about a lifetime of exploring the Gaelic roots of the Highland bagpipe tradition, tracking the traces of musical Gaelic emigrants, and more …
Barry Shears is a professional bagpiper who has previously toured with Stan Rogers, John Allan Cameron, and Jerry Holland, and provided the bagpipe music for the critically acclaimed Canadian movie Margaret’s Museum. Barry has an extensive teaching portfolio in the United States and has performed throughout North America and Europe.
He has researched and written four books on Highland bagpiping, local history and music from Nova Scotia (the best-known being Dance to the Piper), as well as dozens of articles. His forthcoming book demonstrates the connections between Gaelic song and pipe music. It will also examine the regional playing styles and repertory which were found in the “New World” Gàidhealtachd of the mid-20th century. More information about Barry can be found at his website.
(1) Tell us a little about your background in general: where are you from and how did you get interested in the Gaelic bagpipe tradition?
I was born in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, in 1956. I was the middle child in a family of five boys and one girl. My mother’s people (Willetts and Sadler) were from Birmingham, England, and they were British Home children, coming to Cape Breton in 1906 and 1911 respectively.
My father, Angus Maclean Shears was only a few days old when his grandfather, Red Angus the Stableman, died, so he was named after him. My grandmother Maggie Maclean Shears was a Gaelic-speaker and her grandmother, Mary MacVicar born 1829 in Cape Breton, had no English. They didn’t pass the language on because they believed two languages would only hold you back and it was an English-speaking country you lived in. On my grandmother’s side they were Gaelic-speakers, many of her people having come from North Uist to Cape Breton in 1828: McInnes’s, Macleans, MacVicars and MacAulays.
[Originally published 2016 October 2 by Michael Newton]
Shears is a surname of Newfoundland’s west coast, and my grandfather, George Shears’ grandmother, was a Maclean from Mull, via Cape Breton in the 1840s. When I was a kid there were still a few Gaelic-speakers living in Glace Bay. I spent a lot of time visiting my elderly neighbours “down the lane,” and they spoke Gaelic from time to time in the house. Glace Bay was a coal-mining town and many Gaels came to Glace Bay from other rural areas to find employment. According to my late father, when he was small, Gaelic was the language of the pit, and even eastern Europeans who immigrated learned enough Gaelic to get by working as miners. St Anne’s Catholic Church, Glace Bay was reputed to be the largest Gaelic-speaking parish in the world in the 1940s.
My father always liked the bagpipes and always wanted one of his sons to learn to play. The kilted highlander going into battle caught my imagination when I was young and I wanted to learn. So when I was 12 years old I began taking lessons from Angus MacIntyre, a retired coal miner and member of a MacIntyre family of pipers who left South Uist for Cape Breton in 1826. I remember Angus telling me that his g-g-g-grandfather, Duncan MacIntyre, was chief piper to MacDonald of Clanranald. I have completed quite a bit of research on this family and with help from a few people in Scotland found Duncan’s signature on a document from the 1750s, so oral history can be quite accurate. This particular MacIntyre family was descended from Donald Ruadh MacIntyre, Campbell of Breadalbane’s late 17th century piper. I suspect this family may also have been the famed Pipers of Smerclete, but research is still ongoing. The family produced 28 pipers and chanter players (both men and women) over six generations after their arrival in Cape Breton.
During my weekly lessons Angus occasionally showed me some of the older technique used in piping and its modern counterpart. At age 14 I went as an army cadet for the summer to CFB Gagetown, New Brunswick. I was taken under the wing of an older piper there named Jimmy McGee. He wasn’t happy with some of my technique and expression and so started me off from the beginning. I never forgot some of my early instruction however and this proved beneficial when I began my research into older piping styles in the New World Gàidhealtachd.
When I was fifteen, I started to teach my two younger brothers, and later on one of my older brothers learned to play, often calling up from Newfoundland and getting short lessons from me over the telephone. So there are four pipers in my immediate family, as well as several cousins who played.
I continued my involvement with the military by joining the local militia, 2nd Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders, at age fifteen and attended two courses in piping through the Canadian Armed forces at Ottawa, qualifying for my Pipe Major’s Certificate at age twenty-four.
In 1978, after graduating from University, I lived in Edinburgh for three and half months, taking lessons in pìobaireachd at “the Castle” twice a week from the Director of the Army School of Piping, former Gold Medalist, Captain Andrew Pitkeathly. I continue to play pìobaireachd and I have had a variety of mentors which has included taped lessons to one on one private sessions. I am attracted to what has been termed unusual settings of the ceòl mór since I suspect some vestiges of an older tradition can be found there. In 1984 I was the first Nova Scotian to compete for the Silver medal for pìobaireachd in Oban. I had quite a successful solo piping career in Nova Scotia, winning the trophy for professional playing 6 times. In 1986 a work place accident eventually ended my competitive career, and so I turned my attention to research.
(2) Tell us a little about the role of the bagpipe in Gaelic tradition in Nova Scotia and other Gaelic immigrant communities. Do you think that these characteristics are fairly unique to Gaelic culture or would you draw parallels to other cultures?
The Highland piper in Gaelic society was predominantly a dance piper. Social dances were very important in Gaelic society and as Charles Dunn pointed out in Highland Settler, the wedding, wake and christening were all graced by the piper’s skill.
I remember as a kid asking about other pipers in Nova Scotia, especially Cape Breton but there was a paucity of information about them, other than the occasional mention of a piper’s name and usually a comment about their playing. It was very much unexplored territory. Gaelic songs had been collected by several people such Creighton and Macleod, and Donald Fergusson, and the Cape Breton fiddling style had been rejuvenated since the CBC-TV special The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, but there was nothing of the traditional piper.
I was lucky enough to meet piper Arthur Severence, of Fourchu, in the mid 1980s and that was a turning point for me. Arthur was very well-spoken and had traveled around Cape Breton by coastal boat during the 1920s and 30s and his recollections of pipers and social dancing opened my eyes to an almost lost tradition. Almost every district had its dance piper and the 1920s and 30s seem to be the heyday for that practice, not only in Cape Breton but Mainland Nova Scotia, Codroy Valley, Newfoundland, and I suspect parts of Prince Edward Island.
At the time none of my friends who step-danced ever danced to a piper, it was always a fiddler. I had to look long and hard to find dancers who remembered this activity or even pipers who once supplied the music. But they were there. One by one I encountered a few community pipers, those musicians who at one time were purveyors of dance music. Through my research I soon discovered that dance music varied from settlement to settlement, family to family and that is several areas, dance music on the bagpipe was preferred over violin music.
These pipers were in their ’70s and ’80s when I visited with them but they were more than willing to share tunes and stories. It became evident that there was until quite recently, a parallel piping culture in Nova Scotia. That is to say, older regional forms of playing, technique and repertory, which coexisted with the more “modern,” musically literate, 20th-century form of piping with its emphasis on pipe bands, unison playing, and competition. The older style of piping differs from the much more recent revival of dance piping in Cape Breton which relies more heavily on the modern fiddle tradition and current piping from Scotland. There was a multi-generational break in the transmission of dance music performed on the bagpipe in most areas of Cape Breton. The tradition evaporated in areas such as Inverness and Mabou, Ingonish, Bay St Lawrence, Iona and Washabuck by the 1960s and ’70s, and other areas, such as mainland Nova Scotia, much earlier.
As for traditional piping in other parts of North America, I am sure there were older forms of piping in parts of Ontario and Quebec and British Columbia, but since these were major growth areas during the 20th century, a lot of modern pipers emigrated there from Scotland to find work. They brought with them current trends in pipe music in Scotland and this replaced any local Gaelic-style playing. Their influence on piping in North America is well known and Canadian pipers from these provinces have gone on to win major awards in competitions in Scotland.
It was different on the east coast. Cape Breton and indeed most of Atlantic Canada has seen population shifts to the “Boston States” [New England], Ontario and more recently Alberta. Since there were few economic opportunities in Cape Breton we didn’t get influential pipers from Scotland seeking employment opportunities there as was the case in other parts of the country.
Piping in Scotland hasn’t remained static either and underwent significant changes in the 20th century. Scottish piping had changed by the First World War and had changed again by the Second World War. Pipers from Cape Breton, and indeed pipers from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, have always been playing “catch up” to trends in Scotland, and later, Ontario. Local pipers from Nova Scotia serving in the army in the First World War were exposed to modern piping styles while overseas, which they passed on younger pipers on their return home. By World War Two Scottish piping had changed again.
In a few areas of Cape Breton however there was almost no outside influence, and it was these areas that appealed to me the most. I suppose the survival of dance piping until the mid 20th century is not surprising, considering the isolation. That is not to say that what I found was an undiluted link to early 19th century piping, since everything changes over time. I believe some strands of an older piping tradition did survive and this is certainly evident in the music I have collected and the immigrant instruments I have photographed and examined.
The importance of music and dance to the New World Gaels is mirrored in many other cultures in North America from Native American dance forms, Quebecois, Irish, English, Polish, and Ukrainian traditions. People liked to dance and when the rigors of day-to-day survival were met, people danced for enjoyment and recreation. Cape Breton dancing changed significantly in the first few decades of the 20th century with the decline and eventual disappearance of the dancing master and the importation of foreign dances such as the Saratoga Lancers and the Quadrilles.
(3) You’ve followed the trails of Gaelic bagpipes and bagpipers and their music all across North America. What are some of your most interesting, unusual or significant findings?
I have branched out from my original research of the actual musicians themselves and their stories and have started to examine the instruments they used and the music they played. The results are fascinating.
Surviving examples of immigrant bagpipes from the late 18th century and early 19th century have helped shed light on an obscure part of bagpipe history: early Scottish makers and tonal and stylistic developments which occurred around 1800. Old bagpipes or bagpipe parts continue to turn up in North America and piece by piece they are contributing to a re-examination of the evolution of the bagpipe and bagpipe manufacture in Scotland.
Many of the earliest instruments were brought to North America with the immigrants and as people and families relocated they took their bagpipes with them. Just recently I examined a bellows blown set of bagpipes that were made in the Lowlands of Scotland in the 1820s, brought to New Brunswick in the 1840s, taken to Ontario a few decades later and eventually ended up in Tofino, British Columbia. The jury is still out as to the maker, but it becomes another piece in a much larger puzzle. Examples of early bagpipes are scattered throughout museums in North America and in private collections, but to date there has been no concentrated study of immigrant bagpipes in the “New World,” which is unfortunate.
A study of bagpipe music is also revealing. A perusal of published Scottish collections from the 19th and 20th century read like a musical road map chronicling changes in Scottish music. These collections have frozen in a specific point in time as to what types of music was performed on the bagpipe and what technique was used. As piping moved from the 19th to the 20th century several things happened. Variations were added to existing melodies to fulfill the requirements of competition; technique became even more standardized, resulting in the elimination of some older embellishments; and tune structures became more heavily ornamented. There was also an explosion of new compositions for the bagpipe. These changes are easily observed by examining the written scores.
My research into the ear-learned repertories of pipers on Canada’s east coast however take us back another few generations before the appearance of written music in Scotland.
Regional technique and regional settings of many basic tunes illustrate what a wide and varied tradition existed among pipers at one time. For the east coast of Canada, this represents the immigrant period roughly between 1772-1849. Cape Breton and the west coast of Newfoundland are the only areas for this time frame where such a study could have been conducted.
Piping styles and repertory before this period may yet be discovered in the Southern U.S., but in an age before written pipe music, the sources would be quite different if anything did survive. Piping in New Zealand and Australia would offer a slightly different perspective considering the later dates of immigration. Emigration from Scotland to New Zealand and Australia in the late 1880s period corresponded with increased reliance on written scores and more standardized playing, than that found in Cape Breton and the west coast of Newfoundland almost a hundred years earlier.
(4) You’ve done this work over many decades, mostly self-funded. Why do you think that this history and musical tradition has been neglected? How do you think that taking better account of it would improve our understanding of Gaelic immigrant communities or even North American musical history?
The Scottish Gaels came to North America by the tens of thousands but their contributions to the music and culture of this continent have not been well documented or assessed. Research into the language, music and cultural traditions of the Scottish Gael in North America has been largely neglected. Quite simply no one cared. This was particularly true of piping.
From the beginning, I had a sense funding would be a problem. In modern piping everything is assumed to trickle down from Scotland to the rest of the piping world. For most people the idea of an older piping performance style on a group of islands thrust into the Atlantic ocean challenged the accepted notion that pipe bands and solo piping competitions were the traditional use for pipers. For many, it was under the radar. I made several requests for funding, both federally and provincially [in Canada], without success.
When one examines early training practices for community musicians in Cape Breton, one is constantly reminded of the organic relationship between language and music. I suppose this is true for the transmission of music in most cultures. Not all the recordings of pipers I collected were of Gaelic-speaking musicians, but they learned their music in areas where Gaelic was still an everyday language and so there must have been language influences.
I would describe the old style of playing as regionally diverse and yet somehow still connected through a common thread. Putting it another way, playing technique and repertory change from area to area, but language-based rhythms are ever present. Unfortunately, the playing of these older pipers is considered rough or even wrong by today’s standards, but that is an unfair comparison. One has to look at the tune structure, regional settings and patterns of rhythm and look past the less than perfect overall bagpipe sound or absence of modern technique. This is musical history.
(5) Why does this matter? How could a bagpiper enhance his/her understanding of and engagement with the tunes and tradition by really taking the Gaelic dimension into account? What has been lost by ignoring the Gaelic dimension?
This is a difficult question to answer. I always refer to a conversation I have in my archive between Joe Neil MacNeil, Cape Breton, and Norman MacDonald, Scotland recorded in the 1980s when talking about traditional pipe music. At that time there were a lot more pipers in Cape Breton than today but, as Joe Neil observed, the old music and style of playing was being lost.
Oh there were good pipers. Of course, they had the Gaelic touch to the tunes. There is a lot of that lost. A lot of the Gaelic touch is lost from the tunes today. I suppose they cannot help it. They are only playing it correctly by note. They are only playing them as correct as they are written. But you haven’t got the memory, the history… You didn’t hear them played, so you are only going following the style that is in the book, and there is a lot missing from the book. There’s only the framework. (Eòs Nìll Bhig, aka Joe Neil MacNeil)
Joe Neil MacNeil was describing the pipe music of a bygone era as played by the last of the old style players in Cape Breton. For most of the 19th and early 20th centuries pipe music was nurtured in the home, in a largely Gaelic environment and in several instances by women of the house or extended family. Many of the melodies had Gaelic words that helped establish rhythm and phrasing, in addition to being an aid in memorization. This was Gaelic music.
Hand in hand with increased musical literacy was competition. Piping competitions have been very much a double-edged sword. Competition is great for perfecting technique, but it also promotes a standardized style of performance; a style which some pipers and other musicians consider a bit lifeless or wooden.
I was more heavily involved with competitive piping in the early 1980s and I decided to branch out musically and try my hand at the violin. I was largely self- taught (and do not consider myself a fiddler) and one day I decided to visit Elmer Briand for a lesson or two.
Elmer was a great Cape Breton fiddler and composer of Acadian descent. His father played the pipes a bit and his mother was a Gaelic –speaker. On our first meeting he asked me to play a few tunes and after a I played a strathspey and reel on the violin he said to me “You ‘re a piper, aren’t you?. I replied “Yes, but how did you know? He answered: “Because you played in a straight line, and music isn’t like that.”
It is easier to put more life in fiddle music because the violin has dynamics since it can play a note louder or softer. That is not the case with bagpipes and so pipers have to use lilt, or the subtle holding and cutting of notes to enliven the music. The old pipers were masters of this technique. I would say this was largely language based. If you listen to the older Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton, they have a certain lift or lilt in their language.
These observations stayed with me and since then I have listened to as much Gaelic music, and tapes of older pipers as possible. I have also studied the language a bit, but regrettably I am still a learner.
Over the past hundred years, pipers have become more dependent on the written score, when learning new tunes. But if you manage to get that language-based lift to pipe music you can transfer that performance template to new compositions as well.