Edinburgh pipe bands are growing in popularity despite the loss of a dedicated school tutor. We speak to our up and coming piping stars ahead of the world championships...
A Sunday afternoon in a social club on Beaverhall Road and there’s not, strangely enough, a glockenspiel in sight.
There are bagpipes – temperamental and awkward things that they are, prone to mood swings and sudden tuning meltdowns that can leave the best pipers at their mercy – and plenty of side drums, skins pulled tight, some more so than others to create a different tone, so they ‘sing’ as well as hold the beat.
But definitely no glockenspiels.
Retired police officer Barry Donaldson sighs. “It’s pretty sad,” he says. “But it is actually easier for young people to get instruction in how to play glockenspiel in school than it is to get piping instruction.
“Kids can learn glockenspiel, but not the bagpipes.”
Glockenspiel might well be a fine instrument, but there’s no place for their twinkly sweet chimes amid the skirl, swagger, and spirit-lifting sheer force of sound that is a pipe band.
And when City of Edinburgh Pipe Band march out to compete in The Worlds – the World Pipe Championship or aka the Olympics of the piping world – there’ll be tartan, stirring tunes, pounding drums that make the ground vibrate and that, hopefully, will be quite enough to see them crowned champions in their grade. No glockenspiels.
You can fully appreciate Pipe Major Barry’s frustration. Hours and hours of practice have gone in to bringing the City of Edinburgh Pipe Band to Grade 3A status, fingers and hands have blistered in the pursuit of hitting the right cacophony of pipes and drums, they’ve neglected wives, husbands, children, homes and social lives in order to reach a peak on the biggest day of the year.
For the adults, it’s tough enough maintaining this musical peak – one that’s almost certain to be rewarded with the band being promoted up the ranks the next year. But for young people coming through in the hope of becoming the next generation of pipes and drums, well, Barry witnesses the struggle of trying learn while juggling homework – for unless they’re the lucky ones in public school, there are no in-school lessons to speak of.
“Yet there’s tremendous interest in piping among children and parents,” adds Barry. “It doesn’t make sense that there’s no local authority tutor.
“You can learn just about every instrument apart from the pipes in school.”
The city council no longer employs a bagpipe tutor for its schools, his services were ditched four years ago.
Further afield, a recent study by the National Piping Centre showed there is only one tutor per 20,000 pupils across the rest of Scotland and only 6.5 per cent of musical tutoring was in traditional instruments.
Piping might have fallen off the school radar, but Barry and his Grade 3A band are still buoyant. Such is demand from parents for piping lessons, that he’s been working with youngsters in Morningside so they are now at a stage of forming their own juvenile band.
While among the City of Edinburgh seniors, the countdown is underway to the biggest weekend in the piping calendar, when bands like theirs from across the globe descend on Glasgow Green to show off just how good they are.
Over the weekend of August 17 and 18, ten Lothian-based bands will join others from as far afield as America, New Zealand, Sweden, Canada, Australia, Brazil and Mexico – in fact, there’s only one Mexican pipe band, so the nation is hardly over-represented – each contesting in their separate grades, some sticking to the traditional, others throwing a little bit of a modern twist to their tunes.
“The bagpipes are an international instrument,” nods Barry, who used to be with one of piping’s biggest names, Strathclyde Police Pipe Band.
“And they are used in many ways. There’s nothing else sounds like the bagpipes, they are immediately recognisable, the music that’s performed on them by modern pipers and bands are not what most people might be familiar with.
“One of my previous bands – Shotts and Dykehead – played a Coldplay tune which had been adapted for the pipes and was very, very effective. You take any melody and adapt it and it can work.”
Highland Cathedral, Amazing Grace and Scotland the Brave might be the fodder that the Royal Mile tourists want to hear but modern pipe bands, adds Barry, are more likely to be composing their own, unique material.
He said: “There are traditional pieces, but there’s modern content too. If we’re performing in the streets of Edinburgh we’d stick to what people know and what they want to hear, but for competitions, it’s a bit different.”
The band is 40-strong – there’s Barry, 25 pipers and 14 drummers – and they’re confident that The Worlds can bring them a coveted first place slot. “We’re the number two band in our grade at the moment,” he points out. “We took first in the Europeans, thirds in the Scottish and British and we felt a little bit unlucky there.
“So we’re well positioned. We’ve got as good a chance as anyone. From what we’ve done this year, unless we make a complete hash of it, we’re probably in line to be promoted to Grade 2. The aim is that eventually there might be a Grade 1 band in Edinburgh once more.”
The lack of piping instruction in Edinburgh’s schools is something of a personal issue for Jamie Barnes, pipe major at Craigmount Pipe Band.
It was his father who used to provide piping instruction for Edinburgh City Council until they called time on his lone piper role tutoring school children.
Yet Jamie sees with his own eyes the interest among young players.
Like Barry with the Morningside youngsters, he has been nurturing a novice band of eight to 17-year olds alongside the senior band, still young, with players aged from just 12 to Jamie, at 28.
Craigmount’s pipes and drums have a special place in his heart.
Then known as Craigmount High School Pipe Band, it was the band he first played with as a lad.
Now he swells with pride as he sees youngsters he started teaching eight years ago climb the ranks to become Craigmount Grade 3 Pipe Band and the juniors – who retain the Craigmount High School name –reach a stage where, for the first time, they will compete in The Worlds.
“When I first went along to tutor, there were four people (in the juniors), it wasn’t a band at all,” says Jamie. “They had to go from just learning the pipes, to now playing as a band.
“Now those youngsters are winning prizes at adult grades and that is a very big deal for us.” He’s rightly proud, the young band and their more senior colleagues – who play at Grade 3B level – come from all over Edinburgh and from all walks of life to play, united by a deep passion for pipe band music.
They also have, and need a staggering determination to practice relentlessly, several nights a week, for hours on end.
“It’s amazing to see it,” adds Jamie. “To see young people grow into mature musicians has been excellent and people recognise that development in the pipe band community.
“They see these young people get better and better all the time. It’s bringing on the future.
“It’s a shame there’s no support from the council, but we just do our own fundraising, race nights, ceilidh nights.”
This is Craigmount’s 40th anniversary year, a ruby anniversary that is being marked with various performances during the Festival, and, they hope, a successful outing at the biggest contest of them all.
“I hope it goes to show that people love it – you don’t go to band practice three or four nights a week unless you love what you do.”
“But it’s unfortunate that in a very cultural city like Edinburgh you can learn piano in school or lots of different instruments, but you can’t learn an instrument that’s part of our culture. It’s such a shame.”
n The World Pipe Band Championships are held at Glasgow Green on the 16th and 17th August. For details go to www.theworlds.co.uk