A Look Back at 2017 and Forward to 2018

I ask your indulgence friends, as so much of what resonates for me in 2017, involved me, or had an impact on me very personally. The events below are set out in no order, neither chronologically nor in importance, as by any measure, the entire year was momentous for me.

Release of Preposterous, Tales to Follow

I started this memoir in January 2011 while in Barbados. It was finally released in August 2017, with the formal event happening at the National Piping Centre. It's true I was still practicing law until February 2013, and those 6 full years were not solely devoted to the book.  Still it was more work than I could have predicted. But what a pleasure to re-live so much of my often difficult yet largely charmed life.

And then to share the stage with the great Stuart Liddell at the release party and readings, was a thrill not to be forgotten. I teased Stuart at the readings, that he was rapidly falling on to my list of less than loved pipers, as he was pretty clearly destined to duplicate my record as the only piper to hold the Clasp, and be the P.M. of a World Championship pipe band. And a few days later he did just that. He's one of my favourite guys in piping, and he's also one of the finest pipers on the planet...and all uncontaminated by arrogance or a big head.

This followed by book signing. 300 people or more lined up around the NPC to have their copies of my memoir signed by me. Pretty amazing stuff for coal miner's son.

Finally making the Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band

Squeezed into that rather lunatic week in Glasgow where Piping Live, the book release, the Shotts pre-worlds concert, and World's itself took place was my guest appearance with the Shotts band at their concert. Ryan Canning had asked if I would lead the band through "early classics" that many of his younger players knew little if anything about. Again long distance preparation, emails, recordings etc, made rehearsals manageable, and what a hoot this was for me. First off this band is loaded to the hilt with incredible young talent and I was frankly gob smacked at the talent. This surely is a product of the piping and drumming programs in the schools in Scotland, and what stunning results it has produced. Mere kids banging out incredible finger work on faultless bagpipes.

Ryan had arranged a few tunes from the Frasers earlier repertoire, and I was to "take them" through this stuff. I conducted the band through the material that is not strictly metered, a feature of much of the Frasers' repertoire, then through my composition A Jacobite March, from the Suite In Celtic Times, and finally a rendition of the Crooked Bridge, a great 3/2 reel and a staple of the 78th's tune list. This was such a high for me. Graham Brown, from Milton Ontario, and known to me like his brothers Glenn and Blair, was the M.C. As I entered the stage to take my place at the PM's spot in front of the band, Graham introduced me by beginning to recite the opening voice over from the Fraser's show "Seannchaid"..."As the yellow moon rises over the ancient Caledonian forest, there is at first, no sound..."

I'm not ashamed to admit that when the crowd broke into applause and cheers as I walked onstage, I was very moved. I put my head down, and just kept walking to my position, saying "OK Bill, just keep your head in the game here and don't get carried away". What a great moment it was, and as I said to Ryan "My dream come true. I have finally made it into Shotts!"

Live Back in Ireland February 25, 2017  at the Belfast Waterfront Hall

After the great success of the re-visit of the 1987 concert in Ballymena N.I. in January 2016, The RSPBA N.I. Branch determined that it was only right that the event should return to its roots. Calling upon the same cast of superstars to expand the ranks of the original 78th Frasers as was done in Glasgow, the cast gathered for a series of intense and productive rehearsals at the Ulster Scots Agency Building.

This was a much easier run-up than the one in Glasgow, as so many had been through the entire process before. The performance went off beautifully, and the audience responded with great enthusiasm and appreciation for the remarkable achievement of bringing this off, much in the way that current rock and pop stars do...long distance preparation, extensive use of email and online communications, but with the added burden of memorizing with complete precision the grace notes, embellishments or absence thereof.

My personal experience was up there with the Glasgow show, and I cannot thank the main players enough. Again Mike Grey doing all the heavy lifting (his motto? if you wanna do something just make it happen) Ian Burrows from RSPBANI looking after us, and the whole cast of superstars (I won't name them...pretty well everyone knows who they were) playing their hearts out and their asses off. Never forget it.

Guest of Honour at the Glengarry Highland Games

I'd guess that most pipe band people in Scotland are aware that Maxville, which celebrated it's 70th anniversary this year, is the single most important event on the pipe band calendar for many North American bands. I was asked if I would serve as the guest of honour for the day. Would I?! Prime Ministers, Governors General, nationally known and loved hockey stars have all had this honour before me. Of course I accepted.

The day was miraculous. Lily and I were collected from our AirBnB lake cottage and driven to Maxville, with a stop partway there for a police escort to pick us up and take us into the Games park. As we entered the park where I have toiled in the kilt with bagpipes so many times, I saw many friends in the crowd waving hello and clearly getting a kick out of the whole thing. But then the most amazing thing happened. We were placed into a white open carriage, and pulled into the arena by magnificent horses. If you've never had this experience, I highly recommend it...what a weird sensation...folk cheering and waving, and I'm not ashamed to admit that the instinct to wave back was overwhelming...so I did it. I tried very hard to be the lad from Copper Cliff and avoid any resemblance to the waving technique of the British Royals.

I was required to speak and if I can remember it accurately, I think my opening line was something like "I would imagine that no Livingstone in my family background has ever had an entrance like this horse drawn carriage spectacle, unless it was to face the gallows."

After playing with the Toronto Police Pipe Band in the competition, I was ensconced in a central spot with a table, glass of wine, and the ever attentive Meaghan Lyons my publicist, while signing copies of my memoir. A long line of friends and acquaintances came up, and I was gob smacked by their warmth and interest in the book.

My Last Pipe Band Competition

This was as normal as one could want it to be. I had let it be known that this would be my last competitive appearance, and there was little if any carry-on about it. My pipe was good, my nerves were steady, the band played very well, I made no blooters, and then to the after party. Lovely bunch in Toronto Cops and I still hang with them offering the support and suggestions that I can, without being a pain in the arse.

Individual Standouts

I can't leave 2017 without talking about a couple of people I admire and respect a great deal. I have already mentioned Stuart Liddell, and I'll do it again, with no apology. He is likely in my view the best overall piper on the planet, and he has achieved this while taking a dream about a pipe band and, pretty much out of whole cloth, making it into world championship caliber in an unheard of length of time.

And then there is the redoubtable Jack Lee. He has kept a standard of playing that few could manage, and done it over so many years. He's also a very well-liked man, respected for his integrity as well as his talent and skill. And then to bring off a win at the Glenfiddich with a wonderful Earl of Antrim (which I listened to) and do so against several more youthful players is phenomenal.

The Future

Here I'm not so sanguine, at least in the world of pipe bands. The world of solo piping seems to be in an incredibly healthy state. There is a constant changing of the guard with established stars being edged up by rising youngsters. The depth in Scotland is astonishing. But not so much here in Ontario at least. This in part is directly the fault of the Piper's and Pipe Band Society of Ontario. Instead of creating a fully funded and well organized program of teaching, the PPBSO seems content to operate as a Highland Games running organization.

The world of pipe bands is stultified, a state that I blame on the World Pipe Band Championships. The top bands, populated and led by musicians who rely for their living on making and selling bagpipes, chanters, reeds, drums, sticks, carriers, or who engage in huge teaching programs both face to face and online or via Skype, become more and more careful in their choices and presentation of music. The holy grail of a world championship is so alluring, that any and all risks are eliminated. The focus is solely on producing the most perfect sound, and playing with awesome precision. No musical risk or adventure is entertained.

An example of how to have a musical blast, and yet not violate what conservative thinkers of as "The Idiom" can be found in the 2001 medley performance of the 78th Frasers in Maxville. Click the link to see and hear what I mean.

After a fairly sedate 12/8 opener, and a sprightly Islay Ball listen to the reels...all out commitment and tempo, a 3/2 reel morphing into a waltz and then Starry Night, a mournful air taken from Davey Spillane's playing on the Uillean pipe, including the tricky 4 note runs, the shift to Dr. Angus's brilliant 9/8 Chloe's passion (brutally hard tune BTW) and the transition to the finale in reel time. That's the stuff I'd like to hear. Pretty certain it isn't likely to happen.

Bill Livingstone
January 17, 2018