This is the second time I have written this interview.
The first time, I wrote about Calum, his family history, his love for music and his attachment to the bagpipe. I intended to bookend it with a piece on the Boraraig; the culmination of what Calum MacCrimmon knows of himself, his family history and his place in it.
When I finally heard ‘Boraraig’, almost at deadline for this article to go to print, I realized two things: I had missed out experiencing live one of the finest commissions I have ever heard - It moved me like ‘A Suite for Alan’ did in 2009. I also knew that I had to rewrite much of the interview.
So much of the talent of Calum MacCrimmon is seen through the filter of Breabach that you could miss the depth of his understanding of his sense of place and his connection to music and culture.
I have been to Skye several times in my adult life. I’ve scrambled up the Black Cuillin’s in sunshine and run down them chased by an ice storm. I’ve tramped up to Uig and been served flat beer by a Russian barman and later, eaten the finest seafood from The Three Chimneys at Dunvegan. I hold close the smell of the peat and the sea with me and remember the feeling of the low cloud on my face - All of this came flooding back to me as I listened to ‘Boraraig’ Calum MacCrimmons commission for the Blas Festival in 2013.
“I went up there and spent a week living in the Old Schoolhouse which overlooks the MacCrimmon cairn. It was during this week that I wrote the main ideas leading to these sets. It was such an inspiring location to write music in - to be able to walk up the hill each day and play a Piobaireachd out at the Cairn. It was challenging, too, when the winds pick up... Which is most of the time.
Working in close collaboration with Darren Maclean a gifted and award winning Gaelic Mod singer, Calum came up with the melodies and took them to Darren. Looking over the historical information and discussing their context, Darren would then pen the lyrics.
“The first tune of the Waulking Set is a jig called Peter MacCrimmon. Peter was my great grandmothers budgie who used to speak to the houseguests in her Harris accent. The second tune is inspired by waulking song rhythms. Entitled 'Kenna Campbell's' when played as a strathspey. When we added the lyrics It took on the title A Comhnaidh 'g Innse Sgeulachd, which translates as 'Always Telling Stories'. A fun dialog between a man and a woman, he claims to have seen royalty arrive by boat at Dunvegan Castle.
Being well known for his telling of tall tales, no-one believes him. This is actually based on truth, there is a surviving story of royalty secretly arriving up at Dunvegan for a visit!
Calum’s father, Iain, wrote the Piobaireachd of the commission, Salute to Malcolm Roderick MacCrimmon.
“He wrote it for his father, my grandfather who reignited the hereditary position in the forties with the blessings of Dame Flora MacLeod of Dunvegan who named him 9th hereditary piper to the MacLeod of MacLeod. My dad is currently the 10th hereditary piper. My main focus with the commission was to celebrate my family history. By looking at where the MacCrimmons from our line moved to, what they did for work and how the link was re-established during WW2 by my grandfather Malcolm Roderick MacCrimmon, the story unfolds.
The stories of Boraraig are rich and lively, just like the music that comes from there. The contribution of the performers who helped Calum craft Boraraig, Angus Nicolson, Darren Maclean, Mischa Macpherson, Eilidh Shaw, Ewan Macpherson and James Lindsay, are best described by doyen of the International piping fraternity, Bob Worrall. “I saw Boraraig when I was over for Celtic Connections. It was a musical highlight of the week for me. Captivating and beautifully orchestrated, it carries the audience through a wide range of emotions. And, most important of all, it is performed by an ensemble of first-rate musicians.
A self-assured performer who manages to straddle the genres of folk, funk, traditional piping and plenty in between, Calum MacCrimmon appears to have unlimited energy and drive.
This energy, almost at the level of perpetual motion is essential when you look at the schedule the brilliant Breabach undertakes. Crossing the globe to promote an album, followed by a Scottish tour; Breabach seems to go from strength to strength, with nary a foot misplaced.
Light and sweet one minute, boisterous and bolshy the next, the tunes that Breabach and Calum MacCrimmon serve up may be a road map to the past and the future of both Scottish music, and perhaps even Scotland itself.
From the haunting beauty of Scotland’s Winter to the simplicity of Farley Bridge, the fist shaking of Seven Men of Knoydart to the slapping funk of Working for the Man (a tune from his side project band Man’s Ruin); this is Calum MacCrimmon writ large - Boundary crossing, dynamic risk taking and fearless playing.
Yet within all this is a deep respect for where he, and the music he loves, comes from. I spoke to Calum in during the Melbourne leg of the second Breabach tour in almost as many months. Jetlag etched his brow somewhat, but his passion for music and history combined was not dimmed by it.
When some people reach a certain age they tend to look back and search for an understanding of their history. They want to know their story; and often their place in that story. This often comes to people when they are in the twilight of their lives. Calum has taken to it earlier than most, a lot earlier, and with vigor that is fascinating to watch unfold… and it unfolds in his music.
Until the age of nine, Calum MacCrimmon grew up surrounded by piping in Western Canada. The story of how he, and his family, reconnected to its piping past is almost as fascinating as the spread of the Scottish people throughout the world.
“My mother’s from Scotland and she met my Dad when she was visiting family in Canada. I was brought up in Edmonton, where my father was a solo piper, pipe major, composer. He has published four books of music - compositions of his own and some collected. When we came to Scotland, I was nine and my sister was 11 and we were like, “Yeah! Let’s do it…” Although it was a family decision, I don’t really think my sister and I knew what to expect. I don’t think you ever do.
The return to Scotland for the MacCrimmons (Late of Edmonton, Canada) must have brought challenges to the MacCrimmon children, captured beautifully in the reflective Breabach tune, Western Skies. As with all writers, musical or otherwise, the drawing on the challenges of life produces some of the best art.
When Calum connects the current music to the past, it is through this narrative of family and the oral tradition; almost as if keeping that family story alive in a reimagined music.
A Diaspora in reverse; a Homecoming, in fact and in art.
“I have done a couple of commissions over the years, which had always interested me, but when I applied to do the Boraraig commission for the Blas festival in 2014, I realised it was probably the most important commission I would ever do.
Calum is very much aware of the sensitivities of this part of the piping idiom, in fact of the historiographical and linguistic culture of Scotland’s music.
“I had to be careful in how I approached this. There can be a fair bit of cynicism, a lot of half-truths about people in our musical history. The things that have been written down throughout the years may or may not be completely true, but in saying that I don’t want to be controversial, I just wanted to show my respect to that history and to show my respect to where I’m from.”
“My Grandpa used to talk about his Grandpa. He was important in the building of the railways in Canada, and it’s a really important part of the history there. Malcolm Maccrimmon Snr led the men who built the railways through the Canadian wilderness. He never played the pipes, but his great grandfather did.”
Originally from Skye, Donald Ruadh was the 8th hereditary piper to the MacLeod’s of Skye and the last in the direct chain from father to son. He was Malcolm MacCrimmon Snr’s Great Grandfather.
“ When I approached the commission, I had to make a decision. I had to do further research. I read some pioneering books from Canada that made mention of my Great Grandfather and Great-Great Grandfather, and from that I looked at my own story. Do I go back to Skye to a people I haven’t had a direct oral link to or do I write about what happened after that family left Skye, about the Canadian MacCrimmons? Where did they go, and what did they do?”
“After Skye, what did they do? How did Malcolm MacCrimmon, my Grandpa, become a piper as a child in Canada? How did he become the first foreigner to be allowed to join the Scots Guards from the Glengarry Highlanders in World War Two and then get taught by Willie Ross? How did he become the first re-instated hereditary piper to the Clan Macleod in the 1940’s? The only reason I became aware of our deeper history is through that oral history…”
That musical re-boot, beginning in Canada almost one hundred years ago, is in itself is a great story. Calum tells it from the perspective of a young boy and Donald Maclean of Lewis in Canada. The young boy approached Donald, entranced by the music coming from the pipes. He said, “Excuse me, Sir. I’d like to learn to play.” Donald replied, “Sorry, son, but I’m too busy.” Looking again at the young lad, he asked, “What’s your name?” The young boy replied, “Malcolm MacCrimmon…”
Donald Maclean paused, looked at him again and said, “Give me a call next week.” The first MacCrimmon for five generations in Canada came back to the music.
You might think that the accent Calum still retains from his first decade in Canada counts against him in some circles. Perhaps he is not traditional enough to bear the mantle of a standard bearer? It may have crossed his mind, but from my experience, the quality of the individual and the capacity to add to the whole, counts more than perceptions, actual or imagined.
“Sometimes I get self-conscious and assume that my accent makes people think I don’t have a strong enough connection to Scotland, but in my heart I know that is silly. I have no desire to force my family history down people’s throats. If people enjoy listening to me talk about it, I enjoy talking about it and it’s not a burden. It’s an amazing piece of history on its own, as part of the larger MacCrimmon story.”
Family history aside, Calum MacCrimmon has his own path and his own history.
Getting caught up in a lineage that is one of the most important in piping history risks ignoring the capacity of a musician who is at the forefront of a new piping tradition.
“My Grandpa didn’t have any family piping passed down to him, so he had to re-start it. My Dad learned because his dad played. I learned because my Grandpa and my Dad played. It was only after that I learned the importance of our deeper history. Genealogists did all the work that helped me learn more about this history.”
Moving away, the sense of home and its definition is captured in many tunes in the Gaelic idiom. Much of that music is about betrayal and loss. The beauty of the song Western Skies is as much about a life left behind, remembered fondly; a child’s memory, but not a sad one.
“Home for me is Glasgow, there’s a great community there, a real sense of a musical community. I started on my path with the solo competitions and pipe bands, but it wasn’t until I was 17 when I decided I wanted to study music – The change of direction came the moment I stumbled on ‘the session scene’. I literally had never heard of a session. From the first listen, I thought: I have to learn to play the whistle, as soon as possible. I have to learn to play the small pipes, as soon as possible, Rhythm guitar, too, because I want to be able to increase my repertoire and play in these gatherings. I don’t think I knew what I was going to do until I went to university and became part of this scene. It wasn’t the course itself that influenced me it was the people. It was the students and the lecturers and the people you meet around them. Then came Celtic Connections. I was hearing traditional music from all over the world. Canada, India, Australia, Europe. It’s when I found what I wanted to do, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
That exposure led directly to Breabach. It wasn’t instant, and it took work. It also took some mistakes.
“The first ever discussion of Breabach came about with Donal Brown when we were at university together. Donal said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great having two sets of bagpipes in a band together?’ and it grew from there. It started in 2003, but we never really got our act together until 2005. At the start, it was really a ‘half-cocked’ attempt at a good idea, and then, when we ‘wised up’ about what we were trying to achieve, we had to find out what we needed to do this properly. At first, we played small pipes and big pipes. It was a terrible idea. The small pipes were in concert A, the highland pipes were in concert B-flat. It was like the fiddlers needed two fiddles, the guitarist needed to keep changing his capo and retune. It was too much. So we chose highland pipes, and never looked back.
We won the Danny Kyle Open Mic award in 2005 at Celtic Connections and have been committed to the band since that point.
Dual bagpipes work brilliantly for Breabach, and while there are bands that have more than one piper, you’d be hard pressed to find a band that improvises so strongly during gigs and has that sound as such an intrinsic part of their performance.
“One of our key things in the band is trying not to damage the core of the music. We still try to be true to its history, but if you listen to how a fiddler plays, they don’t try to play in the same style as other fiddlers, they want their own swing. They cut on different notes, they integrate their own ideas. So for a piper to be able to play with that other instrument, fiddle, bass, whistle, he/she has to be able to play with stylistic freedom and groove. That, to be honest, is some of the most fun we have had, breaking free, whether it is between two pipers or a piper and a fiddler. We don’t want to be seen as heretics, I think we’re quite contemporary, hopefully without rocking the boat too much and perhaps that gives us appeal to a broad range of listeners.
That Breabach respects the tradition is a given, but they do so while still pushing the boundaries.
“When preparing music for Bann we suddenly realised we had never incorporated the pipes into a song, and then that transformed into, ‘Can we have pipes going while the song is being sung?’ We felt sure this could be done despite the common view that it would be ‘too loud’. So from that point, it would be easy to have a Piobaireachd as the ‘outro’, instead of the more expected ‘intro’. That’s when Scotland’s Winter really became what it was. It was a real ground- breaker for us.
Some traditionalists resist the changes to their tradition. If tradition does not develop, does not grow and be influenced by the next generation, will it wither and die? Calum is cognoscente of the traditions from which his music comes, but is also aware of where Traditional music is going. It is obviously not a lineal path, and that is for the better.
“If we do in fact come across as a ‘crossover’ band, then perhaps we do so by playing some self-penned tunes or maybe when we play traditional melodies to a ‘Groove’. Playing to a Groove on a traditional instrument is a pretty modern concept. Solo pipers don’t play to ‘a Groove’. The competition tunes have accenting and phrasing, and that’s its own art form. Groove is the rhythmical consistency that runs through a style or genre of music. Contemporary music for the last 70 or so years has developed a variety of Grooves, and now, Trad music is adopting some of these. There is so much inclusion of ‘Groove’ in folk music now, that it is arguably gaining relevance as a New Tradition.
“I feel that our duty is to influence our music with our lives. Without that, all we do is reflect upon what was going on 50 years or 100 years ago. If you came from a certain village, you would play with similarity to the musicians from that village, and the way of playing and teaching would remain identifiable, on the whole, for a long time.”
However, when you bring a new influence to the old, as many have done, the tradition continues but continues with change. The vanguard of any change, are the shape shifters. Martyn Bennett, Gordon Duncan, John Lennon, Monty Python, Billy Connolly… Pick one. They all break rules, ignore taboos, smash down walls and inspire others to join their revolution.
“I hadn’t heard Martyn Bennett’s music until I was in second year of university. I’d heard of Croft No.5, who were heavily influenced by Martyn. Martyn was, and is a very important contributor to both traditional and popular music culture. It is amazing how much influence one individual can have on generations of performers.”
Martyn Bennett epitomised that, and bands like Breabach can have the same influence. Change one thing and it can have a catalysing effect on others.
“Pop, Reggae, Funk, Jazz? So at what point do we try to avoid the mixing of these musical styles. This Groove tradition actually defines our time in music if you want my current opinion. As soon as we started to introduce accompaniment to traditional music, it changed entirely. There will always be good and bad examples of any change to music, but only the good survives. It’s always been like that so I don’t think we have anything to fear.”
“It’s like, during the 80’s. It was hard to know what 80’s music was until the 80’s finished. Then you knew! It should be natural to understand that we don’t control music. You often don’t know that it’s good, only that it’s new.”
Great art will always survive. Those artists, however, sometimes do not know whether their art will strike a chord, and to a certain extent, they shouldn’t care. They produce their art from an inner urge, an uncontrollable passion to create. If they were overly influenced to create something just to sell, or just for the sake of change, their art becomes meaningless and will not survive. Great music is exactly the same.
Calum MacCrimmon does not restrict himself to the bagpipe, or even to folk / Trad music for that matter. Side projects abound and the desire to create runs freely within him. You can feel it when you talk to him. Man’s Ruin is a project that has been an outlet for music that fits neither with Breabach or any of the other piping projects he has been involved with.
“Before my band, Man’s Ruin became a band, I realised I had musical ideas that I couldn’t vent through Breabach. I had ideas that were really crossover; heavy grooves, dance music, but the traditional stuff wouldn’t fit with it. It needed an outlet and that’s how Man’s Ruin came about. My Dad actually had an influence in this. He often talked of a great Canadian drummer who would play rock, jazz, blues – all of it. He was also a great side drummer, and a great composer of drum scores for my dad’s tunes. This was in the 70’s. The player was John Fisher. He heard Johnny Fisher playing for the pipes, but the drumming was as far from standard snare drumming as you could get - jazzy, groovy. That concept stuck with me and really shaped how I wrote the Man’s Ruin material – the idea that these syncopated internal rhythms exist beneath the phrases and within the energy field of the tunes. I took to this approach and I am now in full acceptance that I can’t compose with an instrument in hand, I have to sing it first. No limitations.
Allan Macdonald, one of the most influential pipers and composers of our time has had a singular effect on so many of the musical greats from this New Tradition that he defies description. Calum is no different in his description of Allan’s influence.
“Allan opened my eyes to the possibilities of piobaireachd (Ceol Mor) outwith the competitive style. He encouraged me to consider how to play it, not as the student, or as the competitive piper, but as an open minded musician. The competitive restraints of piobaireachd had definitely pushed me away previously, even though there were a selection of tunes that still had that ‘something’ that got me straight away. A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick, Lament for the Children and Dastirum gu seinnim piob are simple yet brilliant melodies. Allan was singing the cantaireachd to me, suggesting different ways to approach the phrasing. The music went from being a very slow, static piece that struggles to find any momentum in the ground, to being a highly motivated, almost ruthless piece of music that requires vigour in it’s delivery.
That’s the music I want to play…
“It was exciting to view these huge compositions with a renewed sense of freedom. I felt that I could finally appreciate these pieces as core melodies that belonged to me rather than as frightening undertakings that are often sidestepped if not completely dismissed by those that ‘don’t really understand it…’ this is a comment I have heard far too many times over the years about Piobaireachd.
“Piobaireachd came from communities, it came from pride, it came from fear, it came from sadness; and it’s shaped everything we play today. Reels, jigs, marches - it all comes from these old tunes in mode and in rhythm. At some stage people feel like they have to decide whether they like Piobaireachd or not. It’s crazy! I wonder if the rules of competition have become too restrictive over the years and we are coming close to a time where a little more freedom of expression can be extended to the competitive piping world?
“We have certainly used a few different Piobaireachd’s in Breabach sets over the years. I hope we have done so respectfully and tastefully but even if it only gets a few more people listening to this big music I am happy about that. We are having fun playing it. I would love to see more of these old tunes finding their way onto different musical platforms. I wonder what the next generation of piper will do with Piobaireachd?
I would like to think it will be something fresh…something I wouldn’t have done.
Calum feels he could get crucified by half of the competing pipers for saying what he has said. I disagree, because it’s not about their playing and it’s not about them as people or even musicians. It is about rules. Music, like any art, is about freedom. It is about feeling something inside and then expressing that, playing what is in your soul. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, ‘Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.’
Calum MacCrimmon is just like any musical shape shifter - The freedom from control mixed with supreme control of his instrument; deft at improvisation, while having a wonderful capacity for tight ensemble playing. Traditional music that sometimes seems like it is shaking its fist at traditionalism but isn’t.
Perhaps because we now live in a truly global musical environment, Scotland and its traditional music is now an intrinsic part of a global musical village. The success of that music can be credited to the Diaspora of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as the modern proponents of Celtic folk. That musical world that the Scots helped create after taking to their ships is thriving. Calum, son of Iain, Grandson of Malcolm and the many musicians who arrive to resew the seeds for the next generation at Celtic Connections and Piping Live bring with them the accumulated knowledge of over two hundreds of years of remove.
Through his many musical forms, Calum is part of an invigorated music scene that is truly global, but somehow, intrinsically Scottish.
Calum MacCrimmon will become the 11th hereditary piper to the Clan MacLeod of Dunvegan when it is handed down by his father Iain MacCrimmon.
That's a Homecoming to look forward to.