I first met Margaret in the early 70’s when I was a young boy when she and ‘uncle’ George were courting. Edinburgh was quite the piping scene back then and in truth I didn’t really appreciate who was who or what stature they held in the piping world.
Although it says on the original membership cards that the Eagle Pipers’ were formed in 1963 it would appear that they met as an informal group in George Stoddart’s shop, 328 Lawnmarket long before that. After tunes they would adjourn to the Eagle bar (Ensign Ewart) across the road for a dram or two. Of course the Army school of pipes and drums was still based in the Castle then and there was Glens bagpipe makers just down the road so all in all the area was a wee hotbed of piping.
The sessions were so popular that when Tommy Mowat, the bar proprietor, offered the back room as a meeting place, the Society was formally born, Uncle George being one of the founding members. Thus it is no surprise that when Margaret appeared on the scene and married George some years later she became an Eagle stalwart and held the position of secretary for a few years.
Of course Margaret was a Sutherland and her family came from Invergordon. She came from good piping stock. Her father, James Sutherland was born at Rosskeen, Ross-shire and was taught by Pipe Major James MacDonald. He joined the 1st Seaforth Highlanders as a piper in 1883 and served 21 years with the Regiment. He became Pipe Major in 1893 but was transferred to the 3rd Militia Battalion in 1885.
In 1912 he was made Pipe Major of the 5th Royal Scots (T.F.), Queen’s Edinburgh. In 1915 he was rejected for active service and transferred to the reserves, where he became Pipe Major of the 1st Volunteer Battalion Royal Scots. He was also instructor to the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society from 1910-1914.
It was during his overseas positing in Egypt where he composed his great little 2/4 march ‘The Pipers’ Cave,’ named after the Pipers’ room in the Barracks in Cairo. The officers saw the potential of the tune but did not like the title and persuaded him to name it ‘3rd Seaforth’s Farewell to Cairo’ but when James finally published it in the Seaforth’s book, he changed it back to the original title. He was a great Highland dancer and perhaps judged as many dancing competitions as he did piping. He latterly taught the pipes at Fettes Collage and George Heriots.
Uncle George was of course famous in his own right and was for many years the lone piper when the Edinburgh Military Tattoo first started.
Pipe Major George Stoddart, BEM, was born in 1912 in Leith. He enlisted in the 2nd Battalion The Cameron Highlanders at age 14 as a boy piper and remained with them until shortly before the start of World War II, when he transferred to the Royal Scots Fusiliers as Pipe Major. He also served as Pipe Major with the 5th Scottish Parachute Regiment during the War and was also with the Liverpool Scottish for a short time. After the war, he was posted to Edinburgh as the Lowland Brigade Pipe Major and worked closely with Pipe Major Willie Ross conducting the preliminary course for potential pipe majors.
In 1959, he retired from the Army and opened his shop with Robert.G.Hardie in the Lawnmarket. George’s son Gavin went on to be a world class piper and although joining the Scots Guards, in May 1979 he was asked to transfer to the Royal Highland Fusiliers as Pipe Major. As the Fusiliers was his father’s regiment, the call was irresistible.
Margaret and George married in the mid 70’s and the headline in the newspaper appropriately read ‘Lone piper alone no more’.
Margaret was great wit, raconteur, singer and pianist. They made the perfect couple and were the ideal foil for each other. It is funny what you remember but I recall them being in my parents house in Doune Terrace, Edinburgh many times entertaining the company. Margaret had a portable keyboard that she brought in a taxi. She would sing many well known songs but her party piece was trotting out some of her own poems and ditties that she had written herself.
Uncle George was also the first man I ever saw to use snuff. He would also surreptitiously back hand me a wee gift, usually a thruppenny bit or a sixpence.
The Eagle Piper’s annual bus trips to Blair Atholl to visit the Atholl Highlanders were legendary and if my memory serves me correctly the bus broke down three years in a row. Margaret and her good friend and fellow Eagle Betty Dingwall were the bus entertainers. I was too young to go on these ‘adventures’ not joining the Society until April 1977.
I also recall Margaret doing her stuff at several Piobaireachd Society conferences in the less informal evening sessions.
George sadly passed in 1990 but Margaret was a force to be reckoned with. Her, Bunty (John MacLellan’s widow) and my mother Anne became a social trio and went on several road trips together. They were quite a team and you didn’t want to cross them.
They were regular attenders at the Spiritualist Church or Society which I think was in Melville Street, Edinburgh, where they would go once a week to a seance. They were quite happy to pay the £1 entry fee and see if either Jimmy, George or John would make contact with them. They saw it as a bit of fun and took comfort in it. Margaret christened the group ‘the spooks’. So funny.
Margaret survived them all staying in the family home at Comely Bank for many years. She was very able but eventually moved into a care home.
I last spoke to her on the phone a few months ago. She had a mobile and was not short of conversation. Unfortunately it was mainly about covid and the fact the she felt trapped and was not allowed to go out or have visitors. She stopped short of calling it a Government conspiracy but she felt a prisoner and compared herself to Mary Queen of Scots.
So not the best last 12 months but she was 98 last October and lived life to the full. As my mother would have said, ‘not a bad innings’.
Eagle Pipers’ President Douglas Gardiner put it very nicely when he said, ‘Margaret was part of the Society’s DNA and her passing is a huge loss’.
I have so many fond memories of her and in the fullness of time we will mark her passing in true Eagles fashion with a tune and a dram. In the meantime I leave you with one of her poems that she and Betty wrote and no doubt performed on the bus.
Rest in peace Margaret.
Hon Pipe Major-The Eagle Pipers’ Society
The Grass Widow
The grass widow of the golf course is the butt of many jokes,
A scene of desolation her neglected state invokes,
But there exists another type who suffers more in life.
You don’t believe me? Have you met a lonely piper’s wife?
From the day that she accepts him she has to realise
That she will take but second place to some piping cup or prize.
In fact some poor souls have been asked whatever made them think
They even lay in second place; that honour goes to ‘Drink’.
At first he’ll manage home at nights in order to atone,
And when they have some children, well … she won’t be left alone,
But later, his appearances are limited to few,
Till she asks him, “Are you staying dear or only passing through?”
Her wedding anniversary is coming round once more,
So she makes some preparations for a little treat in store,
But then she hears him stammer out those dreaded words so foul,
“I’m sorry, darling, but you know that’s when I go to Cowal”.
She gets the chance of a weekend to take the kids away
So he tells her to enjoy herself and if they like it, stay.
But when she breaks the news to him that she will need the car,
He then confesses he was going to take it to Braemar.
Of course, the games and gatherings don’t go on all year round.
So in his home one would expect he sometimes would be found.
But no! He must ensure he does not let his piping slip
And in some well known hostelries he plays between each nip.
When challenged he will answer, “What am I supposed to do?
I told you my religion, dear, when I proposed to you.
There’s no use nagging on at me, I am above all strife.
The noble art of piping is a sacred way of life”.
So for marriage plus devotion one should try to find a spouse
Whose hobby is the kind which keeps him stuck inside the house.
But if piobaireachd is her fancy, why bother him to wed?
Just join the Highland Pipers and live in sin instead.
Tonight’s format was back to the conventional shape of Society gatherings, albeit on Zoom.
We were joined by 22 members from a variety of locations including California, Arkansas, New York, Ballachulish, Malta and Ottawa. In fact, 35% were from overseas. This has been a wonderful upside to the global pandemic. As discussed at the AGM, we will do our best to ensure we keep engaging with our members from outside Scotland. Periodic Zoom sessions may be the answer. We are open to other suggestions.
The Hon Pipe Major ran us through a re-worked Pipe Major JK Cairns in 6/4 time. A classic tune and we look forward to playing it on the pipes.
The “floor” was then opened to our members. First up was one of our most loyal Canadian members, Bethany Bisaillion, Pipe Major of The Sons of Scotland Pipe Band, Ottawa. Bethany played a set her band calls Lockdown No More on her Walsh smallpipes. It included Cullen Bay, Mac An Irish and The 78th’s Walk Round (aka The Liverpool Hornpipe). A lovely selection of tunes. Bethany’s playing put the bar very high for the rest of the evening.
Gill Cairns from The Republic of Malta took the stage next playing the whistle she has been learning since the start of lockdown. Her tunes were Scots Wha Hae and the enchanting Rosslyn Castle. As well as being a debut Eagles performance for Gill, this was probably the first time we had heard a whistle at Eagles. Its a great instrument for pipers to test their dexterity. When not whistling, Gill is very active and successful on the CLASP circuit. Hopefully her trips to compete in Scotland will coincide with a Tuesday meeting one day.
From one instrumental debut to another – The Blair Digital Chanter. This is a serious bit of kit. Kenny McBride showed distinct prowess with four wonderful selections. His tunes included The 8th Battalion Royal Scots Welcome to the Princess Royal (composed by his father Willie), Cameron MacFadyen and the lively hornpipe Jimmy Blue.
Last up was Society Secretary Craig Robertson also on the Blair Chanter. His tunes were Raglan Road and Dawning of the Day. Perhaps a wee nod to St Patrick’s Day. Great melodies well played.
Our next meeting will be on Tuesday 13th April when we will be joined by guest piper Simon McKerrell.
Our next meeting will be at 2000hrs (Haymarket time) on Tuesday 16th March. It will be a more relaxed Members’ only affair. This will allow Euan more time to run over a tune or two with some solo playing from a few Members on Blair chanters, bellows pipes or even a tin whistle. Usual Zoom details:
The Society will be launching an online solo contest for pipers graded B and C by The Competing Pipers’ Association in the next couple of weeks.
Covid has been particularly tough on the B and C grade soloists denying them the opportunity to rise up the ranks hence our decision to run this level of competition.
We will be a little different to most other online contests. Firstly, we are resurrecting the March, Strathspey, Reel, Hornpipe & Jig (MSRH&J) event the Society ran in the 1960s and 1970s. Played straight through with no break. Should test the nerves. There will of course be a Piobaireachd event as well. Secondly, all competitors will be required to wear Highland dress. No more Judas Priest T shirts and flip flops.
All judges will be from the Solo Piping Judges’ Association or Competing Pipers’ Association Supplemental List. Some very well known names have already agreed to judge.
The plan is to open for entries later this month with recordings to be submitted via You Tube in early June.
When the programmers were designing Zoom they forgot to take into account the Great Highland Bagpipe. Whatever were they thinking? However, in a way, it is quite nice that a fine instrument like ours can still bring modern technology to its knees.
Some 33 people tuned in, or perhaps logged on, to listen to the musical maestro at work. He did not disappoint. Hands and pipe were in sparkling form but the main ingredient was the rich cocktail of music that he produced. Traditional tunes, new tunes, tunes of his own, time signatures that raised the eyebrow, tunes where the fingers need to be well oiled, waulking songs- We got the lot.
Mike did what he could at his end with his microphone levels and bespoke background drops- (that were all very effective) and at the end of the day we had great session on the big pipe amongst friends from all over the world.
There is no doubt that his own compositions will stand the test of time and they sit proudly amongst the best there is. He has written some all time classics that have been played by pipers and bands all over the world.
In Scotland we have a tendency to be rather reserved when dishing out praise. ‘Aye, no bad son’ ‘Aye, that was decent’ ‘Aye, that was a’ right ye ken’, when what we really mean is brilliant, fabulous, great.
To be clear Michael was and still is one of the best composers of our music that there has ever been.
On the night he gave his a wide selection of tunes that included a brisk Ceol Mor-The Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick.
Mike started with The Glasgow Police March Past composed by John MacDonald,South Uist, followed by two of his own compositions Katy Grey’s Welcome From Scotland and 5 Ardveenish, a tune made for Donald Patrick Nicholson and his home in Ardveenish, Isle of Barra. Donald and his son Duncan were present in the online audience. How neat is that?
Mike then went into his next set that included his own tune, Blustering Home, that is in the Society’s music book Page 33. (I hope we asked for his permission?)
He started his next set with another of his own tunes, The Old Days. This showed off his musical abilities to the full as the tune has no strict time signature. It probably comes under the term ‘Tempo Rubato’ (literally Italian for ‘”stolen time”) It is a musical term referring to expressive and rhythmic freedom by a slight speeding up and then slowing down of the tempo of a piece at the discretion of the performer. Rubato is an expressive shaping of music that is a part of phrasing.
Up next the Ceol Mor. Squinting Patrick lends itself to being attacked and Mike put a positive spin on it without losing any of the musical value. Lovely to hear a tune outwith the restraints of competition where the player can do as he wishes.
Time for a background screen change and mouth music, waulking songs and reels were up next, including Michael’s arrangement of The Sinecure Policeman. Sinecure means someone who receives money for a job who does little or no work. A cushy number if you will. Written well before my time!
The picture shows the original setting of the tune but MG has given it a significant upgrade and it will have your fingers flashing.
Mike then finished up with three lovely Gaelic Airs ending with Aitearachd Ard. (The Surge of the Sea). A tune dear to him and one that he would like played at his funeral. An occasion that, we hope, is somewhat down the line.
So there you go. Quite the rich cocktail of music and our heartfelt thanks go out to him for the time and effort put into a performance that lasted the better part of an hour.
As Mike himself said ‘Zoom is hollow substitute but it is better than nothing’.
This was much better than that. In an era where we have all been facing significant challenges and where perhaps a tad of apathy has set in, Mike stepped up to the plate to entertain and cheer us up. He did that in spades.
Please find below the Zoom meeting details for this Tuesdays piping session given by none other than Michael Grey. The Zoom call opens at 20.00hrs UK and Mike will probably start around 20.15hrs.
Michael has been a supporter of the Society for many years and it is a pleasure to welcome him next Tuesday 16th February. In these challenging times that we are all facing this will be a real treat.
You do not have to be a member of the Eagle Pipers’ Society to join in on our Zoom platform meetings, however new members are most welcome. The Society was founded ‘by pipers for pipers’ in 1963 and it is not profit organisation with funds being recycled back into our art. Membership detail can be found on the web site.
Is it not a strange human idiosyncrasy when we say ‘this person needs no introduction’ and then go on to describe their life and achievements in detail?
Our guest piper on Tuesday 16th February is none other than Eagle Pipers’ member Michael Grey from Canada, and he needs no introduction.
Despite the time difference Mike has stepped up to give us ‘tunes and chat’ 15.00hrs Canada-20.00hrs UK.
You can find out all you need to know about Michael at Dunaber music. Have a read through ‘Greys Notes’ where you will find fabulous articles and observations. Michael is in the the final stages of editing his latest piece for the blog-“Life around Bagpipes” and perhaps he will give us a sneak preview into that?
MG is no stranger to the Eagles and launched his book Damned Suites and Other Music at a Society meeting in the Scots Guards Association Club, Edinburgh, I think back in 2013.