The Hero of our story, a ginger-headed boy from Carradale, walks through the forests around the Kintyre peninsula.
Listening to tapes of music he has recorded from the TV as he walks, no weather can blunt the magic of this musical awakening.
What is this music and where will it transport him?
Despite being from a musical family, his music lessons at school would be spent on his own in the cleaner’s broom cupboard with a practice chanter, while the other kids were jamming together outside.
This should be the stuff of imagination, better suited to a certain Edinburgh writer of wizards than a boy from Carradale, were they not true.
It is, however, how the hero of our story began his piping journey.
Boys are born unknowing of what the future holds, it’s why adventures begin when they begin, and this boy is no different.
More interested in the exploits of Doctor Who, little does our hero know that in a few short years he will be part of the history of this very famous Time Lord from Gallifrey. It will be a bagpipe that will be this young man’s TARDIS, and it will transport him to places of which he never, ever dreamed…
Carradale, and the Kintyre peninsula, is a hive of music, history and single malt. Geographically isolated, it has been the home of renegades and troubadours — Vikings and Ulstermen: St Columba, Springbank Single Malt, Sir Paul McCartney and Lorne MacDougall.
All have called this fertile peninsula their home.
This latest troubadour, destined to be a future great of Scottish traditional music, comes from family of the founding member of the Carradale Gaelic Choir. These Gaelic singers and musicians (perhaps even time travellers) evolved, eventually reaching the Zen state of ‘accordion player’. It was an accordion player, our hero’s mother, who encouraged him to take up the bagpipes. To be honest, he can’t remember a lot about learning the bagpipe in the beginning. He was more interested in TV.
Lorne MacDougall is rumoured to be a time traveller. He must be, for there is no way he could, in barely 30 years on this planet, have done all the things attributed to him: Multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, radio broadcaster, performer and Doctor Who tragic.
“Mum would tell me I could never imagine the amazing experiences I’d have in the future, just because I played pipes. If I did imagine it, I didn’t really believe it,” he said.
Many years later though he would remember those words, sitting backstage at the Royal Albert Hall for the Doctor Who at the Proms, talking with the cast and crew when Matt Smith, the 11th Doctor Who (although I’m sure you knew that already) walked past giving a high-five to Lorne, complimenting him on his performance.
The young lad from Carradale, once prone to sitting on the beach listening to bootlegged music on his Walkman thought, “My goodness, Mum was right. Amazing…”
So, where does Lorne’s story begin? Music? School? Doctor Who re-runs on a small TV?
“I was really inspired by certain television soundtracks that I didn’t realise were Celtic at the time — tracks by Dougie MacLean, Phil Cunningham and John Lunn. I’d tape them off the television and go sit at a beach or in a forest around Carradale listening to them on a Walkman in a daze!
It took me a while to associate them with the music I was learning.
"I wasn’t terribly interested in it to start with. I’d be much more interested in watching Doctor Who than practicing the chanter but my Mum would always encourage me to stick at it. School was still quite difficult for me as a piper. I spent most of my music classes being frustrated in the cleaner’s cupboard with my practice chanter while everyone else was jamming together in various ensembles outside.
"I saw no reason why I couldn’t be playing with the others but was too shy to actually do anything about it — so the frustration kept on building inside of me. I think that’s why I do what I do today, I want to prove that the pipes are just as acceptable an instrument as any other and should be treated that way. Yes, they do have some limitations but there’s often a way around them.
“I got my very first lessons with pipe major Tony Wilson before he passed away in 1994. I would have been 10 at the time. At the Campbeltown Highland Games of that year, after I played in the chanter competition, he promised that we would start me on pipes that week but he passed away a few days later. I stopped altogether for about two years before starting again with Peter Ferguson. At the time, there were very few people learning pipes in Kintyre. It was all a bit fragmented; there were no bands or school involvement.
“It wasn’t as enjoyable as it could have been if there was a social scene attached to it. I felt a little bit alienated. There were really strong brass bands and choirs in the school at the time and that’s where all the excitement seemed to be.”
Lorne was on the verge of giving up. However, one day at a lesson at Peter’s house, a tape was playing something Lorne had never heard before
— pipes but playing jigs, reel and hornpipes with accompaniment! It was Robert Mathieson’s album Ebb Tide.
Lorne said: “I got a loan of it and literally wore it out. I was doing some solo competing at the time and I think my tutor, quite rightly, realised that my interest in this style could distract me from the competition repertoire, so he would only let me hear more of this as a reward when I did well at competitions.
“If I did well, my parents would take me to the nearest music shop in Oban or Dumbarton to find the latest tape releases from Robert Mathieson, Shotts and Dykehead and Fred Morrison.” This worked and although Lorne didn’t enjoy the competing part of it, he did enjoy the music he was playing. After a few years, he went for lessons with Ian McKerrell and, at that time, was one of only two pupils.
He said: “Ian taught me mostly in the competition style but the older I got, the more encouraging he was for me to explore the rest of the piping world. I do feel that a wider understanding of music helps in learning the more focused types of solo piping. “At one lesson, I remember struggling to understand the whole left, right swing rhythm in 2/4 marches, then Ian got his accordion out for a laugh and started to play, really vamping chords on the left hand along with Captain Campbell of Drum a Voisk. I really felt something click in terms of understanding musicality and expression that day.”
Ask an accordion player if they’re right. They’ll assure you they are, especially if that accordion player is your Mother (or your tutor).
In those days Lorne didn’t really understand what “folk” or Celtic” music was – he just thought it was piping accompanied by other instruments.
It was by chance, however, that where the family home was in Carradale, Lorne was able to pick up BBC Radio Ulster. He discovered Pipes and Drums, the Ulster produced piping radio show. As good as Pipeline on BBC Radio Scotland was at that time, it was dedicated more so to solo and pipe band music. The Radio Ulster show would play The Tannahill Weavers, Ossian and Battlefield Band regularly.
It began to change Lorne’s perception. He said: “I remember one Pipeline in particular where Hamish Moore was discussing bellows blown pipes — that’s where I first heard Martyn Bennett and Hamish’s own music. It was incredible, amazing music. In the late ‘90s there were some guys travelling to Glasgow to play in the David Urquhart Travel Pipe Band. The pipe major at the time, Alasdair Fletcher, had roots in Argyll and was keen to have Argyll pipers in the band. I was asked to join and that’s where I met pipers like Dougie Campbell and Lee Moore, who were writing and playing a more contemporary style of piping. Dougie introduced me to bands like Shooglenifty and Capercaillie.
They were playing tunes that I recognised but without a Highland pipe in sight. It was thrilling listening to them.”
Doctor Who uses a sonic screwdriver to fix many of the problems of the universe. Lorne’s solution to the aurally challenged in the greater Argyll area was a microphone and a radio.
He started presenting on Argyll FM in 1999 and, to his joy, found that if you got in touch with record companies they would send you boxes of promotional albums to play. Once this happened, he was well on the road to discovering new musicians and bands, and bringing that music to the world. Argyll FM may have helped get Lorne out there, because as we travel through time to 2004, the good Doctor MacDougall was able to land his TARDIS on PlanetPipe.
He explained: “PlanetPipe was definitely something I wanted to be involved with. In 2004, I emailed John Angus Smith who was the Director of Bees Nees at the time to complain about the lack of options for the non-broadband listeners of PlanetPipe and he invited me in for a meeting. I knew the other director, Alasdair McCuish, from work experience I did at the BBC the year before. They offered me a job a couple of days a week doing administration stuff but it meant I got to learn from them and also from Murray Blair, who was producing the show. PlanetPipe was there to encourage people to buy music downloads of the tracks they heard from the sister-site TradTunes. A few years later the company Uist Media (now Bees Nees) began to diversify away from this side of things. I convinced them to let PlanetPipe continue in a more modest version. It’s a continuing education for me. It’s an excuse to interview some of my heroes and I learn a lot from them. It’s great fun too — never too serious. We’ve done studio shows, interviews from the Park Bar the day after the World Pipe Band Championships (when the pipers have, uh, all loosened up a bit…), it’s been great.”
Going back in time again, the next stop of this musical Tardis is Glasgow and the RSAMD.
It is a time for Lorne and his music to expand, nebula-like across a musical universe.
“Going to the RSAMD, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, was almost an accident. I was given the form to fill in by my careers advisor in sixth year at school. I had applied for some computing courses but had already been too distracted by music to give final exams my full attention, so I wasn’t all that hopeful. At the time I never really considered the consequences of what might happen if I didn’t get on to a course. I was very content living at home and probably wouldn’t have realised what I had missed out on if the whole thing had passed me by.”
Thankfully, he made it onto the course, starting late in 2001. Lorne MacDougall had found his planet.
There were people on the course his own age and they were really into traditional music.
For the next few years he would be journeying around this new musical realm — the vibrant galaxy of the Glasgow Folk Scene.
He said: “On the first day I recognised Stuart Cassells, who was a few years older than me. I thought, ‘There’s that big cheesy guy who was showing off playing all gazillion parts to the Mason’s Apron at last year’s Dumbarton competition.’ Speaking to him then, I had no idea we’d become such good friends. Ali Hutton was also in that year. He was the same age as me but was much more experienced playing in sessions than I was. Having that pair in my year both inspired and intimidated me — and I think that was healthy. We all learned a lot from each other on the RSAMD course. I’d have been a very different player and person if I hadn’t taken up a place.”
Having experimented with writing early on, often sending his music to admired pipers and composers the world over, Lorne would soon record and release a debut album that oozed greatness.
“I thought a lot about the way I wanted Hello World to sound,” he said.
“The way the whole project developed was quite organic. Due to the lack of funds available for making an album, the original pitch to Greentrax was: make a very sparse, easy to record album. I had Gordon Duncan’s Just for Seamus in mind. While it’s brilliantly recorded, it’s really just excellent piping and accompaniment. Two musicians playing live wouldn’t have been too expensive to record and we planned on using a home studio set up in a local church hall. I think this was a great way to create a basis for an album. If I had loads of funds I would been over excited with the potential for adding everything, including the kitchen sink. Having to put the set together as basically music for a duo — melody and accompaniment — forced me to ensure that the strength of the actual music was good enough before adding anything else.”
Hello World has everything any album needs, let alone a debut album. It blew people away with its craft and quality. The writing, the performance and the arrangement were stellar. The mark of a great album is that it can be on high rotation without ever feeling tired. Listening to this album four years after its release, you still get that excited feeling. It surely will become a modern classic.
Lorne sad: “I don’t think a lot of musicians listen back to their own albums for pleasure, but I do, not to listen to myself, but to get the enjoyment of other people’s contributions and interpretations on my music. That’s where I really get a thrill — hearing other people getting and understanding what I’m trying to do. Brian McNeill was on board with the idea and was always encouraging Greentrax to give me a bit more of a budget — he’s a great musician and producer. I worked with Brian on Rua MacMillan’s album and we went to a great studio in Ardgour, Watercolour Music.
Nick Turner and Mary Anne Kennedy have a fantastic studio facility with a great feel to it. I didn’t have enough money for musicians, so Rua and I agreed to exchange sessions — I’d play on his album if he played on mine. I fell so in love with Watercolour that I begged Brian to see if we could get some time up there to record Hello World. It took a while, but we did…”
Not to suggest that there is anything wrong with Highland weather, because there's not. It just so happened that this winter was one for the record books; and it did inadvertently delay the project some.
“The first session for the album was postponed by about six months,” Lorne said. “We were snowed out in November, then again in the following February. It did give us a lot of time to digest the ideas we had and to think about what we were going to record. This was a great help to the final album. It all finally worked out in the summer of 2010 and, by then, more funds were available. We were able to put a bigger band around the recording.
I wanted each track to be different but not so different as to sound like it was from a different album. I hate how easy it is now for people to buy single tracks and not whole albums. I was thinking a lot about taking the listener on a journey throughout the album. It really frustrates me if the iPod shuffles it or they only buy part of the album – and while this frustrates me, I’ll admit that I am guilty of it myself.”
Lorne’s Tardis takes him to some pretty amazing places. Whether it’s ‘Taking the tartan rocket to PlanetPipe’ or the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, working with Joy Dunlop or The Campbells of Greepe; he loves the exploration of the musical universe.
He said: “I love getting the call to be involved in other people’s projects and I get very excited to see the first emails of roughs come in. I do feel that I need to get into a certain mindset to come up with parts for these — slightly different as to what I’d do with my own stuff. When working with the Campbells or Joy, the structure of the piece is there and there is just space for an instrumental section.”
“I think you need to take yourself out of your own performance and listen to how it works in terms of the song — I’m there to compliment the song, not override it. Playing with the Red Hot Chilli Pipers has been different each time we do an album. I’m not that active in gigging with the band but am always brought in to work on the new material for the albums — somewhere between arranger, performer and producer.
I’ll bring some ideas to the band, develop some they’ve been working on and do some of the recording.
“Sometimes the best ideas only come out in the studio and I’m always thrilled to hear one of those improvised lines used as part of the band’s live shows. When I’m thinking about material for the band, the same frustration appears that was with me at school: It’s people’s underestimation of the pipes that often fuels me. I want to put together exciting, accessible music. I always catch my fingers going along to mainstream music I hear on the radio and, naturally, I’ll begin to hear tunes that could fit the same chord progressions or rhythms on the pipe.
“When Stuart Cassells asked me to produce the first Red Hot Chilli Pipers album, we did it over a few days in the cheapest studio we could find to sell a batch of CDs at gigs over Christmas. That was the Christmas before the band went onto win When Will I Be Famous? on BBC 1, so it’s not really seen as being the band’s first album.
It was very different and more folky than what the Chillis are now known for. Lorne is quite adept at re-invention, much like Doctor Who himself. Candid and brave in both his music and everything else, his life has not been completely easy, whether it was chanter practice in a broom cupboard or his battle with his weight.
He said: “Producing music was the way I wanted to go at the start — I never thought I’d cut it as a performer. I was a very big guy, so lacked confidence to be an actual performer but that didn’t really bother me at the time. I could still be creative off stage, on the engineer’s side of the glass in the recording studio. However, as I got into my mid 20s I found that my weight and lifestyle was actually affecting my creativity so I made a decision that it was time to change.
“I remember hitting 25 stone — and that was the turning point. Along with the weight loss also came more confidence and motivation so I decided to enter the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year. The first year I did the Young Trad, I made a bit of a mess of it — but that in itself was a great learning experience. I thought I’d do well if I played fast, flashy tunes — but I didn’t. Looking back, it’s easy to see why. I learned the lesson that you should always stand back from your music and listen to it as if you were the audience.
“I did the Young Trad for another three years after that and don’t regret one minute of it. It was a great way to focus, a great way to meet people and fantastic exposure. After doing it, people started to take me more seriously as a musician and the session work began to come in.”
The session work he became involved with was, and is, part of Scotland’s musical revival. Scotland’s music seems to be like a building storm, and Lorne MacDougall seems to be at the centre of the vortex. Not bad for a wee ginger kid from Carradale.
Lorne’s ideas on ensemble performance should be in a handbook for all pipers who wish to cross over into playing with other instruments.
He said: “I feel so lucky to be involved in Brave back in 2012 and from that, How to Train Your Dragon 2, this year. They are great, fun movies with stunning soundtracks that really do make good use of the pipes. I know the composers were hesitant to use the Highland pipes because of their limitations so after our first contact, I had to reassure them to write what they wanted and we’d try to find a way to work around any issues.
“There are horror stories of pipers being asked to do high profile recordings but refusing basic musical etiquette, like tuning the pipes to concert pitch. I gave the composers a guide as to what was best for pipes and what was possible. After that, we just worked it out.
“When you get the call for something like this I think you just have to say, ‘Yes. I can do it’, discover the problems and work out solutions later. There are usually ways around it. Recently, I was asked to play a piece in C Major on the Highland pipes for a Disney project. I had a chanter in A that I used for a few gigs with Manran. I figured if I cross-fingered or taped the C and F I could do a C Major scale so we got away with that. Pipedreams made some small alterations to my Ezee-Drone reeds to get them sharper.
When the Dragon 2 score came through, we pushed things to the extreme. The themes had all been established in the first film where they used sampled pipes but I was determined to make them work in reality. I hate hearing sampled pipes in movies and it happens all too often on big budget projects — I see it as a piper’s opportunity lost.
“It was a similar theme with Doctor Who — an email came and literally said “Hello, can you learn this?” So, I had to set up the pipes in A-minor. We made it work but one of these days a pipe maker is going to get a very panicked phone call from me looking for an F chanter with a sharp Low G and High B.”
So, where will the musical Tardis next transport this young traveller?
He said: “The next project for me is taking my New Voices commission into the studio and getting it recorded. It was a great project and I’m very proud of it. I do feel like it wasn’t quite finished when we premièred it but when does anything like that ever feel finished? We always add bits here and there and develop things further.
“Composing is a big part of what I do, and basically it’s just getting the tunes out of my head. If I don’t get them out and finished then they start to burn. It can take hours or years for me to completely finish a tune. One of the tunes in New Voices I began writing five years ago and that turned into a song.
I don’t really know if I have any sort of set technique when it comes to composing, each tune comes to me a different way.
Some spill out, some develop around a phrase and some I write quite mathematically. There’s a subconscious balance thing I do with my melodies so they are spread throughout the scale as evenly as possible. Its weird, but I only just realised that myself, just now.”
This young man, with his bagpipe as a Tardis, is as musically dynamic as that fictional Doctor from the planet Gallifrey.
Lorne MacDougall’s ability to move through all dimensions of music will continue to stand him in great stead, learning from the past, living in the present and looking forward to the future.