The winner of last yearâ€™s Glenfiddich Piping Championships is tuning his pipes and clearing his lungs for this years showdown at Blair Castle. Stuart Liddell is the prime example of a Scottish bagpiper.
You have a very musical family. Your grandfather, Ronnie McCallum, was piper to the Duke of Argyll, and your parents were also acclaimed musicians.
Yes, my grandfather was a gold medalist and my mum plays the piano. My dad has passed away, he used to play the accordion. They were all musicians. Music was always on, whether it would be Scottish band music or something else, it was an important aspect of the house. My family never pushed me to do something with music, but they certainly encouraged me.
How much of an inspiration was your grandfather to you?
My grandfather taught piping in the schools, and I started when I was nine. So he taught me the beginnings and the basics. He used to pass along a lot of things of by ear. Just by singing them or playing little excerpts, and I would copy them. That helped me a lot with practicing. I have a lot of good, happy memories of him. He passed away when I was thirteen. Then I had another tutor in the area, by the name of Arthur Gillies, from Kilchrennan. My grandfather and Arthur were huge inspirations and examples to me.
Do you still receive training today?
After I got lessons from Gillies, I started training with another guy, called Hugh McCallum. I am related to him through my grandfather, and he is another gold medalist. I still got the odd lesson from Hugh. He helps me with my piobaireachd, a more traditional form of bag pipe music. I see Hugh for that sometime, we will run through some practice together. Piobaireachd is a very subjective thing, there are lots of different ways you can interpret the music. It’s very, very old. Hugh will point out the various ways it can be played, and I will pick which one would be suitable for me. Next to Hugh, I also get the odd listen from Jim Henderson. He’s another tutor of mine. I’m also related to one of the contestants playing at the Glenfiddich Championships, William McCallum. It’s a bit complicated, his father was cousins with my grandfather, so we’re from the same tree. I’m not sure what you call that. Willie has a great record, he won the most Championships out of all of us.
While growing up, were you close with these piping family members?
No, I did not grow up with them. Apparently they were around when I was very young, but I never really came across them. I knew about them, I just never really met them until I was in the circuits. We all knew each other when we were very young, but we started actually getting to know more of each other when we started competing.
The Glenfiddich Championships lie ahead. Do you still get nervous for these championships?
I wouldn’t call it nervous, but I do get very excited. This will be my fourth visit to the Championships, and I was fortunate enough to win it last year. I’m more excited than nervous, because I’ve already played there and have the experience.
You have quite the reputation of winning a lot of contests and awards. Is this something you put a lot of time into, preparation wise?
Certainly, yes. A lot of work is done in the wintertime. I’ll probably have a wee break after the Championships, but I’ll get back into it from December, January and onwards. When I’m training, I’ll probably play for about one hour a night. It’s just a regularity, sometimes you can get out the way of it and not practice so much, but it’s become a tradition for me to play one hour a night. This is my job, so I play everyday.
‘I’m quite positive about the future of piping. There’s a lot of young ones taking it up, and not only in Scotland’
You’re a Pipe Major for the Inveraray & District Pipe Band. Do you enjoy the responsibilities of a being Pipe Major, or would you rather stick to just playing bagpipes?
Yes I do enjoy the responsibilities, very much. It is extremely busy, I do a lot of teaching for them. The band is basically a group of youngsters, that started out as a night class. It quickly grew arms and legs, and it’s transformed over the years to this incredible Pipe Band we have now, and it’s become very successful in a very short time. We’ve gone through all the grades and the pipe band circuit, and now we’re just about top grade. We’ve just finished our first year, winning all the five majors in the Grade 2 contests. There’s a huge difference between Grade 1 and 2, probably the biggest jump a pipe band could make. It’s very difficult, but it serves as a fantastic experience for the young pipers.
Do you tour a lot with the band?
We do a lot of games and competitions. This year we did a trip down to Brittany, France. We went down for a week in July to play at a music festival. Last year we went to Spain. But mostly we’ll be touring for competitions. We don’t really go abroad a lot.
Do you feel there is as much appreciation and support for bag piping in countries outside of Scotland?
I think there is. In Britain it’s absolutely flourishing, we have our own music and instruments. I think it’s growing naturally all the time. I don’t feel a strong urge for bag piping to have more exposure, I think it’s happening naturally anyway. I’m quite positive about the future of piping. There’s a lot of young ones taking it up, and not only in Scotland. It seems to be embraced more and more in other countries. For instance, in Holland there’s quite a few pipe bands, they’re fantastic.
You mentioned teaching a few times.
Teaching piping is what I do for a living, it’s my job. I teach in the primary schools myself, and I teach privately after school hours. During the summer I sometimes go abroad to teach. I was away in Vancouver this year to teach at a summer school.
You’ve released your first solo recording, Inveroran, three years ago. Do you have others in the pipeline?
Not at the moment, no. I would like to do one eventually. The reason for Inveroran was that it just felt right at the time to release a CD. The playing went well at the time and thought it would be nice to put something out on record, to record where I’m at. It was just a solo-record, no bands. Part of it was recorded live, because I feel like playing in front of somebody gives it an extra spark. I was quite happy with the result. It doesn’t have a lot of variety on it, it’s not catering for a wider market.
You are also a piano tuner. Does this help at all with being a piper?
It certainly does, yes. It helps knowing what you’re listening for when you’re tuning the bagpipes. You understand more what you’re hearing. The piping helped with that initially, too, because I always used to tune my drones. I think one helps the other.
I’ve read somewhere that you’re a self-taught drummer, too. Is this true?
I get wee hints here and there from different people. I used to pick it all up by ear, and gradually, while talking to other drummers, they showed me little bits that made it right. I do enjoy it, but it’s not something I would give up piping for. I actually entered a competition once, last year, The All Ireland Solo Drumming Championships. I had a bet on with the Pipe Band, before the season started last year. I told them: ‘I’ll bet that you won’t get into the top six in Grade Two of piping. If you do manage it, I’ll enter the All Ireland Solo Drumming Championships.’ Unfortunately, they did well, so I had to make sure I’d fulfil my forfeit. I think I came in second last.