Strathclyde's champion calls the tune

September 30, 2005

Willie McCallum fulfils at least two Scottish stereotypes perfectly, being both prized for his financial prudence and praised for his bagpiping skills.

As a management accountant in the finance office at Strathclyde University, Mr McCallum manages the institution's research cash and grants.

Fellow Scot Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, could hardly have put it better than Mr McCallum: "It's (about) making sure we invest the university's cash wisely and protect it, making sure it's managed in the best possible way and put in the proper bank accounts to reap the maximum benefit."

But when the university named Mr McCallum as Strathclyder of the Year for 2005, it broke with tradition and honoured him not for his contribution to university coffers but for his contribution to Scottish culture through his skills on the bagpipes.

Mr McCallum is no ordinary piper - he has won the world championship Glenfiddich piping title seven times, a feat that has never been equalled.

"Two people have won it four times. When I got to four, I thought at least if I never win it again, I've done that. And then I won three in a row. It's more than I could ever have expected."

Others might say that Mr McCallum's pre-eminence in piping is only to be expected as it runs in his blood. His family, based in Campbeltown by the Mull of Kintyre, have been pipers since at least 1750, and a direct ancestor won the second piping competition to be held after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion.

He learnt in the strong traditional style of the Argyll area where he was brought up, different styles of piping having developed in different parts of Scotland from an era when travelling was less common.

The greatest influence on him was his father, who strongly encouraged his son to continue in the family tradition. Mr McCallum began learning to pipe when he was nine. "Even before I started, I followed the local pipe band. I could sing the tunes before I could play them," he said. "I always wanted to become a decent piper. I practised daily, even if it was just 20 minutes, and I quite like a challenge, so I was always wanting to practise and get better."

The sound of the pipes arouses strong emotions, he said, and people either love or hate it. But he speculates that its critics have simply been victims of bad players, notably the inexperienced pipers who throng the streets of Scottish cities in summer to make money from tourists.

MrMcCallum teaches piping students taking Strathclyde's BA in applied music and also teaches at the National Piping Centre in Glasgow. His pupils include pipers who compete against him, and while he jokingly warns them that the lessons will cease abruptly if they beat him, he is delighted to watch their progress.

"By and large, the people competing against one another are all friends. There's not a 'win at all costs' mentality. We all share the common aim to play really well."

There are two types of pipe music: pibroch, the Gaelic classical music of the pipes, and the "little music", which most Scots would think of as pipe music, marches, strathspeys and reels.

Many pipers specialise in one or the other but Mr McCallum plays both, which makes competitions even more physically and mentally taxing.

Mr McCallum memorises everything, arguing that the spirit of the music is more than the note values on the page.

He occasionally plays at Strathclyde University events, although the university usually hires a piper rather than imposing on its staff member.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM Stirling University

MY FIRST JOB WAS delivering meat for a butcher on a black bicycle with a basket

MY MAIN CHALLENGE  is time management

WHAT I HATE MOST are Monday mornings and people who complain but do nothing about it

IN TEN YEARS I haven't a clue what I'll be

MY FAVOURITE JOKE  A friend came over from New Zealand to compete in the Highland Games circuit. Arriving at the games, he was asked by the judge what his name was. "Airdrie Stewart," he replied, and was asked why he had such an unusual first name. "My grandfather originally came from Airdrie. "The judge replied quick as a flash, "It's just as well he didn't come from Ecclefechan!"

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