Friday, 3 August 2007

Greeted by the familiar skirl of the pipes in Brittany

Photo: The Scots Guards Association Pipe Band marching to Halkirk Highland Games on Saturday, led by games chieftan John Thurso

Published: 03 August, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THE sound of bagpipes reaches many ears each summer as pipe bands parade through our streets, at Highland gatherings and in the cut-throat competition that leads to the world finals in mid-August. During our holiday in Brittany similar sounds were in abundance.

Festivals fill summer days in most countries, but few can be so influenced by Scottish musical instruments than the import of our bagpipes to Brittany. These sunny Celts, at least in most years compared to home in the North of Scotland, lost so much of their local culture, under pressure from a monolingual French state, even before the disasters of World War Two. Against the background of repression after 1945, Breton culture was saved by the creation of pipe bands. They differ from our Highland bagpipes and drums by adding the bombard, an ancient Breton oboe with a piercing timbre that used to be played along with high-pitched Breton small pipes by pairs of players for weddings and other social gatherings.

Today the pitch and power of our Highland pipes is a great match for the bombard and allows large groups of players in each generation to revel in the old Breton tunes. They can't directly compete with Scottish bands and their freer style is far less militaristic. But along with a 2000-strong audience at the Festival de Cornouaille, in Quimper, I heard a most inspiring collaboration between the Bagad Kemper and the Clan Gregor Society Scottish (Grade One) Pipe Band produce "Scotland in Cornouaille". Add to their playing of Breton and island tunes the king of pipers, Fred Morrison, and young Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, and we all shared a five-star evening under a huge tent.

Fast forward, seamlessly, to Halkirk last Saturday to hear the Scots Guards Association Pipe Band parading between heavy showers on the games field, while in Inverness the massed bands on the same day at the Bught Park for the European Championships where over 4500 players in 130 bands mesmerized the audience. For me one fine band at a time seems more digestible. Nevertheless, devotees of the piping world have never been so well provided for. It seems from the entry lists in the big competitions that every country wants to have a winning band. Well done to the generations of social and military pipers from Scotland who have achieved such a worldwide following for our native music.

DEMAND for our native foods is also on the rise. Ackergill provided a fitting venue this week for the Taste of Caithness and Sutherland event that gave a platform for 25 local producers with their range of premium local produce including meat, organic eggs, fish to oysters, honey to chocolate, cheese to Highland oatcakes – all produced in the North Highlands.

Undoubtedly it is time to promote more vigorously the produce of Caithness and Sutherland – as HIE chairman Willie Roe said – which would allow a much wider circle of discerning customers to taste its natural goodness. Visitors, supermarket chains and restaurant buyers came to sample the tasty exhibits but how many local residents will ever have daily access to such bounty? If, as HIE says, agriculture remains one of the main economic drivers in the North of Scotland and Taste of Caithness and Sutherland shows that we produce the highest quality, then the big push has to come through attracting as many locals to buy. A good initiative is the Gates Open project organised by the Highlands and Islands Local Food Network for September and October. Although Food for Thought, of Spittal, is the only Caithness entry in this first year, I hope many more of the fine producers represented at Ackergill will be prepared to join the farmers and growers across the Highlands to celebrate the best in local food. As many of you go on a regular basis to shop in Inverness there are plenty of Gates Open events near there. It could be extra fun for the family. Log on to to find out more.

The Scots Guards Association Pipe Band marching to Halkirk Highland Games on Saturday, led by games chieftan John Thurso. Robert MacDonald 01955 602741

I'm a co-convener of the Cross Party Group on Food in Holyrood and I can tell you local food networks get our vote. But since most food is bought in supermarkets then it's up to consumers to seek out quality and home produce to up the range that Tesco, Asda and the rest put on display. In French superstores the range is far greater and fresher in every department, even in smaller local stores, because French consumers have a keener sense of taste linked to price, rather than quantity at cut prices. What an incentive for an even more lively food-producing, job-securing, sector of our own local economy.

MINISTERS journeying to a' the airts is a feature of our long summer days. The environment minister listened to opinions in Wick, the First Minister officially opened the Clearances memorial at Helmsdale, and upgrades on the A9 at the Ord got the transport minister's green light recently. So I do hope the planned Caithness Partnership Conference in the middle of next month can combine optimism with our undoubted skills in engineering and impress with a united voice that Caithness wants to be at the cutting edge of a sustainable Scottish economy. Meanwhile I'll be lobbying the transport minister to see the Berriedale Braes and Far North rail line for himself.

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