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Issue 83 - Scotch and the Red Hot Chilli Bagpipes

Scotland Magazine Issue 83
October 2015

 

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Scotch and the Red Hot Chilli Bagpipes

Roddy Martine drops in to see Stuart Cassells at The Famous Grouse Experience at the Glenturret Distillery

There could hardly be a greater blend, the award winning piper and one of Scotland's iconic blended Scotch whiskies. If you will forgive the puns, Stuart Cassells, founder and for nearly ten years front man of the bagpipe rock group The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, has found his spiritual home.

Bright and cheery, you will now mostly find him at The Famous Grouse Experience at the Glenturret Distillery near to the small town of Crieff, amidst the rolling landscape of northern Perthshire. Steeped in 240 years of history, and celebrating its anniversary in November, the single malt produced at Glenturret is still made ‘by hand and by heart’, a perfect complement for a general manager whose entire career to date has reflected those same sentiments.

Born in Falkirk, Stuart began playing the pipes, winning events at an early age and joining the Macnaughtons Vale of Atholl Pipe Band. On leaving school, he balanced a degree course in marketing and tourism while performing at corporate venues. This proved so successful that he set up his own company to provide entertainment at weddings and dances. Thereafter, he became the first student to gain a degree in piping from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and, in 2005, was the recipient of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year award, the first bagpipers to do so.

However, it was while he was still at RSAMD that he decided that the time was right for a modern bagpipe group to take the bagpipes to a wider audience. Thus came about The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, originally a three-piper, two percussionist mini pipe band which developed into Scotland's best known folk rock act.

After starting to build a reputation at corporate events, there followed radio broadcasts and trips abroad. In 2004, the group performed on the main stage at T in the Park with headliners The Darkness. In 2007, they won the BBC Saturday night primetime talent show
When Will I be Famous? and their 2007 album Bagrock to the Masses went platinum in Scotland and Gold in the UK, the highest selling CD from a Scottish artist that year. As well as touring Germany, they appeared in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, India, and throughout Europe. Their fourth release Music for the Kilted Generation reached number two on the US Amazon Chart and was only seen off from the top spot by singer Adele.

Unfortunately, by 2008 Stuart was beginning to suffer from a condition known as focal hand dystonia, sometimes known as Musician's Writer's Cramp. This meant that his left hand was refusing to remain on the chanter. “It was as if somebody else was controlling it,” he recalls.

He tried various treatments, physiotherapy and botox, even surgery to remove a trapped nerve, but it continued to be a definite impediment.

“You cannot imagine how hard it was to get through at the time,” he reflects. With the other band members to consider, he soon realised that he could not continue with things as they were.

For three years the Red Hot Chilli Pipers had played at the Milwaukee Irish Festival in Wisconsin and that was the location he chose for his final concert in 2011. “We played a fantastic gig as the headline on Saturday night and whilst performing I made up my mind that if I was going to retire, it would be there and then, in front of an audience of over 30,000.” he says.

The next day the band departed for Australia and New Zealand without him.

But what would he do next?

From the beginning, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers had worked a lot with Scotch whisky companies and Stuart had learned a lot about the industry. “What I love about Scotch is that as with music, every brand tells a story,” he explains. “Everything is very much attached to the land.” Slowly but surely, he approached a few of his old contacts to let them know he was available. He next signed up to a Saltire Foundation graduate programme to achieve a fast-track MBA, and found himself studying at Babson College in Boston. “It was very much a wild card opportunity,” he admits.

As it was an eight month programme, he was studying six days a week and preparing for the next week on the seventh day. It was a tough assignment, but there followed an externship with the Edrington Group, starting as a Brand Development Executive for The Famous Grouse, and becoming General Manager of The Famous Grouse Experience in 2014.

He marvels at the way such a big industry is actually so small and interconnected but agrees that this is what you find in Scotland. And most importantly, the job involves working closely with the local community, which he loves.

But if he thought that he would be standing still in Perthshire, he had another think coming. The night before we met he had been hosting 21 buyers from the USA, and he is currently preparing for an ambassadorial trip to Taiwan. At the same time, he looks back on his Red Hot Chilli Piper career with great pride, especially recalling the night of the International Gathering held in Edinburgh's Holyrood Park in 2009. “It was amazing to be on the front of the stage with that enormous crowd and the castle and the entire city in front of me,” he says.

The proud father of a baby boy – Calum Stuart Cassells – Stuart has great ambitions for his son and keeps a famous set of bagpipes under the bed to pass on to him. “My great mentors were Pipe Major George Lumsden of the Edinburgh Police Band, and Donald Macpherson,” he confides. “Donald was the most successful piper of all time. who died two years ago aged 89. I learned so much from him and George, and I see it as my turn to pass on what they taught me to Calum.

“Just think about it. Donald MacPherson was taught by his father who was taught by Pipe Major John MacDougall who could trace his piping ancestry to the MacCrimmons on Skye, the guys who kept the pibroch alive.”

And Scotch whisky too, by the sound of it.