Barra & The Queen: bagpipes squealed her welcome

July 31, 2020 on 6:26 pm by Michael Grey | In News | No Comments

Duncan Nicholson recently passed along a (digital) stack of seriously interesting family photographs – all going back over a century of his family’s life on the Isle of Barra. You’ll maybe know that Duncan has deep family roots on the island – thanks to both sides of his family. His dad, the well-kent piping machine, Donald Patrick, lives there today at Ardveenish – happily playing and teaching scads of young people the music of the Great Pipe. Duncan’s sister and her family, too, call the island home. I know it’s a great place to be – especially when the pipes are never too far away.

And if you’re in the orbit of the Nicholsons, well, the pipes are never too far away.

One of the photos in the lot that came my way included three pipers; all playing a tune together and wearing their gear: kilt and jacket. Each piper is known today, in their own way, for their piping or other valiant element of cultural tradition-bearing.

The colourized version of the (not-so-great) copy is pictured here: you might recognize the tartans – certainly, you’ll know which piper is a Buchanan (should you have the slightest knowledge of tartans – and those which are the, em, loudest – and yellowest).

From left to right – all Barra men: Neil Angus MacDonald, the famous Inverness-based piper and schoolmaster, pupil of John MacDonald of Inverness and, famously, the piper featured in the classic 1949 film “Whisky Galore”; Calum Johnstone, piper, singer and folklorist (along with his sister Annie they managed to provides scores of hours of recorded Gaelic songs and stories for the School of Scottish Studies), Calum was married to Donald Patrick Nicholson’s auntie, Peigi MacNeil; and Donald Buchanan, another of the family’s piping relations.

The occasion of this august trio’s performance was nothing less than the 1956 arrival to the island of Queen Elizabeth II. Along with her family (and, likely, one or two supporter staff) they sailed into Castlebay aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, docked at the pier and had a walk around the place. A big occasion then as it likely would be now. The press clearly well-covered the event as you can see by the PathĂ© news clip shown here:

… and the article featured in the August 15, 1956, edition of The New York Times (see below bottom right). I draw your attention to the last line in the fifth paragraph of column one: “In the still air three bagpipes squealed their welcome”. I bet you dollars to donuts that at the time the writer thought he was scribing words that were nothing short of dreamy and evocative poetry.

I think now of Edinburgh-based Iain Speirs, a great player of the pipe and real hater – well, that’s my impression – of mainstream media’s regular use of the word “skirl” to describe the sound the bagpipe makes [and, for the record, I’m with Iain]. What might those many who sorely dislike the use of the word “skirl” think of “squeal”?

I can tell you that in a google search “squeal of delight”, “squeal of approval” and “squeal of ecstasy” turn up anywhere from 200 thousand to over half a million hits.

And “squeal of bagpipes”? The phrase barely registers.

And that is my good news of the day.

It’s the small things, isn’t it, that make life worthwhile.

Here’s to Barra!

M.

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