I came back from Italy last week, having spent the last few days with my dear friend Jenny at her lovely house in the hills high above Bagni di Lucca in Tuscany. Golly! That view! It was nearly as good as the one from our kitchen window in Sutherland, and that’s saying something – though frankly, as far as our family is concerned, all views can only ever be “nearly” as good as looking down the length of a Sutherland strath to the hills beyond.
We’ve realised that on any holidays we take outside Scotland we’re only really happy if we can see…out, somehow. Over. Across. We’re not very happy feeling hemmed in. But Jenny’s house has a terrace that looks straight across a valley to hills beyond, and beyond that. Thinking about it now, I wonder if she and Tom chose that spot for their house there as it had, as we were all saying at the time during our visit, “a touch of the Aviemore about it”? To what extent do we, a lot of us, deliberately go about wanting to replicate the familiar when we are off somewhere else completely different?
My own upbringing in New Zealand was framed entirely by a Scottish context. We were constantly going off for walks across the “braes” as we called them there, those bush covered hills that when they were cleared for sheep could look a bit, my father said, if you scrunched your eyes up, like the Highlands.
It sounds crazy: New Zealand bush in translation for rowan trees and bracken and peat, but there it was. My granny used to love going to a particular beach in Wellington – that exposed and wind-buffeted little city where we lived then – because it reminded her of a certain view from Scrabster harbour, in Caithness.
On a visit to Wellington a few years ago, the plane rode in on a wild grey day straight along that same bit of the coastline and I saw at once what she meant. The usual bright light of the country was softened by veils of cloud and a dark stormy sky and I felt like I could have been coming in over the coast of Lybster and Dunbeath, that it might be Thurso up ahead not a city in the middle of a country surrounded by the Pacific ocean on the other side of the world.
Jenny’s house has an amazing infinity pool that her partner Tom has built, and basil in pots and a terrace with pillars that she can sit out on with no cardigan most nights – so to that extent, her set-up is not Aviemore at all. Still, the sense of having a combined life, what I call here-and-there living – a terrific antidote, incidentally, to Brexit blues and ghastly tartan nationalism – prevails. It’s a way of bringing countries together, making less of difference between them and yet enjoying the difference the more.
As well as that, we said goodbye to Jenny in Tuscany but will be seeing her in Edinburgh next week – when she will have a cardigan on, no doubt. And party shoes. Her family over in Ullapool are having a big birthday bash for her younger sister and there’s a vague plan in the air that my sister and I might drive down with my father from Caithness and join them there as Jenny thinks it would be fun to have my father play the pipes for some dancing. “The whole family would just love that,” she said.
What a sensible attitude. Loving the pipes. Yet one that is shockingly lacking in our culture, for we continue to berate an instrument that is not only perfect for ceilidhs and large gatherings of most sorts but bears a long and noble tradition of musicianship and composition. The piobaireachd, which not many people know about because they’ve not heard it, is the most grave and important form of bagpipe music and when played properly is sublime. It’s been around long before the concerto, which many scholars consider a copy of it; they say that much of western music has been taken from the patterns and strictures of Ceol Mhor as piobaireachd is also known.
I wrote a novel called The Big Music, the English translation of Ceol Mhor, that was all about an old piping family from Sutherland who keep secrets from one another, a father betraying his son without even being aware of it but who is brought to a kind of understanding because of what the music has been able to teach him. I based the whole thing around the piobaireachd form, with its opening ground of Urlar that sets the scene, and its subsequent variations, known as Taorluath, and Crunluath or crown. I asked my father to read the manuscript through, when it was done, to check I had done my best by the music. The book had taken eight years to write. Yet when I was asked to read from it at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Alan Taylor introduced me by holding his nose and singing a little out-of-tune song – by way of representing the bagpipes, he said.
And now we have that STV weather advert showing a fox family covering their ears and making awful faces because one of them is playing the pipes. What are we doing, making fun all the time of a serious and beautiful music, one of the most important aspects of our culture? Of course a lot of people only have the experience of the pipes being played – at this time of year, when Scotland’s towns and cities are full of buskers – very badly. But they’re not put off listening to Brahms or Saint Saens because they hear someone scraping away on a violin somewhere. And you wouldn’t see people in Germany mocking great organ music, which the pipes sound like, often.
That phrase “self-hating” comes to mind.
Maybe that’s why the pipes are celebrated more abroad than they are here at home where few people – even those who pride themselves on being cultured and sophisticated – know or care about them. They don’t have the same hang-ups over there. Jenny, for example, would like to have Dad bring his set to Italy and play them on their terrace. They would sound beautiful, we all agreed, a call of the North ringing across the hills of southern Europe.
Here-and-there thinking, again, you see. Because of course one doesn’t need a house in Italy or to have been brought up in New Zealand to imagine what it might be like to be somewhere else, with a different mind set and way of doing things, when we’re here at home. And vice versa too of course.
It’s the essence of understanding others, to my mind, this sort of magical thinking; the essence of a decent society. By considering the “there” we come to value our “here”. Bagpipes and all.