As the familiar cold and drizzle finally return to Glasgow, I thought it might be fun to reflect on a bit of what’s been going on across the busy season. To be completely honest, my Summer months were largely spent indoors writing music, learning arrangements, type-facing a book of pipe tunes and recording a new album with Breabach. These are all things that mean a lot to me but, they also require a lot of me and it was a bit overwhelming at times. This feeling is one that I am sure many ‘Folkies’ will relate to. Professional folk musicians have become quite accepting of the relentless, high-pressure lifestyle that increasingly envelops the scene; play more music, start new projects, do more gigs, write new tunes, tour the UK, TOUR THE WORLD! It is an impressive level of commitment which I admire in many of my friends and bandmates, but it is in danger of leaving us with very little time to reflect and fully absorb the experiences we share as creative people. This September as the pressure level began to sink down for me, I was part of a two-night concert in the Highlands that kind of ‘woke me up’ and subsequently reinvigorated me to delve deeper within myself musically and it has already been an exciting journey.
A team of us travelled North to stage a show at Blas entitled ‘Crossing the Minch’. The concert was organised to celebrate the music of late piping legend Pipe Major Donald Macleod and from the moment we set off from Glasgow, tunes were being sung, stories were being told and essentially, the craic was flowing. It was a thrill for all of us to perform Donald Macleod’s music in his home town of Stornoway and there were various highlight moments for me on the opening night including ‘Lament for the Iolaire’ – the story of which ties to many families on the island. It was great to play alongside local Lewis musicians James D Mackenzie and Innes White and I had the great honour of meeting Iain Morrison Snr. during the day – another Lewis piping legend. We celebrated in style after the show with a few well-earned drams into the wee hours.
The next morning, bleary-eyed with an assortment of white and black puddings protruding from instrument cases, we scurried down to catch the early morning boat back to the mainland. Most folk snuck in a couple of hours sleep on the crossing but before long, we were edging into Ullapool. With six hours to kill before the soundcheck, some folk took on a hill, others relaxed in the hotel lobby and a couple of folk went for a short nap, but by early afternoon the sky had cleared and the village was buzzing. There were busloads of visiting tourists, a wedding down the high street and there was even a procession in celebration of women having the vote for 100 years – It was amazing! John Mulhearn and I put the pipes together for a few tunes and about half way through ‘The Man From Skye’ we realised that we were piping in the presence of Donald Macleod’s daughters Susan and Fiona who had stepped out of the Caledonian to lend an ear as we tackled a medley of their father’s compositions. It was a lovely atmosphere and the sun was shining down.
Soon after we made our way up to the village hall where the sound crew were setting up the stage. Various cast members were assembling instruments, ready to make a noise when required. John Wilson decided to throw his pipes up on the shoulder for a quick ‘sound check’ of his own and after a brief refinement of the drones, played the ùrlar of Donald Macleod’s pibroch ‘Queen Elizabeth II’s Salute’ – It is probably worth mentioning that John Wilson is a world renowned piper having won many of the top awards through his professional career – Pacing between the chairs of the hall, John sensed that the pipes did not wish to be put down and we received the piece in its entirety. The depth of musicality from John’s piping in that unexpected moment took my breath away. The phrasing he applied to this stunning piece, the resonance of the instrument but above all, his unmistakable love for the melody. He had a clear sense of admiration for the shape of the tune and, as you can tell from my writing, it has had a lasting effect on me.
The evening concert was charged with the same positive energy. We had a mixture of tunes, dances, Gaelic songs, Ceòl Mòr and there was even a surprise story from Charlie Macfarlane of Glenfinnan inspired by Donald Macleod’s jig composition ‘The Hen’s March’ – Charlie had the room roaring with laughter and delight. The final set of the concert featured the four pipers John Wilson, John Mulhearn, James D. Mackenzie and Myself playing ‘Crossing the Minch’ at front of the stage. By this point it didn’t even feel like a concert anymore! I can remember feeling a fantastic combination of pride and humility to be a part of this amazing group of folk.
In the weeks that have followed, I have been focused on the classic repertoire; old pipe collections, reviewing manuscripts on www.ceolsean.net, exploring the ‘dusty corners’ of www.tobarandualchais.co.uk with its wealth of archive recordings. I have also been planning lessons with a few different senior pipers so that I might receive their vocal tuition (canntaireachd). Beyond my own inspiration though, I feel that I have gained some clarity generally about the value of coming together with good folk of all ages who share in a passion for their music and culture. Given the right setting and company, I feel safe in saying that a creative person will engage on a deeper level and have a stronger sense of who they are and what they value. There were many ingredients that led to the success of this Donald Macleod weekend but I think essentially, it was the organic result of likeminded people doing what they love doing with little more than the space and freedom to let it out…and maybe a dram or two to toast the night. Slàinte!