Calum MacCrimmon - Piping up about the ancestral home

The piping gods must be looking out for Calum MacCrimmon. The piper with one of the most famous surnames in Scottish piping’s heritage had been thinking about writing music in a more strictly traditional style than the ones he works in with the popular folk band Braebach and his funk-based sideline, Man’s Ruin.

In fact, MacCrimmon had just begun to come up with some ideas that needed a project to attach themselves to when the organisers of Blas!, the annual celebration of Highland culture, contacted him and offered him this year’s festival commission.

Thus Boraraig, which is inspired by the former home of his illustrious ancestors on Skye, fell into place, although as with commissions of this sort generally, there has been a deal of work to be done before the first performance takes place in Beauly next week.

“I’ve been fortunate both in landing this commission and in my family background,” says MacCrimmon, who was born in Canada but grew up in Monifieth, near Dundee. “My grandfather was a keen genealogist and during the Second World War he met a man who had been working on the MacCrimmon family tree and he was able to trace a line from my grandfather to Donald Ruadh MacCrimmon.”

Donald Ruadh, or Red Donald, was the son of Malcolm MacCrimmon and grandson of Padraig Og MacCrimmon, who were both pipers to the chiefs of MacLeod of Dunvegan on Skye, and it was their uncle who inspired the famous MacCrimmon’s Lament.

Despite this connection, Calum felt no obligation to take up the pipes as a youngster. “The music was just always around us,” he says. “My dad plays and my grandfather, who died a couple of years ago, played too and it felt natural that I should play the pipes. I knew bits and pieces about the legacy, if you like, but I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading up on it for this commission and it’s fascinating.”

To get a sense of Boraraig itself, MacCrimmon spent a week at the ancestral home, soaking up the atmosphere, and when he says he was lucky with the weather, he doesn’t mean the sun blazed down every day – he experienced all four seasons, which helped him to imagine his surroundings all-year round. The rain also gave him time indoors to work on musical ideas.

“I decided fairly early on that I wasn’t going to write a whole lot of pibroch because I think pibroch’s something that comes to you once or twice in your life if you’re lucky and I hold that tradition in too high regard to use it in any kind of contrived way,” he says. “But at the same time, I didn’t want this to be a crossover project with funky rhythms. I wanted it to stay true to the tradition.”
Much of the music was written by improvising in canntaireachd, the singing that pipers use to communicate melodies to one another, and for the songs, which are a hugely important element for him, MacCrimmon worked closely with Gaelic singer Darren Maclean, who comes from Dunvegan and will feature in Boraraig.

“I had melodies for the songs and I’d talk with Darren about what I wanted them to be about and he put lyrics to the tunes,” he says. “The musicians I’m working with were all natural choices: for instance Angus Nicolson, on pipes, is from Skye and Eilidh Shaw on fiddle, although she’s not from the island, she has, like Angus, the old style in her playing. It’s a kind of magic that brings a tune to life in a certain way.”

The one aspect of Boraraig that MacCrimmon might have wanted to change was the exact timing, as it has fallen in a period when Braebach have been recording a new album and he’s been busy working on new material for a new Man’s Ruin album.

“It’s been crazy having the three things going on at almost the same time,” he says. “But because they’re so different it’s also been great to be able to focus on a particular project at a particular time without one encroaching on the others. I’m really grateful to Blas! for asking me to do this commission because although the ideas were percolating away in the background, it might have taken forever to bring them out in something like Boraraig, and I’m really looking forward to bringing it onto the stage and maybe seeing where we can take it from here.”

From The Herald, September 5, 2013.


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