John MacCallum remembers well the first time he spotted Paul McCartney, dressed in casual wear, walking through the streets of his hometown of Campbeltown, Scotland.
McCartney — a former Beatles member who at that time was in his own band Wings — owned a country home with his wife, Linda, on the Kintyre peninsula.
“I’d see him in the town when I lived there. He would come in with his Wellington boots on, with his family in tow and an English sheep dog and all that stuff,” recalled MacCallum, who now calls Langley home.
It was 1977, and MacCallum, then 19 years old, played the tenor drum in the Campbeltown Pipe Band, and was given the opportunity of a lifetime to work with McCartney.
“He decided to write a song about the area,” McCallum said. “He really enjoyed coming up. It’s in the country on the Southwest part of Scotland. It’s kind of near the beaches, it’s quite beautiful actually. And I guess Linda really enjoyed coming up to the farm a lot, so he decided to write a song.”
McCartney made contact with the pipe major, Tony Wilson, and together they came up with the music for Mull of Kintyre, with McCartney playing the melody on keyboard, and Wilson converting it to pipe music.
The group had just two weeks to learn the part, before recording it in a converted barn on McCartney’s farm.
“It was an out of this world musical experience,” MacCallum said.
“Here I am, I am a shipwright, I’m working in the town I grew up in — and this is what I do as a hobby part time, I’m in the pipe band — so to meet him, and Linda…. They both made us feel so welcomed, and so homely. They didn’t have any airs and graces about them. They were pretty down to earth. They were really, really nice.”
From there, the pipe band was featured in a music video for McCartney, in which MacCallum has a two-second close-up, and travelled to London to play in the BBC studios and to perform on Mike Yarwood’s 1977 Christmas Show.
Mull of Kintyre shot off the charts, becoming a Christmas Number 1 single in the U.K., and the only Number 1 single for Wings.
Pictured below: John MacCallum with Paul McCartney.
SOUTH FRASER PIPES & DRUMS
MacCallum moved to Canada in 1984, and largely stopped playing music until joining the South Fraser Pipes & Drums one year ago.
The pipe band, formerly called the Langley Legion Band, has been operating since the 1980s. But when the Langley Legion shut down and had to sell their building, the band dwindled to a small group, only picking back up recently.
Now, working under the guidance of well-known piper Peter MacNeil (one of the founders of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band), they meet weekly on Tuesday nights at the Coghlan Hall, and are looking for new pipers and drummers to join.
The band is great for those who have a musical background or who played in their youth, but stopped playing as they grew older, said secretary-treasurer Nancy Gleeson.
“Many play in their youth when they have time, and then with family, they’ve stopped playing. And it can be 20, 30 years, and then they’ve got a little bit more time, the children are gone, and they want to get back into something. That’s what our group is good for,” she said. “We’ve also got some young people as well, which makes it special.”
“We’re trying to encourage the youth in the community to get involved,” MacCallum added. “We’ve got good mentorship here as well, it would be great to pass that knowledge and experience along to the younger groups.”
A UNIQUE INSTRUMENT
The bagpipe itself is also very unique from other wind instruments, Gleeson said, with more physicality involved, fewer notes to play and no sharps or flats.
Bagpipes are made from natural materials, meaning that something as simple as the weather, or walking from the cool outdoors into a warm room can change their tone.
“They are a very ancient, primitive instrument. Mine, the bag is elk hide, the inner big drones are now synthetic, but our chanter reeds are cane, they’re wrapped in hemp,” she said. “Another whole thing, beside just playing, is keeping them tuned and maintained. And Peter is very skilled at that.”
“It takes a bit of work and practise to get a finely tuned instrument,” MacCallum added. “If it’s not tuned properly, it doesn’t sound so good. It sounds like a bag of cats.”
All of the music has to be memorized as well, making it a good exercise for the mind, MacCallum said.
MacCallum has been exposed to piping music his whole life, with many of his family members playing. One of his cousins even owns a manufacturing company for bagpipes in Scotland.
Gleeson, however, did not grow up with the music. She first became familiar with the sound when taking up Scottish country dancing as a teenager, and learned to play the pipes after.
“Well played pipes send shivers up your back,” she said.
“Playing at Remembrance Day, when you’re marching down the street and you see the faces of the crowd. There will be people crying, there will be people looking delighted. Kids shocked. And seeing the veterans, it means so, so much to them. Every parade you do, just seeing the delight on peoples faces.
“I play the cello in an older ladies music group, and we play for seniors and things, and they like it and enjoy it — but not the emotional connection that pipes and drums have. With our two world wars, there’s just a strong emotional connection. And you can’t beat that, really. The pipes meant so much to the people who were fighting.”