Christmas past present

In every piper and drummer’s life there is a period of maybe two years at the beginning during which parents get to fill your figurative stocking with any and every piping and drumming gifts they can get their hands on. It’s all new; it’s all good.

After a few years, young pipers and drummers begin to understand what’s what. We learn the music and the instrument and what it is to be a competitive player, so we become far more knowledgeable and selective about the items we acquire. We leave our parents behind, and there are no longer any surprise piping/drumming gifts, since they start to follow strict instructions about which items to get – “the X-Pat Mark 3 Carbon Body with Tongues Impregnated with Gold Dust Drone Reeds” are the only thing on the list. That 1975 Royal Scots Fusiliers album just won’t hack it.

My parents – my dad especially – made the most of my first few years of piping. I started when I was 11, and there was no shortage of tartan bedecked presents of vinyl LPs by terrible pipe bands and Highland dress knick-knacks that had lovely thought behind them, but missed the mark for the more informed musician.

There was the brass piper door-knocker. The LP of Seumas MacNeill gamefully attempting mostly regimental tunes (a strange collaboration of ideas). The new green wool drone cords. A bag cover in MacFarlane (?) tartan.

And then there were the parlour pipes. Back in the 1970s, before there was any talk, let alone availability, of shuttle pipes, smallpipes, border pipes or any-other-pipe-besides-the-Highland-one, I found out about parlour pipes. Parlour pipes are essentially mini-Highland pipes that use a practice chanter for a chanter and tiny cane drone reeds. Gordon Speirs, who I got occasional lessons from, had a set of ivory-mounted Henderson parlour pipes and, me, a wide-eyed 13-year-old, thought these were the coolest things. Mini anythings are appealing to nerdy kids, and mini-bagpipes were just the thing for this early-teen piping geek.

To be sure, I was wrestling away with my full-sized set of plastic-mounted Hardie pipes, but who could resist those cute little parlour pipes? Certainly not me. I become a bit fixated with getting a set, and that’s all I ever wanted for Christmas in 1977.

My dad researched parlour pipes. By that time this novelty item was rarely available, and pipe makers would only do them by request, since satisfying the core business of full-sized pipes was priority. But he found that the old Kintail company would make a special-order set.

So my dad negotiated these parlour pipes with the fine folks at Kintail. As I found out later, they were to arrive in time for Christmas, and, to be sure of that, my parents paid for them in advance. In full. Back then, they were probably about $200, but that was never loose change for my dad and mom, Depression-era penny-wise children.

Christmas came, and under the tree were a selection of piping odds and ends, and, as far as the parlour pipes went, only a card saying that they were delayed but would arrive shortly. Moderate disappointment ensued, but at least I had these treasured mini-pipes to look forward to.

Back then, the American market for bagpipe makers didn’t appear to be important to them. Quality gear and reeds were hard to get, and not until maybe the 1990s did the USA stop having to wait an eternity for anything from Scotland. So it was with these fully-paid-for Kintail parlour pipes.

We waited weeks, then months, with my dad growing increasingly impatient, even at one point calling the company to give him a piece of his mind. Promises were repeatedly made. Still no parlour pipes.

I believe the next Christmas even passed, and by then the allure of mini-bagpipes had made them an afterthought. But one day at least two years later a battered package arrived from Scotland and in it of course with the coveted parlour pipes.

As with many kids’ Christmas presents, this one got played with a few times and then mainly forgotten. I’d gotten over it before it even arrived. I still have the parlour pipes today, and they’ve been played maybe a total of two hours.

I came to think about this Christmas present while thinking about all of the pipers and drummers out there who might have been given piping/drumming-related gifts, with loving thoughts, from their parents, only hoping to hit the mark for their kid’s delicate hobby, quickly becoming more intense than they ever imagined.

After probably 20 years since being played, I got out my parlour pipes for a Christmas tune, wishing my parents could be around to hear them again.

A good thought that counts.

 

Merge method

MergerThe season’s over in the northern hemisphere. The World Championships and regional events are done and dusted. Pipe bands will take a break for a month or two, recharge the tuning metre, dry out the kitty litter, loosen the lugs, and give the fingers and wrists a rest.

Bands will also think about broader future plans, and not a few will wonder how on earth they’ll ever be able to reach whatever it is they’re aiming to reach competitively.

The World’s, good or evil, is the Holy Grail that many bands in every grade obsess over. The Svengali-like allure of succeeding at this one competition causes pipe bands to take serious, if not evasive, action, from currying favour with judges, to purchasing politically beneficial gear, to flying in temporary players, to – the most evasive of actions – merging with another band.

Much has been made in recent years when bands from Ontario haven’t made the Grade 1 Final, or don’t do well in other grades. After a drought of a few years, in 2014 the 78th Fraser Highlanders returned to the Final as the only Ontario Grade 1 representative, but this year’s contest again saw none of the three bands that played make it through.  Australian Grade 1 bands haven’t ventured to the World’s at all in recent years, and perhaps have similar intense expectations placed on them. Regions in almost every country, including Scotland, feel that they can and must do better and represent their area  on the world stage.

Cue inevitable thoughts of merger.

The solution might appear apparent: Not doing enough to “succeed” in Glasgow? Then merge bands to make a “super-band” that will march in to the Green and show everyone a thing or two. Enough of the shilly-shallying! Just get it or them together and Get. It. Done.

But for what? For the sake of getting into the Final? For maybe a fifth or sixth prize? Great. That’ll show them. Even winning a lower grade could result in an upgrade, and usually means a few years of toil in the new grade before the band takes the next step either up or down.

The cost of pipe band mergers almost always far outweighs the benefits. With rare exceptions, the wreckage caused by mergers of otherwise healthy bands has a long-lasting effect on pipe band scenes. In simplest terms, at least one band is killed off. The simple fact is that there is one less band to compete with or against in a local scene. That is never good for piping and drumming and, to me anyway, I’d rather have two competitive, good bands than a lone “super-band.”

In more complex terms, the irreplaceable camaraderie, spirit and commitment that built a band dies, too. That can have a profoundly subtle, lasting impact on a regional scene.

In the early-1990s someone had the idea to merge the once-mighty-but-then-fallen-on-lean-times Clan MacFarlane with the pretty healthyToronto Police. I wasn’t in either band, but my understanding from those who were in it was that a deal was struck that said, if the merger didn’t work out then Clan MacFarlane would go back to being a band again. It would re-emerge, as it were.

My recollection is that the get-together was quickly unsatisfactory, with power struggles, ill-will and, ultimately former Clan MacFarlane members jumping to other bands, making the merger relatively moot. The net result for the Toronto Police was that they gained a few players but were not much, if any, better off. Meanwhile, Ontario had lost a band and all its tradition and pride, and gained a whole lot of animosity and tension permeating the air for many years.

Just about all of the people involved with that merger have moved on to other things. To be sure, they are all good people, and no one is to blame for trying in good faith to improve. The Toronto Police band remains with hardly a piper or drummer remaining from 22 years ago, of course, still trying to get into the World’s Grade 1 Final but, from everything I can see, enjoying what they do as a band unto itself.

Clan MacFarlane, on the other hand, is just a memory.

There are rare exceptions. The 2011 merger of the Grade 2 Ottawa Police and Grade 2 Glengarry appears to have worked well on the competition field. The Stuart Highlanders absorbing Oran Mor could be cited. But these bands were not made instant world-beaters as a result. In each case the fact remains: one less band on the scene. I’m sure there is an argument that, without a merger, neither band would exist today, so there is that.

A merger is almost always an attempt at a quick-fix solution. Just combine bands and the road to whatever will be paved in gold. It never happens like that. The road will still be bumpy, the destination marginally closer at best. Meanwhile the detritus of a blown up band remains, inevitably years later causing people to wonder why that ever happened. And of course the regional competitive environment is weakened with at least one less band.

The shimmering prizes that merged bands pine for never come any more quickly. There are never quick fixes. There is no fast replacement for strong leadership, cameraderie, commitment, positive spirit, team-building and sheer hard work. All that glitters is not gold.

 

Awash in whisky

John D. Burgess was a legend, not only for his renowned ability as a piper, but for his wit, sartorial splendor and, at least equally at the top of the list, his mischief-making.

It’s impossible to put into words the man and the character he was. Suffice it to say, the piping world will never see his like again. His death just more than 10 years ago was a sad loss for piping.

I can’t say I knew him well, but my work on the Piper & Drummer / pipes|drums since the mid-1980s brought us together, and to have been able to call one of my greatest inspirations as a kid piper even an acquaintance was my honour and great fortune.

Burgess loved the “Trailing Drones” section of the magazine (then print-only) with its bits of gossip, hearsay, occasional red herring BS and, even most of all, the frequent many-a-true-word-said-in-jest content. At Inverness in the early 1990s or so Burgess took me aside in the upper foyer where the light music events used to take place, to let me know that he liked it and whispered in my ear that he was willing to be a source – to be an “Agent in the Field,” as he would say. He had his own team of operatives feeding him intel from his various fields.

He had no email or newfangled “Internet,” so he asked if he could phone me with his scoop. Occasionally I’d answer my line at work and it would a mischievous Burgess with a scandalously juicy tidbit. (For those with back-issues, you can have fun trying to identify the Burgess-isms that got in.)

“Helloo, Andrew, it’s John Burgessss . . . I have a message for Mr. Harry Tung. You tell Harry . . .” he would say in his carefully articulated and maybe a bit affected Highland accent, which was an important part of the extraordinary Burgess brand. I usually had no idea what he was talking about when he delivered his scoop, and he would never explain it, leaving me to trust him that it was rich scandal. So I would dutifully relay it to Harry and then edit whatever came back and hope not to get sued. It was all great fun.

On trips to the World Championships with the 78th Fraser Highlanders in the 1980s and 1990s (joined 1988, left after 1997) I would try then, as I do now, to do one or two significant interviews for this magazine.

I relayed a story many years ago, and was reminded of it recently. I think it bears repeating.

In 1994 Burgess agreed to do an interview, and I believe it is the only substantial published conversation he did in his life. I hired a car and drove from Glasgow to his home in Saltburn, very near Invergordon, about five hours away. I had imagined him to have a palatial estate, maybe with a gated driveway, and a couple of greyhounds at the door.

His home was nothing like that, but it by no means disappointed. A small seafront house overlooking the Moray Firth, several parked oil rigs off in the distance, the Black Isle, ancestral home of the John/G.S./D.R. McLennans on the other side. I was greeted warmly and humbly. He was of course well turned out, but inside the house there was hardly an indication that he was even a piper, no medals or trophies anywhere, and certainly no sign of this being the residence of the King of Highland Pipers.

It was a great, frank conversation, and by far the most memorable of the more than 100 interviews I’ve done. He was forthright and candid, and was taking the whole thing seriously. It was clear that he knew this would be a record of his life, and I was gratified that this little boy from Missouri was entrusted with his insights and stories.

I was at his house for maybe three hours. He provided sandwiches, biscuits and tea, and even offered a dram of really nice whisky that he kept in the house for guests even though he was teetotal for decades after successfully fighting his well-known debilitating addiction to alcohol.

When I was getting ready to go we talked a bit at his front door about the World Pipe Band Championships. He knew Bill Livingstone, of course, and I think had a fondness for him, as the only wit in piping that compares with Burgess’s I think is Livingstone’s. Burgess said that he had “a very good feeling” about the 78th Fraser not just doing well, but winning the World’s on the Saturday. I was taken aback. Here was John D. Burgess putting his money on the 78th Fraser Highlanders, a band that at the time had fallen down the ladder a bit and would have been happy simply to finish in the top-six.

Wow, I thought, wait’ll I get back to Glasgow to tell the guys!

“Yes, yes, you tell Mr. Bill Livingstone that John D. Burgess expects big things – big things! – on Saturday. In fact, let me get something for you to take back to the band.”

At this point Burgess went back inside and returned with an unopened bottle of malt whisky.

“You take this and bring it to the park on Saturday,” he said. “When you’re tuning up with the band, I want you to gather together all of the pipers, get out the bottle and, ever so gently, pour a drop or two on the hands of each piper. Rub it in well, and I guarantee that it will hasten the result you deserve.”

“Really?” I asked. “You think that will help?”

“Oh, yes. Ooohh, yes. You tell Bill that John Burgess recommends it,” he said with his twinkling eyes.

I was sold. The five-hour drive back to Glasgow probably took three, and I arrived to the band breathless with my excitement about the King of Highland Pipers’ prediction and explained his prescription for winning with whisky. Bill and the rest of the pipers were sold.

Saturday came. I put the special Burgess bottle in my pipe case, and kept it at the ready. Without actually testing the effects of whisky on the hands beforehand, the 14 or 15 pipers gathered around, hands extended and I had the honour of putting a splash of it on everyone’s mitts.

The band had a good following then, and in those early-Internet days bands had secrets that would only be known if you witnessed them. Members of other bands would clamour around far more than they do today, trying to divine techniques and tricks. I remember noticing a few WTF?! expressions from those looking on as we rubbed our hands together with the water of life and miracle cure for not-winning. If it happened today, there would be a dozen crappy videos of it and probably something of a pipe band meme.

I believe Burgess actually made the trip to the World’s that day for a promotional appearance with a bagpipe maker, and I suspect he was somewhere around watching this gullible group actually fulfilling what must have been one of his most unlikely mischievous tricks.

Assuming you have never played with whisky on your fingers, you’ll be wondering what the effect was. None of us in the band actually tested it in advance (that might have spoiled the magical powers), and to think that any band – let alone a contending Grade 1 group – would do this blindly at the biggest competition of the year perhaps speaks to the sorry desperation that we competitive pipers and drummers suffer. Thankfully, whisky isn’t sticky, and pretty well evaporates, probably a bit like rubbing alcohol.

How did we play? I think it was okay, but nothing noticeably added as a result of the golden nectar being applied. I’m not even sure where we ended up in the final result.

But I do remember this event, and the unique, mischievous and fun spirit that was John D. Burgess.