Yesterday, as you can see above, I played my first virtual funeral lament on my bagpipes. I was taking my lead from a piper in the Hebrides, Allan Henderson, who, unable to attend the funeral of our mutual friend George Mackie, recorded a lament on the shoreline of South Uist, and sent it to George’s widow, Catherine MacLeod.
I too would have been at the funeral in Essex, where George and Catherine lived together for many years on their farm, and where we spent many a happy hour. Sadly, the coronavirus meant that, though George died from cancer not Covid, current restrictions meant only Catherine and their sons Robert and Hector could attend. So, like Allan, I sent tunes on the pipes in place of me and our family.
Our daughter Grace, who for her teenage years kept her pony, Stella, in George’s stables, and rode there any time she could, filmed and sent the video to Catherine. Only piping aficionados will know that I lost concentration and ballsed up the tune. The lament I was playing, Lest We Forget, suddenly morphed into my own recent composition, Our Neighbours, Our Nurses, before I finished with a tune definitely meant for George, When The Saints Go Marching In.
The Neighbour/Nurse tune almost certainly popped into my head because also attending, on her balcony, was our next door neighbour Florence Bridge, a fashion designer currently dealing with huge demand for her snazzy new facemasks. She too was a regular visitor to the stables, as was her sister Sissy, a nurse, for whom I wrote the tune, to play during the weekly clap for carers. Wheels in wheels … that is almost certainly what got me ‘wandered,’ as my Dad used to describe piping concentration lapses.
‘It’s fine Dad,’ Grace assured me. ‘Nobody will notice.’ I bet Hector did. Like me raised in England to two very Scottish parents, he plays the pipes. His Dad played rugby for Scotland. Catherine, like George a Highlander, was for years a journalist on the Glasgow Herald before becoming an adviser to former Chancellor Alistair Darling.
There were plenty of times, when my Dad was teaching me and my brother Donald the pipes as young children, that I wished he wasn’t. Football-mad, cricket-mad, growing up in Yorkshire, why did I have to stay in for an hour every night to do something that my friends would laugh at anyway? Answer, because Tiree-born Dad, also Donald, was proud of his Hebridean heritage and wanted us to be proud of it too.
So we grinned and bore it for him, endlessly practicing scales and grace-notes on the chanter before we were even allowed to blow on the ‘goose’, as the mini-pipes were known, let alone the real thing.
There have been many times since when Donald and I felt gratitude that Dad made us stick with it. My big brother made his career out of piping, first in the Scots Guards, later at Glasgow University where he was their official piper until his death aged 62. I made a good living out of piping too, during and immediately after studying languages at university, when I put my languages to good use travelling round the world busking. And before anyone makes the tired old joke ‘did they pay you to go away?’ I have never had as much cash in my sporran as I had back then.I I was reminded of this last week when an old university friend, Robin Coupland, posted a blog about his experience as my ‘Hat man.’
But today, both father Donald and brother Donald gone, and the world in this weird state to which coronavirus has reduced it, I am more grateful than ever for all those sessions at the kitchen table in Keighley … ‘g,d,e on A, B, C, low G – again’ until we got them perfect. Because the love of pipes which started under pressure, then developed over decades, has gone to a whole different level in lockdown.
I went into self-isolation well ahead of government advice. I work with a number of governments and leaders abroad and they were all saying the same thing – this is going to be bad. In particular Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who knows me well, said that with my asthma and my history of depression I needed to take real care. So I have.
When I sat down on March 24, a good month ago, to write a blog on 20 ways of guarding against depression and anxiety in the lockdown, which I posted hoping it would help others perhaps without experience of mental ill health, music was in there. Number 8. Listen to music regularly. So much better for you than the radio or the telly! Number 9. Even better – make music! I should alert the neighbours that my regular bagpipe playing is going to become a lot more regular, and I will be trying out new tunes.
I have been listening to and playing music every day since. And again before you make the easy crack – ‘Your neighbours must hate you!’ – my neighbours complain when I don’t play not when I do!
We have known Matilda ‘Sissy’ Bridge since she was a baby, through her battle with childhood leukaemia, and now she is an asthma specialist at the Whittington hospital.
A month ago, Sissy’s shift was due to end around the same time as the first of the 8pm claps for the NHS began. As Sissy appeared at the end of the road, Grace, lifelong friend of hers, suggested to me that I pipe her home in front of admiring neighbours. It was as spontaneous as that and the reaction – of her, her Mum, her sister Florence, the neighbours, the whole street – was amazing. Then it went pretty viral on social media and the mainstream media did loads too.
For week 2, I wrote the tune for her, Our Neighbours, Our Nurses. It didn’t take me too long and I liked it. I bounced it off a few top pipers like my friend and later life teacher Finlay MacDonald who runs the National Piping Centre in Glasgow and who some years back trained me for a televised St Andrew’s Day solo performance at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. That was pretty nerve-wracking.
‘Not bad for an amateur,’ he said of my tune. That is Finlay-speak for ‘bloody good.’ So I serenaded Sissy with it the next time she was home during one of the big claps and it had her in tears. I play it every day for her now, when I know she is home.
Then something else happened which really was amazing. I got a call from Martin Gillespie of the Scottish trad rock band Skerryvore asking if I would play the pipes on a new song they were releasing, Everyday Heroes, to raise money for the NHS charities. You bet. Twenty professional musicians and me! Pipes, guitar, accordion, keyboard, flute, drums … we all played in our homes, a soundtrack in the earpiece, and then sent our recordings back to be mixed.
When the final product came back I was thrilled to be on the same track as real artists from bands such as Skerryvore, Skipinnish, Trail West, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Peat and Diesel, Mànran, Fat Suit.
Hearing it was one thing. Then getting the message that it had got to Number 1 in the iTunes download charts, that was incredible. How I wished my brother, who spent his whole life telling me with that he was the better player of the two of us, had been here to be told ‘I’m a Number One chart topping piper. When did you do that?’ The last time the pipes topped the charts it took Paul McCartney to get them there!
Now Finlay and I are planning another recording, gathering pipers from every Continent. More news of this to follow.
I am not alone in finding this joy in music. Exactly a month ago, in Italy, the first European country forced into virtual lockdown, an initiative was launched in Rome which swept the whole country. Brass collective Fanfaroma’s Flash Mob Sonoro urged people to ‘open the windows, step out onto the balcony and play together’. The next day, another flash mob event, Mestolata Collettiva, ‘Ladle Collective’, embraced that most primitive method of music-making, bashing pots and pans.
In Nottingham, a woman has resurrected the famous anthem that helped us to election victory in 1997, Things can only get better, and it can be heard for miles! I have played ‘happy birthday’ to Elsie, the five-year old daughter of one Burnley’s players, Ashley Westwood, and recorded the fans’ anthem ‘No Nay Never’ for those who need a reminder of life on the terraces.
Pipers who read a piece I wrote in the Independent about how my mood was dipping sent me new tunes to learn and listen to. And it works. Music really works. Lifts you up. Puts you down. Lifts you up again.
I love my pipes. They are bringing back wonderful memories, and stirring great emotions. They are helping me get through these very strange times. The number of requests I am getting online and face to face when out walking tells me they – and music more generally – are helping others get through them too.
When Catherine MacLeod sent me the film of Allan Henderson playing the lament for George on the shore of South Uist to be played at the funeral, it had me in tears. So heaven knows what it did to Catherine, Robert and Hector. But it also inspired me to put on the Highland gear, get out the pipes, and send them my own lament, and something a bit cheerier, as well.
George, a modest man with a lot not to be modest about, would be amazed at the obituaries that have been written, the emotions he has stirred, and the fuss people are making of him. But I hope somewhere up in that big rugby stadium in the sky, he could hear himself being piped onto the pitch, pumped up and ready to give his all.