Published: 28/11/2015 05:14 - Updated: 02/12/2015 14:50

Piping without barriers

Fred Morrison
Fred Morrison

WINTER might not be the most inviting time for a tour of the Highlands and Islands, but for piper Fred Morrison, it had become part of his routine.

"I’ve been doing it for a long time, at least 15 years, and it’s becoming something people know about now," he said.

"I love travelling around Scotland as well and in winter you see it in a different way."

However, an island tour at this time of year is not without its risks and Morrison admitted he had been worried about being able to get off Barra.

"Last winter it was three weeks before a boat left Uist or Barra," he pointed out with relieved laugh.

Although born and brought up near Glasgow, the Uist leg of his winter tour feels very much like a home gig for Morrison.

His father was from South Uist and Morrison sees himself as following in the piping tradition of his father and uncles.

"Uist, in my dad’s era, had a huge tradition of piping," he said.

"Every village had not just good players, but world class players. They love piping and there is something about it that is just in them. At half time I have to close the request book just because of the number of tunes I have to play. It’s all family and friends and know everyone who goes there. It’s just magic.

"And you have to know what you are doing. In some places you can be a bit lighter, but Uist is a home game and it’s the heavy stuff."

Morrison certainly sees himself as following in that tradition, but from there has pushed into new and different territory.

"The last studio album was an American, bluegrassy-type influence, but to me it still has the same strand or feel," he said.

He has also branched out from playing the Highland pipes to other members of the musical family in the bellows powered, or "cauld wind", small pipes and Irish uilleann pipes,

"The small pipes were no problem, but with the uilleann pipes I had to put a lot of work into them to get them to a standard that I’m happy with and feel equally fluent," he said.

"I guess it’s like being fluent in another language. You can just do it. I don’t have to think about it.

"I also love playing the whistle — all that breathy, woody stuff — and the audiences love it too. It’s a nice contrast with the rousing pipes stuff."

As a young piper, Morrison’s biggest influences were leading competition pipers such as Iain Morrison from Lewis or John Burgess, but it was listening to Irish piper Paddy Keenan of The Bothy Band and later Moving Hearts’ Davy Spillane who opened his ears to the possibilities of improvisation.

Singer and guitarist Dick Gaughan, whom Morrison was to join as a member of short lived folk "supergroup" Clan Alba, leading bluegrass musicians like Tim O’Brien and Ron Block also helped mould the way Morrison thought about playing his instrument, as did his fellow Celtic pipers in Brittany and northern Spain.

"There was a freedom to what they did, that improvisational stuff they do had such an edge to it," he said.

"I felt we in Scotland were missing out."

However, when Morrison did add improvisiational elements to his piping, some "traditionalists" were less than happy.

"If you go back to the 18th century, it would have been based much more on free ornamentation because nothing was written down," Morrison stated.

"So what I do is probably more in keeping with what the tradition really was than what people perceive as ‘tradition’.

"Competition and pipe bands have a great contribution to make to the culture, but they are not the only part of the culture."

It is a lesson that many young musicians taking up the pipes in the wake of Morrison and his contemporaries like the late Gordon Duncan have learnt, which the piping scene all the healthier, Morrison believes,

"It’s a brilliant time to be a young piper," he said.

"There are no barriers. If you are good, people will want to hear you."

Fred Morrison’s solo winter tour includes the following dates; Ceilidh Place Clubhouse, Ullapool, Friday 27th; Tulloch Castle, Dingwall, Saturday 28th; Badenoch Centre, Kingussie, Tuesday 1st December; Glenurquhart Village Hall, Drumnadrochit Wednesday 2nd; Seaboard Memorial Hall, Balintore, Thursday 3rd; Pipe Band Hall, Wick, Saturday 5th; Clashmore Village Hall, Dornoch, Monday 7th; the Drouthy Cobbler, Elgin, Tuesday 8th; and the Deeside Inn, Ballater, Wedneasday 9th.

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