Finlay MacNeill

Renowned Scottish Piper and Traditional Singer

"Every now and again, Scotland produces a person who so excels at his chosen art or profession that he profoundly affects not only those around him, but all people of similar interests throughout the world. Such a man is Finlay MacNeill – piper, singer, Gaidhlic scholar and personality extraordinary"

Seumas MacNeill, 1982.

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Finlay MacNeillFinlay MacNeill in conversation with Nóra Uí Dhuibhir about his life and times.

Nóra: Finlay, you were reared in Port Glasgow with Gaidhlic as your first language. Was there much Gaidhlic in Port Glasgow when you were growing up? Talk to me about your early days.

Finlay: I can't say there was any Gaidhlic in Port Glasgow in those days, except for the people who took it there. We're talking about the post-Depression days, and big industry in the Clyde, shipbuilding and river traffic and so on, and many people came out from the islands to Port Glasgow - my father and mother for example. They were both in the First World War, and when they came back, they didn't go back to the croft, because the croft could only sustain really one person. The rest of the families, and they were big families, had to go and find work somewhere else, and the two obvious places were North America, and the industrial cities in the south of Scotland. That's how they finished up there. There was always a fair number of people from Lewis, Skye, Harris, who created their own kind of Highlands in the Lowlands, if you know what I mean, without integrating too much. They kept themselves to themselves, not in an enclosure type thing - my mother shopped, talked to the people of the town - but, what happened was, they inter-visited among themselves and that way Gaidhlic was very much a lingua franca in that little group.

That's how they finished up there. There was always a fair number of people from Lewis, Skye, Harris, who created their own kind of Highlands in the Lowlands, if you know what I mean, without integrating too much. They kept themselves to themselves, not in an enclosure type thing - my mother shopped, talked to the people of the town - but, what happened was, they inter-visited among themselves and that way Gaidhlic was very much a lingua franca in that little group.

Actually I'd a better chance. I know people now of my own age from the islands who do not speak Gaidhlic. The reason for that is that "education" meant English. If you were a bright child in Lewis, for example, and you went to the school, it had to be in Stornoway, the big metropolis, and the pressure was on you then to forget your Gaidhlic. They looked down on the folks from the rural parts, like my parents, and they would mock them for their Gaidhlic. The result was that many people of my generation dropped it, or let it slide, especially in Stornoway. Now, I didn't have that problem, nobody ever mocked me in Port Glasgow for my Gaidhlic. I can remember people visiting the house on a regular basis, for example my uncle and my father's works manager. They would spend the night talking about what age some person was, who they were married to, their relationships, first cousins, second cousins, - of course it was a really tight community in the western isles - and that kept Gaidhlic going. But outside of that little enclave, there was no Gaidhlic at all, none whatever. Of course, the south west of Scotland, between Glasgow and Greenock and Ayr, was a place where the Irish people came over and worked.

N: Yes, you told me they were a quite unsympathetic population of Irish immigrants. What did you mean by that?

F: Well, what I mean is, I would have been happier walking down a street in Paris in a kilt than I would be in Port Glasgow then - it's not so bad now - because they would make mocking verses or whatever. I would hardly dare to wear the kilt in Port Glasgow or Greenock. They were not sympathetic to what we were. We're talking about bad days here, not just Gaidhlic-wise, but you're talking of days of religious strife, and rioting and parades and that kind of thing. Port Glasgow and many parts of the southwest had a line down the middle, "you're either A or B", you're either an Irish Catholic or you're a Scottish Presbyterian. That was the way it was. It is no longer the case, really, but it lingers on, like Rangers and Celtic (football clubs). It was quite bad. I can remember, not civil unrest, but fights outside pubs and things, in my own boyhood. That's why I say "unsympathetic". Goodness knows, I wouldn't blame the Irish for coming to Scotland – it wasn't their fault, but it was a very fraught situation. They came to Scotland to look for work, and they got work, and it kept Scotland going in many ways, but there was that other side to it too.

What I'm describing to you now, the Irish thing – if you lived north of a certain line, like in the Highlands, or even middle Scotland, they wouldn't know what you were talking about. A Catholic? A Presbyterian? My children went to school in Inverness mercifully (where I live now) and they wouldn't have a clue what I was talking about, because it didn't affect them. Nor does it. They all shared the same education in schools, which I think is a first-class idea myself.

N: so it was related to the area, rather than the time?

F: I think bits of both. Time comes into it too – because you're talking about the immediate post-Depression here, and they must have been difficult times for anyone.

Nóra: Was there a lot of music in your home when you were a child? And what influenced you to take up piping?

Finlay: I don't think I realised how musical the home was, until I was up in years, until I was involved in music myself. They didn't play the guitar, nor do anything like that, my mother and father.

N: no musical evenings around the fireside, or anything like that?

F: No, no, not at all. There was no piano, no gatherings of song, not at all. The main musical activity in the house was family worship - I don't know if you know about family worship - it may be a Presbyterian thing.

N: it would be like the Catholic nightly Rosary perhaps?

F: Probably - every night my father would get the bible down, and he would first of all sing a psalm, which is no mean feat. To that extent, he was musical - my mother didn't think so, but he thought he was - and then he would read a passage, and then we would pray, kneel and pray. I was the only one in the family, there was just my mother and father and I. Latterly my wife and my children would probably have seen this, but only on an occasional visit to the grandparents' home. So my father sang, and not everyone can do it. My mother now, I didn't know this until it was almost too late - she had a magic voice but she never used it, she never felt inclined to break into traditional song or anything. It was only when I grew up, when I got older that I discovered her voice.

N: did she have a big repertoire of songs?

F: An amazing repertoire. I never learned a song from my mother - my wife has done, not me. When I got interested in Gaidhlic song, I would come home full of elation, joy, "I've got a new song, Mother" and I would maybe sing a verse, and she would give me about 10 verses. An untapped source. I think every song I brought home, she knew, and I didn't know she knew them. But when she got old, I would browbeat her then and say, "Look, sit down there and sing this song!" - which she would never dream of doing twenty years before, nor would I have asked her.

Since then she has given my wife versions of songs which are now part of our family. So she was musical. We still have a few recordings from those "browbeating" days and my wife has collected them into a tape, which the family has now.

N: Ok, so why piping?

F: No reason. I would love to say "my father, and my grandfather before me played the bagpipe with pride!" Not at all. No chance. I was in the Boys' Brigade and one night the Captain of my company said, "I think we'll have a pipe band, would you like to join?" And I said "Sure" and I got a chanter, and a book, and I got lessons in the Boys Brigade, and somehow it just continued from there. I don't know, I just took to it.

Another thing, let me just tell you this too, being in the Boys' Brigade pipe band meant being out on occasion on a Sunday playing the bagpipes on a parade, and that was not popular with island Presbyterians but it was never an obstacle in my family. They never complained at all, they gave me every encouragement to pursue my piping career, which I did. My grandmother, God bless her, was one of the most influential women in my life. She used to sit in a chair and her foot would beat time to whatever was going on, tunes or pipes or songs, and she would say to me "Ah Finlay, one day you will see the light, and you will put the bagpipe in the fire". That's the way they looked on instrumental music.

N: would that have applied to music of any kind?

F: More or less - even if it was in a church, there were no hymns and no instrument at all, just the human voice singing the psalms.

N: I never saw anything in scripture that prohibited music!

F: No, the reverse. But they chose to ignore that. So I was lucky that my parents never raised the slightest objection. My father was religious, but not profoundly religious - he would do the psalm singing more as a ritual than a self-commitment.

Indeed as a side issue to that, as regards Gaidhlic for me - I had never had a Gaidhlic lesson at school. When my father would bring the big bible down every night, I would go for a smaller bible, and I would find out what chapter he was reading and I would follow it myself. We had a family doctor, he was called Connor Connell; he must have been Irish. He was the last word in professionalism. He would arrive dressed in spats and striped trousers, and probably a watch and chain, and he would give my mother hell. "Why are you talking to the child in English, when he's talking to you in Gaidhlic?" She had that experience in a train once going north with me, and there was a guy who gave her blazes. "What are you doing this for? Talk to the child the way he's talking to you, in Gaidhlic." They were important messages, and I'm sure she did get the message.

Nóra: At 17, you began attending the College of Piping in Glasgow. Was there one particular piper or teacher who influenced your style of playing?

Finlay: I mentioned the Boys Brigade, well, that took me only so far. Then I went to Glasgow University, and I had heard about the College of Piping. So I went along one night and I met Seumas MacNeill, and if there isn't a plaque on the wall where I met Seumas, then there should be. It's that important.

N: where you met him or where he met you??

F: Let us say where we met each other! The College of Piping was an excellent organisation. You didn't pay for your lessons. The idea was that any boy or girl in Glasgow who wanted to be taught would not be held back because of cash. There was no money involved at all.

N: were there many girls involved? was it a 50/50 thing?

F: No, not at all, it was mostly boys. But funnily enough in Canada it's mostly girls now! But the trouble with girls is, they get married, and when the children come along, the bagpipe goes!

N: but when you attended the college originally?

F: Oh, there were about 3 or 4 girls. When I went along, they would have preferred boys and girls of about 10 or 11 years of age. And here was I at 17 - I could have been a dreadful piper. And Seumas MacNeill said, "Well play me a tune" and I remember the tune to this day. It was "Black Mount Forest", a 2/4 march. I played for him, and he must have been impressed. He said, "ok, you can come back next week". And I think from that moment onwards, Seumas and I were - you could talk about mutual respect - we were the best of friends. So in influential terms, he would have to be the number one. Because I was also at a formative stage of my life, where Seumas was very important. I used to go to competitions in Glasgow where Seumas would be competing along with the good pipers of the day. He was someone I looked up to, and for him to take me under his wing was great stuff. College of Piping

The College was set up in a beautiful way. The older students like myself would teach the younger students, so it was kind of self-perpetuating - a really marvellous set-up. Apart from Seumas as a teacher, I also rubbed shoulders with other great teachers. The first píobaireachd I ever learned was taught to me by Donald Mac Lean, wee Donald Mac Lean, he came from Oban. There's a tune, you may not know it, "Donald MacLean's Farewell to Oban" and that's the man who taught me my first píobaireachd. The influence came in from various places, so the college was just ideal in that way. Meeting people of stature. And I stayed there in the College of Piping until I graduated.

N: what do you feel about your style and how it was influenced? do you base your style on someone you admire?

F: I don't think you do. I'm not a fiddler at all, but I hear people talking about the Shetland fiddlers, the Cape Breton fiddlers. Now I am not in a position to describe what the difference is. But there's no similar sort of thing with piping. There's no Shetland piper, no New Jersey pipers. You see, it's not as simple as that in piping. I think what you do in piping is to develop your own style, and that could be influenced by many people. You hear a tune - well you hear many tunes, that's part of your upbringing, your training - and I suppose it must rub off on your own playing, what you hear and admire in others. Going back, back, in piping history, you'll hear of the Cameron school and the McDonald school, and if you take that to mean that this meant a kind of "divide" - not at all, there was a cross-fertilisation, some pipers went to both, and crossed the line. So piping is more open, I think in that sense, than the likes of the fiddle.

Nóra: So then you did National Service – but you continued piping!

Finlay: Yes, I was around when National Service still applied. You went to the Army by law when you were 18, but if you were embarking on a college course they would let you finish your course first. When I graduated, I spent about 8 weeks teaching, just waiting for call-up. I had a great argument with the War Office myself. Because I wanted to go for the piping, and the War Office said "No, no, you can't – to put you with a band instrument, with your brains and education would be wasteful". I wanted to go to the Scots Guards, that was the big ambition (I even invented an uncle in the Scots Guards) but the War Office had the last word. They said "You're going to the Seaforth Highlanders" - they never gave you what you wanted! But that was the next great move, because there I met the piper Donald MacLeod, Pipe-Major Donald MacLeod, known world-wide, and he and I spent two years while he taught me all that he knew. Not only that, but when we both left the Army I still kept in touch with Donald for years 'till sadly he died in 1982.

Nóra: Before we go any further, Finlay, I'm going to ask you to tell us what exactly is "píobaireachd" or "an ceol mór".

Finlay: Well, this may be using an old cliché, but "píobaireachd" is supposed to be the classical music of the bagpipe. And there's certainly a lot to be said for that theory, because it's old, ancient. The heyday of píobaireachd was probably in the 16th century. It's a different construction from any other kind of music. Basically, a tune is a groundwork, which is normal enough, and then from that point onwards it is a succession of variations, each getting more intricate as time goes on, 'till it finishes with a grand finale, embellishment, climax. But within these parameters there are various variations possible. Sometimes in a tune there are variations that are omitted, and some with extra ones put in. But all in all it makes for a very satisfying experience, the píobaireachd.

N: is it something that's very difficult to master?

F: No, in a word. Like any musical instrument, it's easy to play, but not so easy to play well. But the appeal of píobaireachd is what has surprised me for many years. I would go to a summer school in Cape Breton and I would have American teenagers, you know, 17-year-olds, and I would introduce them to the "ceol mór", the "big music" and I used to wonder why? What is it, deep down, that attracts them to this music? But they go for it hook, line and sinker; they get really involved in it. I remember a strange experiment – there was a German-extraction parent in Canada, he had two daughters; they were excellent Highland dancers, and he used to come with them every year. And one year he came to me and said "I'm teaching myself the chanter. I want you to help me" so I said, "Ok, I'll do that". I heard him playing once or twice, "Highland Laddie" or some basic tune, and I thought to myself "Finlay, you'll play a trick on this man; you'll teach him a píobaireachd". So I taught him the ground of a píobaireachd. From that moment, he was a changed man – he didn't care if he never heard another march again in his life. He was totally sold on this music. Now, why? That's the question that is unanswerable. There are competitions in Scotland and America and other places, and people are attracted to these from all parts of the world, Germany, Denmark, wherever. In fact the chap who was awarded the Gold Medal this year, he came from Brittany. And I remember Seumas Mac Neill whom we mentioned earlier, saying one of his best pupils was Japanese. The appeal of píobaireachd is worldwide.

N: are there many young people in Scotland today studying píobaireachd?

F: I would say there is as much interest as there ever was, in Scotland. It's not that there is a decline in interest in Scotland – what is happening is that the rest of the world is catching up. I was adjudicating in Dunoon this year, and my co-judge, he said "Look at this list of entrants. Only a third are Scottish". The other two-thirds were from Canada, America, Australia - and that's indicative. I don't think the Scots are losing interest, I think the rest of the world is muscling in on this. The prizewinners regularly now in the main competitions in Scotland are Canadian, American, Australian, New Zealanders. That can't be bad. And I think we are delighted. What will happen will be that the Scots will say, "Hey, we have to pull our socks up to keep up with these people!" Because they tend, more than we do, to work at the instrument, maybe a few hours a day, while in Scotland it's like golf - you just play.

N: like a hobby - whereas they really study it?

F: Yes, I think they do. And not only piping, but things Scottish. If you go to the Highland Games in Dunoon, which is probably the most Highland of all games in the world, most of the prizes go to Canadians, and Australians, and that's great. That can only raise the standard of the dancing, and the instrument. So, they're very welcome.

Nóra: Subsequently you went to Africa. That was an unusual environment in which to pursue your study of píobaireachd.

Finlay: Africa – that's a story. I became a teacher and I taught with some success. I taught for about 7 years. But then I was overcome with this island foot-itching problem. I was in my early thirties then, and I had to get away. I had an influential friend who taught in the Sudan and he would come home on leave and tell me great stories about teaching abroad and I said, "right, I'm going to give this a whirl". And I finished up in Sierra Leone, just to satisfy the wanderlust. And I spent four years there. I took my bagpipe with me, and I would play.

N: you were playing on your own, exclusively for yourself !

F: Och, yes, the Finlay school of piping! But I was lucky enough to be home every year on summer vacation, and then I was able to attend the major competitions so I didn't miss out very much on that at all. And I played at the school concerts in Sierra Leone and I taught the children Scottish dancing, and they were West African naturals!

N: were they fascinated by the bagpipe?

F: They were intrigued. To this day, you know if I go anywhere on earth and hear a bagpipe being played, I have to search and find out who is playing and where. It's got that fatal attraction. I've no doubt the children would have learned the bagpipe, they picked up the dancing no problem. They are naturally talented.

So, I came home, and luckily enough I was back on the success trail again very shortly afterwards. The break didn't do too much harm that way.

Nóra: You came back, and not too long afterwards you won the Gold Medal of the Highland Society of London, in 1971. This was a high point. Tell me what it means to a piper in Scotland, to win that.

Finlay: In Oban and Inverness there is a competition for a Gold Medal every year, and I made my debut I think in 1955 or so, when I was still in the Army. It meant making the trip to Oban and Inverness every year. But it was worth it. And in 1971 it just happened. What it means to me? The earth. I would change nothing for the Gold Medal. I have university degrees and all that, but the Gold Medal ranks with anything I have ever done. You might ask why? I think first of all it proves to oneself that one has reached the top of the chosen tree – I don't think when I was in the Boys Brigade it was ever even on my horizon that I would one day win the Gold Medal for Píobaireachd. It's still in a case at home on the wall.

The other thing too is that it opens doors to you that would not normally be opened. As a result of that win, perhaps, I was on the Bardic trip to Ireland in 1973 and in the same year I was invited to teach summer school in Nova Scotia, in Cape Breton. In my ignorance then, I thought "Right, you're going to go to Canada for one summer school". I didn't know the score. I finished up going there for 20 years.

I go to the competitions now and I see former pupils coming up to compete, and I'm adjudicating, and it's a great feeling, it's terrific. So for these two reasons, the Gold Medal is unforgettable. The chances that it opens up to you are immense.

LISTEN to Music SamplesNóra: Then where did the singing come in? You recorded the album "Fonn is Furan" which has recently been re-released.

Finlay: Teenage, twenties, thirties, I would never have dared or dreamed to sing in public. This later changed dramatically, and I had not the slightest qualms about public singing.

N: but you were piping in public much earlier!

F: Oh, I was, but I was kind of diffident. I accepted the idea that in piping you had no choice. But I got a break. There's a chap who worked in the BBC, one Kenneth MacIver. If he did nothing else in this world but talent-spot myself, he's done a good job, because he gave the world Finlay MacNeill!

(Laughter)

So, it kind of took off from there. I did a lot of singing on TV and radio, and I thought nothing of it. Ice-cold nerves, no problem. (Nowadays, I've gone back to my original cocoon.) I was with the Boys of the Lough on tour, and that was something else. They're a well-known band - I think you know who they are. I did a ten-day tour of England, mainly, places like Canterbury and Lancaster, Newcastle, and I used to think, "Why are they coming to hear me singing?" But after ten days on tour, it's a kind of bug that can get to you. I know when I came home (we used to travel in a black van) I said, "Where is the van? I'm not going back to reality now!"

But before then, singing-wise, I think one of the big influences in my life was joining a Gaidhlic choir. I didn't want to join it. I was dragged in kicking and screaming to the Greenock Gaidhlic choir. They wanted me to be their Gaidhlic teacher/tutor. I wrote a letter to say "No" but at the end I made a mistake; I said "I'll come and talk to you" and that was it. I was totally sold. For a couple of years I coached them in Gaidhlic - I mean getting rid of the rough edges - and I didn't sing. No, no, they didn't know I could sing at all. But one day in Edinburgh, they were short of a tenor, and they found me in a pub and from that moment on I've been involved seriously in Gaidhlic choirs. And that is a musical education, as you know. That's going back to 1960, long before the breakthrough in 1971. But I look on myself as a piper rather than a singer.

Nóra: You toured Brittany when you were younger, with the Piping College, and then later you toured Ireland with the Scottish Poets.

Finlay: I think I mentioned earlier on that one of the reasons I went to Africa was because I wanted to satisfy the wanderlust. As it happened, Canada, Brittany, Ireland, satisfied that. I'm quite happy these days just coming to Dublin now and again. Brittany, that was with the College of Piping, and I was wet behind the ears. (I went into a bar in London once in the middle of a heat wave, and I thought I was committing a cardinal sin. This was me in my early twenties, and I was good living in those days!) But the three weeks in Brittany with the College was great. One night performances. You'd go to a place like Concarneau and you'd go to the Mairie to meet the Mayor, and there was a short céilí and then that evening, a performance – pipe-banding, Scottish dancing, singing, etc. And then the following morning we'd be off again, and that way we covered the whole of Brittany. That was an experience that I've never forgotten.

And then, hey presto, Ireland "happened". This was a complete surprise. I was lucky enough to do two tours with the Scottish poets. And first of all it gave me an unrivalled chance to see the whole of Ireland, from east to west and north to south, from Donegal down to Cork, the whole of the magic west. In these years I made maybe three annual trips to Ireland, because I used to come to the Oireachtas, the Irish-language annual festival, and also to the Pan-Celtic festival, which was no mean feat either. So, Ireland, I make bold to say, I know pretty well, and I'm none the worse for that!

N: and how did you find the Irish audiences?

F: They were stupendous. I don't want to single any place out, but we used to do the first night in Trinity College, Dublin, and that was great. But we were as far up as the northern tip of Donegal; there weren't the same numbers there but the reception was always superb. One that I should mention is Cork (that was probably University College Cork) and I played a píobaireachd there. They were mainly student audiences, but the response was incredible. They were musically committed and interested, and they knew what they were listening to. I was very impressed by all the Irish audiences.

Nóra: Tell me about your involvement in Cape Breton.

Finlay: Well, I was first of all invited to Nova Scotia in 1973, the same fateful year as Ireland, and I was taken there for the summer to teach piping summer school. I had never been before. I had no idea what was ahead of me. St. Ann's, Cape Breton Island. And in those days it was one of the growth points in music in the American continent – in Canada, anyway. I had no idea what I was going in among at all. But when I did get to Cape Breton, I realised that music was very much alive there. Piping was very strong.

N: could you explain the Scottish connection here?

F: The Scottish people when they left Scotland in the 18th century, many of them didn't know where they were going, so they made landfall in Nova Scotia, settled there, cut down the trees and made houses for themselves. They took with them the Scottish tradition, dance, song, piping, music in general. They kept it alive, I think jealously, to the point that they would go to war for it! They thought that they knew as much as anyone (they're a very proud people) - that they know as much about the old traditions as they do in Scotland, and maybe they are correct.

Many pipers from Scotland, they jumped ship; they got to Canada, went ashore and stayed there. Among them were many good pipers – Sandy Boyd was a guy with magic fingers and he could have done as a "troubadour". In fact he did in many ways, going around the island, staying in peoples' houses, teaching the chanter, the bagpipe, and moving on. But the big thing in Cape Breton was the fiddle. They have their own Cape Breton fiddle style. They really play types of Scottish tunes with a very strong beat and their feet thump with the time, particularly with the step dancing, which was very strong in those days. The box, not really, but the bagpipe and the fiddle, yes.

So, I kept that up for about 20 years. I made many, many friends - I found the people very welcoming, very old-style Scottish or Irish you could say.

Nóra: I know you have made many radio and TV, as well as live, appearances. Fill me in on what are you doing these days, Finlay? Are you mainly adjudicating?

Finlay: Well, that's true. That comes with old age and veneration! When you become too old to play you sit in judgement on others. And you're accorded that accolade. I must say though, that often when I sit on that bench, I think, "I'd rather be out there playing." I'm not a keen adjudicator, but someone's got to do it and I'll do my best to further the cause.

Nóra: What do you think of the Scottish new-traditional music scene, for example, groups like Shooglenifty?

Finlay: I'm very much in favour of the new fashion – I'm in no way a traditionalist.

N: not a purist?

F: No, no. If that's the way forward, let's have it. There's a lot to be said for it. I'm not one of these people who live in the past, I hope. Music is alive, and has to change, adapt, develop, and I would never stand in the way.

Nóra: And what do you think of the Riverdance phenomenon, and what it has done for Irish music worldwide?

Finlay: I know what it's done for me, anyway. I could watch it all day! I think it's been a tremendous asset to the cause, the cause of music and tradition in Ireland and beyond. People have been sitting up and taking notice.

N: could you ever see anything similar coming out of Scotland?

F: I often think I wish that would happen. It's too good an idea to let go. But I can't see it at the moment. (All you need is about 50 attractive young ladies. And dress them up in a short kilt, and you're home and dry! ) But seriously, the Irish thought of it first, so good luck to them.

Nóra: You worked for many years as Gaidhlic Adviser to the Highland Education Authority. Can you tell me the current strength of the Gaidhlic language in Scotland today?

Finlay: I'm not too depressed about it. I'm not sanguine, either, of course. One cannot be. All you have to do is pick up the Highland papers every weekend and find the number of 85-year-olds who have died in the course of the week. And they are the ones who are hard to replace; that's the problem. You can do whatever you want in schools and that kind of thing, but it's very hard to replace these people. Apart from that though, there's a lot going on in education, Gaidhlic medium education, which could be the best thing for years. Children coming into primary at the age of five and often with no Highland connection at all. They start learning English at about the age of eight or nine, but during the early years it's entirely in Gaidhlic. And when I visited them, I would go in, and there would be a wee boy picking up a book and reading it out in Gaidhlic, and I thought, "this is marvellous". That is food for hope.

N: are there many of these schools, and in the major cities?

F: Yes, indeed, Edinburgh, Glasgow, apart from the Highland areas. And there's also a lot of action in the playgroup scene, the nursery schools, from the age of three or four.

I'm also pleased to hear so many learners of Gaidhlic, who are working so hard, and they are fluent. I would find it hard with many of them to say if they came from Skye or Harris. But they have learned every word, and they are so convincing, so there's hope there on the adult scene as well. But the big problem is how to replace those who are rapidly dying off.

N: like on the west coast of Ireland

F: Yes, surely. But I am not despondent. And further than that, you go to America, or Canada, and all you need is one lively person who makes things tick. There's a chap, Richard Hill in Seattle, he has a choir and they speak Gaidhlic to you. It's endless what is going on in various parts of the world. Whether you can bring all that together to be really effective, remains to be seen.

Nóra: Have any of your own family followed in your footsteps, either singing or piping, or perhaps playing another instrument?

Finlay: Yes, they have. I would hate to think they were following in my footsteps. That could lead them astray, without any difficulty! But they all sing, and they all play the bagpipe. And I'm loathe to say that, because people will say "ah, he has pushed them into it". And I never pushed them into anything. They learned the bagpipe in school as part of the school curriculum. The two boys, Donald and Calum, are in big demand at weddings and things like that. Caitríona, my daughter, is probably the best – she has competed with some success as a junior.

The boys won awards for singing too, at the National Mod when they were quite young. And Caitriona, last year in fact, won the best award there is for traditional singing in Scottish Gaidhlic – it's becoming quite important and I'm glad of that. This is the traditional-type competition song, and it's growing in popularity and in support I'm glad to say.

But again, I repeat that I have not pushed them into this. Maybe they're following my shining example (!) but it was not by force of arms.

Nóra: One TV presenter called you "The Godfather of the Highland Mafia". How do you react to that?

Finlay: I don't believe it. I find it very flattering but I've never deserved it!

Nóra: Friedrich Nietzche said "Without music, life would be a mistake". Now I happen to feel strongly about that, because I believe music has added a huge amount to my life. How do you feel your life would have been without music?

Finlay: Empty. I'm inclined to agree with yourself, because without music my life would be much, much the poorer. I think that's something that grows on you, creeps up on you. I don't think you appreciate that fully when it's happening, but looking back, my life would have been very much the poorer without musical involvement. I have no doubt about that.

DUBLIN, September, 2001. © Nóra Uí Dhuibhir 2001.

 

LINKS:

LISTEN to Finlay MacNeill Music Samples

The College of Piping

The Piobaireachd Society