Four Scots made the journey from Fife to Belfast this weekend to help their outfit win Grade 2 of the UK Pipe Band Championships 2016. Nothing surprising there. Except Donald Brown and his three colleagues are part of a Northern Ireland band which they “join” for rehearsals by Skype. Even more surprisingly, that pipe band – the Colmcille – is largely composed of men and women from Republican Derry who might be expected to have some problem playing instruments so strongly associated with the Orange marching tradition.
But it seems Scottish piping in Northern Ireland is refreshing the parts other musical traditions cannot easily reach, helping polarised communities o’erleap cultural divides, giving fresh vigour to the Ulster Scots movement and raising some big questions about the lack of support for piping in schools back home in “mothership” Scotland.
The popularity of Highland piping has been growing quietly in Northern Ireland for years, demonstrated by the fact that the Grade 1 winner this weekend was another Ulster band – the repeat world champions, Field Marshal Montgomery from Lisburn. According to Ian Burrows of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association of Northern Ireland; “Interest in bagpipes came out of the First and Second World Wars, when men from Northern Ireland experienced the pipes being played in Scottish regiments. In the 1940s and 50s, bands that originally played flutes switched to the pipes, so the tradition here doesn’t go back a long way but it’s certainly flourishing.”
That’s evident from a closer look at the make-up of the bands. Columcille, for example, are an impressive combination of young, committed locals and experienced “borrowed” Scots.
Alec Brown, for example, began his piping career as a Fife miner. Until the 1970s every Scottish colliery had a pipe band funded by contributions from the men’s wages but as the industry declined, the pipe bands did too. Deciding that his own pipe-band prize-winning days were behind him Alec retired to Arranmore Island off the Donegal coast – where his wife’s family lived.
In fact, there was already a strong Scots contingent on the tiny island – the product of constant flitting to the potato farms of Ayrshire during past centuries in search of work. Each September, folk from Arranmore still make the long trip east for a celebratory ceilidh in a Scottish church hall. When he arrived seven years ago, Alec found he was unable to kick the piping habit and joined the Arranmore pipe band. So did his wife Maria (a piper and drummer) his piping daughter Theresa and drummer son Callum (off to New York to pipe with the New York Fire Brigade in next year’s St Patrick’s Day Parade). But because the Arranmore Pipe Band plays for enjoyment not competitions, Alec was also “signed” by the Colmcille band in Derry and now makes the three hour round-trip every week for rehearsals. His Fife-based piping brother Donald was soon roped in along with three other veteran piping friends (who all attended the same primary school in Lochore) and the “absent” Scots band members are kept up to speed with songs and settings by CDs, and virtual rehearsals via Skype. It’s hard work but the results and camaraderie are impressive. According to one of the younger Derry men, Lochlainn Ferguson; “Scots piping and drumming feels neutral – there’s none of the baggage that comes with the marching tradition here. We’re usually the only Catholics at competitions, but if anything kicks off – and that’s rare –the Scots pour oil on troubled waters, change the subject and calm things down. It means a Catholic lad like me can meet Protestant folk and build friendships – and how else would I ever get to New York or Moscow?”
Of course, in Northern Ireland as in Scotland not everyone relishes the regimentation and military background of the “Highland” or “War” Pipes. The Armagh Pipers Club has been teaching the uilleann or “Irish” pipes since 1966 and young uilleann piper Jareth Henderson from Northern Ireland is making waves in Scotland.
Highland Dancing has also taken off. Sollus – a purpose-built Ulster-Scots centre in the former plantation village of Bready near Strabane – holds Scots language and highland dancing classes that cater for almost 500 children. The classes are so popular highland dancing is now being taught in seven primary schools in the Derry/Strabane area as part of a three-year pilot scheme funded by the Northern Ireland government, and there are moves to argue for the same school-based piping tuition as well.
Authorities like Belfast Council acknowledge the economic importance of this burgeoning Scots-Irish cultural connection, shelling out a six-figure sum to host this weekend’s UK Piping Championships with free admission for spectators.
All of which contrasts somewhat with the situation in Scotland.
Championships convener for the Scottish Schools Pipe Band, David Johnston, warned recently that piping and drumming could falter without formal tuition in schools.
“Some [schools] say there is no money for it, some say there is no demand. Yet where we have helped schools get tuition the demand is huge and if a council can afford a glockenspiel teacher, surely it can afford to teach pipes and drums?”
Several schools have opted to set up after school clubs and bring in teachers at their own expense. But Mr Johnston says; “I find it disappointing piping and drumming is not on the curriculum in so many Scottish state schools, yet private schools have flourishing bands and dedicated pipe tutors which bring huge prestige and self-esteem to band members and to the school. If this worrying trend continues we won’t have any future pipers and drummers and hearing the roar of pipes and drums on Hogmanay could become a thing of the past.”
It’s a tremendous irony. Piping is growing in popularity across the Celtic world, but still struggles for recognition in Scotland. Pipers from the folk and regimental traditions may diverge in choice of instruments and formality of performance settings - but they absolutely agree on the need to have piping taught in schools. Is there any good reason why this seems impossible? Is piping still plagued by Scotland’s cultural cringe? And are Scots pipe bands set to knock the Ulster newcomers off the winners podiums anytime soon?