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On the pipes and what makes a Scot

Posted on 10 April 2009 | 11:04am

Ok, ok, I give
in (to my Twitter followers and Facebook friends) and will explain recent
bagpipe tweets. Along the way I will muse (blog and vlog) on identity. 

I’ve been up in Scotland making a film for Scottish Television about bagpipes.
It is part of a series STV are doing later in the year as part of their
coverage of Homecoming.

Not heard of Homecoming? You would if you were up here. It’s an idea hatched
under the former Labour administration, now taken up enthusiastically by the
SNP, to promote Scotland and all it has to offer.
It is partly about tourism. It is partly about reaching out to the huge Scots
diaspora. It is also a celebration of Scotland past, present and future.

The series will look, through the eyes of different presenters, at some of
the things that make Scotland special.
Because I play them, I was asked to do bagpipes. So first stop was the
National Piping Centre in Glasgow (tweet one) where director Roddy McLeod
showed me round the museum and took me through the history of the pipes, then
played a wonderful jig. I also played on the practice chanter with  a group of talented teenagers, one from
America, the rest Scots, who were on an intensive spring course. Their
enthusiasm for the pipes was wonderful to behold. How different the world would
be if every teenager could get properly into a musical and-or sporting

I took the opportunity to meet up with my brother Donald who has lived in
Scotland all his adult life (hence a different accent to mine) and who, unlike
me, has faithfully kept up his piping. We were taught together, first by our
Dad, then by Tony Wilson, a former Scots Guardsman who led the pipers on Paul
McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre.

Whether teaching, competing or working as Glasgow University’s official piper,
Donald plays most days and is a much better player than I am. So he helped me
to brush up in advance of my next step – off to Argyll to play (tweet two) with
the Lochaber Pipe Band.

I was kitted out with kilt, sporran, glengarry, the full works. Pictures
to follow I fear.

After an hour or so tuning up, we marched down to the waterside and stood
playing in the shadow of Ben Nevis. There is no more beautiful scenery anywhere
in the world, and few finer sounds than a pipe band going at it full blast. I
loved it.

So, to national identity. Before leaving London I recorded a short vlog, also
posted today, saying I felt British first, then Scottish, English a poor third,
then European. In the modern world, with ease of travel, different waves of
immigration, more marriages between people of different races, nationality is
more complex than ever. The mix is part of Britain’s greatness.  

I was born and raised, and have lived most of my life, in England. My blood is
Scottish going way back, with my father born in the Hebridean island of Tiree
and my mother from Ayrshire. Learning the bagpipes was my choice. When it comes
to sport, I support Scotland ahead of England every time.

As I was filming, Fiona was driving up with the family as we are going to
spend Easter up here.

She said she was listening to the car radio and heard an interview with Peter
Capaldi (aka fictitious psychotic spin doctor Malcolm Tucker) who when asked if
it was based on me, said I was ‘not Scottish.’

But I am. Just not in the same way as
he is. There are lots of ways to be Something-ish. My mother has lived in
England most of her life but has never lost Ayrshire accent and sometimes  asks me if there will be a Scottish
passport in the event of independence and whether we would all qualify for one.

Who knows? I hope we never find out.

Stronger together and all that. It’s what makes for a good pipe band. And a
good country. Like the UK.
If it does happen, and Scotland breaks away, I hope Alex Salmond will let me
play a lament at the handover ceremony.

After all, he couldn’t. And he’s a ‘real’ Scot.

  • Wireman

    Agree that it’s great when kids get into playing music and it’s probably good to have a “national instrument”. Whenever I hear the pipes, by god it makes me wish I was Spanish.

  • Allan Davies

    Understand your frustration. I was born and raised till seven in Africa. Then Germany. Then England where I spent most of my school years. Have a bit of a Scouse twang. Yet because of parents background feel 100 per cent Welsh – and have never lived there. Was at Wales v Ireland match recently and got into row with bloke in pub because he said I was not proper Welsh. Odd to reject on grounds of accent when blood and desire says one thing and the voice something else.

  • Alasdair Cowell

    Salmond may not play the pipes but he has been running rings round Labour, and God help Cameron if he gets in!

  • Brian Hughes

    I’ve put pipers’ piping alongside Morris men, folk-music, lederhosen, Welsh harpists, Maypole dancing, French accordionists, céilidhs, panpipes and suchlike on my “things to be avoided at almost any cost” list. Down with faux nostalgia and nationalism!

    I am a Citizen of the World (and hardly at all pompous)…

  • Terry Evans

    Alasdair- Would that be the same Salmond who was extolling the wonderful banking achievements of the great scottish banking institutions that are the RBS and the Bank of Scotland. With their success being a reason for Scottish independence. ‘No reason why we can’t be as successful as Iceland and Ireland’. If that’s running rings, I wonder!

  • Wyrdtimes

    Interesting stuff.

    So having being born, brought up and lived most your life in England you consider yourself British first, Scottish second and English a poor third.

    What is it you dislike about the “English” that we are a poor third? We can’t be that bad if your family decided to move here.

    You haven’t said what makes a Scot that I can see – would you care to clarify?

    For me, what makes a person English is choosing to (and having the legal right to) live in England. I do find it rather insulting the way that people who have lived and prospered in England for so long refuse to consider themselves English.

    Do your children feel more English than you? How many generations does it take for immigrants to feel part of their new nation?

    Or do you subscribe to the view that there is no such place as England? Which is even more insulting.

  • Alina Palimaru

    Very sophisticated approach to national identity AC! Also interesting is that you use the verb “feel” to position yourself in relation to these cultural legacies… feel more of this than the other. I think you are very fortunate to be able to afford a relaxed discussion of these matters.

    For some people, unfortunately, discussion of nationality (and cultural heritage) is inextricably linked to (and often overwhelmed by) questions of citizenship and inherent legal problems such as limited rights to reside, live, work in the country of birth or in a foreign country, restrictions on movement, employment, socializing, and inevitably all the stigma attached to being nationals of a certain state. Being a citizen of a much despised country I have borne the brunt of this type of labelling, and have been forced to construct my life around notions of “applications for admission or approval,” “supporting documents,” “work permits,” “study visas,” “meeting work visa quotas,” qualifying as “non-resident alien” etc. Someone suggested that I direct my frustration to the country that selectively links certain nationalities to such legal procedures, but I dispute that. In my (and other people’s) case, part of the reason why some of us have to go through these matters in the first place is precisely because of my national legacy and the negative precedents established by fellow nationals. Therefore, I’m always wary of talking about national identity and because of the bitterness I have distanced myself from any appreciation of it whatsoever.

    Finally, I like the fact that you did not explicitly use “pride” and “proud of” when talking about nationality/citizenship. As a matter of principle, I do not subscribe to the notion of being proud of the nationality/citizenship into which one is born. I am not convinced we can be proud of things for which we have no merit (birth is accidental).

  • Bill Haycock


    Interesting meditations on identity. I’d be interested to know how much of a Yorkshireman you consider yourself? And how you square being born on the right side of the Pennines and then following a team from the wrong side?


  • CPW

    As one of the fellows behind New Labour, it comes as little surprise that a man reared in middle England, who went to Oxbridge and now supports one the founding members of the English Football League professes to be Scottish. New Labour and AC are either exemplars of Keatsian negative capability (see wiki) or have, rather, have made disingenuousness a lifestyle choice.

  • Stephen Gash

    I’m English not British. The Union may strengthen Scotland and provide a vehicle for Scottish post-colonial colonialism and warmongering, but it weakens England.
    English independence and passports would be welcome and cannot come soon enough.

  • Rosie

    Hi, Alastair. Welcome to Lochaber. Hope the sun shines on us this weekend.

    I have lived up here for six years after being born in the North of England and later living in the Midlands for thirty years. My husband was born in Scotland, but lived most of his life in England.

    I always considered myself to be British, born in England. Scotland was another part of Britain and I imagined the Scots to be pretty much the same as me, as in British, born in Scotland. Certainly a naive assumption, possibly a patronising one, although that was never intended.

    On the rugby test, for me it will always be England first, then Scotland to beat everyone else. It always was, even before I moved here. For my husband it’s always Scotland first, then everyone else to beat England! We cope.

    Surprisingly, I now feel more English that ever before, possibly as a defence. I would much prefer that Scotland did not leave the Union, but although I shall have a vote in any referendum by dint of residency, I would not want to deny the Scots their right to choose. However, I should prefer that choice to be based on strong principles and a real desire for the chance to go it alone, rather than, as can sometimes seem to be the case, simply based on anti-English feeling.

    I also find it strange that there will not be a vote available to all British citizens about whether the Union should be abandoned.

    With regard to comments by one of you earlier posters, I love Scotland and have met many great people. But no matter how long I live here, I will always be British, English, but not Scottish. It’s how I feel and it’s how I’m seen. And I see no problem with that.

  • Alan Quinn

    Personally I’m happy to have a dual passport of Mancunian/English. I can’t stop laughing though at Salmond’s “arc of prosperity” quote, more like “arc of bankruptcy”.

  • Marek

    Why don’t you play your pipes in Baghdad?

  • Alina Palimaru

    Marek: there is a website for people like you and I encourage you to visit it. It’s called The AC/Iraq page was turned a long time ago. Get over it and move on.

  • Wyrdtimes

    Mr Campbell

    What is it about the English that you dislike so much that despite the fact that you were born in England and as far as I can tell lived in England all your life you consider yourself Scottish?

    If an immigrant comes to live in the “UK” (and have the right to do so) should they consider themselves British? Or should they consider themselves as still Polish, Pakistani, Nigerian?

    Do you think that the Scottish Parliament has been a success for Scotland and Britain? Should England be given the same rights to self government as a proud historic nation like Scotland?


  • AC

    I don’t hate the English at all. Far from it. But I do feel Scottish more thsn English. I know peoplein England born of Scottish parents who say they are English. I do think devolution has been good for Britain, yes

  • Jane A

    Picking up on the comment posted below about subscribing to the view that “there is no such place as England” – not a view I’ve ever heard mentioned, to be truthful.

    Identity is complex and a very individual thing, informed by personal experience as well as heritage. I feel “northern” rather than English, ie regional rather than national.

    The rise of fervent nationalism in the UK (National Front/BNP etc) is deplorable and vile, and I feel that has tainted patriotism in this country, therefore I tend not to use “English” as a description because it feels divisive.

    I wouldn’t want an English passport even if given a choice. I like the idea mine is a European format with “British” alongside.

  • Wyrdtimes

    Mr Campbell

    Answers please.

    Do you think it’s fair that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own parliament or assemblies and England does not?

    Do you support the balkanisation of England via the “English regions” project?

    Do you think it’s fair that a Scottish life is valued at £1500 more per year from central government via the Barnett Formula than an English life?

    Jane A

    If “English” is divisive are “Scottish”, “Welsh” and “Northern Irish” also divisive? Or are they some how more inclusive than “English”?

    England is a territory – for me the English are the people who inhabit that territory and have a legal right to do so. What’s divisive about that? As far as I can tell that is unifying rather than divisive.

    What IS divisive is trying to carve a proud historic nation into “regions” without consulting the people of England about it. In fact when the people of the so called “North East” region did have a vote – the only people who have been consulted – the idea was rejected soundly.

  • Jane A


    My “divisive” comment stemmed from how I feel if someone designates me as “English” rather than British, because the description isn’t one I use myself. I don’t think Welsh/Scottish/N Irish are divisive terms ; I just don’t find “english” sums up what I feel is my identity.

    I’ll freely admit that’s a very subjective position & it wasn’t meant to be a criticism of Englishness or a lack of pride.

  • Émilianna

    Stephen: I see nothing wrong with England claiming its own self-determination in a spirit of affirmation and cultural pride. Self-determination a right accepted in public international law and I doubt England would have a problem getting recognition from other states.

    CPW: Thanks to you, I learned what Keatsian negative capability is, or maybe not since my reading of the wikipedia definition made it appear as a desirable trait. I’m not taking things out of context when I quote:

    “Keats believed that great people (especially poets) have the ability to accept that not everything can be resolved”

    [Keatsian negative capability] ” is a state of intentional open-mindedness”

    AC has endured a lot verbal abuse but calling him “open-minded” and “great” is simply beyond the pale. For shame, CPW 😉

    Wyrdtimes: Not only have economic immigrants served England well historically, but considering that much of England’s wealth was acquired through the raping of resources on foreign lands and the enslavement of people, you’re not on very strong ground when you decry those who in turn came to England for a share of that prosperity.

    AC not thinking of himself as English is part of what I believe to be an atavistic instincts when it comes to cultural heritage. There is a real cost when a conquered people is assimilated. Scottish fiddlers who seek to perfect their skills often go to Nova Scotia where fiddlers have preserved Scottish fiddling techniques and display unparalleled skill. Scots emigrated to Nova Scotia during the Clearances; had they not held steadfastly to their Scottish heritage through the centuries, Scottish culture would be impoverished.

    In the US, third and fourth generation immigrants still call themselves Irish or Italian or whatever and no one bats an eyelash.

    I suggest you take a more relaxed view and allow others the luxury of defining their own identity. Apart from anything else, societies that demand cultural conformity don’t tend to have a great track record with human rights.

  • Wyrdtimes


    What are you on about?

    As for the “raping of resources” no more than many nations. As for the “enslavement of people” the English have done more to set people free than any other nation – including the abolition of slavery and the enforcement of that abolition.

    You say “you’re not on very strong ground when you decry those who in turn came to England for a share of that prosperity”.

    You’re not on any ground at all when you accuse me of “decrying” anyone. All I have said is that people who live in England are or should be English. Read my comments over again and tell my how I have “decried” anyone please.

    Mr Campbell – any chance of some answers on those three questions.

  • Émilianna

    I disagree with your “no more than many nations” but even if I agreed, you don’t exactly provide a strong defence.

    Britain abolished slavery only fifty years before the U.S.. Here’s a brief history:

    You wrote: I do find it rather insulting the way that people who have lived and prospered in England for so long refuse to consider themselves English.

    It’s clear here you are pointing to people whose ancestors (or themselves) come from somewhere else otherwise they would not self-identify as something other than English. You imply that people from other lands come to England for economic reasons and you are perturbed by what you see at the lack of gratefulness they display when they self-identify as Scottish, for instance.

    So you got me on semantics, “decry” was too strong a term. It doesn’t change the essence of my point.

  • Wyrdtimes


    Mmm I got you on a semantic point eh? i.e. you were trying to completely change what I was saying. And you’re doing it again – please desist.

    I do find it mildly insulting that Alistair Campbell a man born in England who has lived in England virtually all his life chooses to consider himself as Scottish rather than English. I don’t understand why anyone would choose to do that. I have the right to be mildly insulted – but it’s not a big deal.

    Personally I think that immigrants who have moved to England (and have a legal right to do so) should consider themselves English and can’t really see a reason why they wouldn’t.

    What is a big deal is how England and the English are being treated in the light of the West Lothian Question, The Barnett Formula and the “English regions” project. I am here to find out a what a particular Scotsman (who was born in, and has lived in England all his life) thinks about those issues.

  • Em

    I am not desisting. I admitted using one word that put too intense an emphasis on your words. That doesn’t change the essence.

    I’m not yielding one more inch. Deal.

  • Wyrdtimes

    I see that trying to get an answer out of Mr Campbell is as tricky as getting an apology out of Mr Brown.

    Must be a Labour thing.