VOICING SCOTLAND by Gary West, A Book Review

by John DallyVoicing Scotland (1)

Most pipers know Gary West (www.garywest.co.uk) as the velvet-voiced host of the only radio program devoted to piping, PIPELINE on BBC Scotland (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0079g6v).  He is also an important scholar, senior lecturer in Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, former member of the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band, Ceol Beag, Clan Alba, and founding member of Hugh MacDairmid’s Haircut.  He appears on around 20 albums, including his debut solo, ISLAY BALL (www.greentrax.com), and with Wendy Stewart on the more recent HINTERLANDS (www.cdbaby.com/cd/stewartwest ).  As soon as VOICING SCOTLAND (Luath Press Ltd., Edinburgh, 2013, ISBN 9781908373281)  showed up in my mail box I immediately ripped open the package and began to devour it, as we say of any book that feeds the soul.

This entertaining and informing book contains history, biography and literary commentary, but it is more personal than academic.  If West were not so careful a scholar it might have been a memoir.  If he indulges in memoir it is only while praising others, especially his friends and teachers who have passed on: Martyn Bennett, Gordon Duncan, Davy Steele, and Hamish Henderson.  These heroes stand like Banquo’s ghost on the stage of post-modern Scottish folk music and culture.  They are joined by Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean), Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Burns, P.M. James Robertson, and Neil Gunn and various other members of “the folk” until the stage is as crowded as the wood at “Hallaig.”

The book gave me a personal, nostalgic pleasure as it brought back memories of studying Scottish literature at the University of Edinburgh in 1979, and subsequent trips.  My tutors, Angus Calder, Douglas Gifford and Cairns Craig, were a huge influence and inspiration in so many ways.  I became so enamored of Neil Gunn’s writing that I took the train to Helmsdale to see where THE SILVER DARLINGS took place.  Freeland Barbour and other early members of Silly Wizard played at our ceilidhs.  One of my class mates was P.M. Angus MacDonald’s daughter.  I still regret not taking her up on an invitation to visit South Uist with her after the end of term.  Angus Calder schooled me on real ale and whisky, two subjects that were not in the curriculum but as important to my education as the concept of the Scottish antisyzygy.  Douglas Gifford sometimes held his tutorial in a curry house just off campus.  The windows of the shop steamed up as the curry brought tears to our eyes and Dougie got fired up about Hugh MacDairmid and Edwin Muir.  I sat next to my godfather’s nephew, Christopher Harvie, loading his pipe for him while he gave a lecture on Scottish Nationalism.  I met Hamish Henderson a few times, or more accurately, I had the privilege of listening to his stories at close quarters.  The founders of Cencrastus, a journal of Scottish literature, were among my pals.  Two of them, ardent Borderers, went to great lengths to help me acquire a set of Northumbrian smallpipes.  These were some of the memories West’s book brought back to my mind’s eye.

Most of the charms in the book are also very personal for West.  He quotes an interview with his great grandfather, a skilled “horseman”, or plowman, in Perthshire before tractors came.  There are many quiet passages when West’s personal history entwines with larger historical events, as when he recounts the story of “Bonnie Dundee” and the Battle of Killiekrankie, the site of which is not far from his childhood home, in the context of hearing “Lament for Viscount Dundee” played at Blair Atholl.  The passages where he shares his personal memories growing up with Gordon Duncan are quite moving.  Yet he never descends to the maudlin or trite.  He gives attention to recent research into the Gaelic story telling traditions of Perthshire from a time when most people in Atholl spoke Gaelic.  In writing the family history of his late friend, Davy Steele, the singer, West puts a face on the fiasco of Dunkirk and St. Valery in WWII as well as the grueling work of miners.

He sword-dances his way around topics like authenticity, ownership, and commercialism.  “The one thing to avoid with a search for authenticity is to conceive of it as an odyssey back in time until we somehow arrive at a golden age of tradition, a time when that tradition was true or whole, before time itself had eroded it down to a mere stump” (page 83).  This issue is as thorny as a thistle.  After all, selling “Authenticity” has been big business in Scotland since the time of Scott.  A tartan scarf is like a Papal dispensation for the American with a Scottish surname whose adolescent rite of passage was a trip to Disneyland.  Martyn Bennett did not appear to care about authenticity because he didn’t need to, and so was more authentic for not caring.

Hamish Henderson’s genius and generous spirit shines through every page, the lasting image produced by the book.  West is very fortunate and grateful to have known him as a teacher.  Henderson was a storyteller, but also an honest folklorist, conscientious soldier, poet and social critic, and worthy of hagiography.  West describes his teaching approach as “delightfully shambolic” (page 110).  The last time I saw Hamish Henderson was in a pub in Edinburgh sitting at a table with Cathal McConnell singing songs while a raucous session teetered on the verge of music a few feet away.  The contrast of the session clatter with the bliss filled oblivion of the singers seemed to be a metaphor for Scottish folk music, the old singers in their shared joy contrasted with the individuals fighting to stand out amidst the throng.  Later that same night I was fortunate enough to hear Martyn Bennett at a different session down in a dingy basement hall.  Was it another expression of the Scottish antisyzygy, or just tradition evolving before my very eyes?

There is more than an index missing from the book, but Tradition is the river that runs through it, to paraphrase the Montana writer Norman MacLean. Tradition, what it is, who it is, how it changed, how it evolved under West’s quiet yet intense gaze is enough for now.  I hope West will write more books like this.  The question this book silently asks is, what is your tradition?  There are many “Scotlands of the mind,” to quote the title of one of Angus Calder’s excellent books, and they all have voices.  VOICING SCOTLAND is a beautiful description of a personal and cultural tradition, one man’s tribute to friends and place in this moment, a salute and a lament.

John Dally of Burton, Washington has been playing bagpipes since the age of 11. Equally comfortable with Highland, Lowland and Northumbrian pipes and repertoire, he is the author of “The Northwest Collection of Music for the Scottish Highland Bagpipe. A Collection of Music, Photographs and Essays.”