The Never Ending Interview – 4. William G. Brown

Nachdem Mike Dahlmanns mich interviewt hatte, wußte ich sofort, wen ich interviewen wollte: William Gifford Brown, ein Schotte, der seit langer Zeit in Stuttgart lebt und jeden, der ihn je spielen hörte, fasziniert hat. Persönlich war ich neben der stets perfekt gestimmten Pipe (er war einer der wenigen, von denen ich jemals auf einem Naill-Chanter ein schönes, sauberes Piobaireachd – High G gehört habe) immer von seinen gefühlvoll interpretierten Piobaireachds und seinen krachenden Strathspeys begeistert.

Einer der wesentlichen Gründe, warum ich ihn interviewen wollte, ist, daß er Informationen aus Tagen hat, die wir bestenfalls aus „Retro-Serien“ der Piping-Times kennen. Ende Januar war es soweit und ich war drei Stunden bei William. Das Interview war auf Englisch und aus Gründen möglicher Verfälschungen durch Übersetzung habe ich es auch dabei belassen.

Williams treuester Fan, seine Frau Christine, war ebenfalls dabei. Ihre Beiträge habe ich gerne im Interview belassen — sie scheint neben einer außerordentlich begabten Malerin auch ein Talent für Interviews zu besitzen.

Entgegen der üblichen Vorgehensweise, daß der Interviewte sich bereit erklären muß, das nächste Interview zu führen, sagte William mir nur unter der Voraussetzung zu, daß er dies nicht tun müsse.

Das war es wert! (Um die Kette dennoch nicht abreißen zu lassen, werde ich noch ein weiteres Interview führen).

Andy: When did you start playing the Pipes and how old were you then?

William: I started in September 1945 with my brother, he was 8 and I just turned 11, we lived in Kinross and the next Pipe band was located in Kelty, 5 miles away. My mother fixed me up with the band, the Pipe Major was Andrew Cowan who later became my step-father. My brother was also very good but gave up after 2-3 years to play in the Kelty brass band. My first teacher was therefore Andrew Cowan.

That is already the answer to another question: Did you ever play in any Pipe band?

Well, I played in various bands. As long as Andrew was PM I played in Kelty Pipe Band. You know what happens in Pipe bands: there is always intrigue of some description. During the war, only the mining communities and the police service etc. had Pipe bands because all the Pipers were off fighting in the war. When they started discharging the soldiers from the army in 48 and 49 the army Pipers retumed to civilian life and started out playing in the Pipe bands again and often thought things should be done differently etc. When Andrew gave up the Pipe Band in 51 I went to play With Kinross (Who started a Pipe Band after the war) for two years. I returned to play With Kelty who had progressed to grade 2 until I joined the army in September 1955.

And you entered the army as a Piper?

No. When I was 16, my first Pibroch teacher was RSM Rob Roy of the Black Watch Regiment. He was the famous piper of Tobruk and when he was stationed in Kirkcaldy, Fife, he taught me for about 9 month until he moved to another location. He however had arranged, unknown to me, that when I was called up for national service, I was to serve in the Black Watch Pipe Band as a piper. However, I didn’t want to go to the Black Watch because I could not see a future for me in piping. I wanted to get on in a profession therefore I signed on for 3 years in the Army. By doing so I was able to choose my Regiment and since I had served a five year apprenticeship as a Motor Mechanic, I chose a Regiment where I could follow my profession and continue my studies. So I joined the R.E.M.E.(Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and was sent to southern England. The Training Battalion however had started up a pipe band and I was kept there for about 6 month playing the pipes. Regularly, I complained bitterly about this. A passing out parade was held every two weeks when the 6 weeks training period was completed. A visiting high ranking staff officer always came to take the salute and in the evening, I had to play in the officer’s mess and was always invited to the visiting officer’s table for a drink and a chat. Eventually, one of the staff officers who came to take the passing out parade, Lt.Col. Griffith I think, took an interest in me and he asked me what I was doing there since I was a fully trained Motor Mechanic, I informed him that I had been chosen to be transferred to the Army Research Establishment (FVRDE) in Chertsey, Surrey but this had been stopped by the Training Battalion because they wanted me to play in their Pipe Band. He was very sympathetic, told me that this was a waste of my abilities and had me transferred within 3 or 4 days to my original posting at the FVRDE. During my 6 months with the band, the band was sent to the Scots Guards Piping School at Pirbright, where I met Curly Roe, one of the Roe brothers. They started off as boy soldiers and Curly became PM of the Scots Guards. I was told that during a crossing on a ship, the pipers in the band had been drinking a little (pipers have always liked to drink too much, a thing I have never really liked about the piping scene) and an officer reprimanded one of his pipers. Curly stood up for his pipers and was demoted for striking an officer. He lost his position as Pipe Major and was transferred to take charge of the Scots Guards Piping School at Pirbright… You will not find him on the list of Pipe Majors, his brother John was promoted to Curly’s old position as Pipe Major. Curly was a very good teacher and was a real nice person, as straight as a die. Our Band was there for 2 weeks. I got along very well with Curly and took a few lessons on MSR playing.

Later on, when I was posted in the FVRDE, I went to see Curly in the weekends just for practice and advice. I was very busy at work but I was there long enough to compete Nov 1956 at the London Scottish Competition and in the audience must have been Angus MacDonald. He told me, when I was playing in Ludwigshafen in 1992, that as a boy soldier, he remembered hearing me playing at the London Scottish „l got a Kiss of the Kings Hand“. I was 22 at that time. I used to come home to compete at the local Fife competition which I liked to win.

Christine: He is not exaggerating here, Bill likes to win.

I think I gave up piping in 1957 after winning the Fife Open Solo Piping Championship for the third year in succession. I was trying to study, was busy with my motorbike and I loved to go ballroom dancing etc. But in August 1958 1 had finished my period of army service during which time I had completed my final studies as a Motor Mechanic I have always been very ambitious wanting to get on and now wanted to be more than just a Motor Mechanic. I had tried with no success to find a firm to sponsor me by sending me to university but times were hard. So when I left the army I went to the „Arbeitsamt“ and explained what I wanted. They were very good and sent me to a government sponsored course to be trained as a Draughtsman. I spent 9 months training in Glasgow in 1959 during which time I played as a guest piper with Renfrew Pipe Band (now called Power of Scotland): they were grade 1 pipe band with a PM called Jimmy Healy who was a real master at setting up bagpipes. That was a good start. But after that there was no work in Scotland so I had to go to Luton, England in Oct. 1959 for employment.

What surprised me: you did not want to play the pipes when you entered the army?

There is always a story behind those things. I could never afford to get around all the games, so I just played at the local games, such as Alva, Crook of Devon, Markinch, Cupar, etc. travelling by bus. I went around with Andrew, my stepfather and first teacher. The only big competitions I sometimes competed at were Cowal in solo piping or to Glasgow because this is the real centre of solo piping. When I went there were always many army pipers such as Donald MacLeod, Donald MacLean of Lewis and best of all Mickey MacKay. You know, when these people left the army, they had very little to show for a lifetime of service to piping. Big Donald MacLean had a job as a manager in Lawrie’s as shop manager and Mickey Mackay became a bank messenger: I thought this was terrible; it never occurred to me that these people might be happy doing this. I have always been a bit of a socialist thinker. No way was I going to make a career in piping. different today. You can make a good career in piping. If I had joined the army as a piper I would have wasted two years of my life. My main interest was my career and piping was only a hobby which I enjoyed. I went to England in October 1959 and that was the last time I played the pipes seriously until I started again in 1988. Christine did not know I was playing the pipes when I met her.

I think you told me later.

England had just beaten Scotland 9:1 at Wembley when we met.

A national disaster?

It was. I was so disgusted, I thought I would get my revenge by taking one of their girls, so I went dancing and whom did I meet on the dance floor? Christine! We decided very quickly to get married. But then her parents did not want her to marry a Scotsman.

Well, in those days it was not common to live together. We waited nine months before marrying just to please my parents. The first time I heard him play was when he took me to Scotland for Hogmanay (Silvester), it was a cultural shock, it really was. I had never been north of London. You have to remember that travelling was not the same as it is today. There were no motorways in Britain. We went by train. First of all Scotland was very poor in comparison to London and England. I could not believe my eyes. Secondly, I could not understand anyone, they all spoke Scottish. But other than our wedding it was the most fantastic celebration I have ever been to and the most natural.

What happens is just before midnight, you start going to other houses to celebrate. There was no TV, everybody had their own entertainment. And they all ended up in our house. All the pipers used to come in and everybody played a tune or sang or danced.

Christine, what did you?

I stood in a corner, terrified. You think I am joking? Literally terrified. I could not do a thing.

So the fact that he was playing the pipes did not affect your decision to marry him.

I do not know if it did or not. I knew he played the pipes.

In England I did not have my pipes with me, I was living in flats.

You started to play sometimes after Sheenagh was born, when we lived in our own bungalow. You started to play for your own interest more than anything else and because you had not been playing for a long time you were rather impatient with yourself.

We wanted to join the Caledonian Society and there I played at the Bums Supper, St. Andrews Night, and Hogmanay. But in the meantime I did not really play.

One time you competed and we drove up from Wimborne, Dorset where we lived with two young children to stay with friends.

Yes, I competed once at Harpenden. I did not really play the pipes in the real meaning of the word; I only kept them warm so to speak. Then after Britain joined the common market I decided I’d like to work abroad and I wanted to go to America, do you remember Christine? You nearly freaked out so I decided to try Germany. I had taken evening classes for German lessons for 2 years and I was hopeless.

He was told by his teacher after 2 years that he would never be able to speak German.

Great teacher. Then you said to yourself „l will show him“?

Yes, I had to give 6 months notice as I was chief engineer in an American company, so I gave in my notice and then started off to write to some German companies and to „Arbeitsamt“ in all the large German towns. And they said, sorry, if you want to work in Germany you have to be fluent in German. I then started to write to international companies and I got some interview dates, but they said you have to make your own way to Germany. Then I received an invitation from the daughter firm of a French company located in London. They offered me a good job in London but I told them that I only wanted to work abroad. They said they would send my details to their headquarters in Paris to see if they were interested. In the meantime, I had planned a trip by bus, starting I think in Düsseldorf, because this is where most of the work was in my line. Dortmund and down to Köln, Stuttgart was on the list and Munich. And then, just a couple of weeks before I would have set out on my bus trip, I received a telegram from a company in Stuttgart who were a daughter company of the French company in Paris. They said that they just received a contract to be done in English and they’d be very interested in my services. If I flew out, they’d pay my expenses, so I did, and they offered me the job. The salary they offered was rather low so I contacted the VDE for their advice. They advised me, since my German was not very good that I should take it as a starting point. So I did. After having accepted the job, the end customer decided that the contract had to be done in German and not English as originally planned. That was a bit of a shock and obviously the people in the company were rather upset that they brought in somebody from England to do the job who did not speak German.

He walked around with the contract and a dictionary under his arm.

I remember the sweat pouring down my forehead. The customer’s engineers spoke a little English so we managed.

And all this time he was far too busy to play the pipes. Once we left Britain you did not play at all.

When did you come over to Germany?

In June 1973 I did play once at Sheenagh’s school for the children. Sheenagh had told everyone that her Dad could play the pipes. I did not really start playing until 1988. That’s when I bought my Naill bagpipes.

Why did you start again?

I did very well in the company. I was promoted to chief engineer and eventually became Technischer Leiter and Prokurist and wanted to go further, but as you probably know, if you want to get on, you have to be salesman or controller. Engineers are too valuable to promote. So I then started my own Ingenieurbüro. Of course, I had no time to play the pipes, it was often a struggle and we nearly went bankrupt a couple of times but somehow always managed to survive. But we both enjoyed the challenge. In the 80’s during the oil crisis in the Middle East, we had to get rid of our staff and start using CAD to cut our overheads down.

I was about 50 when he told me, I’d have to work on a computer, and again, I was terrified. I had no technical drawing training at all. discussed it with a friend and she said: no you can’t do that, you’re too old. Bill’s answer was that we had no choice, either you leam or we will not survive. So we went on a 3 day CAD-course and I loved the work.

In 1988 I was 54 years old. You reach a stage usually in the 50s when you realize that life is running down. I felt a little restless and Christine suggested that I started to play the pipes again.

He had never been a person who was ever down. I said why don’t you take your bagpipes out. I knew he had been good as a teenager, but I did not realize how hard he would work on it.

Bagpipe playing is hard work.

Hours and hours.

I sent a letter to Seamus MacNeill to ask which pipe was suitable for playing indoors, and he recommended Naill which I then bought through the college of piping. The first time I competed again was at the first BAG Autumn competition in 1989. I played in Ludwigshafen and then in January in Copenhagen in 1990. I met Andrew Wright who had judged the competition and he kindly gave me Pibroch lessons for a couple of years. I did well and I was very happy. In 1992 1 went to Scotland to compete at the games. I then realized something was not quite right because when I walked round the boards, I felt very unsteady. I enjoyed playing but I did not do as well as I had hoped to. In 1993 to 95, I competed only in Germany but then stopped for health reasons. Actually I stopped playing completely as I was a bit disappointed. Then I started again in 2000 and I found I had some trouble with my blowing. I thought there was something wrong with my mouth muscles so I went to see a doctor and after 6 month it had not improved so I went to see him again, asking if I could get any training. He did not encourage me. He said there is nothing wrong with my muscles but there might be a motorization problem. He said: I think you have Parkinson’s. I was quite happy as I did not know what Parkinson’s was. I went home and told Christine and she was shocked.

He came home saying: It’s all right, I have Parkinson’s, and I sat there thinking he obviously has no idea what that is.

I went back to Scotland to compete in 2002 and 2003. I was not playing as well as I used to but I enjoyed myself. Now that I knew what my problem was made it easier to accept. We enjoyed the life, moving around, meeting people. It’s a sort of a social event. 2003 was the last time I went to Scotland to compete.

The weather in Scotland. We are not up to it any more. In 2002 at Tobermory, the weather was so bad, that they held the piping competition in the beer tent. There was a super atmosphere because only people were there who really wanted to play and listen. The athletes started and ended their runs in a tent. Later on the spectators in the rear of the tent held down the poles of the tent. We had horizontal rain.

In the MSR competition Christine was not able to get in, it was such a small tent. The piper hardly had room to be able to blow up his pipe without striking the tent roof with his drones.

Not much marching, I guess?

No marching, but we had a super atmosphere. That day Angus came up to me, very sensitive person Angus, and he said „coming back is not easy“. That’s all he had to say but it expressed the situation perfectly.

Yes he is. And that’s a very special thing to do, too, to play in competition?

William: I don’t like to listen to competitions unless I play in it or judge it. In any case I am up there playing with them. Its not you’re trying to demonstrate how good you are it’s just the thrill in it. Especially when your pipe’s in tune. But you get a lot of good pipers like Curly Roe, or Rob Roy, my first piobaireachd teacher, they were super pipers but they never played in competition. They said they didn’t have the nerves.

Who taught you to play Pibroch and how did you find your teacher?

I received my first pibroch lessons from Rob Roy when I was 16 and my first pibroch was „The Glen is mine“. Rob Roy was unfortunately posted out of the area after 9 months and I was without a teacher. In Fife they did not play pibroch. It was a strong piping community in MSR but no pibroch. So my mother decided to write to a distant relative of hers, P/M Robert Reid. Robert Reid’s mother was my grandmother’s cousin or second cousin. He wrote back saying that if I contacted him at the Cowal games, he would listen to me play, which I did. He recommended that I took lessons with an old pupil of his, Willie Bryson, who made Sinclair pipes in Edinburgh and so I started to go to Willie every week. It took 2 ½ hours to get to his place from where I lived and I went to him every Saturday afternoon. I was 18 then. Having said that, especially in pibroch you don’t learn a tune and that’s it. You go through a tune, you leam the next tune and then go back to the first tune, analyse it and try and improve the expression etc time and time again. I went back to Willie to play the tunes I had learned on the pipes, that was my lesson. Willie was a wonderful person and teacher as well as being a superb piper. I went to Willie Bryson every week although it was a long way (One can get to Edinburgh now in 20 minutes). I went to Willie for three years until I joined the army. I went to see him whilst on leave once or twice, but the contact lapsed because I no longer played. Willie died very suddenly. He caught a bad cold, then pneumonia and died. He had a beautiful set of pipes, old Henderson’s. I remember asking Walter Cowan from Annan who was also being taught by Willie what happened to Willie Bryson’s pipes. He said: no one knows, they just disappeared. Willie was also a very good composer.

What are the major differences in the piping world from today?

When I joined the piping world there were very strong pipe band players, also solo players in Fife but only MSR, no pibroch. The heart of piping was located in Glasgow; this is where all the pibroch players lived. I didn’t realize there were also some pibroch players in Edinburgh, but Edinburgh was also far away.

And the standard of piping?

Overall, it has gone up tremendously because it’s now taught in the schools: as Andrew Wright says, it has become a folks sport in Scotland, You now have plastic reeds, synthetic bags and these sorts of things that make it much easier to obtain and maintain a good bagpipe sound. But when I think back and listen to old records of Shotts and Dykehead, Red Hackle, Muirheads etc. you hear the sound and the low pitch, it was thrilling. I like the bands today, such as the Field Marshal Montgomery, the sound is terrific, the harmonics are very good, but on the whole I liked the quality of playing they used to have in the mining pipe bands in the late 40s and early 50’s. I remember the first World Pipe Band Championship in 1948. Bowhill Colliery won and Shotts and Dykehead were second. It was in Meadowfield Park, Edinburgh. Glasgow Police boycotted this competition because they contended that Cowal Highland Games should be recognised as the World Pipe Band Championship. The tone you got from the bagpipes then was solid, powerful. They used to play very strong pipes. Even the pipes I used to play were much stronger than I do today. My Stepfather used to blow in my reeds for me and for my stepbrother Kenneth who was also a very good player. The standard of playing has increased but what I call the great players such as Greg Wilson or Willie MacCallum, lovely players, – but they don’t arouse me in the same manner as the playing of Big Donald MacLean of Lewis, Donald MacLeod, Mickey MacKay or John Garroway. There used to be a lot of good pibroch players in the Glasgow Police Pipe Band. When you listened to them — (that’s how I judge a good performance) – my hair stood on end. It did not when I was listening to Donald McPherson or Robert Hardie, but did so when I heard Donald MacLeod or John Garroway play. And this is still so today. When I heard Murray Henderson play — I never heard him when he was competing but my mother used to send me tapes – and when I heard them, my hair stood on end. Who else? Jimmy MacIntosh, his playing made my hair stand on end. The excitement, the thrill there is in that playing. Have you ever heard Donald Macleod’s pipes? They ring! There was a ring in those pipes. Donald McPherson’s pipes were smooth, they didn’t ring, clinical. But when you heard Donald Macleod’s bagpipes, they were like bells. And Donald MacLean of Lewis really affected me. Also at the London Scottish in the 90s I heard Angus MacDonald playing „Lament for the Children“. OK he did not win that day, but the sound of his bagpipe made my hair stand on end.

Has the tone of the bagpipes changed?

Yes, the tone of the bagpipes had changed during my time out of the piping scene

And this did not suit you?

Oh no, I like the higher pitch — but it is coming down again. But I cannot say any of the modern pipers impressed me as Jimmy Yardley did. There are some lovely players like Greg Wilson and Murray Henderson playing pibroch but the middle years are missing from my piping experience. I stopped playing when I was 25. I started Waying again when I was 55 and there is a gap during which there were superb players such as Andrew Wright, Murray Henderson and Jimmy Young.

Did any of your children ever show any interest in picking up the pipes?

My daughter quite enjoys listening to bagpipes.

She’s very Scottish with red hair.

She never tried, but she was very keen that I played. Andrew played well, I started him off on the chanter and I remember walking up and down here in our front room.

You did. Andrew was playing fairly well but he found, he could not walk and play at the same time. He is rather laid back. He definitely does not have the competitive streak.

I may be fairly hard…

Andrew moved on to play the guitar which he plays only for himself, you, Bill, are a perfectionist!

Well if someone does not do what I want him to do, I’d tell him.

But you would not have played the music you did if you were not a perfectionist. And your stepfather Andrew was a perfectionist. And he was tough!!

When he was teaching me, if I played a wrong note he used to hit me on the fingers with his chanter and when I played on the pipes he would hit me on the arm if I made a mistake.

Which were the pipers that impressed you most?

The piper that made the biggest impression on me, ever, was a man called Jimmy Yardley, he emigrated later to America. During the war he played in the Black Watch together with Charlie Williamson. He took over Kelty Pipe Band as PIM in 1952. He took them from grade 3 to grade 2. The band made fantastic performances in those days winning the Worlds 2nd grade and gaining I think third in the grade. He asked me to come back to Kelty and play with him, I was in Kinross Pipe Band at that time. He was the best solo piper I have ever heard in my life, especially in MSR: Before and after band practice he would stand in the corner playing for himself and it was pure music. The only thing he would compete in was in Fife Open Championships and as long as he was playing I could never gain place. Fantastic player and a nice person. And he used to play jigs composed by Charlie Williamson. There were a lot of good pipers in Fife. Walter Drysdale, Jimmy Yardley etc. I never heard anybody playing the Abercaimey Highlanders,Cameronian Rant and John Morrison as Jimmy could. He would never go to play in Glasgow, he was a normal working man and could not afford it. Good MSR players in my time were lain McPherson (Donald McPherson’s brother), Donald MacLeod, a super player and John Garroway were very good, but I still preferred Jimmy. He would just stand there, leaning at his drones and it was pure music, just flowing out like honey. Other pipers that impressed me then in playing pibroch were: PIM Mickey MacKay, PIM Donald MacLeod, Donald MacLean and John Garroway. I knew Arthur Gillies as a boy. I also remember John, Duncan and lain MacFadyen as being good pibroch players.

Coming back to your playing, what were your favourite tunes?

After competitions, especially when you have won, the pipe bands used to march down the streets. And I always remember we had a little tune „Farewell my highland soldier‘. You don’t hear pipe bands playing these sorts of traditional tunes today. The tunes I enjoyed playing as a young man were: Pibrochs- „In Praise of Marion“ „Desperate Battle“. The first tune I got from Willie Bryson was „Glengarry’s Lament‘, and then I went on to „l got a kiss of the king’s hand“ which is basically the same melody. The first time I went to Weikersheim to Arthur Gillies’s class, he gave us „Glengarry’s Lament‘ with the high-A variation which makes it a lovely tune. The „Bells of Perth“ I played a lot. The sound you could get from it sounded just like bells. I also played the „Desperate Battle“ often. Marches: „Parkers farewell to Perthshire“, „Duchess of Edinburgh“, „Captain Carswell“, Strathspeys: „Cameronian Rant“, „Pipers Bonnet“ (is still my favourite Strathspey), „Lady Louden“, „Bogan Logan“ which later on changed to „Atholl Cummers“. Reels „Cecilia Ross“, „Malcolm Johnson“, „John Morrison of Assynt House“. Jig playing has changed a lot. They used to play jigs clipped, pointed and fast. And this Jimmy Yardley played. When I started playing again Andrew Wright once said: you know you are playing your jigs very old fashioned. They don’t play it like that any more. I myself feel that this is the type of bad influence which a pipe band has on solo playing. Another good example of bad influence from pipe band playing is the way they have changed the grace notes in the MSR because the band players cannot always play them cleanly and so they just leave them out. However, in the end you are also playing to compete and win if possible. I don’t mind losing in a competition if someone plays better then me, that’s fine. Just as long as it is fair. Nothing unfair has happened to me since I started playing again but it happened quite a lot in the old days. It was very cliquish. If you were not in one of the cliques, you would not be in the prize list. You had to accept it as it was and join one of the cliques but that went against my nature and sense of fair play.

How did you get along with the Germans?

Very well right from the first moment. I flew into Stuttgart on a beautiful sunny day. I remember taking the bus from the airport down the Weinsteige into Stuttgart and thinking: What a beautiful city. I tried to speak German but they only spoke Schwäbisch, I couldn’t understand a word, but I loved it.

It took me some time. But we loved it.

It was like coming home, somehow.

Bill has never had any bother with the mentality, I had. We feel that perhaps we were destined to settle down in Stuttgart because of what a German neighbour told Bill. We did not know he was German. His name was Eric and when he heard that Bill was going to Germany he told him that he had been born in Germany and all about a beautiful city in a valley called Stuttgart. No one we knew in Britain had ever heard of Stuttgart. Then later, Bill received the offer to fly out for an interview! Well, then we started to think that fate had taken a hand in things and we were meant to come here.

Ich danke William und Christine für die Zeit, die sie Sich für das Interview genommen haben und die wundervollen Einblicke in ein bewegtes Pfeifer-Leben.

Andy Fluck