Piping up: Finlay MacDonald comes of age

In August 2004, I interviewed one of the young Turks of the piping world, Finlay MacDonald, about a novel new Glasgow music festival called Piping Hot, launched that month in association with a long established major event, the World Pipe Band Championships.

Finlay MacDonald, left, and Chris Stout are launching a new album at the piping festival. Picture: Donald Macleod

Among various ploys to heighten the local populace’s bagpipe awareness were piping bus stops, in which music from the newly recorded album by MacDonald and his band was played to unsuspecting bus queues.

In fact, MacDonald, young and be-quiffed, became something of a poster boy for that first event. “And got slagged for it, of course,” he laughs.

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But as the festival, now called Piping Live!, tunes up for its tenth year, and MacDonald, now 35, prepares to launch another album at it, this time in duo with fiddler Chris Stout, the event has truly come of age as the world’s largest week-long celebration of piping and traditional music, with many hundreds of pipers and bands converging on the Dear Green Place from across the world. “It’s obviously got bigger,” says MacDonald, who is head of piping studies at Glasgow’s National Piping Centre. “But the most important thing is that we’ve kept it international. It’s not solely about the pipe bands or solo guys competing. It’s bringing pipers who wouldn’t otherwise be there, from places like Bulgaria and Galicia and Romania.”

This tenth event represents piping at its most cosmopolitan. While the heavyweights of the pipe band world continue to thunder (with performances this year in St Enoch Square and Buchanan Street, rather than the festival’s previous hub of George Square, currently undergoing a makeover) during the week’s countdown to the World Pipe Band Championships, emissaries from indigenous European piping cultures include Paganum from Hungary, Xeremiers De Sóller from Majorca, Le Pivenelsacco from Italy, Konogan an Habask from Brittany and, from central France, Duo LaGrange Rutkowski.

Headline concerts include Pipes of Peace at the SECC Armadillo, showcasing such world leaders as ScottishPower Pipe Band, the 78th Fraser Highlanders from Canada and New York Metro, while the now annual Pipes and Strings concert in the New Athenaeum Theatre features Bellon Maceiras, from Spain’s north-west piping enclave of Galicia, Andrea Beaton, Troy McGillivray and Matt McIsaac from the Gaelic diaspora of Nova Scotia, and the pipes and fiddle pairing of MacDonald and Stout.

Also at the New Athenaeum, a Gaels and Gracenotes night stars the popular Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, Highland piper James MacKenzie and, from across the Irish Sea, players from Armagh Pipers’ Club. There is further Irish participation in a Friday Night Folk event at Oran Mor which sees Scots, Irish and Breton players combining in various permutations.

Other festival guests include the irrepressible Fred Morrison, Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes and Gaelic folk band Barluath, while top competition pipers such as Gordon Walker and Angus MacColl pace the boards.

The College of Piping in Otago Street again showcases the “big music” with its Piobaireachd of the Day spot, while the Masters Solo competition takes place in the National Piping Centre and the RT Shepherd international Quartets Competition is in the New Athenaeum.

All of which is a countdown to the clash of the pipe band Titans – the World Pipe Band Championships on Glasgow Green. And for the first time the Worlds, as it’s known, is being held over two days, 17 and 18 August, cranking up the tension to the Grade I final on the Sunday.

MacDonald agrees that even a couple of decades ago, the idea of Glasgow maintaining a week-long festival devoted to piping would have been laughed out of town, but the cultural climate has changed for the better. Ten years on, he sees Piping Live! as “now thoroughly on the calendar. One of the most important things is that piping isn’t thought any more as something on the outskirts of music. It’s an instrument like any other, with a really creative scene.”

In the meantime, he anticipates helping kick things off on 11 August, with the launch of a duo album he’s recorded with his frequent collaborator, Shetland fiddler Chris Stout. They’ve called the album The Cauld Wind – referring to an old Scots generic term, cauld wind pipes, for bellows-blown instruments such as the Border pipes MacDonald favours.

Accompanied by guitarist Ross Martin, the pair switch with consummate fluidity from stately airs and retreat marches to split-second tight jig and reel sets. “The interesting thing is that Chris doesn’t play at all in a sort of pipey style, like some west Highland fiddlers – he plays in his own Shetland style and when we’re together I tend not to play in a traditional pipey style. The two different sounds come together in what we hope is a unique blend.”

Piping Live! is a unique blend itself, with more than 150 events covering everything from Italian piva to Highland piobaireachd. This time around, however, piping bus stops are not on the cards.

• Piping Live! runs from 11-18 August, www.pipinglive.co.uk