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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. 

Puff piece: solo piping at the Highland Games in Dunoon. Photo: Getty
Puff piece: solo piping at the Highland Games in Dunoon. Photo: Getty

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.