Scottish piper Craig McFarlane is literally miles ahead of the pack
when it comes to piping the distance
We interviewed Craig about his life long connection to the bagpipes,
which has taken them both on a journey around the world:
“Hearing a piper in the hills is very atmospheric, especially in the highlands, or anywhere for that matter. I lived at Glastonbury for 10 years and I used to go up the Tor at night and play at sunset and in the morning at sunrise, especially when there was a full moon or a storm. It’s very evocative and just seems to fit in. The sound is instantly recognisable and designed to be played outside for raising the blood or the gathering of clans, as heard back in the battle days of the pipes.
It’s within the fabric of the Scots to play the bagpipes. The sound is designed to travel, as it’s pretty loud. I’m not sure what decibel level they reach but I know it’s well over a hundred. Today of course, they are used mainly for ceremonial and corporate events such as weddings, funerals and speeches, which is where I seem to get so much work.
I also busk with the pipes and people always ask me to play songs like Scotland The Brave, Amazing Grace and Island Cathedral, as opposed to a lot of popular songs. That’s ok and to be expected, but I write and perform a lot of my own songs and I’m currently working about 15 sets which include hornpipes, jigs and marches. I also read pipe music and still play songs written by some legendary composers from the First World War. I have several music books written by old masters, I might improvise with the harmonies and arrangements sometimes, but I generally stick to the original score as they were so good.
It took me a while to find my own direction with the pipes after being in the Scots Guards. Nothing wrong with that but one of my jobs was in the guardroom piping tunes or laments, as they would have done to tell the time back in the day before we had watches. I would start with Reveille at 6.30 am, then breakfast and onward throughout the day with around a dozen calls to play until the last post to take the flag down. It sickened me really, I was based in Hounslow and I had to work at all the Palaces like Buckingham and St James and was also involved in trooping the colour and state banquets.
I was an anarchist and I didn’t like it. I felt my piping did not belong to me. It took a while to rebuild my standard and when I left the army. I went to Fastlane Peace Camp, it’s right next to the Clyde nuclear submarine base. They all loved the pipes and therefore I thought, well actually, I am playing the coolest instrument, it’s feeling mine again now. It’s personal and unique to me.
When I moved back up to Scotland I had a few extraordinary teachers, especially Willie Morrison who is a legend. This helped me concentrate fully on developing my own playing style and writing. I still need to rehearse chords and scales daily and learn new songs.”
For the non-player, drones, chanters, reeds and bags seem a challenge. Newcomers to the pipes should also be aware of maintenance.
“There’s also a need to respect and look after bagpipes”, states Craig. “Certainly periodic inspection, especially keeping the bag clean. I use a synthetic bag which is a little easier to maintain, although I have two original sets of Highland pipes made by Wallace where the bags are made from leather, usually sheep or goat skin. These have to be maintained by heating up seasoning and pouring it inside to close up the pores and help prevent any infections. These hides are naturally porous which is ok, but you don’t want a big leak.
The best way to test it, is to blow it up and cork it, put it in a bath and if you see loads of bubbles, it’s not airtight. I also have a set of French pipes, an electronic set and a set my dad bought in 1985 just after I started, which I have now played all over the world.
I was 8 or 9 years old when I started the pipes after learning the accordion when I was just 4, I gave that up when I was around 15. I liked all the bands from that era around the early 80’s from Adam And The Ants to Iron Maiden and Slayer. I loved the pipes though and my mum was full-on with it, so that’s the road I went down.
I’ve played with a host of bands from rock to punk, the pipes work well especially at the start of a song to get the beat going. Tuning can sometimes be a bit of a problem as bagpipes are in B flat, so they have to tune to me.”
In the rare moments when Craig isn’t pipe-hiking or busking, he’s writing his own material in his well equipped studio. “I have my own studio at home where I’ve been recording and mixing the pipes with electronic music using Logic Software, synthesisers and older analogue effects like the classic Roland Space Echo from the mid 70’s. One of the challenges recording bagpipes is to get an even and balanced signal to the mixing desk. Traditional methods are a Shure SM57 mike in front of the chanter, but that doesn’t pick up the drones so well, there are some really good little transducer mikes out there now that cater for that.
Once I have this electronic set finished and fully rehearsed I would love to take the whole concept to a live environment.”
It’s innate that Craig has wanted to travel since a small boy, playing the bagpipes has taken this passion to the next level and beyond. As he explains,
“About five years ago a friend told me about a children’s charity called KiltWalk, that was affiliated with The Tartan Army football supporters and said the first walk was from Hamden Park in Glasgow to Loch Lomond 26 miles away. I thought why not? I contacted them and said that I would pipe the full distance, I’ve done that six times now and 11 different walks for them, raising about £12,000.
Other walks for KiltWalk that turned into full-on treks at greater distances, included a 90 mile walk ending at Machu Picchu in the Andes, a 7 day venture in Peru, a rain forest trip through a Brazilian jungle and Mount Kilimanjaro... and I’m generally piping all the way.
There’s much less oxygen up a mountain of course when you go over 2,000 meters. Whilst that’s hard on the lungs, the top notes of the pipes notably become very sharp, so I have to improvise by taping the holes and the reed on the chanter. This actually flattens the note close enough to standard tuning.
When asked about his new Urban Bagpipe bag, Craig replied “I’m not long back from a hike up to Mount Everest’s south base camp and my Fusion bag proved itself more than once. It took us 7 days to get there from Nepal and the elevation at the camp was 5,380 m (17,600 ft), a little chilly in a kilt to say the least, I’d like to go to the North camp next which is via Katmandu.
When Fusion contacted me to help design the Fusion Bagpipe Gig Bag, which I’m really pleased with by the way, I took up their offer. They really are a great company to work with. They even took me to Marsden Moor in West Yorkshire, where I dressed up in full regalia including my Tam O’ Shanter and kilt to film a promotional video. It was a bit windy to say the least but certainly not the most rugged or desolate environment I’ve played the pipes.
The new model is just brilliant. I’ve trekked hundreds of miles with it loaded up with the pipes and essentials like water and clothing and a lot of spare parts. These include chanters, reeds, valves, mouth pieces and all the cleaning gear. This bag has passed the ultimate test not only for its strength, as it went through some tough times, but also for the comfort angle for me.
The padded shoulder straps are really well designed and a bonus whilst walking such long distances, often on very hard terrain and severe weather conditions. These treks are for a good cause and I wear my kilt for authenticity whilst playing the pipes along the route, a lot of people might know about the kilt whilst some haven’t heard or seen the pipes before. Some sherpas on the Everest trip didn’t know I was a piper at first, they said I shouldn’t be wearing a kilt up a mountain and that it wasn’t practical and I should wear appropriate clothing. I just said “It’s ok, I’m a piper.”
To keep up to date with Craig McFarlane’s music and adventures see:
Fusion promotional Video: