THE recent death of the former director general of the BBC, Alasdair Milne, has reawakened memories of his rows with Margaret Thatcher and his forced departure after a stormy five-year spell at the head of the corporation.
What received little coverage in his obituaries was his enthusiasm for a peculiarly Scottish art – the music of the bagpipe. At a time when the Scottish content of the BBC – and indeed the future of the BBC in Scotland – is the subject of much debate, it is worth looking back at Milne’s contribution to our culture.
Away from controversies that got him into trouble with Thatcher, Milne was a keen piper. Before he got the top BBC job, he was controller of BBC Scotland. It was then that he became friendly with John MacFadyen, a famous piper who frequently broadcast on Radio Scotland. After the piper’s premature death, Milne became chairman of the John MacFadyen Trust, an organisation that did much to promote pipe music.
His interest in Scotland’s national instrument was also reflected in the BBC’s output at the time. Under Milne’s patronage, the BBC’s Neil Fraser produced a brilliant 1982 documentary on the bagpipe. Titled The Glorious Effect, it was a programme that did not receive the publicity of the controversial Real Lives IRA documentary that was to lead to Milne’s downfall.
But to this day, pipers still like to settle down over a dram and watch fraying videos of this landmark in piping broadcasting. Since its broadcast, nothing on television has matched it as an attempt to explain an ancient and poorly understood art form to a mass audience. A marvellously evocative film, it shows Scottish piping missionaries chanting canntaireachd – the ancient system of vocables used to hand down piobaireachd (classical pipe music) – to American students.
The late, great pipe major Angus MacDonald of the Scots Guards is filmed leaving the Army School of Piping at Edinburgh Castle to take part in one of the big piping competitions of the era. Milne himself is seen judging the elite Silver Chanter contest at Dunvegan Castle. Competing in the Silver Chanter that day was Tom Speirs of Edinburgh, who remembers the film fondly.
“Alasdair Milne was keen that something should be done to portray solo piping in a proper and professional manner rather than the haggis-bashing approach that we sometimes see in the media,” Speirs said. “He was keen to show the history of piobaireachd, where it had come from and how it had been saved by a few significant individuals.”
Of course, films on piping are hardly likely to ever have the appeal of Strictly ... or The Apprentice. But if part of Milne’s legacy was to inspire more programmes that attempt to promote a greater understanding of Scotland’s unsung artistic heritage – that, indeed, would be a glorious effect.