page 7

page 8

page 9


Iain Macinnes is a well kent voice to listeners of Radio Scotland. This time, though, he is on the other side of the microphone (his own, as it happens; mine refused to function) talking to Jock Agnew. He has played his pipes on “Land of Light”, “Dancing Feet”, “Cullen Bay” (all with Tannahill Weavers); “Smalltalk” (with Smalltalk); “The Grand Concert of Scottish Piping” (Greentrax Recordings, see COMMON STOCK Vol 11 No 2); “The Carrying Stream” (Ossian).


JOCK: Something about yourself, first. You started I think with the Highland pipes?

IAIN: That’s quite right, yes, I learned Highland piping at school. I was very lucky to go to a school, Glenalmond in Perthshire, that had a strong Highland piping tradition. People like Duncan MacGilvary had learned the pipes there. A very good instructor, Jimmy MacGregor who’d been one of the Queen’s pipers at Balmoral and came out of that with a really strong Piobaireachd tradition.

Then you became involved with the Tannahill Weavers. Was that Highland pipes - when did you become involved with the smallpipes?

I joined the band in 1985. But I think in 1982 I bought a set of Colin Ross smallpipes, and they were pretty new on the scene at that point. If you recall that was the year of the first competition run by the LBPS. Colin made me a nice set in A, and a nice set in Bb. So I mainly played the Highland pipes with the Tannahills but we did in fact use the small pipes on 3 or 4 tracks over the three albums that I made with them, mainly as accompaniment to songs. 

And you've been involved in other bands?

Well I left the Tannys in 1990 to complete a post graduate degree I had started at the School of Scottish studies. I finished that off - that was an M Lit. It started off as a Doctorate, actually, but then I went on the road and we made it into a two-year degree. I was looking at piping history in Scotland in the sort of late Georgian period. Once I'd written that up I started working for the BBC, but after a couple of years I thought I might as well keep playing, and we put a trio together called Smalltalk. That was Stuart Morrison, fiddler; Willy Ross, singer and myself. We made a CD in about '95. Then Billy Jackson joined us a couple of years ago, and last September we put out an album with that line-up as Ossian rather than Smalltalk. That’s where things stand at the moment.

You're still playing smallpipes then?

Well actually that’s all I play now with the group, though we did have an Ossian reunion in January where we had two sets of Highland pipes going and it was a great feeling. I’ve stuck with the smallpipes mainly for the convenience of it really. I’ve had to get a slightly louder set - I used to play a Colin Ross Set; I’ve now gone for one of Hamish’s sets just so we can more or less play acoustic. We’re not at all badly balanced. There is a basic acoustic sound there that is internally balanced. When we put it through a PA system all we are really doing is amplifying a sound that is already there. We’re not sort of creating a new sound in the mix.

Yes, I want to talk about PA systems and mixing in a minute, but first of all, if you were to choose a new set of pipes; what key would you go for?

Well we've been playing in ‘D’ actually, since the word go. That was mainly because of the pipes available then. The choice was playing smallpipes in A or D, those were the only two practical options. We went for D because the fiddle can play down to ‘D’ and you're playing in the same octave range. If you’re playing an ‘A’ smallpipe the pipe is an octave below the fiddle and you don’t get that nice tight sound that’s so characteristic of say uilleann pipes playing with fiddles and flutes and that sort of thing. So the bottom hand of the ‘D’ chanter is the same as - well the entire range of the ‘D’ chanter if you like is the same as the bottom hand of the uilleann pipes, and it’s quite a sweet sound.

Do you ever have problems with the tightness of the fingering, because the ‘D’ chanter tends to be a wee bit close on the fingering?

No, it suits me very well. I’ve got very small fingers. My concession was to play the chanter with the top joint, the top digit if you like, of each finger rather than the middle joint as we do in the Highland piping tradition - which is quite rigorously drummed into you. But other than that I’ve not had any bother. I’ve changed the gracing I use - without thinking about it, but it does change. I’ll play the same tune on the Highland pipes quite differently than I do on the ‘D’ set of smallpipes.

Could you expand on that a bit more; about the gracing.

Well I suppose the most obvious thing is the fact that its a cylindrical bore, isn’t it. So on  the Highland pipe you have a really strong bottom hand, the top hand is weaker. On the smallpipes it is pretty well balanced all the way up, but grace notes played on the top hand sound very strong. And using the throws, burls, tachums - all these heavy gracings that you use on the Highland pipes simply sound cluttered, and I don’t think suit the smaller instrument at all. I do regard it as a totally different instrument really, and I think it is perfectly legitimate and indeed sensible to change just the way you embellish tunes - I don’t think there is any problem with that. I think it is pretty necessary.

That brings me on now to the tuning of the pipes. Obviously you have to be in tune with the other instruments. What problems and solutions have you had on that side of it?

Well smallpipes have been a bit of a boon, actually, especially with the Tannahills who are used to the problems of tuning Highland pipes. My single piece of advice to anyone wanting to play with a group is to buy a guitar tuner, or a tuner. You can spend all day setting up your chanter, but if you don’t have the faintest idea where it is sitting in relative pitch then you are wasting your time. 1 don’t personally use the tuner for tuning individual notes, it’s just to get the overall pitch of the chanter. If you know you’re sharp or flat, that’s OK, you can let everyone know where you are sitting pitch-wise. When it comes to tuning of intervals between notes I have found quite a big difference since we started playing with the harp in the band. Just playing with the fiddle was fine, we simply came to an agreement on where the notes sat without thinking about it. Once the harp was in there and was playing melodies then it was more complicated. Of course the harp CAN re-tune, but once it starts moving its intervals then it starts sounding pretty strange so, when I’m playing with the harp I sort of move with a bit of difficulty towards a pretty even tempered harp scale. If I’m not playing with it for a while I find I’m moving my tape back to a much more Highland sounding scale which I know people like the Goodacre Brothers find quite strange but which sounds perfectly natural to me - and particularly of course the very flat seventh note.

I was going to ask you about the flattened seventh. Do you have any problems with that at all - in the band I mean.

Not really. I think it is very much part of a Highland sound. I tend to play that note flattish anyway. Also on the ‘D’ chanter I play the ‘B’, in other words the third top note, fairly flat. And I’m always trying to haul that up, sharpen it up a bit when I’m playing with other people. It depends who you are playing with, and what sort of instrument you are playing with.  other people. It depends who you are playing with, and what sort of instrument you are playing with. If you’re playing with fixed reed instruments like concertinas and so on, which I’ve never done, but once you're in that situation I imagine you need to look at it much more carefully and move your tuning quite a lot.

Yes. You mentioned the harp possibly moving its tuning during the course of a gig. What about the pipes themselves moving their tuning; the drone reeds and the chanter reed.

It’s a problem, isn’t it. And of course stringed instruments go flat as you are going sharp. But if you’re playing with experienced musicians you can work with that. Also the thing to remember is if you are playing in a concert setting you are not sitting playing the pipes all the time and you'll be playing other instruments, possibly; whistles or whatever. Play at home and the pipes shift quite a lot - they sharpen up and hit a pitch. I tend to leave them at a lower pitch when I’m performing and I don’t bother going in for fine

tuning because there’s no point if you are just playing for five minutes, putting them down and playing them again for five minutes some fifteen minutes later. And I used to do that for Highland pipes as well and you just need to have your instrument set up so it operates that way. It doesn’t always work, unfortunately.

Moving on a bit, the tunes that you play in your band. how do you go about selecting them. Is it a sort of mutual thing, or does one of you decide what is going to happen - how does it work?

Well in our particular set-up, Stuart the fiddler and myself tend to look for certain types of tunes, that suit the pipes and the fiddle, basically. So they are pipe tunes, but some of them will be freshly composed, some of them will be adapted from the fiddle settings. Since I’m not one of the great whistle players, I mean I do play tunes on the whistle but I prefer to play the pipes quite honestly, so we don’t play many tunes out with the pipe scale. Now, of course, Billy's brought in a sort of repertoire of harp pieces of his own composing - and also Scottish traditional harp tunes - which have a pretty big range and tend to incorporate more funny notes! So I don’t even attempt to play them on the pipes. They’re very much for the whistle.

Mixing; you mentioned mixing a little bit earlier and the PA system and so on. Do you always play with a PA system?

No. And in fact we are quite fortunate in that the sound we’ve got lends itself very nicely to a small acoustic balance. I think we are quite an easy Band to mix, actually, compared to the Tannahills or the Battlefield Band or anyone using Highland pipes. Then it’s going to be a pretty complicated mix, because you need to use the mix to create a balanced sound. Whereas in our case all we are doing is simply amplifying the sound that is there already.

But of course you lose out on the sort of raw energy and power that you can get out of  Highland pipes. And Highland pipes have quite a different effect on an audience than smallpipes do, so it’s really a question of deciding what sort of band you want to be.

And finally the future. How do you think you are going to move ahead with other work, other tunes and so on?

Well in the next couple of months I’m going to go back to working part time, freelance. I've been a staff producer at the BBC for a few years now and that pretty well occupies all my time. One thing I am doing this weekend is playing with a fiddler called Mairi Campbell; we’ve put together a couple of sets. She’s got some nice Cape Breton tunes that we’re      trying, and that’s quite a different style of playing to me. And she comes from an unusual background. She’s actually a classically trained musician but with an enormous wealth of knowledge of traditional music. She’s got some nice ideas for harmonies and that sort of thing which fiddlers can do.

Thank you very much Iain. Many of those points I’m sure will be most helpful to other players. And good luck with the future.