Piping Into the Mainstream

More years ago than I really care to remember at this point, a document came into being, styled From the Margins to the Mainstream - it laid out a vision of where Ulster-Scots needed to go, and how it needed to get there. Although the document itself seems to have long since disappeared, its principles (or indeed just the title) keep bouncing into my head. The whole notiion was that for Ulster-Scots to be really accepted, it had to be mainstreamed. I would like to think that this concept shouldn't require much by way of explanation. Nevertheless, I will needlessly point out that the idea is that Ulster-Scots should not merely be "tacked on" in various areas of society, but should be an integral part of life in all its aspects.

Unfortunately, mainstreaming is still notable more in absence than observation. Sometimes people are inclined to act like Ulster-Scots is the story of some odd handful of people who dandered (or perhaps swam) over from Scotland and who stubbornly refuse to vacate a couple of areas of the Peninsula or the Greater Ballymena metropolis. To think that way is to wilfully ignore the fact that the story of the Ulster-Scots is largely the story of Ulster. To ignore Ulster-Scots history is to be ignorant of the history of Ulster.

Thus, there should be no such thing as Ulster-Scots history - simply "history", a full understanding of which includes much that is Ulster-Scots. History is perhaps one of the most obvious areas for this sort of argument, but it applies pretty much across the board.

Thankfully, that delivers me neatly to where this post was supposed to be heading.


Specifically, piping (and drumming).

We have had a bit of good news in Northern Ireland, but a bit which I suspect may have passed many of us by due to a pretty shameful lack of publicity, so I'll tell you what I'm talking about:

Bradley Parker, a gifted piper from Portavogie is Northern Ireland’s Young Musician of the Year for 2011.

Bradley is fourteen years old and attends Regent House School in Newtownards. He achieved the 2011 Crown in the Harty Room at Queen’s University on Saturday, March 5 against competition from 14 other finalists.

The winning performance was a selection of jigs. Bradley has been playing since he was five-years-old, and he has an already established reputation as an outstanding performer. He is tutored by John Wilson in Paisley and travels regularly to Scotland for his piping lessons. The Young Musician title is scarcely his first - he has been competing and winning at local and national level for several years and holds a world record by virtue of winning best overall under-18 piper at the London Piping Society Championships.

Now in its 19th year, the Northern Ireland Young Musician of the Year contest is run by the Rotary Club of Comber.

Great news and well done, Bradley.

The most encouraging thing about all of this for me is the mainstreaming effect. A lot of years ago, a piper from my band used the bagpipe as his instrument for GCSE music at his local secondary school. As far as I can recall, Monkstown Mossley Band also had a number of members who did the same thing (not surprising for what was essentially a school band). However, it still seems that the bulk of children at schools here are condemned to scratch away at violins and honk soulessly on French Horns when parents insist that "learning an instrument would be good for you".

There is no reason at all for that.

Bradley has shown that there is no reason at all why the pipes cannot be considered the equal (at least) of the piano, the clarinet, or the mighty kazoo. Prizes can be won. Parents can be made proud. Neighbours can be irritated.

Certainly, it can be done.

More than that.

It must be done.

The RSPBA NI has done fine work over the years with its Education Committee (latterly the Northern Ireland Piping and Drumming School) but relegating piping and drumming to a position as simply an afterschool activity or hobby is to leave it forever on the margins. Although piping in Ulster remains strong, the highland pipes are hard to master. Learning needs plenty of practice - just as the fiddle does, or the piano. When a child learns the piano, they may have lessons after school but I suspect that most of them also toil under the tutelage of a school music instructor. There is no reason why the ranks of bands in Northern Ireland could not supply a healthy number of peripatetic teachers.

From there would grow a number of school bands - the same system as persists in Scotland, which has resulted in some very impressive outfits.

Methodist College Pipe Band, Regent House PIpe Band, RBAI Pipe Band, Portora Pipe Band, Grosvenor Grammar Pipe Band and Ashfield Pipe Band could all join Campbell College Pipe Band to create a healthy Novice Juvenile Grade in Ulster and serve as a great breeding ground for pipers for senior bands in the future.

If you have offspring who are of school age and are thinking of forcing them to take up a musical instrument (almost certainly against their will), why not approach your school and see whether they will allow the pipes (or snare drum) to be options? Let's jump right into the middle of the mainstream.

Happy Burns Day/Night

As will doubtless be well known to most Aiblins readers, Robert Burns was born on this day in 1759. To celebrate the anniversary of this happy event, even Google has jumped on the bandwagon and adopted the above Doodle in honour of the great man. If you click on the Doodle on Google's homepage, it takes you to a search for Robert Burns and to an interesting timeline.

Celebration of all things Burns has really taken off over the past few years and even those who would have been hard pushed to get through a couple of lines of Auld Lang Syne are now happily munching on haggis, neeps and tatties and toasting eachother with Irn Bru.

Scotland's First Minister is urging all local schools to visit the Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway and the BBC seems to be maintaining the Burns 250 material online at this point, notwithstanding the recent curtailing of Corporation web activities. It is well worth a visit, with plenty of audio and visual material to keep both the Burns scholar and casual visitor entertained.

Burns still generates interest in modern times. The above letter was recently discovered at Floors Castle in the Borders and has been authenticated. With it was an early copy of the poem, On Seeing a Wounded Hare - Burns was inviting comment from James Gregory, who was then the Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University.

The full story is again on the BBC.

The Burns connection in Ulster is strong, with a vibrant Burns Club scene - many, if not most, of which will be well employed this evening. The Belfast News Letter was the first paper in the United Kingdom to publish extracts of Burns' work. The Ulster Scots poet, Samuel Thomson travelled to Scotland to visit with Burns and it is believed that Burns himself may have been to Ulster at least twice - visiting Antrim and Down.

The Burns & Burnsiana Collection was gifted to the Linenhall Library in Belfast by Burns' Grand-daughter Eliza Burns Everett, who had herself settled in Ulster.

So, whatever celebration you are involved in tonight, enjoy it. If you have nothing planned, why not nip out to M&S or Tesco, where you will readily find haggis on sale this time of year (or make your own) and organise your own Hamely Burns Nicht....?

Just Desserts

They say we get the politicians we deserve.

They are probably right. Indeed, there is fair chance that an awful lot of what we get is precisely what we deserve.

The human condition seems to involve a lot of whinging about things which are substantially our own stupid fault. That includes everything from hitting your thumb with a hammer and blaming Ikea, to watching your culture flounder and blaming Republicans.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy to blame Republicans for quite a lot of things. It is also entirely correct to say that the ranks of nationalists, republicans, unionist apologists and culture snobs have massively held back development of all things Ulster-Scots, but sometimes we need to look a little closer to home when we are dishing out criticism.

It used to be said that in the Maze Prison, on the Republican wings, there was an atmosphere of studious intensity as inmates quietly flicked through books and took Open University Courses. On the Loyalist wings, flutes and drums were fashioned out of anything handy and parades were organised. The Republicans steeped themselves in their history and emerged as advocates for their cause. Loyalists painted murals on the Block walls.

Don't get me wrong, This is not some sneering rant against loyalists, loyalism or prisoners on any side. The problem isn't peculiar to the prisons or to the working classes. No. This problem seems to extend through every aspect of unionist society.

We lack a strategy. We don't see the big picture.

In my earlier post on a similar theme, I discussed what was the best way to spend money in a tightening economy. Scarce resources mean hard choices. Sometimes I wonder if we are fit to make those choices.

The picture for Ulster-Scots has improved massively over the past decade. For many years, with little or no thanks, a dedicated group of enthusiasts slaved away to secure recognition for the language which was finally achieved under the auspices of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In tandem with that effort, funding was secured for all manner of worthy Ulster-Scots projects, including the various schemes for marching band support and publication of some entirely worthy tomes.

The development was sometimes slow, sometimes rapid and mostly chaotic.

There was a strong sense that there was a massive "catch up" to be done and strategic thinking was often forsaken, in favour of a reactive approach. When an opportunity arose, it was grabbed with both hands and projects which were already on the go were set aside, to be resumed "when things quieten down".

But they never really did.

Although the funding would dry up from time to time and the media kept up a fairly constant attack on the community, there was always another battle to fight, another storm to weather.

So the culture has developed in "pockets". In some geographical areas is has been massively strengthened, in others it remains a private past-time. Some bands and musical groups have flourished, others have folded. The funding has been higgledy-piggeldy at best. It has not been underpinned by any philosophy or agenda. Rather, it has been seen that securing money for your local band ought to be its own reward.

I'm not suggesting for one minute that there is no merit in the funding of the bands. To do so would be exceptionally hypocritical. Nor am I even hinting at the notion that a huge deal of greatly worthwhile work has not been done.

The issue is that it can be very hard to discern the underlying ideology. The lack of that sense of direction makes us easier to distract. When we are distracted, we end up with Fitba days and Santa Hats.

We need a clear agenda. We need a strategy. A clear ideology. Every project then needs to be tested against the strategy. If it fits, it flies. If not, it dies. Simple as that.

This is where the "poliiticians we deserve" remark hopefully starts to make sense. Our fate lies in our own hands. We are going to have hard choices to make and must make sure that we have the right people in place to take those decisions. It is our responsibility to select the right people - if we don't, we can't blame "the others" when it all collapses around us.

The press has, in recent times, carried many stories about a high profile sporting organisation which has been criticised roundly for the behaviour of its committee and office bearers. Whether rightly or wrongly, the allegation seems to be of people being elevated to office through long service or popularity rather than ability or aptitude. I'm in no position to judge whether any of those allegations are well-founded.

However, I have certainly been in many organisations where that would be the norm. Actually, in most circumstances it makes little odds. If your Band has a clampet for a Chairman, an able Secretary can usually hold the unit together. If your rugby club committee can neither read nor write, a couple of ex-players with time on their hands can deal with the fixture list and keep things ticking over.

Fifteen years ago, the Ulster-Scots community, unfunded and unloved could get away with that model too. No longer.

What we need now is professionalism. We must make sure that our organisations and structures are professional in their outlook and in every decision they take. That is not to say that the answer is to have committees full of lawyers, doctors and architects. It doesn't take a professional to act professionally - and merely a degree or qualification is no guarantee of good sense.

So, the picture I think we need to see is a professional movement, implementing a clear strategy. If we can't deliver that, then no amount of money or government support can save us. In fact, if we can't deliver that, I'm not sure we deserve to be saved.

Follow the Money

We live in difficult times. Money is short. If you are lucky enough to have any cash in the Bank, it isn't earning any interest and that portfolio of unique fixer-upper properties you bought on the advice of Sarah Beeny is starting to look like a real mistake.

The Coalition (that seems to be its official title now) has decreed that belts will be tightened, waste will be eliminated and efficiencies will be ruthlessly pursued.

In many ways, it is hard to argue with any of that. Indeed, questions should probably be asked as to why we were happy enough previously to quite so wasteful and profligate. There's another example there -  "wasteful and profligate" - when either "wasteful" or "profligate" alone would have sufficed. Such laxity of grammar will not be tolerated under the new regime.

Where then for an Ulster-Scot?

Clearly, there is a rich (no pun intended) vein of humour to be exploited - something to do with Ballymena and so on - but I'm passing that opportunity by and trying to look a little more carefully at the serious issue. I'll trust you to make up your own jokes, at which you may giggle on your own time.

My concern is that Ulster-Scots as a movement is very much in its infancy. It remains many years, or even decades behind the Irish cultural movement and has historically received little attention or, crucially, funding. A lot has changed in recent times. The advent of the Ulster Scots Agency provided a mechanism for funding and many groups certainly derive benefit from its existence.

However, the Minister (rightly, in my view) declared the organisation "unfit for purpose" and instituted a programme to try to remedy its many defects. As that laudable work was in progress, the general election was called and the imperative to rein in government spending followed. Only a fool would imagine that the new-look Agency will not find itself with a tighter budget in the future and one can imagine that alternative sources of state funding will be similarly limited.

So, what can we do? Do we just rail against the inevitable, giving off that Irish is still way ahead financially and imagining that money will be found to redress that inequality? Hmm. That's certainly tempting but it seems to rather fly in the face of reality.

Do we seek to commercially exploit Ulster-Scots to make it self-funding and self-sustaining? We're not there yet. I'm convinced that there are commercial aspects of "Ulster" and of Ulster-Scots which remain to be exploited - all you have to do is look at the "Oirish" tat in the gift shop at the International Airport and you can see that we are mssing a trick - but the movement isn't at that level of development jhust now.

What then?

The place to start to answer that question has to be with an examination of what we need money for and what we have been doing with money we have received thus far.

As an avowed contrarian, I'll start with the latter of those suggestions.

What are we doing with our money?

Not that easy a question to answer, actually. Funding in Ulster-Scots has been the very definition of a scatter-gun approach. We had a brief period when every Church Hall seemed to have an Ulster-Scots night every third Saturday in the month. They followed a formula. A Pipe Band, some kids doing Highland Dance, a few pensioners performing Country Dance, some bloke singing, a little Burns poetry and a cup of tea and a sandwich. Not that I'm knocking that, you understand. Many a night I spent in just such halls. I tapped my foot along and applauded at the appropriate points. A grand time was had by all. The organisers got a few quid which they passed on to the artists and everyone went home happy.

Then they did it all again in three weeks time.

And so it continued.

Small amounts of money were being spent on Ulster-Scots. Meanwhile, there were some unfortunate and well-documented incidents regarding money being spent on taxi fares and the like, which we'll draw a veil over.

As time passed, so things started to change. Positively, the Agency produced fantastic resources in terms of booklets on Hamilton & Montgomery and the Covenanters, amongst others. Promotion started to go slightly awry with events such as the David Healy Fitba Day and the Santa Hats to Ravenhill (totally inexplicable - don't ask) but in the meantime, groups were receiving funding for workers and there was even the suggestion of a Tourist Board type shop at Agency premises. The mild resurgence in tourism had sparked more interest in genealogy which meant that the culture was gaining more acceptance amongst many Americans who were realising that their roots were Ulster-Scots and not Irish.

But all the time, the BBC was still mocking us. The Museums remained green-hued and the middle-classes remained reluctant to engage with their own heritage.

On other fronts, things were brighter.

I have always been of the view that the Pipe Bands are the obvious shop window for Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland. We have more of them than Scotland at competition level and a healthy smattering of World Champions in any given year. I have my own views (another post there, methinks) on the health of the local Branch of the RSPBA, but the Bands were continuing to develop and money was being channeled through the Arts Council and Lottery to allow bands to buy new instruments and help with tuition.

Dance was breaking into the schools and money was being found for tuition there as well. More children were engaging and there seemed to be a reluctant acceptance that Ulster-Scots deserved some recognition in the curriculum. Stranmillis had a project underway which was admittedly plagued with problems, but at least they were doing something.

So, what was the money going on? Bits and pieces of promotion; useful resources in terms of promotion and education; event sponsorship (variable quality and questionable worth); funding of groups for projects; support of dance and music; a tiny bit of spending on the language.

Actually, when you look at it, that all seems laudable enough, if sometimes misguided and ill-advised in its implementation.

And so it is/was. However, things will change. As the belts tighten, so we must prioritise. That's where the other limb of the examination comes in.

What do we need money for?

Some things that Ulster-Scots do can be very expensive. We obviously have a marching band culture and the figures when you look at running a pipe band (I declare an interest here) are terrifying. It is the general estimate that a member of a band will cost an average of £1000 to "put on the road". That would cover a modest uniform and either a set of pipes or drum. Uniforms need replaced and instruments become outdated or simply wear out. That money has to come from somewhere. Consequently, a lot of bands have become reliant on Arts Council or similar funding. The picture for Accordion bands is likely similar and is slightly less daunting for the typical (not competition) flute band - simply because the cost of a 5 key flute is much lower than of a set of pipes.

The Language has been neglected for decades and serious work needs to be done on archives and a dictionary project. The troubled Academy may deal with some of those issues but suffice to say, it will be expensive and is time-sensitive as the spoken language is inclined to dwindle. Expertise is required and that costs money to procure. The job is simply too big and too urgent to be left with unfunded enthusiasts.

Resourcing generally is another big issue. By that I mean the provision of "stuff". It can be hard to find Ulster-Scots "stuff". Whether it is for help with tracing your family tree or researching your local history, you can be hard pressed to find the necessary bits and pieces. We don't have enough guide books and pamphlets and we need to have the people to write them. Those people need to eat and feed their families - thus they need paid. More money in the expenditure column there.

That is only scratching the surface - we need dance and music teachers, for example, but I think the point that I am moving towards is to say that we need to examine carefully what we regard to be "core" to our activities. The Fitba Day? Nope. The Santa Hats? Nope again.

More controversially - should we prioritise workers (mostly administrators) for our local groups? Probably nope also.

I have heard it said by more than one individual that the day a group receives core funding and appoints a worker is the day that group begins to wither. The work which was done by a team of volunteers is suddenly dumped on the worker and the volunteers then lose interest as they are not properly engaged any more. The worker becomes inclined to concentrate on the reporting requirements to satisfy the funder amd the impetus for the group's endeavour is lost.

I have always suspected that one of the reasons that we have focussed to such an extent on seeking core funding of groups in the past is that we have confused the notion of Ulster-Scots groups with the more generic "community groups". Certainly, the unionist/pro-British/Protestant/primarily Ulster-Scots side of the house lacks the community structure we can observe elsewhere. There is therefore an understandable urge to redress that imbalance and to fund will-nilly until the community sector appears to have a greater sense of equality.

A problem with that approach is that, in many of those areas where there is lack of a community sector, it seems to be due to apathy on the part of the community itself. There is no community group because the community doesn't want one. Thus, funding a group is wasted money and the new organisation quickly atrophies.

It seems that in many of the areas where Ulster-Scots is likely to receive the warmest welcome, there is no appetite for groups - be they community or cultural. The people are independent and not inclined to want to gather together to navel gaze about who and what they are. Rather, they desire a recognition of their identity, respect for that identity (no more "hoots mon" on the BBC would be a good start) and appreciate the notion that, should they want to explore their history from time to time, there would be a way to do it and a place to go to do it. That comes back to the notion of the need for more "stuff" - the nuts and bolts that make the culture accessible and available.

Looking at it a slightly different way, if you had a thousand pounds to spend on Ulster-Scots - and a thousand pounds only - where would you spend it?

Would it go on classes for music or dance? Would it go on keyrings, bearing the legend "Ulster-Scot and Proud"? Would you buy a couple of new drums for your local band? Would you place an advert for family history research in the Edinburgh Tattoo Programme? Would you fund a support worker (very briefly) to help local groups with administration?

At the minute, I'm not sure that I know the answer to the questions I pose. I do know that the questions can't be avoided. The recession is seeing to that.

I lean towards the notion that resources which will outlive us all should be the priority at this point. That means work being done on collecting together an Ulster-Scots language resource (part of the Academy project). It means promotion of the family history and local history aspects of Ulster-Scots - books on Genealogy and re-writing some of our local history tomes. It means creating, training and supporting a new generation of musicians and dancers, fluent in the musical tradition of Ulster-Scots.

Unfortunately, it may well be that most of those things lie at the "unsexy" end of Ulster-Scots. The nuts and bolts stuff that creates a resource but isn't nearly as much fun as a nice day out with David Healy. But it needs to be done. If we don't prioritise this stuff now, I fear that it may be too late - and all we'll be left with is a Santa Hat, an autograph from Northern Ireland's top-scorer and a vague memory of who we used to be...