The airing last weekend of the online premiere of the film ‘Follow Me…I’m Right Behind You’ brought back a host of memories from my time as senior instructor at the former College of Piping in Glasgow.
I retired from Strathclyde Police in December 2006 and during that first week of doing nothing I received a phone call; it was the College of Piping asking if I would come in and teach for them.
By Barry Donaldson
No, not for me, said I, the last thing on my mind was teaching bagpipes. I had other ideas of how I was going to occupy myself. However, the CoP persists and I am persuaded to teach on an interim basis until such times as I find an alternative activity.
So it began. Not a week into retirement, I found myself teaching within the famous Otago Street building, and, not that it was my intention, a piping instructor I became.
In these early days one could not help but be drawn in by the buzz of the place. Whether it was front of shop headed by Gary Carruthers and Willie Park, or upstairs in the main teaching rooms. The place was alive and vibrant. It was a hive of activity.
It was a person-centred teaching environment and everyone who came through the front door was greeted with a warm welcome and thereafter told to ‘put the kettle on’.
I made new friends and renewed old friendships with some of the finest bagpipe teachers in the world: Joe Wilson, Tony MacDonald, Willie Morrison, Bob McPhee, to name but a few, all fascinating individuals with serious piping pedigrees.
Jeannie Campbell was always around, often to be found in the museum. What a wealth of knowledge and information she had, an encyclopaedia of the bagpipe world.
The College was a registered charity with this overriding philosophy: to provide anyone with the opportunity to learn to the bagpipes regardless of their financial situation. In other words if you couldn’t afford the tuition fee you would be taught for nothing. Indeed, the tuition rate was kept low so as not to discourage potential students.
Friday afternoon was when some of the older generation pipers met up for the Veteran’s Club where a warm welcome was extended to all. Playing the pipe was first and foremost the main requirement regardless of performance standard – and there was always a bottle of the innocuous liquid just to help the fingers.
The building hosted some great piping events such as the Uist and Barra professional competition as well as numerous recitals by top players, always attracting healthy audiences with refreshments ever on hand. The College was renowned for its hospitality.
The College had a global reputation for innovative approaches to teaching with established outreach schools both in Scotland and abroad. In 2007 there was a determination to expand this work, and we were actively looking at the European scene as well as considering how to extend the programme in America.
Drive and determination, which the College had in abundance, led to the first German school in Brüggen, followed by the school further south in Homburg. Meanwhile in the US the California school, started by Seumas MacNeill in the 1960s, continued to thrive.
The first new school in America was held in Buffalo, NY, before it moved to Boston. Contacts made there led to further schools in Florida. All these schools were extremely successful, and an unforeseen outcome was an increased influx of students to the College, particularly during World’s Week.
All students were encouraged to feel part of the College with instructors actively cultivating a sense of ownership and responsibility for the institution.
The College was never short on ideas and one developed into a somewhat controversial project: the film mentioned in my opening paragraph! At that point we did not have a pipe band and as I became more immersed in the day to day running of the College, a band was started.
Recognising that many foreign students who flocked to Otago Street during August would never have the opportunity of competing at the World Pipe Band Championships, it was decided to give them just that.
They would all become members of the band, the aim being to play in Grade 4b at the Worlds. To my surprise this generated a lot of interest with an increase of about 50 new members. For them it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to compete at the greatest pipe band show of all.
Word soon got out into the pipe band world and to my surprise I was approached by film director Andy Glen about recording on film the run up and our efforts on the day of the Worlds 2009. Andy had heard about the project from a family member.
He was intrigued by the concept of what we were intending to do and wanted to make a fly on the wall documentary about us. Initially I thought it was a wind up!
Well the results were very entertaining and I think Andy brilliantly captured what we were all about. The film was produced for DVD and subsequently screened at the Glasgow Film Theatre in 2010 – its ‘world premiere’.
The band performed on the day and the result was a predictable last place. However, the achievement for the members was immense and this was the measure of success for the College.
There were some who criticised the project and the poor standard of the band, however to my mind it was a complete vindication of our efforts and an example of the College’s innovative approach to its students’ education.
These students will still remember, I am sure, the day they played at the Worlds, and whilst this was a one-off project, the College band continued over the next few years as a viable competitive unit.
As my work at the College expanded, I was invited onto the Board of Directors. The day that happened, the late Lord Michael Martin (ex-Speaker of the House of Commons) also joined. The College was at a high point and ideas were in abundance as to the future.
Alas these halcyon days were not to continue and that story remains to be told. Whilst the College is now part of the National Piping Centre I look back on these days and my time at Otago Street with fondness.
I am encouraged to see that the NPC, under the leadership of Principal Finlay MacDonald and his staff, are forward-thinking and of a similar friendly, welcoming mindset as to what existed during my time at the College of Piping.