The skirl girls

Who said playing the bagpipes was just for men? As Glasgow International Piping Festival includes an evening showcasing the world's top female pipers, Fiona MacGregor talks to three women in tune with one of musics's finest traditions

MARGARET DUNN, 28, an A-grade medallist originally from Cork in Ireland, has won numerous awards for her solo piping. She is one of the highest-ranking female pipers in the world and is an instructor at the Scottish Piping Centre in Glasgow.

"My father played the Highland pipes in the local band and I followed him into that. I was about nine when I started playing the chanter.

"There's no Scottish heritage in our family at all, but it was an instrument I liked and there were a few local bands in the area. My interest grew as I started doing well at it and winning competitions.

"To do well you need a mixture of natural ability and discipline: it is a hard instrument to play and you need a lot of technique, but it's also quite a physical activity, in terms of breathing and so on. You just build up strength as you practise.

"In my band, it's about half and half girls and boys – the gender thing is not something I really think about. There weren't so many women pipers when I was young, but then there were lots of things that women never used to do, and they do them now! It's just happened naturally and that's what's happened with piping. When I was younger, my inspiration was whoever was the top solo piper. I suppose I was aware if a woman did well.

"It doesn't really matter to me what I look like when I'm playing as long my pipes are sounding good. But Piping Live has helped the image of piping a lot and has shown people it's not always an old man with a beard in a kilt and brogues. It's definitely attracting more young people and they think it's a cool thing to do.

"There's a great social scene with pipe bands, especially after the big competitions. Maybe pipers do have a reputation for enjoying a night out, but I think that's partly just because we look so conspicuous if we're in Highland dress. There are a few pubs in Glasgow that are favourites after the competitions, like the Park Bar and the Snaffle Bit. "I've been all over the world with my piping – New York, Atlanta, Vancouver, Italy, Brittany. I'll mainly be working during Piping Live, but I'm looking forward to getting along to some of the competitions and to the Shindig afterwards."

KATHRYN TICKELL, 41, is from Northumbria and is considered one of the world's best small-pipes players. She has played with musicians, including Sting, and lectures on the folk and traditional music degree course at Newcastle University.

"Women have always been involved in Northrumbian piping, so I never thought there was anything out of the ordinary about playing. But I remember the first time I went to play in Spain, aged 18, people were saying, 'Come and see this, it's a girl piper!' because there were no female pipers there. I found that really strange.

"But that has really changed over the past 20 or so years and now there are loads of female players. People like Susana Seivane and others out there who are really brilliant. She's also gorgeous, but that's not why she's getting the attention: she's an amazing player.

"I'm past 40 now, so I am not exactly the 'sexy young thing', but in the past it really did annoy me that people looked at female musicians in that way. I remember playing at one particular festival and the review only gave my performance one line, which said, 'And Kathryn Tickell played wearing a black leather mini skirt'. I was 20, so I probably did have a short skirt on because that's what I wore in those days, but it certainly wasn't black leather and why couldn't they have said something about my piping?

"On the other hand, whether someone's male or female, if they're easy on the eye then it's going to help get them on the cover of a newspaper or magazine. You will always get people who say about a female musician, 'Oh, she's only got where she has because of the way she looks', but really you just have to ask if they're selling CDs. You're not looking at the artist when you're listening to their CD, after all.

"There are a few degree courses in piping now, at RSMAD in Glasgow and at Newcastle University. Among my own pupils, certainly the younger ones, there are more girls – although, as I said, women have always played the Northumbrian pipes. I think women no longer let the fact that something's not a traditionally feminine instrument put them off playing it. I have had some young women say to me that seeing me play encouraged them to take up the pipes and it's a real kick to know that I've helped to draw some people into piping.

I am really looking forward to coming to Glasgow and I hope to see some pipers playing that I haven't seen before. It doesn't make a difference, as a musician, whether a piper is male or female, but I am hoping to watch some of the female pipers and cheer on the girls."

ANDREA BOYD, 25, is originally from Nova Scotia. In 2006 she was named Young Piper of the Year and is widely tipped as a rising star.

"I started piping when I was nine. I was brought up in Nova Scotia and piping is in my family: my father, uncle and grandfather all played.

"When I was younger there were as many girls as boys playing, but that changed as I got older. I think for many women the pressures of having a family and a career mean that what, for most people, is only ever going to be a hobby – because not many people make a living from it – gets dropped.

"For me, the family connection helped a lot and where I grew up and went to university in Nova Scotia there was a great interest in Celtic music. I started playing with the local pipe band and that continued while I was at university. I first came to Scotland when I was 17 and I started spending my summers in Britain and coming here for lessons. I moved over here last August.

"I'm really looking for to the world championships on Saturday; that will be a real highlight of the week and from a personal point, I'm looking forward to playing at the lunchtime rehearsal on Thursday.

"From the social angle, piping is brilliant because you get so many opportunities to meet people from different walks of life and from all over the world. There are bands from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, mainland Europe and even Oman.

"Over the years I've been coming to Piping Live I've made friends from all over the world. And it's great for travelling. If it hadn't been for piping I'd never have come to Scotland."

IN THE PIPELINE

THE Glasgow International Piping Festival, Piping Live!, runs until 17 August. One of the most important events in the traditional music calendar, it sees musicians from all over the world come to the city.

The festival offers come-and-try sessions, a family fun day, Pipe Idol contest and Girls and Gracenotes, an evening dedicated to great female pipers from across the globe.

Another highlight is Basking in the Warmth of the Reel – an art exhibition with works inspired by piping tunes – and free concerts in George Square every day.

Or get to Glasgow Green on Saturday 16 August to watch the World Pipe Band Championships.

For ticket information and to book, call 0141 564 42 42 or log on to www.pipingfestival.co.uk where you will also find full listings details for the event.