Published: 26/02/2010 00:00 - Updated: 25/11/2011 11:45

Piping hot Rona made history

Inverness Piping Society president Rona Lightfoot.
Inverness Piping Society president Rona Lightfoot.

SOON after Rona Lightfoot moved to Inverness, an invitation to become a member of Inverness Piping Society arrived through her letterbox.

It might have seemed an obvious invitation to send. After all, Rona, billed at this year's Celtic Connections Festival as a "Uist icon", was the first female piper to win a major piping competition. However, there was a catch to the invite.

"My husband, Tony Lightfoot from Kent, was allowed to be a member, but I wasn't because of my gender," Rona laughed.

That was in 1966. Fortunately we live in rather more enlightened times and 44 years on Rona is now society president.

"Times have changed and I hope in my period as president to see the society growing stronger with everyone welcome - no matter their gender," Rona said.

"Just as long as you have an interest in the pipes and good conversation about piping."

The society meets every Wednesday at the Royal British Legion on Huntly Street, where many top pipers from Scotland and abroad arrive to give recitals.

Appropriately in this new era of the first woman president, one of this season's visitors is a young female piper from Cape Breton.

"It's nice to see a lady joining in," Rona smiled.

The woman who has been called "a ceilidh personified", still does a little teaching and appears at ceilidhs and concerts, including a fundraiser at Dingwall next month with other stars from Gaeldom including Julie Fowlis, Mod gold medallist James Graham, Calum Alex MacMillan and Skippinish, though she claims her main contribution will be edible rather than musical.

Born and brought up in South Uist to a well known family of pipers and story-tellers, the family croft at Garrahellie was described by a friend as "the closest thing I have known to a permanent ceilidh".

Her father, who served in World War I with the Lovat Scouts and Cameron Highlanders, was a piper, as were her late brothers and her uncles and cousins. Keeping in the military tradition, Rona's son organised the Royal Tank Regiment pipe band when an army officer.

"He used to say to me to recruit a few pipers for them," Rona added.

Recruiting pipers would certainly have been no problem in the Uist of Rona's youth where children would be introduced to the pipes at a very early age.

"The baby's asleep? It didn't matter, they would still be playing the pipes. I suppose they were playing them when I was in my cradle," she said.

Her uncle was an important source of stories to the folklorist John Lorne Campbell, his efforts rewarded at the age of 94 with an MBE for services to Scottish culture, while Rona's mother Kate also aided folklorists by providing songs and stories to the School of Scottish Studies.

"My mother was 'discovered' by a lady who came to Uist to collect old songs," Rona said.

"The hole had no bottom, she just had so many songs. Funnily enough, the same thing happened to myself."

That was when Rona was asked if she would like to make a CD.

Rona is vague about her age but reckons she was about 60 when the album, "Eadarainn", was recorded and released, the same year that a festival was held in Uist to celebrate her family's contribution to music.

Rona would like to make another album "while I still have my teeth", though only if she could have the same producer, Iain MacDonald, of the famous Glenuig piping family.

Taught by her father Eairdsidh Raghnaill, Rona made an early start to her career as piper.

"I had the pipes on my shoulder at nine," she said. "I had a cousin who played as well, but apart from her, I didn't know any other girls who played."

If there was any controversy over Rona playing the pipes, then it is something that went over her head, she said.

"I just loved pipe music," she said.

"My uncle, Angus Campbell, taught me Ceol Mhor. He lived two miles away and I went to see him from the age of nine, but I was in my teens before I understood pibroch properly."

It was not just Ceol Mor (great music), the classical music of the pipes that Rona loved. She also enjoyed the marches and reels of Ceol Beag (little music), but it was pibroch which was and continues to be the most highly regarded element of competitive piping.

"South Uist was full of piping. When you went to games, there were more judges around the piping than anything else. The games were held around the pipers because they were the most important thing.

"I competed mostly in South Uist, but in those days South Uist was so much on the map of piping that all the big names went out there to compete."

Though she was almost unique as a female piper, Rona remembers all the best pipers as being very kind to her. The only hostility she experienced came from less talented musicians who felt threatened by the possibility of more talented female pipers emerging. They would probably be even more frightened today if they saw the number of young people, girls and boys, who have been encouraged to take up traditional music by the Fis movement and increased tuition opportunities both in and outside school.

It is a development that certainly has Rona's full endorsement.

"I would have loved to have played the piano, but there was no such thing as lessons," she said.

"The children today get a choice of instruments and it's fantastic to see it. The Fis movement has been great for the spread of the music and the culture as a whole."

She is also delighted to hear young people speaking Gaelic, whether at home in Uist or here in Inverness as pupils of the Gaelic school.

Not that Rona lives in a totally Gaelic household herself.

Her former seaman husband Tony, whom she met while a nurse in Glasgow, is not a speaker, though Rona confides: "I think Tony understands more than he lets on.

"He has been in Gaelic company a lot."

The couple will mark their 50th wedding anniversary in October.

Rona revealed it was only after their wedding that Tony discovered he was married to a piper.

"You should have seen Tony's face the first time he saw the pipes on my shoulder," she laughed.

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