2/8. James – The Piping Centre

James Beaton is Librarian at the National Piping Centre in Glasgow.

James Beaton

James Beaton

My first experience of libraries was not within the setting of a library as somewhere that I visited to take out books, but rather something that came to visit us, in the shape of Argyll and Bute District Council’s mobile library service. Living in a country location in Argyll as a child, it was a welcome visitor every three weeks, bringing adventure and information – always greatly anticipated.

After University, and having obtained a degree in Celtic Studies, librarianship as a career was not something that I had initially considered pursuing, although I had enjoyed my time in libraries at University, using the Main Library at Edinburgh University, along with the Library and Archive of the School of Scottish Studies, and the Celtic Department Library. However, after some time in the wide world, it seemed to me that my interests in books and information, as well as my abilities to deal with a diverse range of people, allied with a curiosity to find out about things and answer questions, were attributes which suited me for a career in this diverse, interesting and continually challenging profession. I applied to what was the Robert Gordon’s Institute of Technology, and emerged with a Postgraduate Diploma in Librarianship. Posts at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, Glasgow East College of Nursing and Midwifery, the Southern General Hospital and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow followed. During my time at the Royal College, I gained an MSc (Econ) in Managing Library and Information Services from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth. I took up my current post at the National Piping Centre in September 2010.

I grew up in Argyllshire, in an area of the West Highlands with a rich Gaelic cultural heritage, with many of my older relatives being Gaelic speakers. Not having spoken it myself as a child was one of the factors which drove me to study it at university. Argyll also has a wealth of traditional musicians, and one of the instruments which was taught at school was the bagpipes which I had taken the opportunity to learn as a child. I have always played, although during my university and professional career, the instrument had been more of a hobby for me, albeit something which I was always keen to do. I had the good fortune to have been very well taught, by Pipe Major Ronald MacCallum MBE, a member of an Argyllshire piping dynasty, and although my piping had taken up hobby status in my adult life, it was always something that I had been involved with.

I was appointed to the Piping Centre initially to work on a Heritage Lottery bid for funding for an oral history project, which became Noting the Tradition, and became project manager for it, running this between July 2011 and July 2013. We gathered in 45 interviews with people involved in piping at all levels, and these can be found on the project website.

Since the end of the project, my main focus has been the Library, but because of my piping and Celtic Studies degree backgrounds, I have become much more involved in teaching, and it is my current work that I want to focus on now, to give you some insight into what the post here at the National Piping Centre involves.

Bagpipe music

Bagpipe music

The Centre itself is an internationally recognised centre of excellence for the study of the music and history of the Great Highland Bagpipe, one of the 130 different types of bagpipes, to be found worldwide. The Library is an important element of the Centre, as it houses one of the most complete collections of printed bagpipe music to be found anywhere in the world, and part of my day-to-day work involves enabling access to this for students and teachers. We are in the process of developing a catalogue for this. Funding is not available to go out and purchase a system, so this is being developed by myself and our systems manager. The Library also has a good sound collection, with 78s dating back to the early days of the 20th century, and the early days of recording of bagpipes, as well as LPs and CDs of modern performances and also recordings of teaching by master players. We also hold a collection of archival material, which is mainly the music books and manuscripts of well-known players of the 20th century, and of particular interest to piping scholars are the personal manuscripts from the 19th century, particularly those belonging to Army pipers which give a good insight into the repertoire of the time.

So what is a typical day in the Library of the National Piping Centre? Well, the short answer is that there really isn’t one, and instead of trying to answer that question, it is perhaps easier to talk in general terms about what I do, and how my post here is changing.

One of the main activities which I have become involved in during my time at the National Piping Centre is teaching at a variety of levels, and it is in fact changing my professional focus. The Centre is primarily focused on teaching and it does this at a variety of levels. There are lessons for (mainly) children taking up the instrument for the first time, lessons for those for whom piping is a hobby and lessons for individuals playing at a very advanced level. As well as instrumental tuition, the Centre also collaborates with The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to deliver the BA degree in Scottish Music (Piping), being responsible for the delivery of classes in the history and repertoire of the instrument. The Centre also works with the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh to deliver a course for Junior Year /Semester abroad students, The Highland Bagpipe: History, Culture and Performance. Teaching on the latter two courses, as well as teaching adult beginners on the practice chanter has become a major part of my work over the past three years.

How does this manifest itself in what I do on a daily basis? It means in a practical sense that during the academic year, I spend much more time teaching that I do actually working as a librarian, and this has been a new departure for me. With students from Glasgow and Edinburgh, I do a number of lectures looking at the high culture of the late mediaeval Lordship of the Isles, the emergence of the bagpipe as a musical instrument in the Highlands (not forgetting an introduction to the instrument), and the changes in Highland culture which occurred in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Much of my work recently has involved meeting with the Conservatoire’s Head of Scottish Music, Dr Josh Dickson, to plan the delivery of the History and Repertoire curriculum for the Scottish Music (Piping) undergraduates. Indeed, my involvement in subject teaching and assessment has grown to the extent that I have applied to undertake a Certificate in Teaching in Learning and Teaching in Higher Arts Education, via the Conservatoire, to place my teaching on a sound foundation.

So, at the end of the day, I see my post here at the National Piping Centre as being an interesting amalgam of the use of my professional skills, gained and developed over more than 20 years in librarianship, my hobby of the Great Highland Bagpipe which has been part of my life since I was nine years old, and my degree in Celtic Studies, which has provided me with the subject knowledge to be able to teach the history of, and culture surrounding, the bagpipe. But the post has also brought with it new challenges, particularly those of teaching, and I hope, as I have said, to be able to improve my teaching skills through formal qualifications.

The journey continues.

James is happy to chat more about his post, online or in person. Leave a comment in the box below if you would like to get in touch. It’s also worth noting, if you are interested and in Glasgow, that the Piping Centre has an excellent museum – and an equally excellent restaurant!



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