The BBC’s Iain MacInnes Retires as Producer of ‘Pipeline’ after 30 Years

The Radio Scotland piping programme ‘Pipeline’ has had the same producer for the past 30 years: Iain MacInnes. Yesterday saw the end of an era when Iain, now 60, retired. We asked him to reflect on his time in the studio and below he talks of a rewarding career and some of the pipers he met along the way. Iain is no mean piper himself. His father was Director of Education in Brunei, North Borneo, so he and his brother, like the children of most civil servants, were sent back to the UK for schooling. He was taught by Jimmy McGregor at Glenalmond School in Perthshire, though his first grounding was from Colin Forsyth at a primary level boarding school, Blairmore, near Huntly, Aberdeenshire. Iain deserves credit and congratulations for his time at the helm of ‘Pipeline’, a more than significant contribution to piping.

Mathematics isn’t my strong point, but I reckon that I must have made well over 1000 editions of ‘Pipeline’ during my 30 years of involvement with the BBC. 

In the early years I worked closely with David Murray who was presenter of the programme.  I was a bit nervous about this at first – he came with a fearsome reputation as a strict disciplinarian during his time in the Army (he was Colonel of the Camerons) – but I needn’t have worried.

By Iain MacInnes

He was one of the nicest and most supportive people I’ve ever met, producing immaculately crafted scripts week-in, week-out, and radiating a sort of inner conviction that piobaireachd, in particular, was something to be celebrated and enjoyed.

Gone but not forgotten….the great David Murray

As a pupil of both Robert Reid and Willie Ross he set high standards for himself.  I remember being at his home in the Borders once when he was well into his 80s. He was rattling through the crunluath variation of (possibly) The Piper’s Warning To His Master on the practice chanter. 

He stopped abruptly with a parade-ground expletive to himself, ‘C’mon David, it has to be better, better’.  It sounded none too shabby to me. Over the course of two or three visits he allowed me to record some of his own life story.  He was a fascinating man and a true servant of piping.

In terms of competition music I remember the early – to mid 90s as something of a Golden Age.  I think that this was partly because the audiences at the Eden Court Theatre for the Northern Meeting were large and lively, none more so than in the Former Winners’ MSR. 

The pipers responded in kind.  Safe and cautious playing was definitely not the order of the day, and with players like Alasdair Gillies, Gordon Walker, Angus MacColl, and half a dozen others in their prime, some of the music was sublime. 

Piping on Skye…Iain at Portree in this fine study by Cailean Maclean

I was wondering the other day if I was perhaps succumbing to a bit of age-driven nostalgia on this count, but no, dig out the recordings for the Northern Meeting in 1991, for instance, and it really is that good.

I was fortunate to spend a reasonable amount of my working life in and around recording studios.  We recorded loads of folk music sessions for the Travelling Folk programme, which I also produced, but when it came to well-rehearsed and well-organised musicians, the piping sessions set the standard. 

I don’t ever recall working with a piper who was less than fully committed to putting out a good performance, although of course the pressure of the studio environment occasionally took its toll.

On the smallpipes

Would it be possible to pick out a highlight? I’m slightly reluctant to do this given the riches on offer, but in fact one image persistently springs to mind. It’s this: Gordon Duncan strolling down Queen Street in Edinburgh on a sunny July afternoon in 2001, a cigarette in hand, his wife Mary with him.  ‘I’m just back from Australia. The pipes are going well’. We were headed for the old BBC Edinburgh studios in Queen Street.

Occasionally the three things that you need to make a good studio recording – a suitable space, a great player and a top-class instrument – come together to produce something very special. That afternoon we had all three, with Gordon at his fluid, dextrous best, and the music pouring out of him in an undiluted stream of excellence; a few traditional tunes, but mainly his own compositions.

As we said in the intro, Iain was no slouch as player. Here he is on Highland pipes and smallpipes. The Highland pipe jigs are from Iain’s last recording ‘Sealbh’. Tunes: Marjorie Lowe, Paddy O’Rafferty, William Nicholson’s Jig, Nighean na Cailliche Crotaiche Crubach. On the smallpipes he is with Eilidh MacFadyen on accordion and Decker Forrest on trump/ jews harp. This is from a recently released CD ‘Binneas Ostaig’.  It also features students at the Gaelic College in Skye, Sabhal Mor Ostaig where Iain studied in 2013/14. The tunes are Mrs MacDonald of Uig and John D Burgess. Eilidh MacFadyen is from Tiree and is related to the piping MacFadyens:

Of course a piper doesn’t reach that point without putting in an awful lot of hard work in the background, and Gordon was no exception, but I remember thinking at the time that we’d managed to capture him at his very best. (Some of these recordings, incidentally, can be found on the Greentrax release ‘Just For Gordon‘.) 

I was also very fond of recording Willie Morrison.  He’s such a good player and has an enormous repertoire of little-known tunes and quirky arrangements. With Willie you never know what’s coming next!

Iain playing recently at a wedding

I started back in 1990, and now that I’ve turned 60 this seems like a good time to move on, with many happy memories of the programme itself and those I’ve worked with over the years.

I’d like to say thank you to all the players who have come through our studios during my time at the BBC, and of course to Pipeline’s presenter Gary West. It’s been a pleasure to work with you all, and a privilege to hear good music played at first hand by great musicians.

Gary West will be continuing on the programming and scheduling side, working with Sushil Dade who will look after the studio production.

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