Rory plays pipes and whistles and has been an active member of many traditional music bands including Old Blind Dogs. He also works as a music therapist.
I grew up in the Sterling area, between Tillicoultry and Alloa and Bannockburn. We came down here after Anya and I got married in 1999, just the two of us, before we had kids. We are living down the road at the junction with the A7 for Bowland and Clovenfords.
I’m a music therapist. I previously worked as a musician touring, recording and performing mostly but then also I was a nurse. I worked in the Borders as a nurse while still working as a musician and then I decided to combine those skills I’d acquired over the years and I retrained as a music therapist. I qualified in 2010 and luckily enough I’ve been working full time since then, although my music therapy work isn’t in this area unfortunately. I do have to travel for that.
My family are West Highland. I was born in Fort William which is where my mother is from, and my father is from the Isle of Barra. So it is very much a Gael musical tradition we have in our family. My earliest musical memories would be of my Dad who was a piper, still is a piper, but my earliest musical memory would be of him singing in Gaelic rather than actually playing tunes. So there was a lot of singing and a lot of tunes really.
I have an older sister and younger brother and they play as well so there was a lot of music in the house. My Dad was quite good at inventing stories to entertain us. My mother didn’t consider herself to be musical but that’s not my outlook on music. I think everybody is musical. She’s a bit more self-conscious. My Dad would sing a lot, mostly in Gaelic. He was more comfortable in Gaelic. It would come to him more naturally. He would sing snatches of songs sometimes, often in ways that were funny, and we’d shout at him to stop….. “You know we’ve had enough of that nonsense” …… He’d say …. “I’ll give you a good gaelic song that’ll cheer everybody up”…… So it was very much in fun. He did have a real attraction to Irish music as well and he taught himself to play the whistle which in turn influenced me and my sister, not so much my younger brother.
I was nine years old when I started learning the pipes. My Dad had slowed down with his piping because he had a problem with his fingers. I think now you would call it focal dystonia… that kind of difficulty with movement and communicating with instructions from your brain to whatever part of the body is affected, your hands your arms your fingers. So he’d slowed down and wasn’t playing so much. He’d asked me if I wanted to learn the chanter and pipes and so I said….. “Yes, okay”…… I didn’t really think about it. He gave me a broken chanter. It wasn’t actually a playable thing. It had jagged ends at the top. He just gave it to me so I could learn where to put my fingers. So I learnt how to put my fingers that way and that was the start of it. He didn’t teach me himself. He got me a teacher in Central region. I actually went to school where my parents taught. They were both school teachers and they were teaching in Alloa, so rather than go to the local school we all jumped in the car and went to the school that they taught at. There was a tutor that went around the schools there. So I had a tutor who came to teach me at school and that’s where it started in primary school. It was quite good actually and something that is lacking in the Borders. Once I started there were a few other kids who said, “Oh that’s quite good actually I’d quite like to give that a shot as well.” So a few other kids started to learn. That’s something I’m trying to get going in the Borders again. That’s ongoing at the moment.
The highland pipes is my first instrument. I play Scottish small pipes which are bellows blown, Border pipes which are a different type of bellows pipe. I also play a type of pipe from Galicia in the north of Spain – the Galicean Gaita, and I play different kinds of whistles, small ones that you would know as tin whistles or penny whistles and low whistles that are an octave deeper. I play guitar and I do a lot of singing now as well. Percussion and piano I’ll make a noise with but I’m not a pianist.
My children have learnt piano and fiddle. They’ve learnt classical piano and have gone through their grades. Corries gone all the way to grade 8. He started at about 8 or 9 and he’s now 17. He got grade 8 in his fiddle recently too. The first teacher they had was Shona Mooney, from a Borders’ family. Then Amy Geddes taught them. She’s in Pathead now. Then they had Iain Fraser at Merlin Music in Melrose. Rod Ward was their piano teacher over in Selkirk. Innes and Calum have now stopped piano lessons. They are all still playing fiddle. They are all playing pipes as well. Corrie has just done a concert with the National youth pipe band of Scotland just at the weekend which was great fun too. So piping for all of them. Innes also played snair drum with Stow pipe band. They all used to go to Stow pipe band. They’re not with Stow pipe band anymore unfortunately. Innes is also playing drum kit which he’s getting tuition for at school. Corrie is teaching himself bass guitar. They all muck around with guitars and with the drumming a bit as well. That has been kind of non- formal. The instruments are there. If you want to play them, you can play them, but it’s just your own thing. Because of the ears they have and the skills that they have learnt through piano and through fiddle they can pick up other instruments and sort of figure it out. Mandolins are tuned the same as the fiddle so that’s good fun. They are just beginning to play together a bit now and with the piping we play together but not so much with the fiddles and whistles. We should do more.
Anya plays flute and she used to play the pipes as well. I think there was even one point last year when she could have been found playing the pipes on the Edinburgh train coming home, playing somebody’s pipes, so occasionally she’ll pick them up and play a wee tune.
My sister plays primarily fiddle but she’s a pianist as well. My brother plays guitar, but he used to play the bagpipes with me and he used to play the snare drum in the pipe band, but it is guitar now and mandolin and banjo and all sorts. He moved to Australia a while back, but I think when he went to university music was a pick up and muck around thing for him. It wasn’t until several years after university he started picking it up again and being a bit more serious with it and he’s produced a few CDs on his own, made videos and all sorts. It’s kind of bluegrass that he’s doing with a lot of finger picking.
My father’s uncle was a piper. He was a very well-respected piper and singer. He was a ‘go to’ guy for songs and tunes on Barra, him and his sister, my dad’s Aunty Annie (Johnston). If you look at some of the School of Scottish Studies stuff, you’ll find Calum and Annie Johnston. So that was my dad’s uncle and aunty. There are lots of recordings of them singing and playing. So he got the piping from his uncle. Calum gave my dad a set of pipes and then dad passed them on to me and then I’ve passed them on to Corrie so they’re still getting played. Pipes can last a long time if they’ve been looked after but they need attention from time to time. The pipes that I play are over one hundred years old.
I like all sorts of music. For me the best feeling I have when I’m playing music is when I’m playing my pipes. That’s when I feel most complete. I love music. I love playing music really.
I have belonged to many bands and groups over the years…….pipe bands initially and then getting a flavour of the whistle from my dad, I started to learn whistle. Then I started to play in folk groups, initially with my dad and my sister and then with other musicians. So I played in folk groups for years, including Old Blind Dogs from 1998 – 2008. I used to do a lot of my own writing and I’d have my own support band as well but now I’m doing very little of that. There’s a group I play with made up of ten pipers and we write all our own stuff. We’ve done a couple of shows at Celtic Connections and what not. We are called Tryst. It’s a kind of something that we are keeping going but It’s not a regular thing. There’s also a pipe band that myself and Corrie are playing with now based in Boston which is pretty cool, so we’ve had a couple of trips out there which is good fun. It means that we’re not committed to weekly practices, but we’ve still got to put the work in.
I think music probably will play a part in Corrie’s career but to be honest, as a career choice it has not been something that I’ve really encouraged just because I know how difficult it is, but then you can’t deny when someone has a passion for something and a talent or skill…. You can’t say, “No don’t do that.” It should be allowed to flourish. He’s teaching in the house. There are lessons going on this evening…. a couple of local kids. There’s one lad from the village going for chanter and there’s new ones …Amy Weir has started with her cousin. They’ve just started chanter tonight as well. He’s got a couple of other people from outwith the Stow area and friends and people like that. It’s good to see.
When we started putting on events with Soundout in the town hall here what we wanted to do was encourage people to come out of their houses and kitchens with their instruments and bring them into a sociable environment where we could share it together and everyone could play and sing together. There’s been a number of occasions. We don’t do so much of that now. There were a few years when we put on quite a number of events but that was great. We used to hold some practices. We used to say to people, “Do you want to come and play?”….. and we’d have a theme you know. I think the first thing we did was an eighties night, totally different for me, but we asked people that we knew who we thought might be interested to come along. What it ended up being really was that everybody wanted to play all the time. We’d thought they’d just come and do a wee spot and then run away and hide but everyone just wanted to be involved all the time…..”Oh - What are we doing….. Oh great, we’re playing this one….. Oh great, Oh can I…. Oh what’ll I play…?” We’d practices in our house and we’d instruments everywhere. So people would just be handing things out so… “Here’s a shaker,” or, “I’ve got a thing you can hit!” …or whatever… It was really good fun. We did other themed nights. We did a St Patrick’s night which Nick was involved in playing in.
Just recently I mentioned that Corrie played in a National Youth Pipe Band event at the Corn exchange in Edinburgh. I kinda had a feeling in that situation that I didn’t anticipate. I just felt really proud and emotional. I’ve seen him perform and play before, but this was different!