February 9, 2014
I have lived in London for about 8 years. Before that, I lived on Guernsey in the Channel Islands for about 20 years and before that in South Africa, where I was born and brought up and learned my piping. Guernsey is a tiny island, about a fifth the size of South Uist, and somewhat of a piping desert. I was the only piper on the island until I taught a couple of pupils and, strangely enough, was later joined by two other piping lawyers from SA who had taken up jobs there. On the other hand, the island of Jersey, 25 miles away, had a flourishing pipe band led by Iain Macleod so I became a long-distance member of the band. Getting to band practice, in the summer at least, involved leaving work in time to catch the tide, setting out for Jersey on my boat (and sometimes the ride was quite hairy, making me wonder whether I really loved the pipes that much), band practise, spending the night on board in Jersey and leaving early enough the next day to get back to Guernsey in time for work. Strangely, at one stage there were 4 piping South Africans in the Channel Islands, and all of us were lawyers.
The proximity to France gave the band plenty of opportunities to get to Brittany and over the years I had a ringside seat from which to observe the standard of piping in Brittany rising to the excellence it enjoys now. These trips, sometimes on our own boats and which included the L’Orient festival and many other more social events, were great experiences with many a tale to be told.
Len Durham piping on board his boat in Granville harbour during a Jersey Band trip to France
Jersey had a surprising connection to my piping upbringing in SA. My tutor in SA had been a pupil of one Lachie Millar (of whom more later) who was in turn a pupil of MacDougall Gillies. Iain Macleod of Jersey’s piping heritage is from his grandfather who was also a pupil of MacDougall Gillies, probably around about the same time as Lachie Millar. Iain is passionate about the Cameron style of playing piobaireachd, which was also the way my teacher had been brought up. As a boy having my lessons in SA, I knew that here was something controversial about this style but I had no idea what or why. My teacher passed away when I was still quite young and before I became very involved in piobaireachd. That was the end of the Cameron style in SA, but when I got to Jersey I was surprised at the connection to Iain both through our tutors and our pipes – when my tutor died, I was able to acquire his Henderson bagpipe that had been made for him in 1929. The engraving on the silver is a beautiful Juniper berry pattern, the like of which I had not seen elsewhere or since – before I got to Jersey that is. Iain Macleod has a slightly older but identical set of Hendersons which had been made for his grandfather. I have still not seen any other set with the same pattern. By 1929 MacDougall Gillies was no longer alive but the romanticist in me sees a connection between the pipes, MacDougall Gillies and his pupils.
Chanter sole with Juniper Berry pattern
The main Piping organisation in SA is the Scottish Piping Society of the Witwatersrand. The similarity to the name of the SPSL is no co-incidence as the first secretary was Dan Crichton who had been secretary of the SPSL before moving to SA and was one of the prime movers behind the SPSW. Lachie Millar was a founder member and later became the society president. He was from Argyll, moved to SA early in the 20th Century and did well in his adopted country. His widow left the Society a generous bequest, including his house. The ravages of inflation have diminished the value of that bequest but it has been enough to provide for what was once one of the highest cash prizes for piping to be found anywhere, the “100 Guineas” (for those not old enough to know, this was £100 plus 100 shillings), bi-annual visits by visiting pipers and a venue for tuition, recitals and practice. At first, the venue was Lachie Millar’s house. The Society sold the house and invested in a room and hall in a new Church of Scotland building in central Johannesburg. That was our home, for tuition and ceilidhs for many years. Sadly, the area where the church is built has now become a dangerous no-go area and the church itself has been taken over by squatters so that part of the Society’s good fortune has been lost and another venue has had to be found.
There have been pipers in SA more or less since the British arrived there in the late 18th Century but the late 20th century seems to have been a bit of a golden age. The legacy from Lachie Millar put the society in a privileged position. It had its own premises and was on a sound financial footing so was able to offer free tuition (Friday nights at the SPSW became an institution among pipers in Johannesburg), it offered the 100 Guineas prize each year and, every second year, was able to bring one of the current leading lights in Scotland out to SA to judge, perform and teach.
Emigration from the UK in the 30s and 40s had brought a number of top class players to SA and many of them were able tutors. Those who I knew best were P/M George Ackroyd and P/M Allan Watters, both of whom had Black Watch connections. George was a formidable personality who had been P/M of the Black Watch before moving to SA in 1937. He had been one of the first pupils of John Grant at the Army School of Piping in 1918 and was later a pupil of John MacDonald of Inverness. In SA he became the P/M of the Transvaal Scottish Regiment (a territorial unit) and was mobilised with them at the outbreak of WWII. He served in Abyssinia and then the Western Desert and was taken prisoner at Tobruk. He was able to keep his pipes with him throughout. On a Friday night we would all gather at the Society’s rooms, probably 10 or 12 of us round the table and work through the 6 tunes which had been set for that years’ 100 Guineas plus any tunes which we were working on ourselves. We had a great collection of recordings, including many from Bob Brown which were later used in the Masters of Piobaireachd series, so a lot of time was spent listening and analysing performances of the set tunes by the masters of the day. Woe betide any of us who didn’t practice or who came to class with long hair – George brought his military approach to lessons and was often heard to tell a young piper that he would play better if he had his hair cut! He had other words of wisdom as well and once took my fiancé aside to tell her to remember that pipers marry their pipes and live in sin with their wives.
Allan Watters was from Perthshire and was also a Black Watch man, becoming P/M of the 1st Bn during WWII, in time to lead them into the battle of Alamein. He remained P/M until he left Scotland for SA after the war. He was the tutor of several school bands and over the years taught hundreds of boys to play the pipes and so made a major contribution to piping in SA. He also set us all a wonderful example of decency and integrity and he was one the few judges whose decisions were simply never debated or disputed.
Allan Watters (at John MacFadyen’s workshop in 1973.
There were many others who had made SA their home and who contributed in a less visible way to the piping scene, usually in bands and there were others who came to SA for shorter periods such as Jimmy Young, who spent a few eventful years there as P/M of one of the bands and Brian Mulhearn. SA has produced several notable players in the last few years, probably the best known being Chris Terry, Gareth Rudolph and Craig Sked. Some South Africans in the London piping scene have been Peter Candy, David Mason and Daniel del Piccolo.
There were a number of pipe bands in SA and most, but not all, solo players were also in bands. The highland games season was a long one, starting in February and finishing in September. SA is a big country so the long distances had to be dealt with as well – bands could not afford to fly so would drive, often overnight, the 1000 miles between Johannesburg and Cape Town or the 400miles from Johannesburg to Durban for a weekend contest.
The standard of band playing in SA has probably never been as high as the standard of solo playing. The visiting pipers of those days were largely soloists and paid little attention to bands so in many ways, we had to make our own way. Nevertheless, we were very enthusiastic, travelling long distances each week to get to practice and working hard to get our playing right. We operated in a bit of a vacuum, without the benefit of being able to listen to bands better than us, never a good thing where the standard of playing is concerned. Bands were however the bedrock of piping instruction. From the 60s onwards, the army was an important part of SA life because everyone of eligible age was required to do National Service and then a period in the reserves, which were frequently called up because of the border wars going on in the 70s and 80s. Pipe bands played their part in that, not least because pipers and drummers in the territorial army bands could get credit for time spent at practice, parades and other duties (including, sadly, military funerals) thereby reducing the risk of being called up to be sent to Angola or other places where the army was on active service. The standard of bands rose throughout the late 70s and early 80s aided by the likes of Bob Shepherd who came out as a guest of the Pipe Bands Association in 1983 and gave band playing a great boost. Of course, numbers were always an issue and a band with as many 12 pipers was a rarity indeed. In 1984, my band, Richmond Avenue, ventured to Scotland intending to play in the Worlds but were thwarted by the politics of the time and the Glaswegian boycott of all things South African. Since then things have changed politically and SA bands are now common at the Worlds, Edinburgh Tattoo and elsewhere, a far cry from the old days.
The games in SA always had both band and solo contests and the solos would usually have a dozen or so competitors in the senior events. The first “solo only” event was the “100 guineas” which started in the mid 1960′s. Having a leading Scottish piper as judge every second year added to its prestige.
Visits by leading Scottish pipers were great highlights for us. Over the years that I can remember the SPSW arranged visits by J B Robertson, Donald Macleod (a photo of him in Johannesburg appeared on the front cover of the Piping Times recently), Ronnie Lawrie, John Maclellan (several times), Bob Brown, John MacFadyen, Willie McDonald of Inverness, Angus MacDonald (Scots Guards), Murray Henderson and more recently Rob Wallace. Other leading pipers who have visited SA but not as guests of the SPSW include Bob Nichol, Finlay MacRae, Donald Morrison, Angus MacDonald (Glasgow police), Bob Shepherd and Bob Worrall. In 1966 we were visited by the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who were then based in Swaziland and that year Norman Dodds (then a pipe-corporal in the RIF) won the 100 guineas.
The performances of the top visiting soloists were enthusiastically attended by the locals. Not having the luxury of frequently hearing piping at this level, we were mesmerised by the performances and I can still remember John MacLellan’s performance of the Battle of the Pass of Crieff as long ago as 1966, which is what convinced me to take up piobaireachd. Many of our visitors also led workshops and I was able to attend workshops with Bob Brown, John MacLellan (several) and John MacFadyen, each one different but an experience not to be forgotten.
The workshop with Bob Brown in 1970 was the first and for that reason perhaps the most special for me. He was due to visit again but sadly passed away before the visit took place. There were 12 of us, wearing the kilt was obligatory and we had a piper wake us with Johnny Cope each morning. Before the workshop started we each chose a tune to learn and then each day we all sat together as he sang through, and then we sang through, the tunes. After a few days, all of us were playing our own tunes and had a good feel for all 12 tunes. By the end of the week several knew all 12 of them in the RUB style.
RUB in SA. He is talking to SPSW secretary Nick Kinsey and Capt Bill Shepherd, from what was then Rhodesia.
He had judged the 100 guineas the previous week and took us thought the notes he had made on our performances. It had been only my second piob contest and I had gone way off in Black Donald’s March – he was fairly complimentary up to that point and then his note was to the effect “Gone badly wrong but I won’t ask him to stop because he’s wearing such a nice Gordon kilt” – RUB having been a Gordon Highlander. During this workshop he paid me the great compliment “If I had your fingers and my experience, I could go places”. He had come to us almost directly from New Zealand and was full of enthusiasm about a young New Zealander he had just met – Murray Henderson, of course, and Murray tells me that Bob had kind things to say about piping in SA after this trip. Bob surprised me by how open he seemed to be to different interpretations of tunes, as I had expected him to be very much “my way or no way”. He taught us his way but always acknowledged that there were other settings and interpretations. He was not sold on Kilberry however – as a bright eyed 19 year old, I arrived at the workshop with my brand new Kilberry Book of which he remarked “You’d be better off with the Daily Record under your arm”. Of an evening we had the chance to just sit and listen to him, tune after magical tune.
John MacFadyen was very much a “my or no way” instructor. His workshops, where we all also wore the kilt, were based on individual teaching of tunes that in many cases he chose for us based on his assessment of our standard. This meant we each learnt those tunes well, but little else, although he had us all playing our own tunes very well by the time he left. My tunes from him were the Earl of Antrim and then Macleod’s Controversy. The evenings were spent listening to John who was then at the top of his game. His workshops were at a wonderful venue that had a huge room with a blazing winter fire – perfect for listening to a master piper. For me, perhaps the most memorable from these workshops was his performance one evening of The Flame of Wrath, which was a tune he was giving to one of the students and which John played for us at his aggressive best. Chris Terry, who was a very successful solo competitor in Scotland in the 1980′s moved from SA to Scotland and became one of John MacFadyen’s pupils. Chis Terry now makes a wonderful set of drones, based on John MacFadyen’s MacDougalls.
Tea time at a John MacFadyen workshop – John MacFadyen, Bill Shepherd, John Farmer and Len Durham
John MacLennan visited us several times and we got to know him well. His workshops were always relaxed and productive. We each had a tune to learn but John also worked through many other tunes, with lessons tape recorded. Bunty visited with him several times as well and added to all of them by her sense of humour, knowledge of piping people and places and, on one trip, her avid research into Hector the Hero, who had been in SA during the Boer War.
The universal comment from the visiting judges was that the standard of (solo) playing was good but the sound of our instruments was not what it should be. Johannesburg is 6000 feet above sea level and very dry so in those days of cane drone reeds, hide bags etc, everything to do with tone and steadiness were a real struggle. The problem was often how to keep the pipe moist enough to blow, and seldom how to keep it dry. The long drive to contests at the coast was always rewarded by a bagpipe that sounded many times better than it did up country. We also blamed poor quality chanter reeds arriving from Scotland, which was undoubtedly the case, but understood that that sort of climate was not what pipes were designed for. When Bob Shepherd visited he brought a box of his reeds with him and when he took the box out after about a week in Johannesburg, they had all dried out and were unblowable. That was a constant problem and the advent of synthetic drone reeds and bags has been a boon everywhere but nowhere more than in Johannesburg.
Now and again old sets of pipes of uncertain history would turn up. In our band over the years we assembled quite a collection of quite good old pipes which members had unearthed somewhere or other. One day the drum major of the band noticed something that looked like a pipe box lying in someone’s garage and made some enquiries. It was indeed a set of very beaten up and very old pipes. The owner had no real idea of what they were or whose they had been, except that it had been someone in his wife’s family many years before. They weighed less than a normal bagpipe would and didn’t look good so the drum major concluded that they must be Pakistani and the owner offered them to him for the equivalent of about £5. When I saw them my pulse quickened – the chanter was stamped “MacDougall Breadalbane”. I quickly made them my own. It is hard to be sure what make they are but except for the chanter, they are probably not MacDougalls. Based on comparisons with other sets, are probably an old set of Lawries. They are ebony (which is why they are light) but are so old and well used that the bottom section of the bass drone has worn smooth from being held/rubbing against the piper playing them. Sadly, a couple of tuning pins had broken and been inexpertly replaced and they have some cracks which open up when played much but they do have a nice tone despite that.
The “£5 bagpipe” – Lawries, perhaps – plus MacDougall chanter
Like piping in other parts of the world, it is flourishing in SA at present, with a number of new bands springing up in recent years. The 100 guineas is still competed for and there are some very capable players in SA. The biggest disadvantage is distance from the real top players. Gareth Rudolph has recently moved back there and his experience of competing in Scotland and as an instructor at the Piping Centre, will add greatly to things there. A new prize has recently been set up to award a two week trip to Scotland to a young competitor in memory of the late John Farmer, a stalwart of the SA scene (he was the pupil who learned Flame of Wrath from MacFadyen) has so far been able to bring two young competitors over, the promise that they make being a commitment to pass on what they learn once they get home.
Piping has been a life-long passion and wonderful opportunity for me to learn great music, have fun, meet wonderful people and keep on learning. When, more than fifty years ago, my granny took me to the highland games in Johannesburg and whetted my appetite for the music and the atmosphere, little could she or I have imagined the pleasure that lay in store.