As Glasgow resounds once again to the sound of bagpipes in all their multifarious forms during the city’s week-long Piping Live! festival next month, piper-multi-instrumentalists Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton will be launching their new album, and doubtless recalling their early piping days together in the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band and the indelible influence of their mentor, the late, great Gordon Duncan.
Ainslie and Hutton grew up in Perthshire, a veritable hotbed of piping, not least owing to the presence of the Vale of Atholl band, which has nurtured many a leading piper and where the pair first met at the age of 12. Duncan, who would establish an international reputation with his virtuosity and his seemingly endless stream of characterful and enduring tunes before dying at the tragically early age of 41, was then pipe major of the Vale of Atholl’s novice juvenile band. “We were very lucky that Gordon was there,” Ainslie, now 33 and based in Glasgow, recalls. “He was really good with young people, bringing you on and just making you excited about piping.
“Perhaps because he was doing so much composing himself, he also got us doing it.”
That compositional spark transmitted by Duncan is evinced in Ainslie and Hutton’s first duo album, perhaps tellingly titled Symbiosis, which consists mainly of their own tunes but includes one by Duncan and another by that other sadly departed piping innovator, Martyn Bennett. Between them, Ainslie and Hutton – each a formidable musician in his own right – play Highland and Border pipes, whistles, cittern, guitars, banjo and harmonium, and they are augmented by bassist Duncan Lyall and bodhran master Martin O’Neill, both of whom play with Hutton and Ainslie in the mighty folk-trance fusion outfit, the Treacherous Orchestra.
In fact, when we spoke, he and Hutton had just returned from their first visit to the Czech Republic with the Treacherous line-up, where by all accounts, they had the Czechs fairly bouncing at the Colours of Ostrava festival.
In the meantime, though, the 13th year of Piping Live! sees the piping world converge on Glasgow for its week-long countdown to the World Pipe Band Championships on 12-13 August. Quite apart from more than 200 pipe bands from all over the world who will be competing (and also performing in George Square and on the steps of the Glasgow Royal concert Hall during the course of the week), the festival’s concerts at the National Piping Centre and elsewhere, plus the less formal gigs at the ever-popular Street Café outside the Centre, will attract not only solo pipers and folk bands from Scotland but indigenous pipers from across Europe.
Apart from Ainslie and Hutton, who launch their album at the Street Café on 8 August, then again at the National Piping Centre on 14 August, performers demonstrate the sheer diversity of international piping. Expect the powerful Highland bands Rura and Daimh, the barnstorming Red Hot Chilli Pipers, players from France’s piping enclaves of Brittany and Morvan as well as Spain’s Galicia and Asturias, pipers from Italy and Slovakia and a Belgian baroque ensemble, which features the musette de cour (an 18th-century “courtly” bagpipe).
Ainslie is particularly looking forward, he says, to meeting up once again with the Galician piper Anxo Lorenzo, whose playing he admires and with whom he has shared stages in the past. He’s also looking forward to hearing Rura – with whom he and another frequent playing partner, Irish piper Jarlath Henderson, will share the bill at Denmark’s Tønder Festival later this month.
He also relishes the music and good humour at the Street Café, where, he says, any inter-band rivalries tend to be forgotten: “Piping is a really friendly scene. Obviously there are some politics that go on, but the Café is always really chilled and you see people from different bands going for a drink together.”
• Piping Live! runs from 8-14 August. For full programme see www.pipinglive.co.uk