Puff piece: solo piping at the Highland Games in Dunoon. Photo: Getty
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Better with the sound turned low: BBC Radio Orkney’s Pipeline

Highlights from day one of the Northern Meeting solo bagpipe competition. 

BBC Radio Orkney’s weekly show Pipeline (Saturdays, 9.05pm) was devoted, this episode, to giving the highlights from day one of the Northern Meeting solo bagpipe competition. Since the bagpipe is not an instrument that fully lends itself to a quiet night in, Pipeline is always best approached with the sound turned low. Even then, prepare to be harried for 55 minutes by the mental image of mottled-kneed pipers with cream kilt hose going into ghillie brogues without the intervention of discernible ankles.

The star of the show was Callum Beaumont, who played an untitled tune (among a clutch of old songs rather George R R Martinishly known among the piping fraternity as “the nameless ones”) that went on for 12 minutes and 38 seconds, only to be dismissed by the piper afterwards as “very short”.

You can rely on pipers to be economical with their responses. When, later in the show, the presenter Gary West pointed out, “That’s a lot of tunes you’ve had to get under your belt in the last few months. How on earth did you go about that?” Beaumont replied with devastating finality, “Hard work.” And then, like a steelworker pulling his mask down in a foundry, added, “Hard work through the winter.”

The chat between the music on Pipeline is soothingly despondent. Rarely do you get the feeling that the life of even a star piper is much fun. Gary likes nothing more than talking about Angus MacKay, Queen Victoria’s piper at Balmoral, who suffered from desolating mental health issues and wound up in an asylum in Dumfries from which he wandered out one day in 1859 only to drown in the River Nith. “A bad end to a great career,” he admitted, equably.

West’s level of fandom is pitched just right. You suspect that he is someone whose response to bagpipes stops at admiration rather than love; because of this, he never sounds weird, even after 15 straight minutes of a Mr Liddell playing what sounded like a repeated and astonishing scream of brakes liable to give even the god of thunder a migraine.

“Another chance there to hear Stuart playing ‘The Pap of Glencoe’,” said Gary, evenly, as though all this were perfectly normal.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge