Editor’s Notebook: Schools Teaching/ Duncan MacLellan/ Auction Pipes/ Paterson’s Publications

George Heriot’s, one of our top juvenile pipe bands

We should temper our reading of this week’s story on the introduction of school’s piping instructors almost 50 years ago with the unpleasant fact that not all appointments were a success. I could name three or four tutors from back then who were just not up to the job. Many children suffered from the negligence and incompetence of these poor teachers. Worse, public employee union tape meant they could not be removed from their sinecures despite the protest of parents.

Fortunately it is rare that we have this experience today. It has not gone away, though happily it is the exception. Appointments are all about getting the right person for the job. A good teaching qualification is not enough. The instructor must be a first class musician with the best interests of his or her pupils at heart and have a devotion to the instrument.

The vast majority of our schools teachers, private and public, fall into this category, working long hours, some of it unpaid, to make sure their charges are best equipped for the challenges presented by our difficult instrument.

These teachers have done an outstanding job in keeping things afloat during this pandemic, applying all sorts of innovations to ensure youngsters stay focussed on the great day of freedom when they will be able to once more stride across the playing field as a band. Not long now.

Definitely in the successful teacher category would be Donald Ban MacDonald out in Benbecula and his recently retired assistant on the island of Barra, Domhnall Padruig Nicholson. Here’s how Domhnall’s story was reported in the Oban Times:

Another island teaching hero was Duncan MacLellan who taught hundreds of kids on Benbecula over many years and for scant reward. Not a schools instructor you understand. Fitting that Duncan received the 2020 Balvenie Medal for services to piping shortly before he died.

I helped him out with a couple of workshops back in the 80s. In the evenings we had a dram and he spoke of the old days on the island when they all went barefoot and the big event was the arrival of the ferry sometimes delayed for a week in winter. They lived on oatmeal and herring and fresh, creamy milk from the family cow and thought nothing of their plain fare. After school he would run errands for his parents and in the long summer evenings wander the machair….

The black beret and welcoming toothy grin of this champion of piping will be fondly remembered by many.

Duncan MacLellan with the Balvenie Medal

A reader who asked for anonymity writes: ‘I thought the piece in PP re the rare, recently auctioned, Henderson pipes was a real, yet wounding, illustration of the wider world view of the art. 

‘Unrecognised outwith the circle of expertise, those pipes (and my goodness the picture of the assembled instrument did make me wince), were valued at £60-80. They raised almost 100x that sum for the seller – and yet here we had a clueless auction house raking in a much larger agency fee.

‘A canny buyer got lucky and has probably saved the set from being just ‘something’ that someone picked up at auction for £80, and put in a corner. I hope they get cared for and played again. It struck me that the story more than adequately described the outsiders’ view of the great Highland bagpipe, the very art form, the music and value those who hold it dear ascribe to it, versus the near throwaway nonsense value applied elsewhere. The challenge lies right there. Stay in the battle Piping Press.’ 

Reader Shona Beggs writes: ‘I was researching Paterson, Sons & Co  and came across your site. Not sure if you will be interested, but I have an update on their time in Perth from the info you listed. I have a set of sheet music drawers which has an embossed metal label attached to it:

‘I don’t know if these were presented to a specific person for an event, or if perhaps they put these labels on all stock of that year. They were in fact in Perth from 1863, sadly it doesn’t give an address of their shop at that time; just thought you or your readers might be interested if doing further research.’

Thank you very much for that Mrs Beggs. Please forward any information you have. Read more on Paterson, the famous pipe music publishers of the Scots Guards Books, Willie Ross collection and many more, here.

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