Dunaber Music is an independant producer and publisher of of Celtic music mostly of the Highland bagpipe kind by Michael Grey. Here you will find samples of his stuff MP3 Samples, 60 – 80 second sound clips, extract of his books, stories, tips, techniques and more.
It was a bleak, frosty, light-starved January day in Edinburgh about twenty years ago that it found me. The kind of day where the only cure for quaffing a little too long – and often – from things in Glasgow connected to things Celtic called for a long walk in cold. Oddly, it’s that special kind of lugubrious, frigid grey that is the Old Town in winter, that can be the most curative.
And so I walked. From Waverley station to the occasionally punishing uphill steps of Fleshmarket Close, to Cockburn Street and finally “The Royal Mile” – High Street. It seems to me that today Edinburgh’s tourist areas are never really quiet, even at times when the days are shortest. It hasn’t always been this way. On this January afternoon streets were muted. Locals, students and a hungover piper aside, the place, then, was slim-pickings for the determined piping busker offering his tunes near the gobby Heart of Midlothian.
To the distant – and untuned – soundtrack of a gracenote-free rendition of Skye Boat Song – I was drawn, pulled as if otherworldly, to a city centre antiques shop. The place, with name carefully etched on the storefront, had been around a reliably long time. The faded gold leaf letters on the window gave away as much.
A push of the door and a corresponding ring of the horse bells that hung from the handle marked my entrance to the small shop – that, and a blast of humid, faux-tropical air. As if in an attempt to create his own private city centre Caribbean retreat, the elderly shopkeeper had heaters blazing to the max.
This place was no Jamaica. Jammed to the beams with shimmering silver and gold plates, brooches and every shape of Scots Victoriana ever conceived, the shop had a smell just like the basement of the home of my first teacher, Aberdonian, George Walker. The basement of George’s suburban Toronto home was the place where he would teach. Come to think of it, basements – rare to homes in Europe (and dare I say, Scotland, too) – are the go-to spot for piping activity in Canadian homes, at least the ones where pipers live. The aroma was a quirky mix, heavy with notes of cowhide, mustiness and Airtight bag seasoning. Though the smell of it suggested otherwise, this Edinburgh shop wasn’t a piping place. And I loved it. Bread baking and George Walker’s basement: fantastically evocative scents – two of my most liked.
And yet, for this moment in time, this High Street antiques hot house was a piping place. On this day, under the scratched glass of the old display case were glowing pieces of treasure: shimmering gold and silver. Medals. Piping medals. Holy Hannah! “What’s this, good sir?” (I didn’t really put on a BBC4 voice). I do recall my surprise, though. when I found he did hear my question through the impressive tufts of hair sprouting from his ears. Hirsute lugs seem unnervingly common to shopkeepers of the antiques kind.
“Yes, we just got this lot in last week,” he said. The medals were of a very high quality, a kind not often seen today where disposable plastic or chrome trophies often rule the waves of prize-giving at piping events. Cast-molded images, the names of well-kent places and downright fine artwork was everywhere. There had to be over two dozen medals on display: Strathpeffer, Atholl and Breadalbane Gathering, Inverness – the north and west of Scotland was well represented – and all were sterling silver or assayed gold.
Amidst the magic found around the instrument we know as the Great Highland Bagpipe is an invisible golden ticket to untold amazing experiences. Learn the fundamental ways of the pipes and the world can be your oyster. The extraordinary travels and remarkable people and events that the pipes can conjure are boundless. There’s no prerequisite of grand champion status: pipers and pipe bands of every standard routinely encounter greatness – if not unforgettable bagpipe-made moments. From presidents, prime ministers, the Pope and pop stars, pipers the world over can find themselves in the most unlikely of performance situations.
Consider the Coatbridge Ladies Pipe Band. Oh, to be a member in the summer of 1965 (gender and age notwithstanding). On Wednesday, August 18 of that year, Muhammad Ali, the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, touched down at what was then known as Renfrew Airport. And there, waiting on the tarmac for the arrival of one of the most famous and controversial personalities in the world – were members of the Coatbridge Ladies, tuned and ready for a rousing Scots welcome. As part of a world tour, Ali was scheduled for a Friday night four-round exhibition bout at Paisley Ice Rink.
Just think: when the New Year landed it’s unlikely members of the Coatbridge band had any idea of the historic brush with greatness they would experience before the year was out. I’m not a student of boxing. Nor do I have any great knowledge of the history of ladies’ pipe bands. I do like old stuff. I like the look, the feel, the aesthetic of interesting vintage things. And so to boxing and this Coatbridge Ladies-Muhammad Ali story.
Last summer I was hard at it pulling together a music book project. A part of the process is landing on a decision of what makes the cover. I liked the idea of a letter block poster. I thought, this stark (and cheap) print style, common, especially, to sporting event posters of the 1940s and 1950s was just the thing. So, thanks to a little research and the artistry of graphic designer, John Slavin, we came to a good first draft. The Liston-Clay [Ali] poster would be a central inspiration. In looking at the design we thought:
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could find an old-time kilted boxer for the cover?”
Well, what are the chances? Enter stage right: Muhammad Ali and the Coatbridge Ladies Pipe Band.
In looking for our timeworn kilty, not only was the 1965 story uncovered but we stumbled on a great newspaper photo of the man himself – Muhammad Ali – posing in kilt and Balmoral bonnet. It was just too fantastic. After the appropriate photo licensing enquiries were made, an Ali cover draft was ready (pictured). Now here was a book cover that had real punch (ouch).
With less than a score of grade one bands projected to attend the 2019 World Pipe Band Championships (and quite possibly an entry closer to ten than twenty) any case to be made for a Friday qualifier, or play-off, may likely come across as pretty weak. That the grade 4B contest in 2018 featured 18 bands in each run-off suggests that organizers have a perspective on optimum numbers for any contest (grade 4 is the less-experienced end of the grading spectrum, with grade one, the highest).
For those who aren’t dialled-in to the world pipe band thing – especially as it applies to the idiom’s premier grade – here’s context:
The World Pipe Band Championship is held every August in Glasgow, Scotland.
Until the early 1990s it was something of a novelty to see a lot of bands from across all experience levels attend the event (these levels are known as “grades” to pipe band people).
The rise of discount air travel along with greater awareness of the event due to technology has made the “Worlds” (as it is generally known to pipe band die-hards) a must-go event, at least once, in the life cycle of any competitive pipe band – from anywhere.
There are no fewer than six categories of band competition at the Worlds.
Grades with large numbers of entries are managed through a system of “qualifiers”, a system to winnow numbers, and, theoretically, achieve a more accurate assessment outcome.
The premier level – “grade one” – has, until recently, featured band entries that could number upwards of 25.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the grade one event was staged with a play-off – or qualifier.
Before the late 1990s a one-off Worlds contest was staged on the same day with all grade one bands delivering their required set(s) of music in one day. During this time the number of bands entered could reach the mid to high 20s.
A global trend shows a reduction in the number of active and competitive grade one bands.
The RSPBA is masterful in presenting the Worlds. As a professional organization run with an huge amount of volunteer fire-power, you just have to tip the hat: the remit of the RSPBA is delivered by an effective bunch. The strength of the pipe and drum combo – the one the world loves to love – and hate – is thanks in no small part to the work of the RSPBA.
Knowing that band numbers in grade one are way down and – AND – having lived first-hand the whole Friday grade one qualifier and Saturday play-off experience, I got to thinking: What do other competitive pursuits do? How do they manage big numbers? Surely, I thought, judging a couple of dozen bands is not a unique competitive challenge or experience.
And, FFS, why does it matter?
Starting with the second question: it matters because for the grade one bands qualifying on the Friday before the big day are forced to experience emotions that seldom approach joy.
Joy. Ironic, in this instance, joy’s that thing that is so tightly linked to music. Joy, or, at least something close to happiness, drives the pursuit of greatness in pretty much anything we do.
For the bands tromping Friday’s Glasgow green grass, emotions span the narrow range from relief (and a feeling of relief is as good as it gets) to despair. When your most seasoned and experienced exponents are made to go through paces that fire up a feeling of relief – at best – relief at “qualifying” for the Saturday event – there’s a problem.
The atmosphere at any of the many August Friday qualifying days I’ve experienced is strangely and almost indescribably hollow. In fact, there’s a Zombie vibe where the only tonic for the walking dead of qualifying day is that found in the beer tent.
With countless hours of precious non-work time – and money – invested in a Worlds’ performance it’s no wonder numbers in the top grade are waning. For every band that doesn’t qualify band survival pressure mounts: “all that for this?”.
In a recent mid-winter clear-out of my house (this is mid-Winter, isn’t it?) I found myself with a little extra wall-space. I also found a few things I’d forgotten. Anyone who knows me knows that for me, walls were made for one thing: to hang stuff. When I was younger I used to move a lot. And here’s a Top Tip for the itinerant: In my moves I found that the fastest way to make a place feel like home was to nail to the wall a favourite photo, picture or poster (even before all boxes are unpacked). I say “nail”, I mean hang, as in hung. A well-hung picture makes any strange new place instantly more familiar.
One of the “things” I found in my cleaning/culling was a piece given to me by the late Ronnie Rollo. He was a good friend. Sadly, he died in December 2011 (I used to say things like “passed away” instead of “died” but I’ve committed myself to, at least, try and drop euphemisms when it comes to talking about death. But that’s another subject).
In April of 2011 Ronnie, me and a boatload of accredited judges from the Pipers’ & Pipe Band Society of Ontario attended a seminar in Milton, Ontario. After the session Ronnie says to me, “Come to the car, I have something for you”. We toddled off to his car, he opened the trunk/boot and presented me with a 60 by 60 centimetre framed board. “I’ve been working on this for years. It’s been in the workshop and I finally just finished it.” And he handed me this fantastic piece of folk art. I can’t think of a better way to describe it.
Ronnie’s work was covered in corks – no doubt from fine bottles enjoyed with his wife, June, and who knows how many good friends and family. The corks were all carefully positioned in a thoughtful way. I mean, how could they not, for there, clear to see was the word, in uppercase, “MIKE”. It was just great (you knew I’d say that). I – almost – didn’t know what to say. Ronnie was the first person I knew who used the phrase, “that would bring a tear to a glass eye”. And, well, that sentiment was true to the moment.
Ronnie’s “mike” piece of art is now hung in pride of place. Arty types and pinterest lovers everywhere will know extracted wine corks have a long history as a medium, or resource, to be used for the creation of many an artistic vision. Wine corks are attractive in their own natural, corky way. Most come from warm and winey places like Portugal and once readied for wine bottling feature an attractive vinter’s graphic.
It seems to me that what sets the wine cork apart as a material for art creation is the indescribable connection each has with its supporting element: the wine bottle. With very few exceptions, I’d wager, each cork is extracted from the bottle in an atmosphere of good cheer – if not celebration.
The trend to the twist-top wine bottle caps surely has merit: less spoilage and easier re-sealing, maybe, stand as two benefits. But give me the natural wine cork and all its characteristic unpredictability. The cork is a sort of mirror – or metaphor – to people, maybe: firm, resilient and seldom far from seeking to spend good time with others.
And when I think of Ronnie Rollo and our time as friends, good times were most always at hand. Thanks to Ronnie and the many good bottles that gave their best to selflessly provide his artistic vision: “the mike board”.
I can remember the near-precise moment I was hit with a serious dislike for cane drone reeds. I was last on in the Gold Medal contest at Oban and it was at the start of the last line of the crunluath a mach of my tune – maybe 20 seconds from the finish line. I’ll let Seumas MacNeill, one of the judges of that year’s event take it from there: “The strongest challenge to this fine piper was coming from Michael Grey … playing a quite magnificent In Praise of Morag. As so often happens in such a competition, everything went well until almost the very end, when disaster struck in the form of a stopped bass drone. Michael, and many more of us, will grieve over this for years to come.”
And so I have. Sort of. At the time of my ill-fated Morag synthetic reeds were in beta testing stage and just not good enough to be plugged into a pipe that needed to sound pleasing. As soon as the first reliable set of synthetic reeds was available, I was elbows-out and front of the shop queue. In my many years using synthetic reeds I have never had a drone stop in mid – or late – performance.
The technology of the bagpipe has come a long way in a relatively short period of time: bags, reeds, bagpipe manufacturing, tuning meters and apps, these things are among those that have raised the overall level of bagpipe sound produced today across all experience levels. Today we have choice: natural or synthetic. Count your blessings.
I occasionally wonder at the untold hours of tune-playing I might’ve experienced – if not enjoyed – had I not had to fiddle with cane drone reeds. Shaving or waxing blades, rolling reeds, burning fingers resealing reed-ends, springing tongues. Oh, and waxing and tying bridles. Ugh. I can feel the sweat starting to pour down my brow; a flashback looms.
The speedy evolution of technology that supports an easier piping life, of course, has a broader parallel. The transformation of the developed world, especially, over the last 90 years, is nothing short of remarkable. Technological change has impacted every corner of society. Just as the invention of the wheel, the compass and the printing press, changed the worlds of their time – and so ours – technology, and information technology, in particular, has changed how we interact with each other, how we buy stuff, what we buy, what we eat and how we make our way in the world; that is, how and what we do to earn a living.
I picked up the new children’s book, Young MacCrimmon and the Silver Chanter as a Christmas present for a (lucky) kid on my list. It’s a rare book that doesn’t gift its reader some new insight or bit of knowledge. Written by Mick Broderick and Robert Wallace and illustrated by Norman Matheson, this children’s book didn’t fall short: I was reminded that the late Broderick stood as a great Scottish tradition bearer and found piper-solo-piping-judge, Matheson, to be an outstanding illustrator – and so, an artist beyond his piping.
The book reshapes the story of a young piper – that would be young MacCrimmon – bewitched by a fairy and given great musical powers. Like almost all good things, the fairy’s gift is conditional and therein lies the heart of the story. It’s a good one.
There’s a great playfulness to the story laid out here with a fun cartoon eavesdropping artistic device, “Mischief Maisie”, who bleats one-liners from the corner of nearly every page turned (“stop cryin’ ya big baby”).
The book is especially tailored to young primary school-aged kids. There’s even a quiz at the end of the story to test short attention spans. I managed a solid-ish 6 out of 10.
As a story set in Scotland about a legendary piper who eats haggis and goes to battle with his clan chief you’d have to say the book ticks all the boxes as a new Scottish children’s classic. Not just that, a great new staple for the High Street tourist shops.
I suggest rather than softcover a hard, perfect bound production run for future editions.
A frequent topic of conversation in some pipe band, em, circles relates to performance options. For instance, is the three-pace roll start and march to centre field (where the band moves to centre stage and curtly turns their collective back to the audience) the best we can do? Except for the most change-averse, most interested in such things, I think, say a big “no”.
I came across a pic today, courtesy of Barry Ewen and his facebook page, one full of scans of great piping ephemera and pics. Here is a photo (thank you, Barry) of the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band – near the beginning of the vintage of my membership – competing in a crescent-shaped stance. This was 1984. I’m not great with the sums but that has to be 100 years ago. And yet, today, aside from the infrequent quirky indoor event, no band opts to perform this way. We’re still P2C (pleats to crowd).
Why bother changing?
A performance configuration like, say, a crescent shape:
o Is a simple and respectful recognition of the audience
o Allows every playing band member easy and unimpeded sight of the bandmaster (aka Pipe Major)
o Enables the sounds of the band to be more broadly released and
o Makes the pressing of pleats less of a priority for band members
I understand that it’s (currently) against the rules in many jurisdictions but – but – flexible performance configs are permitted in Ontario. Why do bands in Ontario opt to perform in an old-school back-to-the-crowd way when they can stand, really, any way they choose? Circle? U-shaped? Triangle with right legs in the air? It’s all permissible.
I wish more bands would go for it in competition arenas where it is allowed. You know, do what can be done to up the audience appeal of pipe bands. Pipe bands need all the help they can get.
As for other places around the globe where pipe bands play and performance regulations are strict: time, maybe, to polish the rules around good stagecraft and check-out the best ways to present music to an audience.
Surely bands would be best served to not turn their back to the world.
For a strong dose of wistful nostalgia its hard to beat listening to an audio recording of a long-gone – and much-loved – relative. Presented to you today is my grandmother – Grammy, to all of us – my dad’s mother: Margaret Teresa (MacBain) Grey. Thanks to the passionate and thoughtful field work of the late Ian Tait of Sherbrooke, Quebec the world has access to about 600 recordings of tradition-bearing residents of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. The full recording sits in the archives of Bishop’s University (Lennoxville, Quebec).
Archivist Ian Tait met my grandmother on a number of occasions but the recording given here was recorded Thursday, July 12, 1979 at the rural Townships home of Grammy’s daughter and son-in-law: my Aunt Eileen and Uncle John George. Their home was a stunning A-frame house that sat high atop a hill overlooking the rolling land of the area. On this recording the occasional truck or passing car can be heard; on this July day the screen door would’ve been open and the noise was the price paid for a summer breeze.
For her whole life Grammy thought she was one year older than was true. She talks on this recording of being born 22 November, 1889. If only she knew she was a girl of the nineties. On this day she was well into her 89th year and, as the recording shows, clearly struggled with her hearing.
Maggie, or Grammy, as she was known in later years by her friends and family, led a good, long life. She died seven years after this recording was made, in her 97th year. The last time I saw her I remember her asking a melancholy, sort of rhetorical question, “why has God left me to live so long?”. With her life-long friends gone and faculties failing it’s really not a stretch of the imagination to have a little empathy.
Still, the Grammy I knew was an intelligent, sharp-witted woman. She loved to laugh and, like my father, an unquenchable reader, though I don’t think my dad ever read a Harlequin Romance.
Maggie was born in Finnieston, Glasgow. Her people were all of the Outer Hebrides: Torlum, Griminish and Balivanich, Benbecula and Baleshare, North Uist. At the time of her birth, Maggie’s mother, Flora MacMillan (Flora daughter of Donald son of Alexander son of Donald son of Donald son of Murdo), was unmarried. Flora briefly left Torlum, Benbecula to give birth with the help of her sister, Glasgow-resident, Margaret Beaton – to later return home to Torlum, with daughter, Maggie in tow.
Grammy’s father, William MacBain, suffered the same fate as Flora MacMillan’s parents (at almost the same age): at 34 he died of tuberculosis. His people were all from the island to the north of Benbecula – North Uist to be clear and the place of Baleshare, to be precise.
William MacBain’s people – including his 16 year-old father, John MacBain – were victims of the Clearances and left North Uist in the 1860s for Australia, leaving William MacBain with his mother. William was also born to an unwed mum, Mary MacRury of Torlum.
For the crofter (subsistence farming) residents of the islands at this time, life was almost indescribably difficult. Grammy’s life was no different. Flora MacMillan and her two daughters (Maggie was younger sister to Flora’s first-born Kate Morrison) made their way back and forth from Glasgow and Benbecula, doing the best they could to scratch out a life. For a time Grammy made her way working as a “kitchen maid” at first the Lochmaddy Hotel in North Uist and then the Lochboisdale Hotel in South Uist. On this recording she talks of collecting plants. To be clear: this was to survive, to have something to eat. It wasn’t about the science of botany or pressing leaves in wax paper. I’d wager there weren’t many fat people in Uist at this time.
By the time WW1 broke out Maggie MacBain met and married an Irish Protestant, Robert Grey, born Strangford, County Down. He spent four years in France in the trenches while she cared for her first-born, Katherine. As the Depression hit Maggie and Robert Grey found themselves with six kids and not much in the way of a future. In 1929, they took advantage of a war veteran’s resettlement program and, with their young family, high-tailed it for the Eastern Townships of Quebec. And to be fair, it’s hard to think of an eight-day Atlantic crossing as “high-tailing”.
In the first week of July 1929 they stood in front of their new home: a modest farm in Bulwer, Quebec. The land was not great and their knowledge of farming – and farming in Canada – was limited, if non-existent. That was the beginning of life in Canada for the Greys – and my grandmother, Maggie MacBain.
Grammy would never again set foot on Scottish soil. My heart aches a little when I listen to her talk and valiantly try and recall songs and words of her Benbecula youth. Still, at 89, or for any age for that matter, she proves a trooper in many of her recollections. A half-century of time fails to stop the Gaelic – and “Bonnie Benbecula” (as she might’ve said) – from flowing on.
Another thanks to Ian Tait, wherever he is, and, of course, Grammy.
Difference: Glasgow-Eastern Townships life (3’55”); A day in the life on the farm in Bulwer, Quebec (6’54”); Waulking cloth (14’20”); “they had a tub … don’t know if I can mention that …” (15’04”); A waulking song (16’02”); After the waulking (17’29”); Song snippets (20’41”- 23’20″); Glasgow fish story (27’57”); Superstitions (32’50”); Difference between Highland and Eastern Township people (39’12”); First car (40’49”); Gypsies (41’37”); Torlum, Benbecula school (42’44”).
A long time ago I made a tune for my friend, Barry Ewen. It was first published in Neil Dickie’s “First Book”. Knowing that there has yet to be a music book published anywhere (to my knowledge) that has been without error or typo, it still bugged me that there was a typo in bar one of the tune I named for Barry.
On a side note, while this tune is written “dot-cut” one of my strangely stand-out memories of the “Live in Ireland 87” project in Belfast was Stuart Liddell tuning up at one of our weekday practices with a smattering of a groovy, open, round version of this tune. Like the piper: brilliant! Try it yourself.
It would be hard to argue that the Scots have not punched above their weight in leaving a bold mark on the world. Given the relative size of the country it’s inspiring to think of the remarkable contributions Scotland has given humanity. Golf, whisky and bagpipes aside, con- sider the telephone, TV, the threshing machine, Adam Smith, Ishbel MacAskill, Robert Burns and chicken tikka masala. Historian Arthur Herman underscored the Scottish impact in publishing his popular book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It (2001).
If Herman’s thesis is correct then it’s equally remarkable to consider the wide array of less-than-charitable stereotypes generally assigned to the Scot: always close to a pub, quick to anger and frugal to a fault. The cheap or mean Scot has to be one of the most widely-known of them all. I’d wager the origins of the uber-frugal Scot have deep roots in religion and a time when there was genuine scarcity of just about everything. When only a coin or two might be in hand it’s not unreasonable to think of the fist as naturally tight. Whatever the origins, to many outsiders, the reputation of the cheap Scot holds.
Of course, when it comes to negative stereotypes, the Scots are not alone. As a preconceived idea about a group of people there’s hardly a country – or people – on the planet not seen through the lens of an adverse assumption. But why? Is there any good that can come from oversimplified opinions of someone – or something?
People seem to have an instinctive need to put people and things into easily understood categories. The late Polish social psychologist Henri Tajfel said stereotypes can help make sense of the world: “They are a form of categorisation that helps to simplify and systematise information. In stereotypes information is more easily identified, recalled, predicted, and reacted to.”
So, while stereotypes may serve to make what’s going on around us easier to understand, they can lead to flawed assumptions. I can’t think there is a huge lot of good that can come from stereotyping – or relying on a general assumption to make a sound decision. The beliefs and generalities around the stereotype are often rife with prejudice, racism, sexism and plain ugly callousness. Yes, not all stereotypes are negative. Canadians are overly polite is one that comes to mind. Women are nurturing. Italians are great cooks. Still, it strikes me there is more unfavourable than good in most examples of stereotypes.
I got to thinking about the stereotype when I came across an odd little story about the origins of 3M’s “Scotch” brand adhesive tape (Sellotape). Evidently, the name comes straight from the cheap Scots trope. Apparently car painters using an early version of the tape told a 3M salesman to go back to his “Scotch bosses” to put adhesive all over the tape (and not just in one area of the plastic) to make it stickier. The inference, of course, being the “Scotch bosses” were stingy with the glue.
In their advertising, 3M, like countless other companies made – and make – hay with Scots stereotypes. A little tartan colour, a bonnie balmoral and a bagpipe here or there and – boom – instant graphics for a “good value”, economical angle to virtually any product.