorating experience altogether. What a groove!

Creating the urge to dance is the key, in my view, but playing for dancing at ceilidhs is                   territory generally occupied by accordion players these days. Personally, I feel pipers have something to learn from their musicianship, even though the accordion is often regarded with some disdain by pipers as an upstart modern instrument that has raided the piping   repertoire.

Many accordion players quite reasonably wish to earn some cash, but only Phil Cunningham and a few others are paid just to play. The majority have to play for dancing and, therefore, strive to play with swing (or ‘lift’ as they call it). Are these not the forces that drove pipers before the 19th century?

Prior to the Victorian era, pipers were, it seems, most professional (1,2) and to earn a living, they, like the modern dance band, had to play for entertainment, mostly in the form of dancing. It is my belief that the musical style that fulfils this purpose has essentially stayed the same throughout the centuries despite the change in the instruments used.

For clues to how pipe music used to be played we should note what gets people up to dance nowadays. I am thinking here of informal ceilidhs and step dancing rather than the rarified and the     relatively modern Scottish Country Dancing, especially when it comes to     Strathspeys which have been slowed down greatly in recent times (3).

However, having said that, we must recognise a debt to both the British Army and Scottish Country Dancing for keeping aspects of our culture alive. Personally, I must admit to great memories of playing in a pipe band and a special thrill and emotion on hearing one. In     reflecting on ‘standard’ settings, we should also note that the military’s requirements of its music are somewhat different from ours (usually!).

So, to conclude, if we find that to make our Highland piping more musical, we should     simplify our arrangements and be sparing and relaxed about our ornamentation, do we not end up with a style not that different from what is considered Border? If anyone can see a clear difference I would be grateful if they would explain it to me.

Are we not back where our forebears started with pipes (of any type) played in a manner designed for the entertainment of the ordinary listener, as I would suggest they always have been, barring an interval of the last 150 years or so when the need to demonstrate technique supplanted enjoyment and participation by the listener as the ultimate goal?



1. Purser, John

Scotland’s Music

Mainstream, Edinburgh, 1992

2. Seattle, Matt

The Master Piper

Dragonfly Music, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, 1995

3. Footnote to the write-up on Joan Flett’s talk at the Galashiels Collogue

Common Stock, Vol. 11, No. 1, June 1996, p.6