Bill Boyle, New Zealand – ‘The Best Since GS McLennan’

New Zealand has produced many famous pipers, including a number of individuals who have won the top prizes in Scotland.  The first winner of the Gold Medal from outside Scotland, Lewis Turrell, comes to mind, as do other great kiwi pipers.

However, one of the country’s greatest pipers didn’t have the opportunity to compete in Scotland except for a brief foray, and yet was known with justification to be one of the best pipers in the world, William Boyle. It is now exactly 40 years since Bill Boyle died suddenly at his home in Christchurch.

By Nicholas Taitz

Something of a legendary figure, he was possessed of exceptional technique, so much so that Bob Brown once remarked Boyle was the best piper Brown had heard since GS McLennan. That is high praise indeed, and it’s interesting to see whether the recordings of Boyle which we have bear this out (of course, GS made no extant recordings with which to compare, but we can assume he is the archetype of technical prowess, speed and accuracy, as a player).  

Three commercial recordings featuring Boyle’s piping have preserved his incredible musicianship. His solo album, Bagpipe Virtuoso, is well-known in the Lismor collection of piping recordings, and it shows his exceptionally fine technique, as well as his control and pointing. 

In a BBC interview of ‘Billy’ Boyle tells John MacFadyen that his uncle was his only real tutor, a piper who had been in the Black Watch. Boyle tells MacFadyen, in a memorable remark that his uncle ‘taught him the value of the long note in piping’, a clear reference to the style of pointing, holding long notes and cutting the short ones, evident in Boyle’s playing.

On Bagpipe Virtuoso can be heard his solo instrument, a set of old Robertson drones and (usually, I am told) a Grainger chanter. There are many classic tunes on this album. In fact, all are classics.  Memorable renditions include Arniston Castle into Cameronian Rant, and Crossing the Minch.  

Bill Boyle…..he died suddenly in 1980

On the latter tune, it is said that Donald McLeod (composer of Crossing the Minch), on hearing Boyle playing for him on arriving at a New Zealand airport, said something like ‘I am not sure why you’ve brought me here, you have better here already’.  

What really impressed these master pipers was simple: Boyle had incredible, virtuoso technique on a perfect pipe. The tempos he plays at are unforgiving (to say the least). For one example, try play along to Cameronian Rant with him.  

This album displays his legendary birl, which was sadly later crushed in a printing press accident, ruining one of the best birls ever recorded. Biddy from Sligo into the Jig of Slurs is a GS McLennan set in which Boyle shows off his clear technique and strong birl, and his especially sparkling F doubling.      

Two further albums of Boyle show his wonderful piping, both done with organist Gordon Ogilvie. These are The Friendly Pipes and Bagpipe and Organ Recital.  

These albums are remarkable for the innovative pairing of the pipes with the organ, which is really sweet. Boyle presents a perfectly true pipe scale, with a balanced and true upper register, especially his high A, which rings true over the organ’s backing. 

These two albums are made up of well-known standard pipe tunes, all expertly played on a beautiful instrument. Someone told me one of the two was recorded in a very cold church hall – this certainly doesn’t show in Boyle’s perfect fingering, as usual at brisk tempo.  

A notable feature of the two albums recorded with organ is the relatively lower pitch of the pipe chanter compared to what is heard today.  The overall effect is very sweet, with the pipe scale pleasing at this pitch.  It might be said that Boyle pioneered the modern combination of pipes and classical instruments, which has progressed to today’s use of orchestral chanters.   

All of the three albums mentioned here are available on Apple music.   

2 thoughts on “Bill Boyle, New Zealand – ‘The Best Since GS McLennan’

  1. I grew up listening to that Pipes and Organ recital LP, and just loved it, and Mr. Boyle’s jig playing was simply amazing. I was so enamored of one tune on the album, The Dunkirk Boatman, that I actually wrote a letter asking for the music. To my great surprise, several weeks later a letter arrived, with the tune written out longhand with pen and ink. One of my piping treasures for sure.

  2. Very nice retrospective, Nick. I often play tracks from these LPs on my radio program and am always pleasantly surprised at his mastery of the instrument. The speed and low pitch marks a striking difference to today, and his selection of tunes really brings back good memories. cheers–steve

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