By Scott Williams

Neil Dickie was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1957 to Alex and Beth (Lyall) Dickie. At age nine, he decided to join the cadet corps but, he quips, "I didn't like the hairy pants they made me wear so I transferred to the pipe band." His teacher, John Copeland kept him on the practice chanter for three years. "This perhaps explains why my fingering was so well developed," he reminisces. By the time he was twelve, he knew all of the Logan's Tutor and half of the Scots Guards tunes by memory. "I don't know of any young pipers today whose teachers require that as a prerequisite to getting a set of bagpipes," he jokes.

Once on the pipes, Neil went to Fraser Melvin, Pipe Major of the Knightswood Juvenile Pipe Band, making it to the big band at age fifteen. Dougie Ferguson, who worked with Donald MacLeod at Grainger and Campbell's pipe making shop, used to drive him to piping competitions. (It was on one of these excursions that our boy was introduced to the dire consequences of too much whisky at too young an age!) Neil used to visit Dougie at the shop and ended up spending much of his time with world renowned teacher Donald MacLeod. "Lessons with Donald," Neil remembers, "consisted of lots and lots of singing and reading or writing music."

Neil was also studying with Duncan Johnstone, a meticulous teacher who made his young student write out everything he was being taught. In his first year, at age twelve, Neil learned only five tunes. He was not allowed to go on until he could write them all out correctly from memory.

The next five years were the most spellbinding journey a young piper could make. Johnstone never just told him something; he helped him to figure it out. He provided Neil with inspiration in spades, and was, perhaps, the most irreplaceable influence on his future as a piper, and especially as a composer, for it is as such that we know him best.

"Duncan asked me one time, does your mum play pipes, and I said no, she doesn't. Good, he said. Then play her one of your tunes, and if she can sing it back to you right away, it's good music." That became Neil's test for all his compositions, some of which appeared in his 1983 publication, "First Book: A Collection of Bagpipe Music For All Stages".

"My proudest moment," says Neil, "was when I met Duncan at a bus stop in Glasgow in 1987. The first thing he said to me was, 'That was a good book you put together. It's full of good music.' He also told me there was some rubbish in there too, but he forgave me that as a consequence of youth!"

Neil immigrated to Canada as if it were part of a great adventure. As a member of the world famous Red Hackle Pipe Band, he had been over to the Scottish World Festival at Toronto's CNE a couple of times and liked the idea of being able to eat steaks at 2:00 AM for $3.50. He liked cold beer, the music on the radio, and the friendly people. "I think the greatest attraction was that Canadians are people without cynicism. Your ideas are accepted or rejected on their own merits. Youth is not a barrier to good ideas. In Scotland, one was often discouraged from meandering off the path of what was done before. Rebels were not tolerated gladly. I wasn't a bad kid, really. I just wanted to play my pipes differently."

Through friends, Neil met Pat Murray, a Highland dancer and a piper from Saint John, New Brunswick. In 1975 he came over for the summer and halfway through the vacation applied for a scholarship to UNB. He won it, and immediately phoned home to have his clothes and record albums sent over. He and Pat were married in 1979 and their daughter Catherine was born in 1980.

Neil worked with Saint John's Heather Legion Pipe Band which proved to be a valuable training ground for him. Full of pride in his efforts with the band, he brought them home to Scotland where they competed at the Grade 3 level with very little success. "I am astounded at how little I knew about running a pipe band at that time," he recalls. "I tried to lead the band the way I saw some of the Scottish pipe majors doing it - hectoring and badgering people rather than leading and teaching them. It didn't work."

What Neil really needed was help with the mechanics of leading a band. As fate would have it, he came under the influence of another transplanted Scot. "When Barry Ewen (see Celtic Heritage, Dec.'96/Jan.'97) and I teamed up to work with the Atlantic Caledonia Pipe Band (later known as Scotia Legion) we each took a heavy load from the other's shoulders. I only had to worry about the music, Barry only had to worry about producing the best sound. I've only worked with three people who could make bagpipes absolutely sing: Terry Lee, Andrew Wright and Barry Ewen. Barry had a gift for sound which I will never have, so I never ventured into sound, and he didn't interfere with my teaching and tune selection. I think one of the best medleys I ever constructed was played by that band, and our trip to Maxville that year was the highlight of my piping career. Of all the bands I've worked with, I'm most proud of my contribution to the Scotia Legion which was the first really great Grade 1 pipe band to come out of the Maritimes."

Neil was rapidly earning a reputation for his unique style of composition, and Bill Livingstone, Sr, of Ontario, gave his music the label which has become a household word among pipers around the world. Neil and Scott MacAulay, now of Summerside, PEI, used to play at some of the ceilidhs and knockout competitions in Ontario. After the formal music was performed, they would play exciting selections of the non-competitive stuff -"light music, as in light beer!" says Neil. "Bill said, 'You should be playing that stuff in the kitchen - it's just kitchenpiping.' The name stuck."

During an interview on BBC Scotland's Pipe Line radio program in November, 1993, host Iain MacInnes asked Neil about the term, suggesting that it had taken on a derogatory tone in recent years. "It was always derogatory," answered Neil. "When I named one of my tunes "The Kitchenpiper", it was done facetiously. It wasn't to build up this genre of piping. Some pipers think it's rinky-dinky stuff, but that was not my idea. Bagpipe music is perhaps the only form of music which seems to perpetuate itself through competition for competition. That's always bothered me. I feel that there should be a body of pipe music that you play just for the fun of playing it. Kitchenpiping is my way of expressing myself in music."

"When I was 18 or 19 and first starting to write and play this stuff, it seemed to catch on. People were asking me if I had a copy of this tune or that tune, but I would lose music almost as fast as I wrote it, so of course I could never find copies of the tunes they wanted. Ken Eller (Celtic Heritage, June/July '95) said I should really put it together - you know, just a little collection. I asked Michael Grey (see Celtic Heritage, April/May'97) for a few tunes, and others as well." Neil wrote to some publishers and they weren't interested. He got a bank loan and published the book himself. To date, it has sold over 13,000 copies. "I'm pretty pleased with that," says Neil. Many of his tunes can be heard in competition medleys from Antigonish to Melbourne. He finds that flattering but at the same time he is concerned about who is playing his music. "My music is not designed for the beginner player," he explains. "It really disturbs me when I go to judge at contests and hear Grade 4 bands with young children attempting to play intricate tunes like "Clumsy Lover" or "Dunrovin Farm". It disturbs me that they haven't been spending their time learning to play "Jeannie Caruthers" or "Auchmountain's Bonnie Glen" or some of the other beautiful traditional music. It doesn't always have to be pyrotechnics! I like to hear people play my music, but I'd like to hear them play it when they've developed enough skill to play it well."

Through this magazine, Neil is issuing a challenge to teachers of bagpipers today. "Teach your students the traditional stuff first and do not allow them to perform (in competition at least) the new age music until they can present it as musically as they could present a more traditional piece. A player should never be taught the "Cameronian Rant" before he has learned "Caledonian Canal", and should never compete with "The Little Cascade" without having played "Thomson's Dirk". So why play "The Clumsy Lover" before you know pieces like "Bobby Cuthbertson" or all four parts of The Barren Rocks of Aden"? I could never have written "Kitchenpiper" if I had never learned tunes like "Highland Laddie", "Crossing The Minch", or "Lord Alexander Kennedy".

"My plea to teachers is to teach what we were taught and to add the innovations of new music to a sound foundation of a traditional repertoire. My own students never play the new music. They could never appreciate the attraction of my type of music if they have never had the chance to understand the beauty of the music that influenced me. A hundred years from now, perhaps "Clumsy Lover" and "The Haunting" might still be played, and if they are, they will be right along side tunes which have already stood the test of time, like "Bonnie Ann", "The Curlew", "Teribus" and "Arniston Castle"."

In 1980, Neil's wife, Pat passed away. Grief stricken, Neil stumbled through the rest of that year at law school and returned to New Brunswick for the summer. Nancy Hays of Edmonton, Alberta came to judge dancing at the Antigonish Highland Games and Neil was there as well, judging piping. Both being single parents, they swapped baby pictures over dinner at my house on Sunday evening. Later they travelled on to Mount Allison University where they taught at a summer school that Neil had organized. It was not long before Neil and Catherine moved west to begin a new life with Nancy and her son.

Neil Dickie's piping activities in the west would make another interesting story and perhaps sometime it will be told. For now, however, it is sufficient to have taken a look at the background of this rebel piper, his experiences, his contributions to the development of piping in the Maritimes, and the tremendous effect his unique compositions have had on the entire piping world. Like it (and many do) or not (and many don't), his Kitchenpiping style has proven to be more than a passing fad. Well into its second decade, it is, perhaps, the only piping style known to many of the young players of today.

(June/July '97 issue of Celtic Heritage)