Pen a tune for the pipes and you could win quite a few extra notes
An onlooker might have been forgiven for regarding it as a convocation of eccentric antiquarians, as they opened boxes to reveal sundry bits of unorthodox-looking bagpipes. This was the first official meeting of the Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society (LBPS)which, over the past three decades, has played a vital role in the revival of Scotland’s bellows-blown pipes, and the Society has marked the anniversary by launching a tune-writing competition, offering a £250 first prize for a newly composed tune “in the Lowland and Border idiom”.
There had been some unofficial get-togethers of interested individuals before that Otago Street meeting, but this was the one which got the Society off the ground, with the stated aim of reviving the bellows-blown bagpipes of Scotland’s Lowland and Border areas – the sweet-toned small pipes and the larger Lowland or Border pipe, once favoured by Border minstrels and municipal “toun pipers”, among others.
These instruments had become museum pieces, apart from some played by a handful of individuals – Rab Wallace of the Whistlebinkies, Jimmy Anderson of the Clutha, James MacDonald Reid and Gordon Mooney.
During the intervening 30 years, these pipes, now widely manufactured, have developed from curiosities to commonplace, especially among pipers on the folk scene such as Fred Morrison, Ross Ainslie and Findlay MacDonald, while many Highland players may well also have a bellows-blown set.
Piper, pipemaker and current chairman of the society Hamish Moore has described the revival as “the most significant cultural event in piping since the formation of the Highland regiments at the end of the 18th century”.
However, while the instruments enjoyed a renaissance, the same couldn’t be said of their music. Apart from a few notable exceptions, such as Mooney and Matt Seattle, most players adopting bellows pipes were using them largely for Highland style repertoire.
Hence the LBPS’s choice of a tune-writing competition in the appropriate idiom, entries for which have to be submitted by 31 July. The winning tune will be performed at an anniversary concert in Edinburgh on 1 November.
But what constitutes “Lowland and Border idiom”? “In a way, it’s defined as much by what it clearly shouldn’t be, which is Highland pipe idiom,” says Iain MacInnes, president of the society, Radio Scotland music producer and a respected player of both Highland and bellows pipes, who is on the judging panel.”
MacInnes, who regards the society as the “bedrock” of the revival, points to some traditional Lowland forms such as 9/8 jigs and 3/2 hornpipes, “but some of the more interesting old descriptive pieces actually shift in time signature. The other great element, which we share with the Northumbrian tradition, is that of variations on a theme.”
MacInnes’s fellow piper and Radio Scotland Pipeline presenter, Gary West, touches on the style question in his recent book Voicing Scotland (Luath Press), when he recalls driving to Melrose while humming some Border tunes, and “it suddenly dawned on me that this was the perfect mental soundtrack for the rolling countryside I was driving through. Many of these Lowland tunes feature undulating melodies that rely on a subtle pulse rather than a rhythmic beat as they gently meander their way through their variations. The dotted crotchets and spiky ‘Scotch snap’ peaks and troughs of the Highland pipe repertoire… are notable by their absence.”
Would-be composers take note. As senior lecturer in Scottish studies at Edinburgh University, West brings an ethnologist’s sensibility to bear on the revival, writing that where “the threads of transmission have been severed… we have had to start the chain again, and that brings its own questions and responsibilities. Yet it is also hugely exciting to see where this new tradition might flow.”
• For details, see www.lbps.net