When Griogair Labhruidh first picked up the chanter, he found he could play the march Lord Lovat’s Lament. This was before he knew how to play a scale. So deeply rooted in the music, culture and language of the Gàidhealtachd is Griogair, that you could easily picture him as old as the Gneissian fields of the Grampians.
At the age of 31 with two critically acclaimed albums behind him, a building reputation as a Gaelic poet and a significant recent addition to the line-up of the brilliant Gaelic ‘super group’ Dàimh, Griogair delivers more than you could think humanly possible.
Small pipes, Highland pipes, Uilleann pipes, whistle, classical, jazz and rock guitar — enough on their own, but when you add this to his aural command of Piobaireachd, Canntaireachd and Gaelic song, it almost becomes too much to process.
When I first met Griogair, it was like being struck by musical lightning with the rumbling thunder of a deep, angry passion for history and social justice to match. His playing was superb, but combined with his mastery of Gaelic song, whether it be elegiac or upbeat, ballad or rap, it took me to a higher place.
Raised in Gartocharn, on the east side of Loch Lomond, Griogair’s family moved there via the Luss Slate Quarries and Helensburgh after the slate quarry closed in Ballachulish. Before it closed, up to 700 workers, many of them boys, would work the smaller slates into roofing tiles. Highland slate was often used as ballast for trading ships that would then return from the New World and beyond, full of goods from the Empire. Over the years, almost 6 million slates were moved from the Ballachulish quarry a year, some ending up halfway around the world. It would be the Highlanders next who would traverse the seas to new worlds, and this is something that Griogair has embraced, recently spending time in Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, Canada.
He said: “Going to Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, teaching at the College and playing with Dàimh was brilliant. We found ourselves amongst kin; all like-minded individuals. The feeling that we are all, to a certain extent, removed from our culture rings true and the ‘cultural colonisation’ that grows in remote communities brings with it a sense of solidarity.”
According to several musician-scholars, Cape Breton piping, fiddling and Gaelic song may be a truer reflection of pre-1800s Gaelic music due to the isolation from other styles and the desire for the communities to hold on to these individual styles with fervour. Griogair is supportive of this idea. “Goiridh Dòmhnallach learned Gaelic as a Cape Breton native. Similar to Lochaber Gaelic in its quirky differences, we easily understood each other, much of it around feeling like ‘anoraks’ of the language. There can be a sense of alienation by being so passionate about a sub-culture within a culture. It is a sub-culture to be a passionate Gael. In realising that, it has helped to find a voice for these other Gaelic cultures.”
Angus MacKenzie from Dàimh, is another excellent example, says Griogair. “Angus is from Mabou, on Cape Breton Island. His father came from South Uist before Angus was born. His mother’s descendants were amongst the first settlers known as the Mabou Pioneers, from Lochaber.”
Angus’s playing style with Dàimh complements perfectly both Griogair’s singing and piping. To a piping audience, his credentials are as solid as they come. Willie Lawrie, his grandfather’s cousin, was one of the greatest pipers never to reach his full potential. It is a lineage that Griogair carries with pride but also a sense of great responsibility, to both the great pipers and musicians of the area, as well as the local Ballachulish dialect of Gaelic.
“Willie was a gifted composer, it’s a tragedy that his life was cut so short like many of the pipers from the First World War. I often wonder what he would have gone on to produce had he not died in 1916.” Willie served at Ypres, died from an infection picked up in the filth and squalor of the trenches, but not before penning some of the finest tunes for the Highland bagpipe. According to Griogair, Willie was considered both a national, and a Ballachulish treasure.
Having such a passion for the music and the history of the Gael also sees Griogair’s strong opinions surface on how the music of the bagpipe has been co-opted in the years after 1745.
He said: “A large part of our history is based on the instrument being ‘of war’. The attribution of Gaels being a Barbarian people is only from a narrow period in our history. It is not a descriptor of the people, or the music. Should we encourage our instrument as being an instrument of war? It’s not tasteful to describe it primarily as this, and it certainly adds to the restriction of the music when we speak of a Pipe Major and a Drum Sergeant. Why the desire to continue the militarisation of our music when it is only a part of it?”
Griogair’s ideas of tradition and music, culture and history, came at a much earlier age. “My ideas, of music really, started from childhood. I’ve always been singing, through Canntaireachd, probably. My mother’s family, and its interpretation of the Nether Lorne way of music, was really the influence. The Lawrie side of the family were all native Gaelic speakers a generation back. It was only after the First World War that the language started to dissipate. The Ballachulish style of Gaelic is now only spoken by a few people,” he said.
This refrain seems to be echoed in many of the current pipers coming through the ‘New Tradition’. With a renewed interest in Gaelic history, music and culture, it would appear that the flame has not yet been completely extinguished. While this resurgence of ‘Trad’ is true, very few can hold its torch so brightly as Griogair.
This wider discourse in the history of the bagpipe, whether Piobaireachd was saved by militarisation and whether it should be continued to be promoted by competition alone is a discussion that is shared by many. Griogair competed as a youth with some success and probably would have continued as an adult, but for one small thing.
He said: “I’m the type of person who, if he sees a door that says, push, I’ll pull it. I was never really going to fit into that scene, but I have to admit I was quite chuffed to have once led the Dumbarton Pipe Band on to the competition field at the Cowal games.
My father was a businessman, and would commute to Glasgow, so didn’t have much time for competition, although he did keep the local Dumbarton Pipe Band going. He understood completely my move away from the competition scene.”
Griogair’s love for music, especially guitar, from classical to jazz and rock, underscores his passion. John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and modal jazz, seemed to reflect his inner passion early, and this musical flexibility is now showing itself in other avenues — even rap. This progression shouldn’t be seen as an abandonment of his culture, however, but as a growth from it.
Griogair’s mother and father were his early influences, yet throughout his musical education, and into the period that has seen him not only become a champion of the Gàidhealtachd, but a champion of a growing tradition. His desire to both promote the integrity of the music of the Gael has not stopped him from studying, absorbing and experimenting with growing passion.
Griogair believes that there is a “Cultural Captaincy” of music and language, whether it is by the Piobaireachd Society or the Mod. He believes it is stifling expression and creativity.
He’s not the only one…
“It was captured really well in William Donaldson’s book The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750 -1950. I think it is best explained by the tune Oran Mòr Mhic Leòid. Tradition versus Innovation and what people consider to be traditional is often ridiculous. There was no ‘Gaelic Air’ as an idiom 90 years ago. The idea of a ‘Gaelic Air’ as a style or a genre didn’t really exist then. They were all Gaelic Airs. Take the melody, hear the rhythms in the language, that’s the best way to understand the pulse and rhythm of the music. Play it any way you want to, because that’s how music grows. You can compare a lot of what we’re going through right now to American hip-hop and rap. The disaffected and poor in America couldn’t afford instruments, so they made their own. They took music samples, from turntables and microphones, and they built it into their own. It is the musicality of language and the music of the dispossessed that makes hip-hop and rap what it is. This is the big discovery, to go from a piper to a musician. That’s what you want.”
Treating any music as being a living tradition gives power to the past as well as the future. Griogair is not alone in this idea, but he certainly lives it.
He said: “The deepest I got into this ‘living tradition’ was meeting Calum Beaton from South Uist. I found his rhythmic Gaelic poetry recital was the true inspiration for me, and the delivery of the words led me to a deeper understanding of the music in the language. Seamus Innes used to say, ‘If you’re planning on learning an Air, at least try to learn one verse of the song, because the rhythmic complexity of the tune lies in the song. Allan MacDonald holds the same very well expressed opinion on Ceòl Mór. It’s almost like those who wish to control the music are fetishising the history of music and through that, putting it into chains.”
Through this idea, Griogair, Allan and others believe that music is dying unless it is growing, but like all jazz greats, you need to know your history before you can go about creating a new one. Oran Mòr Mhic Leòid is almost the ultimate case study of this theory. I have heard Dr Angus MacDonald play it, Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band compete at the Worlds with it, Allan MacDonald belt it out as a parody of a 1950s Mod competitor, then bring me to tears singing it as a lament to the abandonment of a people… all of them have their take on it. What is traditional though? Who sets that control? Who owns the music? The keepers of tradition are not the makers of tradition, according to Griogair. Holding on to tradition so tightly that it risks it slipping through your fingers? It risks having the next generation ignore it and therefore it dies because it becomes irrelevant. Griogair is at the vanguard of new Gaelic music, whether it is piping or not; and in the traditional realm is in a very good position to see and feel the ebb and flow of music and its relevance to youth. In trying to take out the ‘ideal’ of music and letting the Gaelic language direct the tune, Griogair has been taken on to a different path. In his two critically acclaimed albums, Dal-rìata and Guaillibh a Chèile, his handling of a range of instruments, including voice was nothing short of brilliant. When I heard him at Piping Live! in 2012, I was astonished at his passion and sheer musicality. I had only even heard a voice, a dialect, in pipe and song once before, and that was with Allan MacDonald, a mentor and friend of Griogair’s.
Griogair is currently undertaking a PhD at the National University of Ireland, on ‘The cultural colonisation of the Scottish Gaelic singing tradition’. Writing in Gaelic is now more comfortable for Griogair than English, and it probably is an extension of his comfort in his own skin; an attribute that is reflected in his playing pipes, Highland as well as Uilleann. As a mentor, both from music and historiographic study, Griogair could not have had a better one in Allan MacDonald.
Griogair explained: “The challenge to the Imperialism and the forms of control of the music, whether it is in competition or in the history of the music, is the next hurdle for us to overcome. When Allan teaches, he does get resistance because his ideas challenge the very nature of what controls the music — success on the boards. Allan’s ideas on piping have always rung true, for both my father and me, and I guess my PhD explores the same parallels that Allan did with his brilliant Masters of Literature thesis — it’s just that mine is from a singing tradition. My grandmother used to say that you couldn’t be a great piper unless you had the Gaelic, so I guess that must have influenced me at that young age to immerse myself in the language. In Allan, I found I had a musical and linguistic ally.”
They share a musical history but like many Gaels, they also share a story of how their family names were assigned to them after 1745. Allan’s family were MacIssacs and Griogairs mother’s family were MacFhiachars. “It was my grandmother who told me how my family, the MacFhiachars, were assigned the name Jackson. I refuse to acknowledge that name now. It still makes me angry.
Whether it’s due in part to The Clearances, the Scottish Diaspora or the forced removal of the language, the 1872 Education Act and the culture of identity; the lack of understanding of cultural geography, history and anthropology — so much of piping, and with it language and culture, is lost. There are a few who keep what is left alive but the resistance to those by the controllers of the music is strong, often too strong.
Many have held the same opinions, and have expressed them in articles, books and degree courses. What is universally held by all of these ‘keepers of the flame’ is that what is left can only be kept alive by the young and the passionate.
Griogair said: “I remember talking to Janet Phàil, the last fluent Gaelic speaker in Ballachullish. I’d been really getting into the study of the dialect, finding out about Willie Lawrie and his contemporaries, really immersing myself into the period of the 1920s and 30s.
“I wanted to see his world, hear his voice; and she was like, ‘Och, we have to move on, no one wants to hear about that. Your pals don’t want to hear about this…’
That same evening I was in a room with 15 or so young people from the area, some who’d just moved into the area, and I’m telling them the same stories she told me — and they were absolutely fascinated.
“It could be postulated that if order is to be maintained, then a small vestige, an idea of self-regulatory control, must be left with the conquered, however, order must be maintained. That is what any conqueror does. It allows the elite of the conquered society to keep a few vestiges of their history and then use it to control the masses. Are you a pipe major or a band-leader? Is this title one used by the masters to keep your people under control? You are allowed to hold on to the kilt and the pipe as the last vestige of your history, as long as you join a regiment and fight for us, the conqueror...”
They are heavy ideas but ones that have support, and ones that challenge the idea of musical history, and put it straight back into political history. As an extension of this, Griogair believes that many of the tunes that have always been described as military tunes often were actually Gaelic tunes, passed down from piper to piper years before they became military tunes. Much in the same way a religion will co-opt a pagan festival as an end to achieve a means, so he believes that the control of the music and the strictures placed on those who play by those in control, are part of both the militarisation of the music and control of the people. Griogair said: “Pipe bands outside the military have the same central ideas. They often grew out of the poverty of the time, or of an area, and gave the people a chance to come together.
It is the same with brass bands. There is a historical context of cultural poverty that the bands filled, but often, it was but a mere shell, a carapace of local strength. Through Griogair’s study, his performance and his passion, he aims to bring back the beauty of the music but also what he believes to be the truth.
Whether he does this through a PhD, education, travel or performance, there is no doubt that his passion lies in a land and a time that many have assigned to the history books. However, by breathing life into the past, embracing the energy and the dynamism of the future, Griogair helps to keep alive a culture that otherwise would be dead.
He does seem less angry than when we first met two years ago. Time and experience tempers our fire, lest we are consumed by it…
Griogair said: “Being in the croft, with the cattle, I feel more settled. I don’t feel I have to prove anything musically any more. The desolation that can come from our self-destructive nature, alcohol abuse by young and old, over-competitiveness — I’ve left that behind. There is no competitiveness. I feel I’m able to do what I want.”
The enormous surge of rapturous applause Griogair received after delivering a rap in Gaelic at a festival on Eigg gave him the biggest confidence boost he’s ever had.
“They are so interested, the young (and the not so young). Maybe Allan and I don’t need to feel so alienated any more. Around the country people who didn’t understand what we were on about, now do. There is a political and historical surge, you can feel it. There is the potential for us to believe once again in our culture. A bloodless revolution, whether it is political, musical or spiritual — it’s all tied in together. I don’t care what my critics say because I am now part of a bigger idea.”
When our ideas become a groundswell, and they become bigger than we ever thought possible, the anger leaves us and we become the hand that passes on the flame to a new generation. Griogair Labruidh is a musician, a poet and a scholar; a keeper of the flame, and a Gàidhealtachd Warrior — and a righteous warrior, at that.
Post Script, 1 November 2014: This interview went to print just as the referendum on Scottish Independence was concluded. If this was a movie, the ‘Yes’ campaign would have triumphed, the rapture of the Gàidhealtachd Warrior would have been tied to the closing credits, a clear sky, a new dawn; the wind calling from history to the future of Scotland, “Now is your time… Be Bold. Be Brave. You have triumphed!”
It was not to be.
I spoke to Griogair, and others, as the news sunk in. I expected that there would be tears and for many, there were. What I did find though, more than tears, was ‘Resolve’; a resolve that is present in many who have yet to taste triumph, but know that it is only the beginning.
It was then that the vibrant words of Griogair’s Rap performed on Eigg, that tiny isle of the Inner Hebrides, came back to me.
I hear beat rhyme and see persistence, resistance
For the distance, verbal hooks like Sonny Liston;
Repressed nations, delegations
The Insistin' of a listenin'.
From the simply materialistic; to the mystic,
Duality in actuality becomes reality.
Moments come… moments stay…
And Beinn Gulbeinn is but a glance away.