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Roots, Laments, and Cattle Thieves

American ScotsGenealogy is growing in popularity around the world. As an American, I’m in the vast majority of US citizens whose ancestors came from another continent. And I’m one of an estimated 40 million Americans with some Scottish or Scots-Irish heritage. Before I began learning the Great Highland Bagpipe, I was only mildly curious about from whom and whence I came. But lately I’ve been trying to flush out details in my lineage with the hope of finding some great bagpiper from Gairloch or Skye as a direct ancestor. So far, no luck. The closest I’ve come, with the help of a relative I never knew I had, is a possible connection to a band of cattle thieves from Dumfries. Hardly Highlanders, and certainly nothing to brag about, especially on the piping forums.

The Viscount of Dundee

John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee

Despite the disappointment of the probable Lowland connection (no offense intended to all those from south of the Great Glen), my quest for roots has yielded some interesting things that only augment the enjoyment of my piping education. The most recent example relates to my current favorite piobaireachd, “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee.” I learned of this tune from a story Andrew Wright told our class at last year’s Coeur d’Alene Piping Camp. When he was a kid he liked getting a rise out of his teacher by referring to it as “Lament for the Discount of Dundee.” Andrew’s story piqued my curiosity, but the real impetus for learning it came from my wife, whose grandmother emigrated to the U.S. from Dundee. I knew nothing about the namesake of the tune, or its geographical place, or even what it sounded like. I just wanted to play something with a literal connection of some kind to a family member, and my wife’s grandmother was the closest I could get.

John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee, died here in July 1689

Claver’s Stone

Musical beauty is truly in the ear of the behearer, but for me the ground of “Cumha Chlaibhers” is one of the most lyrical, haunting melodies I’ve ever heard. I’m one of those types of folks who want to know something about the history of whatever it is I’m doing, so I had to find out who the Viscount was. Thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that John Graham, the 1st Viscount of Dundee, was referred to by his non-Jacobite enemies as “Bloody Claverhouse” (“Bluidy Clavers”; but his friends called him “Bonnie Dundee”). He commanded the Jacobite troups at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, winning the battle but losing his life. To my ears, this particular piobaireachd lament poignantly captures the bittersweetness of this story, and enriches my interest in playing and listening to it.

Highland cattle

The apples of my ancestors’ eyes?

Yesterday, however, I opened a link to an page that my long-lost relative sent about our possible cattle thieving ancestors. The first name I saw on the page was “John Graham of Claverhouse.” Could this be the connection I was hoping to find? Of course not. I was all but horrified to learn that my putative ancestors had fought against Dundee a decade before Killiecrankie, on the side of the Covenanters. They chased him right out of Drumclog, and – probably – got right back to pinching cows. I think I’ll look more deeply into my wife’s grandmother’s ancestry and see if I can find a connection to Mr. Graham on that side of the family…

What’s Going On

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, so I thought I’d just jot down a bit of an update on what I’m doing with the old pipes.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Part of the reason I haven’t posted anything is that I’ve been practicing a lot. It all started when I went to bagpipe camp last summer. I’d wanted to go to the Coeur d’Alene Summer School of Piping and Drumming since I heard about it in the first month I started on the practice chanter, back in 2007. Things finally worked out to do it in 2011, and it was incredible. I think this school has been going on for over 40 years, and its location in Coeur d’Alene makes it a spectacular place to be. It was total immersion in piping for a week, culminating in competition at the Spokane Highland Games. In addition to the lengthy daily classes, most evenings feature recitals from the awesome instructors, lectures, and films on piping.

I like to be challenged, and somehow I got placed into the advanced class, taught by the impressive Ann Gray. She gave us a lot of music and pushed us hard, including a big MSR of Southall/Tulloch Castle/Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran. We also did lots of piobaireachd work, with instruction by the legendary Andrew Wright, on Gathering of the MacNabs, MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, Sound of the Sea, and (my favorite of the bunch) Proud to Play a Pipe (Dastirum gu seinnim piob). Click Andrew’s photo below to hear a  bit of his piobaireachd instruction in our class.

Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright

On the last day of the school, I performed a complete piobaireachd for the first time, as part of the Macrae Cup Amateur Piobaireachd Competition. I couldn’t have been more nervous, as the judge was Andrew Wright, and the room was filled with other instructors and excellent pipers, many equipped with the Kilberry or Piobaireachd Society collections of tunes so they could follow along (or notice errors!). We had to submit two tunes we knew, and we were told 15 minutes before which one we’d play. I submitted Lament for the Son of King Aro and Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarberts Fancy, and Andrew selected the first. Here’s that performance:

I played it too slowly and made lots of note errors, but got through it and placed third. It was a good experience, but one I’m glad is behind me!

Jig/Hornpipe competiion at CSSPD 2011

Jig/Hornpipe competiion at CSSPD 2011

Later that evening, I really enjoyed the annual Hornpipe/Jig Competition at the local tavern, where the top players played some fantastic tunes for the ever busy Andrew Wright. It was great to relax with a pint and listen to some excellent performances.

The next day I drove to Spokane to compete in the Grade 4 piping events. I completely butchered “Mrs John MacColl” (2/4 march) in front of judge Ann Gray and got 5th; I played “The Highlander” (6/8 march) in front of judge Alan Walters and got first; I played Bruce Gandy’s “Mairi Matheson of Carloway” and “The Rejected Suitor” in the strathspey/reel for judge Andrew Wright and got first in that, which gave me enough points to win the aggregate. I was quite surprised because I felt I could have played better. It was a great way to end the week of intense bagpiping. I can’t wait for next year’s camp.

Lessons, finally!

Bruce Gandy

Bruce Gandy

The most exciting thing for me now is that I’ve finally begun taking lessons on the pipes. After years of working on stuff myself, and feeling like I’d reached a wall I couldn’t get over, I started taking lessons via Skype from Bruce Gandy (who lives in Nova Scotia). I’d been to a clinic he did in Portland a few years ago and really liked his teaching style, and have admired his piping since day one. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the remote format and the first lesson were excellent and very motivating. I’ll post more about how the lessons are going after I’ve been doing them for a month, but if you’ve been considering Skype as an instructional medium, I found it much better than expected.

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