Scots piping star's secret five-year battle with medical condition

Martin Gillespie has been the lead piper with Skerryvore since helping to form the band in Tiree in 2005.
Martin Gillespie has been the lead piper with Skerryvore since helping to form the band in Tiree in 2005.
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One of Scotland’s most successful pipers may be forced to give up playing the instrument - by a rare neurological condition.

Martin Gillespie, a founder member of multi award-winning festival favourites Skerryvore, has revealed he has been fighting a secret five-year battle against focal hand dystonia.

Gillespie, whose condition causes involuntary contractions, spasms and discomfort in the hands, has played across Europe, the Middle East, China and the US with the band.

But he has announced he has stepped down from his role as the main piper in the band, named live act of the year in the 2016 Scots Trad Music Awards, ahead of its next tour.

Skerryvore have been one of the leading bands in the Scottish folk scene for more than a decade and have been the driving force behind two major events - the Tiree Music Festival and Oban Live. Among the major overseas events they have played at have been Tartan Week in New York and the Ryder Cup in Kentucky.

The group, which was formed by Gillespie and his brother Daniel 12 years ago on the Hebridean island of Tiree, has gigs lined up in the Netherlands and Germany in the next few months, as well as festival appearances in Glenlivet, Oban, Killin and Stornoway.

The band has recruited a new piper, Scott Wood, due to the impact of Gillespie’s condition, sometimes known as “musician’s cramp, on his performances.

In a statement, the band said Gillespie had already been receiving “advice and support” from Stuart Cassells, founder and frontman of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, who quit piping six years ago after being affected by the same condition.

Symptoms include reduced precision when playing, loss of control of the hand, and fingers sticking or curling.

Gillespie, 32, said: “I’ve had problems for around five years. They’ve gradually been getting worse and I actually gave up playing completely for a few months at the beginning of 2015 to work with a specialist physiotherapist who’s studied focal dystonia in-depth.

“I’ve tried loads of things, including having x-rays getting botox, seeing a chiropractor, taking different medication and hypnotherapy, but nothing seems to have improved it or stopped it. Things have just got worse.

“I hadn’t really heard about the condition until Stuart was affected by it. Since it happened to me it’s amazing how many people I’ve heard about but nobody really seems to talk about it. Musicians don’t want to show a weakness.

“Sometimes I’m alright, but on other days my hand just cramps and it can be a nightmare getting through a gig. We’ve actually had to get someone else to play the pipes on our last few albums to make sure it’s to the right standard. I’ve loved being on stage and being involved with the band, but when you’re not enjoying it it all becomes too much.”

Gillespie revealed he had decided to step down completely from Skerryvore earlier this year, but was persuaded to keep touring, playing mainly accordion and whistle, and making only occasional appearances on the pipes.

He added: “I made a decision to stop playing completely with the band earlier this year, but the other boys want me to still be involved, as I’ve been involved with Skerryvore for the last 12 years.

“We’re going to keep going until the end of the year and see how it goes.

“I may have to give up playing the pipes completely. I don’t think I would even play for a friend’s wedding now as I sometimes struggle with the basics. It’s demoralising.

“You will get away with it a lot of the time because a lot of people don’t understand the movements and the technique involved. But you know yourself and you know if there are other pipers there they will know as well. It kind of eats away at you.

“It’s been absolute torture at times over the last few years, especially if you know something is being recorded for TV or radio. The more nervous you get the worse it gets. If you are playing outside and it is really cold it can be 10 times worse.

“It’s been ongoing for me for a while, but for the last year I’ve known I had to make a decision. It has affected me as a person and it’s affected the band as we’re not as good as we should be.

“We’ve had Scott in working on our new album for the last few weeks and he has been incredible. I’ve written a lot of the tunes for the album, but I can’t play them the way they should be played.”