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Vicki Swan wrote saying that although good smallpipe teaching is hard to come by, the course on Skye was not well attended. Perhaps her description of fringe activities coupled with good tuition will encourage others to pack up their pipes and head for that lovely                     island next summer......

Having been so fired up with enthusiasm for the smallpipes at the Melrose weekend in April (and persuaded to part with lots of money for new sets of both Border and small pipes), I couldn’t wait to go up to the Isle of Skye for the five day course at Sabhal Mor Ostaig run by Davie Taylor.

After the long 700 mile drive up from London, the college was a welcome sight (and thankfully easy to find, being only a two minute drive from the ferry at Armadale). Sabhal Mor Ostaig started off life as a barn and subsequent conversion along with extra building has created a very pleasant and well equipped college (with its own website). The accommodation is very nice with each room having en suite facilities, a fridge, sink and microwave. The canteen created interesting and succulent meals which everybody wolfed down after a hard day’ piping.

Although the number of people on the smallpipe course was small, there were a large number of Highland pipers and a number of Gaelic students, so the college was by no means empty. Enough of the small talk, let’s get down to the sordid tale of music, midnight crack and rain.

The three diligent smallpipe students consisted of myself, (Vicki), Dr David and Dick. (The names have been cleverly disguised to preserve anonymity). The first evening immediately put Davie’s skills to the test. Dick had recently purchased a set of small pipes in A (from a pipemaker who shall remain anonymous). Although the pipes themselves were nearly good enough to be called firewood, the bellows were so atrocious that two days previously he had to make a pair himself. It is testament to Davie’s skills that he managed to season and get working this makeshift instrument, nightmare number 1 of our illustrious teacher. Nightmare number 2 asserted itself as I sat down with a “Yes you do want to hear

me sight-read Clumsy Lover’ don’t you!”                                                                                            

“Oh no” thinks Davie “Clumsy Lover is even harder than Moving Cloud” followed by a swift exit to the pub for a stiff dram [See Davie’s Article in COMMON STOCK Vol 12 No.1].

The first day’s teaching saw Davie split us individually and assess our needs and abilities. It soon became clear that I needed technical exercises, Dr David wanted tunes with high B’s in them and Dick needed a new set of pipes.

Each day was split up into early morning “learning by ear”, midday tune bashing and

afternoon individual work, (scales in my case, well I asked for them so it was my own fault!). By tea time we were all exhausted, but still, for some reason, all diligently practised before setting off down to the local hostelry in Armadale for some informal tuition. The posters round the college stated that a young fiddler, Farquhar, would be playing, so we traipsed down the mile or so to the pub with our instruments for a bit of a crack. The evening was uproarious. Farquhar played so fast that Davie could hardly keep up, I gained a blister on my bodhran finger and Dick just grinned. Dr David later in the evening admitted that he’d never been to a pub session before and that he was in a real quandary whether or not to tell his wife! It surprised us all that Frank, a Canadian Gaelic student, had a super singing voice and he treated us to several superbly intoned traditional songs.

The rest of the week followed in more or less the same vein with Davie skilfully manipulating and increasing our knowledge and repertoire during the day and then letting rip in the evening at Marion’s pub. Each night one person dutifully drove the instruments (and less hardy individuals) to the pub, whilst everybody else walked. I’m not sure that the Highland pipe teachers approved of the smallpipe posse going for extra tuition at the pub. They glared most disdainfully out of the hall where they were still teaching in the evening, or maybe they were just envious!

Although we were there to learn the pipes during the day, the social aspect of our walk to the pub and the subsequent crack became just as important. We learned more in the evening about how the smallpipes can be used to combine with other instruments in the session playing than any normal lesson could have done.

The last night gave us a chance to combine a couple of sets with smallpipes, flute, fiddle and bodhran, putting the smallpipes into a session context, showing the more cynical Highland pipers what smallpiping is all about. We were very lucky to have a fabulous fiddler, Karen, to play with us (er, but her last name now eludes me, but she was a very good fiddler, though not quite as good looking as Farquhar, although Dick might not agree with me there...). However as soon as the last Highland pipe note had finished ringing in our ears the smallpipe mob were straight down the road for some more whisky and crack.

At 2 o'clock in the morning after some more fast furious playing from Farquhar, and with enough whisky sloshing inside us, Frank persuaded us to give a rendition of Hector the Hero. With pipes, flute and fiddle all in harmony the resulting tune was so moving and poignant that the instruments were all packed away and a move made for home. We had to drag a moaning Davie “But I’m in a groove, I want to play all night” and his still sounding pipes into the car, rescuing him in the process from the promise of a power breakfast from the landlady.

The following morning we all said some very fond and sad farewells along with promises to return again next year for some more expert tuition and fabulous crack.....