Breathing new life into the Borders piping tradition

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BORDERS Pipes, being launched at a concert in Hawick next Friday, is the fourth and latest in the excellent Border Traditions series of albums issued by Scottish Borders Council in conjunction with the Scottish Arts Council, and is one of the few recordings capturing distinctively Border repertoire, played on the recently revived Lowland or Border pipes and Scottish small pipes, and in anything approaching what one might term a "Border" style.

All of which may sound somewhat anorak-ish, but the result is vigorously characterful and beautifully played.

The album features three pipers from the north side of the border - Calum Galleitch, Chris Waite and Gordon Mooney, while the fourth, Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston, is Durham-born, but has family connections to Melrose. They're well matched by accompanists of the calibre of accordionist Angus Lyon and emerging fiddle star Shona Mooney (there's a rare zest in the syncopated duetting between her and her father, Gordon). Repertoire includes racy old numbers such as Duns Dings A' or the alarmingly titled Geld Him, Lasses, played with smeddum, and song airs such as John Anderson, as well as some recent compositions.

What makes this album something of an event is that while the "cauld wind pipes" revival of the past three decades has seen a huge renaissance in Scotland's bellows-blown pipes, hitherto languishing in museums, they have been taken up largely by Highland pipers, especially in folk bands, who have simply transferred to them Highland-pipe fingering and tune ornamentation, often to impressive effect. However, commentators have remarked more than once that despite this welcome new lease of life for these instruments - largely (though by no means exclusively) associated with the Lowland and Border country - there does not seem to be much of a groundswell of interest in their heartland.

Notable exceptions have been in the pioneering research and playing activities of Matt Seattle, and Gordon Mooney, whose own 1989 recording of O'er the Border was a landmark in showcasing the pipes and their repertoire. This new recording, in its way, suggests the resuscitated tradition is coming of age. Dr Fred Freeman, producer of the Borders Traditions series and a Highland piper to boot, confesses to having been converted: "I came to Border piping with so many Highland presuppositions, and to be undeceived, as it were, was quite an experience.

"Stylistically, the way players like Chris Ormston were performing was so different from your standard Highland piper playing these instruments in a style which doesn't really suit them as spectacularly as this loose, fluid approach."

We tend to regard the Border piping tradition as "disconnected", the instruments having faded from fashion during the 19th century, as waning municipal fortunes dispensed with such indulgences as town pipers, and the ubiquitous expansion of the Highland pipes, under the patronage of the military, ousted most other competition. Yet these bellows pipes were played on both sides of a Border which maintained no musical checkpoints, with much common repertoire carried on by Northumbrian pipers. Other tunes survived in song form (notably collected by the likes of Robert Burns). Pipers such as Ormston and Mooney, says Freeman, have approached Border piping via the Northumbrian tradition, "and going down that route saw them undoing some of the things both were used to with Highland pipes".

Whatever they did, such has been the enthusiastic response to the album, even before its official launch, that Freeman is already considering a follow-up.

• Borders Pipes is launched at the Heart of Hawick arts centre next Friday at 7:30pm.