Who was Hamish?

Our kids are homeschooled. Right now, in history, we are studying the period around the American Revolution. In order to personalize the time period for them we are blending in our family history. We are lucky in this respect, since one of the Scottish branches of my family (the sugar-refining MacFie family) has a fairly well documented history going back to the mid-18th century. Before the late 1700s, though, things get a little less clear.

These MacFies came originally from the small island of Colonsay, and I came across this tantalizing nugget of information on a MacFie genealogy website:

The story is told that one Robert Mcfie….who was allegedly born about 1680, was the great-grandson of Hamish Mor (Mcfie) a famous piper…

OK, so it’s just a story, but even if I am not descended from this Hamish Mor McFie, who was he? In some small way, I am still related and my piping ears prick up when the family name shows up. As you know, I would one day like to play the tune The Rout of the MacPhees. Perhaps Hamish Mor had a hand in writing this tune?

I will dig further and let you know….

Peter and the Piper

Last night my family and I went to give some support to our local democratic senatorial candidate, Pete Ashdown. This week he is organizing a series of “honk and waves” at busy intersections in Salt Lake.

At last night’s honk and wave, it being Halloween, he suggested people come in costume. I figured if I was going to dress up, I could put on my kilt and bring my pipes to entertain the wavers and the honkers. In this Drive-by piping I would let others do the driving.

It was cold.

Actually, it was quite interesting. I figure if I’m going to make a go of piping for money, I need to be able to play outside and in all weather. The pipes stayed pretty much in tune, as long as I kept playing. I noticed the pitch sagged if I took a break between tunes of more than a couple of minutes. I also discovered that my birl finger went completely numb, as did my left thumb. Still, I was able to hit the main melody notes, and doublings, throws and grips seemed mostly unaffected.

Finally, I dicovered that playing the pipes blocks out the sound of car horns. Although Pete Ashdown and the wavers kept waving, I could no longer hear the honks they were responding to. That piece of information is probably not a big concern at funerals, but you never know.

Out in the woods

I played for private woodland ceremony over the weekend. It was not a paid gig – I was invited to go and delighted to do it.

Piping is generally an outdoor activity, but usually it takes place in highly controlled environments – highland games, weddings, funerals, parades. Twice now in the past few months I have played out in the woods and it was completely different experience. Back in the summer I played in the woods next to a hotel where I was staying. No audience (at first) except for trees and crickets. It was peaceful and beautiful. I could just feel my playing, knowing no-one else could (at first). The trees seemed to wrap around me. I stared at them in detail while I played and just lost myself.

This past weekend, I was out in the woods again, in a heavily wooded valley near Salt Lake City. Rich fall colors, crisp air, mountains rising around me. Once again, peaceful and beautiful, but this time with an audience. For that reason it was a little less reflective than the previous experience, but still a wonderful time.

I have a recording of Barnaby Brown playing piobaireachd in a cave above the ocean on the Isle of Skye. He climbed in on his own with his pipes and recording equipment. You can hear the waves crashing throughout the recording.

Playing in nature is a totally different feeling. Audience or not, it’s worth experiencing if you’re a piper.

Senior Moment Upgrade and Junior Moment

Playing for the seniors went really well. I played three sets, took a break to take questions and then played a couple more sets – one on the smallpipes. I saw one guy step out of the room crying, which is normal for that kind of crowd. Older men particularly seem to get emotional at the sound of the pipes.

Later that evening, I was at a local park with the kids. I was still bekilt and my pipes were in the trunk. I figured I may as well take advantage of the situation, so I played the sun down for half an hour or so. A family stopped to listen. When I was done a small girl came up to me, pressed 20 cents into my hand and ran off.

Maybe I should check into busking licences.

Senior Moment

Tomorrow I am scheduled for a senior moment.

Back in July I was a prize in a drawing at a family reunion. Actually, my piping was the prize, but you get the idea.

So, the family member who won me (my piping) is redeeming her prize tomorrow. She coordinates a monthly activity for a group of seniors in her town and tomorrow they get to experience a Drive-by Piping. This will be a senior-speed Drive-by, so it will last a little longer than usual. I am to play, talk a little and then play again. It’s all part of a hectic day for me (four activities back to back).

I’ll let you know how it goes…

I am a Macfie

When I play solo I wear the Macfie tartan. I am a Macfie.

Although I inherited my Finnish surname from my father’s family, my mother’s family is all scottish and the Macfies of Colonsay were her father’s ancestors.

The Macfies (or MacPhies and other variant spellings) lived on the Island of Colonsay until the early 17th century. After they were ejected from the island (following dark deeds and collusion with the pro-English King of Scotland by a so-called friend of the clan) the clan dispersed all over Scotland and many emigrated. There are now Macfies all over the World.

So now I am on a mission to find Macfie tunes and connections in piping. There is a piobaireachd called The Rout of the Macphees. I have a recording of Donald MacLeod playing it on the practice chanter. There is a 6/8 march called Donald Macphee’s March. Donald Macphee himself (prominent piper – mid 19th century) compiled a collection of tunes. Not sure if any are actually written by him.

So, the search goes on. If any Macfies out there read this and can help – Hello, and let me know!

My Theme Tune – Part 1

OK, everybody. Now I have the music to I Am Proud to Play a Pipe. Step 1 Complete.

Next I have to listen to it a lot – I have Bagpipe Player software to help me with that.

And I have to try out some of these strange cadences and grace notes. At the outset it almost seems as though I will need a different mindset and even a different pair of hands to play piobaireachd. The whole thing is so different from light music. I will tap the talent from the Piobaireachd list on the Bob Dunsire forums.

More anon….

Happy New Year

My pipe band year is just ending.

My band, the Wasatch and District Pipe Band has wrapped up its season with very creditable placings in Grade 4 at the BIG games in Pleasanton, California. My old band, The Celtic Spirit Pipe Band of Western New York is finishing off a very successful summer at the Celtic Festival in Olcott, New York. My son brought in four red fall leaves from the garden yesterday morning.

This is the time of year when bands choose new tunes for next year, to work on all winter. I will soon be starting a regular lesson again, I’m playing two personal gigs in the next two weeks, and there is fledgling Piobaireachd Society starting here in Utah.

It’s an exciting time. Happy New Year.

Instrument of War, Instrument of Death, Instrument of Life

As I write, the list of names of those who died in the terrorist attacks of 9-11-2001 is being read in Manhattan. The FDNY Pipeband has just finished playing Minstrel Boy. In the days and weeks that followed 9-11, the band played at funerals for their 343 comrades who died that awful morning – sometimes as many as 19 funerals in one day.

The bagpipe is an instrument like no other. Ot one time classified an instrument of war, playing was punishable by death. Today, the public face of the pipes is all too often the lone piper playing Amazing Grace at funerals. I seem to have been to a lot of funerals in the last few months. People very close to me. I have played for some; others I have attended and observed silently.

Throughout all of this I have become more and more aware of the bagpipes’ role as a ceremonial instrument. I feel the accumulated weight of the people who have died for playing, while playing and then been played to their graves by the bagpipes. My pipes seem to have acquired a have a power I can feel when I pick them up.

We live in sad times – human life seems increasingly cheap all over the world. But despite the sadness, both personal and social, there is no denying the joy playing the pipes brings to me and my listeners. I don’t even play very well, but I have received the compliments of so many people for playing. At highland games, in parks where I’ve practiced, on the street where I live, people shake my hand and thank me for enriching their lives. It’s the pipes they’re thanking – I’m just the messenger. It may be an inconsequential act, set against all our problems, but sounding a note of cheer and encouragement is something I can do.

I remember my family and friends who have gone before me, and I hope my piping will continue to brighten the lives of those with whom I still share this life.

I Am Proud to Play a Pipe

Piobaireachd – get it while it’s hot.

Any serious Ceol Mor fans should check out the BBC Radio Scotland Pipeline show for this week while they still can. It features Murray Henderson playing “Lament for the Harp Tree” at the Northern Meeting. This tune may not be the longest, but it has to be a contender. I timed it at 25 minutes and change. Anyway length apart, it’s a very beautiful tune, and Murray’s bagpipe stayed in great condition throughout.

You have until a week from tomorrow to listen. Then the BBC switches to the next edition of the show.