Cork-born bagpiper Margaret Dunn has blazed a trail for female musicians in Scotland, writes Ellie O’Byrne
THE image of the piper is deeply ingrained in perceptions of Scottish culture and yet one of the best known female bagpipers, with a string of prestigious awards to her name, is an Irishwoman.
To Margaret Dunn, who grew up the daughter of a pipe-band major in Cullen, Co Cork, the “double whammy” of being female in Scotland’s male-dominated piping world and being an Irish interloper to boot meant she had something to prove.
The first ever woman to win an A Grade in a light music competition has spent the past 20 years in Scotland pursuing her piping career. Dunn has certainly made her mark in an hierarchical world, where tradition has been slow to change.
“It was completely normal in Ireland to be a female piper; there were often more girls than boys in the Cullen Pipe Band, so it never felt as though I was doing something particularly unusual,” says Dunn.
However, a move to Glasgow to pursue a degree in Scottish traditional music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland at 17 saw her immersed in a male-dominated culture.
It wasn’t until 1976 that the UK’s Sexual Discrimination Act was enforced and female pipers were allowed to participate in some of the top competitions, but it took until last year before Edinburgh’s Royal Scottish Pipers Society finally voted to admit women.
“At the time, when I moved to Scotland, 20 years ago, if you went to a solo piping competition at the higher end of pipe bands, it was definitely male-dominated,” says Dunn.
“The first pipe band I joined in Scotland had two girls in it out of 20 pipers.”
The tradition of pipers being exclusively male is probably connected to the military history of pipe bands, but may also be based on the perception that someone needs a lot of muscle to master the bagpipes. Dunn, who teaches at the National Piping Centre in Glasgow, says that this simply isn’t so.
“It’s more about technique. People think you have to be very big to play the bagpipes, but I’ve seen big people who can’t hold a note steady.”
In 2008, Dunn became the first woman to play on the Former Winners March Strathspey and Reel competition stage at the Argyllshire Gathering in Oban.
However, Dunn is keen to acknowledge other great female pipers who are making inroads into the culture surrounding the instrument they love; Faye Henderson from Kirriemuir, for example, who became the first female winner of the Highland Society of London gold medal at the Argyllshire Gathering, as well as one of the youngest ever winners of a gold medal, aged 18, in 2010.
Having come from a musical family it’s perhaps not surprising that Dunn, who was born Margaret Houlihan, met her match in another top solo piper, Alastair Dunn from Newtownards, Co Down. Now, the couple have two sons, aged four and six, and are well-rooted in Glasgow.
Dunn has temporarily scaled back on competitions and performances, while her boys are young, instead focusing on teaching new pipers of all ages and levels of ability, both male and female.
She’s also involved with Piping Live!, Glasgow’s International Piping Festival, where she organises the family day and an amateur piping competition.
“It’s probably the biggest concentration of amateur pipers in the world,” she says.
“The festival brings 50,000 people into the city every year. Some come for the more traditional masters solo piping competition, but there’s also contemporary traditional music and a pipe band quartet competition.”
Piping Live! Glasgow’s International Piping Festival runs from August 8 to 14. Irish groups in the event include Tralee Pipe Band
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