RSPBA Judge Sam Young and His Early Lessons with RB Nicol, Balmoral

Better known these days as a prominent member of the RSPBA’s Adjudicator Panel, Sam Young from Australia was, in his early career, a student of piobaireachd. In this interview with the Editor he talks of how he started playing and of his lessons with Bob Nicol, Balmoral, one of the great figures in 20th century piping…..

My father taught me the pipes when I was a boy of nine years of age; I am now 66 so that gives you an indication of how long I have been at it. My father was originally taught by a man called John Clark, better known as Jock. Jock was taught by James Center in Scotland before the Centers migrated to Melbourne in 1908. Jock also came under the influence of John MacDougall Gillies and got something like 32 piobaireachd from him and he was charged five guineas!

Thirty-two might not seem a lot but at that price you can understand why he didn’t take many more. A big fee in those days. 

When the Centers migrated to Melbourne they sponsored John to come out to Australia and I think he came about 1910. Jock was a great player and he had played in the Govan and Glasgow Police bands. 

He was a big Aberdonian man; a man of about 6ft 5ins and about 18 or 19 stone. A powerful player. I can always remember as a boy aged about 10 hearing Jock playing Marchioness of Tullibardine, Blair Drummond and the Sheepwife and he was a man of a fair age by that time.

James Center

My own piping career developed mainly through a connection my father had with Bob Brown. He had taken quite a bit of tuition from Bob throughout the early 60s, mainly through correspondence, but also on Bob’s trips here. He came in 1970 and we had the opportunity to meet. 

When Bob passed away my father went across to spend some time with Bob Nicol and then in 1974 Bob accepted me to go across and take tuition with him.

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I had finished my training as a fitting and turning machinist and was 23. I spent about ten months with Bob going a couple of days a week. I did mostly piobaireachd but a little bit of march, strathspey and reel too. It was a great time; he was a great guy. 

My first lesson was on the practice chanter which was the only time I ever used it and that was to check the integrity of my fingering. Could I play a crunluath, crunluath-a-mach a toarluath and all the edres and all the good technique that is conducive to good playing. I guess if I didn’t pass I was not getting another lesson. Simple as that. 

As I say I would go up twice a week. I was very fortunate in that I was staying in Milltimber in Aberdeen with Bob Brown’s daughter – and every year for the last 40 years I’ve kept in touch with her. She now lives in Ballater where Bob lived. 

I used to catch the bus from Milltimber and Bob would pick me up off the 9-o’-clock and we’d do lessons for the morning and then we’d go into Ballater for lunch and have one Glenmorangie and a good bowl of soup and then it was back to the house for 2-o’-clock and lessons till five. 

A cup of tea and he’d stick me back on the bus. That happened twice a week. He never charged me a penny. Never was any money exchanged but I did take up the odd bottle of a good malt. Bob wasn’t a big drinker but he liked a dram.

Bob Nicol

As far as the tunes we studied, Bob, and Bob Brown, were of the teaching philosophy that you firstly learn a simple tune that would then be built on. One of the first tunes I learned was Tulloch Ard, a straight breabach tune of simple construction. 

The second tune was the King’s Taxes, quite a difficult tune. He got me on to that because it introduced the fosgailte. Then we’d go on to tunes like Mary MacLeod which has an irregular structure. 

I did Beloved Scotland which was very kind to me over the years. That is a tune where there is always a little argument over how the ground should be played. Nicol was a bit more aggressive with it than Bob Brown. That didn’t mean to say one way was better than the other.

From there we went on to the bigger tunes, tunes like Donald Gruamach. We also looked at smaller tunes such as Macleod’s Controversy with the ‘Donald Mor’ rundown. 

What he was doing was giving me an understanding of the different structures and the wide variety of piobaireachd that we have. He didn’t talk about primary, secondary and tertiary tunes the way people tend to do these days but that is effectively what he was doing in his own musical way. Just a different approach.

Everything was done by singing and as I say, the only time I touched the practice chanter was that very first day. He would sing a lot of things and I remember he had a bit of shake in his arm holding the microphone and the clock would chime in the background and you can hear that on recordings I made. I shared a lot of them with different people. 

You had to learn the tunes he’d taught you before you could go back for another lesson, so you made sure you had them off. I only had a few days between lessons to learn a tune and I must say I found that quite demanding in the beginning, but I was dedicated to trying to learn the music and I didn’t want to lose my teaching slot. 

When I arrived I would get the pipes out and would go through a tune with Bob conducting and if he liked it he would keep conducting but if he didn’t you got the big wave to stop. He would then go through the bit he didn’t like and ask you to play it again. 

Brett Tidswell, Dennis Browning and Sam at the recent RU Brown Piobaireachd Society Gold Medal contest in Adelaide. Sam and Brett were the judges and Dennis the winner

Everything was done by singing and on the pipes. When you got a new tune he would sing the tune through and I would record it. Then he would say ‘let’s have another go and sing along with me’. 

He had me singing with him right from day one. It was all about the singing. There was no practice chanter unless he wanted to demonstrate something. Suibhal Seumas was a good example. (Sam sings first variation.) He played the movement on high G with the thumb gracenote. You don’t hear that played very often.

People forget that Bob had great technique. He was some march player. Quite often at the end of the day he would get the pipes out and have a tune. I can still recall some of the fire in his playing. He played very fast; not slow at all.

When I got home I suppose I was successful within the constraints of Australia but on my return I did an engineering degree and that put me back a bit as far as the piping went. 

I was living in a small country town in the north and then I moved to Brisbane and the only way to keep playing was to join the band scene and that’s what I did with Sandy Campbell and the Queensland Irish. That was how my pipe band career started. 

I went round a few competitions with Iain Morrison when he came out in 1987 and we both featured in the prizes here. I still keep in touch with Iain and have visited him and Flora on a number of occasions over the years.

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1 thought on “RSPBA Judge Sam Young and His Early Lessons with RB Nicol, Balmoral

  1. A great read.

    And for me, 32 tunes is not unimpressive.

    “Jock also came under the influence of John MacDougall Gillies and got something like 32 piobaireachd from him and he was charged five guineas! Thirty-two might not seem a lot but at that price you can understand why he didn’t take many more.”

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