Scotland’s piping tradition has proved to be a hardy one. The music survived the Disarming Act of 1746 which forbade Highlanders from wearing tartan or carrying weapons including the bagpipe (the pipes were said to be classified as an instrument of war).
Long after Culloden, further resilience was required to endure the two world wars of the 20th century that saw many pipers serve and perish in battle.
Therefore, it will take more than the coronavirus to deal a mortal blow to our national instrument. Nevertheless, piping in the pandemic has proved challenging. In common with many cultural activities such as the theatre and other forms of live music, piping has struggled.
The competition, recital and Highland Games season – apart from a handful of socially distanced events – has been decimated, making 2020 pretty much a non-starter for pipe bands and most solo players.
The possibility of “aerosol transmission” of the virus – a fear common to other wind instruments – and the tight limits on gatherings has resulted in the cessation of band practices. Classes and lessons have not been taking place in the traditional face-to-face manner.
Pipers have been starved of the social interaction of band practices, society meetings, the beer tent or the post-gig dram.
Of course, such hardships seem entirely trivial when compared with the mounting death toll, the care home crisis or the economic Armageddon caused by Covid-19.
But they are of concern for a pastime that provides so much fun, fellowship, colour and musical fulfilment – not to mention a substantial boost to the economy.
Therefore, ears pricked up when Chris Armstrong, the Pipe Major of ScottishPower, one of the world’s finest pipebands, said he feared pipers and drummers might “walk away” from the scene.
In an interview for the Canadian-produced pipes/drums website, Armstrong argued that the restrictions may make people less inclined to pick up where they left off when the pandemic is over and devote so much time to what can be a very intense hobby.
His argument was that lockdown may throw into sharp relief the financial outlay and commitment required to compete at the elite level at the expense of other activities and family life.
As one of the most accomplished pipers in both the solo and band sphere, Armstrong was, of course, hopeful that scenario won’t come to pass, but he did raise the possibility.
Already the piping scene has been affected in other ways.
Given the social nature of piping, it is perhaps unsurprising that the battering taken by the hospitality sector has had an impact. Earlier this year the National Piping Centre (NPC) in Glasgow announced redundancies, mostly from its excellent hotel and restaurant. But the musical side – in terms of teaching – has also been affected, albeit less so.
This summer has also seen the end of the Piping Times, the monthly piping periodical which had been going for decades and was formerly published by the College of Piping in Glasgow before its merger with the NPC.
As a repository for piping news, hints, controversies and lore about the great players and contests of the past the Piping Times was unequalled and will be sorely missed.
Given the challenges faced by print magazines in the internet era, the writing was perhaps on the wall before the outbreak, but there is little doubt its demise has been hastened by the pandemic as belts have been tightened.
Moreover, the cancellation of the World Pipe Band Championship this summer has deprived the pipe band community its annual pilgrimage to Glasgow Green and its absence will be keenly felt economically.
The congregation of tens of thousands of musicians and spectators from all over the world is a money spinner for the city. As is Piping Live, the festival held in the run up to the “Worlds”, which last year generated £1.9 million and resulted in 33,000 tickets being sold for 150 events.
But there has been a glimmer of hope. Piping Live could not be held in its usual form, but it did not disappear completely. As part of an online version of the festival there were two major competitions “The Silver Chanter” and the “Pipe Major Alasdair Gillies Memorial Recital Challenge contest, which were socially distanced but streamed online.
Later in the year, the Glenfiddich invitational event, which is normally the climax to the piping season for world’s best pipers, was held at its traditional venue Blair Castle without an audience. Two Canadian invitees undertook rigorous self-isolation regimes to compete in this elite competition, underlying their dedication to the instrument and the prestige of the event.
But perhaps the most telling changes have been at the grassroots levels where the NPC has made strenuous efforts to engage people through online learning. And other organisations, notably the Turriff and District Pipe Band, have hosted online competitions which have attracted entries from across the world.
According to Finlay MacDonald, the NPC’s Director of Piping, this has been the silver lining as the piping scene has evolved during a difficult few months. He notes that those taking part in online amateur competitions – the level below the professional Highland games circuit – has expanded significantly during the pandemic. Online classes have been a success and attracted worldwide interest.
The NPC’s bagpipe.news website has taken over from the Piping Times and there is work to create a digital archive of the magazine’s back catalogue.
Piping clubs and bands have met over zoom. During one such meeting held by the Piobaireachd Society last month around 100 enthusiasts of the bagpipe’s classical music gathered to hear experts discuss differing interpretations of tunes.
One of the tunes was a new one – “Salute to the Frontline” composed by the aforementioned Chris Armstrong, a superb piece of music and a fitting tribute to those who have been working so hard trying to keep pipers and everyone else safe.
Tom Peterkin is political editor of the Press and Journal and a keen piper