Traditional music shouldn't be a pipe dream for pupils

9th January 2015 at 00:00
Experts say bagpipes may fade into obscurity without backing

It is one of the most distinctive musical traditions in the world, but the future of the bagpipes in Scotland could be under threat if lessons are not offered in schools, a leading expert has warned.

"There can be no country in the world with such a clearly identifiable musical instrument that is not taught widely in schools," the convener of the Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships, David Johnston, told TESS.

Mr Johnston said that councils were presenting a variety of reasons not to offer piping, from funding shortages to a lack of demand. "Yet where we have helped schools get tuition, the demand is huge. If a council can afford a glockenspiel teacher, surely they can afford to teach pipes and drums," he said.

According to Mr Johnston, Highland Council and Argyll and Bute Council are the most supportive of piping, with hundreds of children learning the instrument. Yet in Scotland's two biggest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, only a few dozen pupils in council-run schools currently have the same opportunity.

In Glasgow, for example, a project at Govan High School and Lourdes RC Secondary School, supported by the Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships, has allowed 90 young people to learn the pipes. But Mr Johnston said that only about 70 children had the same chance at the other Glasgow schools.

"Every mainstream independent school in Scotland has a flourishing piping scene," he added. "At some, a quarter of the kids play the pipes. That is what the demand is. They also recognise the benefit for the school. It is not primarily about music, it is about personal development and educational benefit.

"I find it disappointing that piping and drumming is not on the curriculum in so many Scottish state schools. If this worrying trend continues, we won't have any future pipers and drummers and hearing the roar of pipes and drums on Hogmanay could become a thing of the past."

Mr Johnston said that children would traditionally have had a number of opportunities outside school to learn the bagpipes, including at clubs such as the Boys' Brigade. "The decline in membership of those organisations has never been picked up by the education system," he added.

Figures from the Boys' Brigade in Scotland show that 43 bands took part in the Scottish Bands Contest in 1984, but by this year that figure had dropped to 21 - although the organisation said that band work was still a major part of the programme in a number of Boys' Brigade companies across Scotland.

Mr Johnston said he did not want special treatment for the pipes, but that they needed "to be on a par with any other school provision".

Red Hot Chilli Pipers' member Craig Munro said: "If schools can offer students the likes of the recorder to learn music, why not the bagpipes? What many people perhaps don't realise is that it's possible to build a fulfilling career from the bagpipes."

Last year's Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships attracted more than 400 young entrants from schools across Scotland. This year's competition will take place on 8 March at Broughton High School in Edinburgh and schools can sign up for places until 26 January.

Mark Traynor, convener of the EIS teaching union's instrumental music teachers' network, told TESS that the financial constraints on local authorities meant he was concerned about the provision of music in general.

"They are under huge pressure," he said. "We would love to see the government and local authorities support us in continuing to deliver instrumental music."

Bill Stevenson, director of the Boys' Brigade in Scotland, said: "Our young people thrive on the skills and confidence gained from being part of a pipe band and we would encourage schools to work with and support organisations like the Boys' Brigade to promote piping and traditional music."

To enter the Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships and for more information, visit

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