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Issue 96 - Speyside’s Uilleann Piper

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017


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Speyside’s Uilleann Piper

Roddy Martine talks to Calum Stewart, a master of traditional Scottish, Celtic and Folk Music

The musical links and collaboration between the Scots and the Irish are to be found deep in the inextricably shared past of two great Celtic nations, with much in common as neighbours. The sound of the bagpipes, from military marching band to lone piper and the more recent incorporation into Celtic rock groups, is indicative of our parallel heritage and culture.

However, the Great Highland bagpipe from Scotland largely owes its popularity to the colonial spread of the British Empire throughout the world, while, on the other hand, the Uilleann (or elbow) pipes of Ireland emerged in the 17th Century to remain distinctive and tunefully different.

The bag of the Great Highland is blown full from an upstanding player's mouth through a blow-pipe and the pressure from the left arm on the bag sends and controls the flow of air to the melody chanter and three drones.

In contrast, the Uilleann pipes are played seated. Blown from a bellows located on the right arm, the air is collected and controlled from the bag under the left arm.

According to the expert David Papazian's instruction book, pressure on the bag of the Uilleann pipes feeds the air to the reeds of the melody chanter, plus as many as three drones and three regulator stocks, each fitted with keys to provide occasional or constant chordal accompaniment.

The regulatory keys of the Uilleann pipes are played with the inner wrist of the right hand while fingering the chanter, thus necessitating masterful coordination. The player sits forward on a chair, the open end of the melody chanter placed on the right thigh where it remains, effectively closing the chanter when all eight holes are covered.

The notes are produced by lifting one or more fingers off the chanter to open one or more holes or, in the case of the lowest note, lifting the end of the chanter off the leg while covering all the fingered holes.

Lyrical and haunting, the sounds of Tales From The North resonate with a vibrant open-air freshness

So what, all those years ago, made the now 35-year-old Calum Stewart from Garmouth, a small village on the Moray Firth in the northeast of Scotland, choose the Uilleann as opposed to the Great Highland pipes?

"I grew up in a household where both my mother and sister played traditional fiddle music," he explains. "My first teacher taught fiddle; so that was a very strong influence on me and something that I still love, but I wanted to find something different."

"There was also my parents' record collection. They loved traditional old Irish classics - The Chieftains, and stuff from the 1960s where the Uilleann pipes is featured."

As a teenager, Calum dabbled with various instruments but the one that stuck with him was the penny whistle and he always includes a couple of tunes when performing live.

"I sometimes wish I'd had the same access to all the musical instruments that kids have nowadays," he says. "In the 1980s, there were not many options around."

Having mastered the whistle, however, the changeover to the Uilleann pipes he insists was not too painful an experience. "It wasn't that I was drawn to the Uilleann pipes through any national associations," he says. "I just loved the sound of them - wild and romantic."

In regular demand as a concert artist, Calum has recorded and performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios for composers Tomas Newman and Howard Shore; the London Symphony Orchestra; the Scottish singer Julie Fowlis; the British-Indian composer Nitin Sawhney; and Breton guitarist Heikki Bourgault. In addition to the Uilleann pipes, Calum's range of instruments include the wooden flute, the whistle and low whistle.

Although he and his young family have now been living in Brittany in France for eight years, Calum has appeared at the Findhorn Bay Arts Festival in Moray, Celtic Connections in Glasgow, the CH Arbon Summerdays Festival in Germany, the HAM Festival in Belgium, and at musical events throughout France.

Albums on which he has featured include collaborations with the award-winning Lauren McColl from Fortrose (on Wooden Flute and Fiddle) and he travels to perform regularly, usually accompanied by a live band. This group is most often made up of three or four Scots, Irish or Breton musicians, and features a double bass, a guitar, and a Bouzouki - the sum total of which, he says, creates a nice, thick, harmonious carpet.

"As a musician, you have to be constantly moving around," he reflects. Although America has beckoned in the past, being on mainland Europe works well for him with his children but there is always that tug of the heart to return to Scotland.

And with this in mind, Calum sees his latest album, Tales From The North, as a milestone. Featuring his own compositions, he is joined by √Čamon Doorley on Bouzouki, Tony Byrne on guitar, Ronan Pellen on Cittern, Yann Le Bozec on double bass, and Giles Le Bigot on guitar.

All of the pieces were composed and inspired by the landscape and legends of where Calum is from on Speyside, the Cairngorms, and the Strathspey region.

"I consider myself to be a bit of a Speyside export," he quips.

Lyrical and haunting, the sounds of Tales From The North resonate with a vibrant open-air freshness and vitality. It is an absolute must for that Hogmanay celebration.

Further Information

Tales From The North was released in October 2017. It is available both online and from good record stores.