Piping Hot

(For the pipers out there, I wanted to entitle this piece ‘Wallace’s Lament’ – not to be confused the dreary ‘Lament of Wallace’…)

I have a guilty confession to make. I have owned a set of bagpipes for the past 23 years, but for the last 20 they have lain in their case under my bed; untouched, unplayed and unloved. Well, that last one is wrong because I love my pipes in the way that only a Scotsman can love the pipes; because we all do, don’t we? There is nothing quite so loudly and proudly Scottish as the bagpipes.


Canada’s Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, winner of six World Pipe Band Championships in the past decade, performing in George Square, Glasgow

All over the world there are pipe bands performing, marching majestically in kilts to the wail of the pipes and the beat of the drum. When you think of the Scottish diaspora it makes sense that the descendants of the Scots in Canada, New Zealand and Australia would keep piping alive and well, and in the USA the ‘Irish’ (in reality, Irish-Americans often trace their ancestry to Scotland as much as to Ireland) play the pipes with gusto at every street parade and are heavily associated with the police and firefighters in the major cities in the east. In the far-east, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, India and Pakistan (to name but a few countries), the interest could be explained away by the fact that they the British influence is still strong in those  former colonies but seeing as the people of these countries have also done a lot to throw off the shackles of British Imperialism and have encouraged their own indigenous cultures to flourish, why is it that the worlds’ most ear-splitting instrument and least appropriate tropical clothing (heavy wool kilts in 35°C heat with 95% humidity, really?) have persisted so well?. And there is no British Empire explanation at all for the fact that the pipes and pipe bands are popular throughout South America from Mexico to Argentina.


A military piper in Pakistan, photographed in 1997

So why then, are the pipes viewed as a second class instrument within the Scottish education system?

Admittedly it is a long time since I was at school (I left in 1993) and my experience of secondary school is limited to one school in Scotland so my experience may not be at all indicative of how things are now, or even how they were then. But if anything, knowing what I do of the Scottish secondary education system (I have a strong interest in education and my mother is a retired teacher so I was kept up to date for a long time after I left school myself), I suspect things may be generally worse rather than generally better.

I come from a very musical family on the distaff side. My mother’s siblings produced one PhD in music, two cathedral organists, another with letters after her name for piano and another three who were very competent singers and/or musicians. My generation includes a professional composer, an opera singer and a music therapist and several more who either play or sing to a reasonably high level. I am about the least musical of my cousins, and nowhere near my sister’s league, but I learned the guitar, piano, drums, flute and bagpipes in my youth. I can’t play a note now, mind, but that is what lack of practice does for you. With the exception of the bagpipes, the music I learned fitted well into the education curriculum and I took advantage of many opportunities to learn music while I was at school, both in Scotland and in New Zealand, and studied music to Standard Grade as well as Grade 6 piano (theory and practical). But the way in which my two main instruments, piano and bagpipes, were viewed by the music department and my school (one in the heart of the Highlands) made for an interesting comparison.

Of all the instruments one could teach, a case surely had to be made for allocating the pipes a practice room as far from any other classroom as physically possible but, despite the school having music rooms in exactly that location, this did not happen, and I learned to play the pipes in art rooms and English classrooms, right next door to where lessons were being taught. There were some practical reasons for this I am sure – because putting the pipes into a practice room next door to someone teaching piano or trumpet would have drowned those quieter instruments out – but this was not the only reason. The head of music, a Scot, didn’t like the pipes, fiddle, accordion or singing in Gaelic. He was a very good classical musician and choir leader (my mother sang in the choir he lead – often singing pieces in German or Latin) but he looked down on the indigenous music and culture as being inferior and I am pretty sure if he could have barred them from the school, he would have (I half wonder if part of the reason for us being allocated a room in the English departments was in hope of generating sufficient complaints by the English teachers in order to get piping removed from the school). In fact, I don’t remember folk fiddle being offered as an instrument. You could learn classical violin from first year to sixth year but there was no option to learn the fiddle. Or the box accordian for that matter.

Over the three years I was at that school and learning the pipes I became friendly with the piping tutor and even earned the privilege of calling him by his first name. He was Old School to the core; pipe bands, competitions and traditional score which didn’t fit all that well with my more maverick ideas and inability to march and play at the same time. He was a retired Pipe Major from the Queens Own Highlanders who had once been offered the position of The Queen’s Piper (one of the most prestigious military piping positions in the British Army) but declined on the basis that he didn’t want to be a flunky and open doors for HM all day. He taught the pipes throughout the Highlands from Gairloch to Fort William via Inverness (as I recall) as well as leading one (or more) local pipe bands. He told me that wherever he went within the secondary education system in the Highlands he experienced more or less the same attitude from the music teachers, namely that his instrument and music was inferior to the ’real’ music (ie. classical) and there was only a begrudging acceptance of his presence within the school.


My piping teacher, back in the day.

Two of my classmates were top level pipers who placed well in competitions and had ambitions to go on to play at The World’s but I remember them being given less time and attention by several members of the music department who were more interested in the budding rock musicians (who wasn’t a budding rock musician when you were at school?) who could barely play the guitar than they were in these high-level musicians (one of whom, I have just found out, is still winning piping competitions, in New Zealand).

This was the Scottish cringe in full musical flow.

So have things got better or worse? I really don’t know for sure. There has certainly been a continued revival of the Scottish music scene with the Gaelic Mod and Celtic Connections going from strength to strength and the deepening links between the Celtic cultures in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Galicia and more – never mind the links to Nova Scotia which has been a culture-saving repository of information for Scotland’s Highland traditions – but all of this appears to be outwith the educational system and even in spite of the education system. Younger readers can correct me if I am wrong, but while I don’t think the Scottish education establishment is necessarily any more anti traditional Scottish music and culture than it was in my day, I rather suspect that the reduction in funding available to any sort of extra-curricular music has not helped things along in any way.

This goes hand in hand with the teaching of history or English or any other subject in schools. While it is, of course, imperative to learn about places and people’s that are not your own, the Scottish education system has a default position of teaching from a British (dare I say ‘English’) perspective rather than a Scottish one. Tudor kings and Napoleonic wars are more likely to be taught than the Wars of Independence and the Clearances. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is invaluable to learn from Shakespeare or Beethoven but why is it that Burn’s poetry is more impenetrable to the average Scottish child than iambic pentameter and why is learning to play a rip-roaring fiddle tune from Shetland somehow inferior to playing something composed by Mozart? (I mean, have you seen the finger-work required to make a fiddle sing?)

It is high time we had an education system in Scotland that taught from an entirely Scottish perspective rather than doing its best to produce good British subjects. Let’s teach Scottish history, music and drama; let’s teach Scots alongside English and make Gaelic more widely available; let’s make shinty as popular in Scotland as hurling is in Ireland. But most of all, let’s make sure every school in Scotland has a room at the end of the playground, as far from all the classrooms where quieter lessons need to take place, where the a’ phìob mhòr can be blasted out loud and proud without bothering anyone.


About Hugh Wallace

Soldier, sailor, policeman, engineer, scientist, democrat, socialist, environmentalist, advocate of Scottish Independence
This entry was posted in culture, independence, music and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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