Murray Henderson arrived in Scotland from New Zealand in 1973 at the age of 20. Within a month he had gained his first prize on the competition piping circuit and one year later he made his first major breakthrough, winning the Gold Medal for piobaireachd at the Royal Braemar Gathering. Over the ensuing decades he would become one of the world’s most successful competition pipers.
Murray’s glittering career on the competition circuit has included scooping the Glenfiddich Championship four times (including winning it with maximum points for both march, strathspey and reel and piobaireachd classes), winning six Gold Clasps over five decades and taking the former winners’ march, strathspey and reel class at London seven times. His tally also includes the Dunvegan Medal, five Silver Chanters and five Bratach Gorms – the “Blue Banner” which is the highest prize awarded by the Scottish Piping Society of London.
Murray can be described as the complete piper in more ways than one: running his own reedmaking business, Henderson Reedmakers, since 1985, while in 2004 he launched Strathmore Bagpipes and has played this brand of pipes, which he designed, in every competition he has entered – and frequently won – ever since.
Born in Timaru, South Island, Murray grew up on the family farm at Blue Cliffs, some 20 miles to the south-west, where he started “just messing about” on the chanter when he was four years old. He was given his first lessons by his piper father, who he credits as a huge inspiration, teaching him the importance of a good practice ethic. He was then taught by the late Donald Bain and David Boyle from the age of nine until leaving New Zealand – tuition which he regards having been invaluable in honing his technique and musical appreciation. While still in New Zealand he listened to reel to reel tapes of the “Bobs of Balmoral” – piobaireachd masters Bob Brown and Bob Nicol, and indeed received some tuition from Brown when he toured New Zealand in 1971, then from Nicol when Murray moved to Scotland.
Quickly demonstrating an aptitude for the Highland pipe, he moved through the NZ competition grades and attained the country’s highest grade when just 15, going on to win the New Zealand Championship piobaireachd competition when he was 20, by which time Scotland beckoned.
Throughout his career he was influenced by exponents of the Balmoral style of piobaireachd. Other players that inspired him were Donald MacLeod, James McGregor, John D Burgess, PM Angus MacDonald and Donald MacPherson, as well as nearer contemporaries such as Gavin Stoddart, Hugh MacCallum and Iain MacFadyen – “You could learn so much from listening to the greats.”
Having made his first major impact with his piobaireachd gold medal at the Royal Braemar Gathering in 1974, Murray embarked on a competition piping career that saw him at the age of 23 become the youngest piper at the time to win the coveted Gold Clasp at the Northern Meeting. “It is every piper’s dream,” he recalls, “to win one of the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medals – presented at the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting, as you then enter the elite piobaireachd contests, such as the Gold Clasp at the Northern Meeting, Open Piobaireachd at the Argyllshire Gathering, Silver Chanter at Dunvegan Castle and the Bratach Gorm – “the Blue Banner” in London.
“I was fortunate to graduate to these elite events quickly,” he recalls.
Throughout his competing years, Murray describes his wife, Patricia (also a piper, who was herself placed twice in the Gold Medal at Inverness during the Seventies) as “my rock, helping me with the finest of details in the pursuit of excellence”.
Patricia is also his business partner in the Kirriemuir-based Henderson Reedmakers, which they established in 1985, and in Strathmore Bagpipes, which they launched in 2004, using his experience to create a high quality instrument suitable for competition playing, not least by himself, winning the Clasp in 2006 playing his own pipes with his own reeds.
Music clearly runs in the family – Murray’s daughter, Faye, is also a successful competition piper, in 2010 becoming the first female player to win a Highland Society of London Gold Medal (Inverness), while her sister, Fiona, has played in the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship on three occasions.
Having retired from the competition platform in 2012, he became a senior adjudicator for the Solo Piping Judges Association, and is in demand globally as a tutor, teaching all levels of players, both face to face and, these days, via Skype. Many of his pupils have won the very top events in piping, such as the Glenfiddich, the Clasp and the Gold Medal. He has also enjoyed an involvement with the highly successful Inveraray and District Pipe Band, leading them in a piobaireachd arrangement during their sell-out “Ascension” concert at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, on the eve of the 2013 World Pipe Band Championships.
Recently Murray has also been taking the art of piobaireachd to wider audiences through his collaborations with the Big Music Society, whose performances explore the contemporary possibilities of piobaireachd with pipers, vocalists and string players. “It’s so exciting,” he says, “to present our classical music in its pure form and have it appeal to non-pipers. This project has been so rewarding, working with great musicians who were relatively new to piobaireachd, so we all went on this musical journey together.”