Piper Gary West has spent a lifetime immersed in Scotland’s traditions through his work as a musician, academic, and broadcaster.
He grew up in Pitlochry, home of the legendary Vale of Atholl Pipe Band. As a young boy, his grandfather would take him down to watch the band on parade, West engrossed by the sight and sound of it all.
In 1973, Ian Duncan took over as Pipe Major of the band. He would go on to see the band to major competitive success and understood that the future lay in the next generation, so the former Pipe Major Allan Cameron stayed on to start a youth band.
When West was six, his mother saw a sign in the window of the local shop advertising free lessons through the Vale’s youth band. He jumped at the opportunity, so beginning his musical education and a stint of twenty years with Vale of Atholl. West was part of the band’s most successful competitive period where they saw victory in a number of major competitions, rising through the ranks from grade four to grade one in only seven seasons.
In his late teens, West began to gravitate toward the traditional and folk music scene. He’d always been a lover of Scots song, with Andy Stewart, Calum Kennedy and the like on the radio at home, as well as the groups they’d listen to on the pipe band bus, bands such as The Battlefield Band, Tannahill Weavers, Silly Wizard and Ossian.
In their own ways those bands were all blazing trails, including featuring some of the first appearances of Highland pipes in folk band lineups. These, along with Ian Duncan’s pioneering brother Gordon, came to be sources of great inspiration for West in moving more into the scene.
By this time, West had moved to Edinburgh to study, and gotten involved with the city’s folk sessions. Soon after came the first invitation to be part of a band – Ceolbeg, after Gordon Duncan left the band to join the Tannahill Weavers. Starting in 1988, West remained with the band for twelve years or so, recording a number of albums, and touring extensively through Europe and North America.
In the early 90s came another invitation, to join newly conceived supergroup Clan Alba, alongside: Dick Gaughan, Mary MacMaster, Brian McNeill, Patsy Seddon, Davy Steele, Mike Travis and Dave Tulloch. Over his two years with them, the band graced stages at festivals including Glastonbury, Cambridge and Tønder.
Over this time, West had added bellows pipes, whistle, guitar and song to his proverbial bow, and had been building his output as a session musician, appearing on a dozen or more albums. Notably, for Wolfestone, and Kathy Matteya’s 1991 release Time Passes By, which went on to be certified gold by the RIAA, selling over half a million copies.
Eventually, West faced a decision about continuing to pursue music full-time, or furthering his career as an academic. He had been one of the first to complete a degree in History and Ethnology with Edinburgh University and the School of Scottish Studies. Still in the era of Hamish Henderson, the studies focused on the sociology of traditional music, folklore and culture – where it all came from.
After graduating, and alongside his busy schedule as a performer, he completed a PHD examining the social history of farming in Perthshire. His topic inspired by his father’s people, who were farm labourers in the bothies of the area.
On finishing his PHD, he worked as a researcher at the School of Scottish Studies, before progressing to take up a lectureship. It was at this point he took the decision to make academia his main focus. Now a Professor of Scottish Ethnology at the University of Edinburgh, he’s been with the School of Scottish Studies for over twenty years. West also acts as Director of the European Ethnological Research Centre at the university.
Despite this busy schedule, he remains a very active musician: Releasing his debut solo album The Islay Ball in 2001, performing a duo with harpist Wendy Stewart, with whom he released Hinterlands in 2009, and forming part of the trio BrÒg and ceilidh band Hugh MacDirmaid’s Haircut. In 2018, he was part of the all-star cast of the Far, Far From Ypres commemorative tour.
West is an author too. In 2016 he wrote, produced and performed in Jock’s Jocks, a one act play based on a remarkable collection of first world war testimonies recorded by North East folk singer Jock Duncan as a labour of love over a period of fifty years. He also edited these for publication as a book, released in 2019. He recently completed a biography of Martyn Bennet, which launched earlier in 2020.
Somehow, West also manages to find time to present Pipeline – BBC Radio Scotland’s pipe music programme, featuring news and recordings from across the piping world. He is a familiar voice in the piping world, the show is broadcast weekly, to an audience of around forty thousand.
West is someone truly immersed in tradition and culture, with deep scholarly understanding, top flight skill as a performer and a clear passion for it all. He’s devoted his energies to doing a remarkable amount to proliferate Scotland’s cultural heritage, keeping it alive and thriving for future generations.