When piper Hamish Moore and sax player Dick Lee exploded onto the Scottish music scene to critical acclaim in the late 80s, their unique music was described as "a fusion of folk and jazz." The 90s saw Hamish fuel his burning enthusiasm for Cape Breton music, bringing together many talented players from both sides of the Atlantic. Since then, he has been concentrating on his bagpipe-making business.
January is a long and dark month in the old country -- same latitude as the middle of Hudson Bay. The official hours of daylight are 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m., but we know better! That's on a good day and there haven't been many of those this year.
A time to reflect -- like Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) I was given the traditions by my Grannie. Hogmanay was (and thankfully still is for me) spent in quiet reflection -- no street parties, but with the family and or close friends. With our blessings, our regrets, with our promises and confessions, with a Hoover (vacuum) in our hands and a sweeping brush for the hearth, but most importantly with our absent friends and the ones who have passed away in the year that has passed.
When a line is broken then not only do we have to deal with the sad loss of that strand of our culture, but it leaves us guessing about the original. Scottish Musical Culture for the most part doesn't have unbroken lines. Singing is one of the obvious exceptions -- just listen to the recordings of the great products of unbroken lines like Jeanie Robertson, Belle Stewart, or Flora MacNeil, and compare these with the influences and effects that music hall or opera have had on our culture.
It's been and still is such a privilege to be involved in this fascinating process. On a daily basis I come with my son to our workshop in a beautiful part of Perthshire to make bagpipes. My father helped me get things going, when in 1985, I was able to give up my job as a veterinary surgeon and immerse myself with my life long passion -- pipes -- bellows blown pipes at that which were free from rules and all things competitive and military.
This was important as it allowed me to pursue my unconventional musical ideas with a degree of freedom. We have a waiting list for a set of pipes of approximately on year, and there seems enough work to support my son and myself monetarily and more than enough spiritually. The pipes themselves were another victim of broken lines -- another loss -- but gradually and steadily since their revival in the early '80s they have clawed their way back into the mainstream of piping society.
We have had to do quite a bit of guessing here too -- about the sound and about the playing styles but that's been interesting. If the broken line of the bellows blown pipes is all very apparent then that of lost highland piping styles is not. It was in 1992 while teaching at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton that I first met Alex Currie.
He was unique -- the last one left of the old style players. When Alex died, it was an end of an era. He came back to the old country with his daughter Mary on what was for him a journey home. Home to South Uist to Lochdar, where at the beginning of the 19th century his great great grandparents had set off on a voyage filled with fear.
And so it was to South Uist in 1996 that I went to host my summer school "Ceolas." It's not my school actually - it belongs to the wonderful and warm people of South Uist and to all the students who travel to it each summer. It's at this school that we teach the piping like Alex used to play it, and step dancing, puirt and fiddle in the old way and reconnect all the broken links between these three strands -- and when they do reconnect the effect is extraordinary -- nothing -- "Na Tri Scudan," the three treasures, that's what it is. That's as close as it gets with words. Almost sacred.
All from unbroken lines -- like my Grannie's -- she knew without consciously knowing - how important it was. Otherwise she wouldn't have kept me standing on the door step in a blizzard in my pyjamas at the age of eight, when I had stepped outside just after midnight on New Year's morning, unwittingly committing a terrible sin.
They had the compassion to give me a hottie (hot water bottle) and wee bits of chittery bites but I wasn't getting back in the door till she got her first foot. Fortunately he arrived by about 12:15am (just before hypothermia set in). A tall dark man with a piece of coal. My children now in their early 20's still first foot in the village -- round all the houses for days and days -- the weel kent and the not so kent -- it's maybe peat and not coal now, maybe claret (the Scottish national drink in the 18th century) and not whisky -- doesn't matter -- the forces of change are from within and gentle -- like the musical changes in Cape Breton always have been. Let's hope it stays like that.
Otherwise, we may have some inquisitive ethnomusicology student in a hundred years time coming over to South Uist trying to pick up the strands of some long forgotten Cape Breton style. Mind you, maybe that's the way it has to be:
Hogmanay, dark and yin will always flip into...New Year's Day, light and yang. Who knows?
For current information on Hamish Moore, visit his website: www.hamishmoore.musicscotland.com