Lonely pipers

I saw the important bits of the Westminster wedding and accompanying parade. Lots of scarlet tunics, gilt and bearskin hats.

But not a single, lone piper to be heard by the billions served on April 29th.

Normally it wouldn’t faze me, but you’d think a small public homage to the intersection of middle-class Middleton and William Windsor-Wales – St. Andrew’s, Scotland – would be in order. They’ll be spending half the year at Balmoral soon enough, and the Windsors own a good portion of Scotland.

But apparently there’s some piping at the Buck House reception, with David Rodgers of the Irish Guards gi’in’ it laldy.

Seems that the rest of the world loves a piper at a wedding when the couple exits the kirk, but the royals are more about private pipers, playing out of earshot of the public, for their own amusement.


Off your head

No Kidding.There has been a lot of news recently about concussion in sports. Here in the hockey-religious country of Canada, every other day some talentless goon clobbers a star like Sidney Crosby, potentially ending his career with a concussion. Research on repeated concussions causing dementia and brain atrophy and premature death has rattled the National Football League to the point where its very ability to continue may eventually come into question.

I got a pretty bad concussion in 2002. It was a freak accident. I work with a public relations agency, and at the time the PR firms and a few news agencies from around Toronto formed a softball league. Each team had to have a set number of male and female players, and “guest” players had to be somehow connected with the people on the team.

My team made it to the final, and the championship game was against the fine people of Reuters Canada. Reuters had a bunch of ringers on board, one of whom was at shortstop. This guy was taking the game – supposedly an all-fun, schlubby affair – far too seriously. He had an impressive arm, even though the girl playing first-base clearly had trouble catching his laser-beam throws. She actually would cower out of the way rather than try to catch it.

Of course I came up to bat in the first inning and grounded to the macho shortstop, who whipped the ball to the useless first-base-woman, who opted to protect her head instead of using her leather. As I was crossing the bag, the not-soft ball got me square on the head, just above my left ear. There were no helmets in our little fun league.

It was like a cannon going off in my ear. Momentum carried me forward, my legs buckled beneath me and I crashed to the ground. I was unconscious for only a few seconds, they told me, but there was blood coming from my ear and the whole left side of me was one giant scrape.

My teammates helped me up and we staggered to the side, where a bunch of us sat. Eventually Julie arrived and took me to the nearest hospital where – eventually – they did a CT scan, diagnosed concussion and told Julie to make sure I kept breathing in my sleep.

All of this was only a few days before I was to fly to Scotland to compete at the Northern Meeting. I was a complete mess. I could hardly walk, let alone practice, but somehow I drove myself to get on that plane. Missing Inverness, what with their draconian unwritten policy of chucking competitors out if they dare not turn up, was out of the question.

The flight was brutal. I remember forcing myself to stay awake for the overnight seven hours for fear of the air pressure doing me in. I even rented a car and drove the four hours from Edinburgh to Inverness.

I got through all of that and the day of the Gold Medal my scraped and bandaged knees were exposed, and I remember steadying myself on and off the stage at Eden Court. The weird thing was, I think it was the best tune I ever managed to play. It was “Nameless – Hiharin odin, hiharin dro,” which was set that year and, the best part was, people were coming up to me saying it was good, and there seemed to be that peer-buzz that all contestants hope for. When they say nothing, you generally get nothing. I remember Malcolm McRae – a hard piobaireachd man to please, if there ever were one – remarking to me, “Very good for a concussed piper,” which of course I clung to throughout the day (and still, evidently), even though perhaps what he really meant, in that backhanded way that pipers sometimes speak to one another, was, “For a non-concussed piper, that sucked.”

As seems so often the case when competitors get their hopes up, when the prizes were announced I got sweet FA. I departed the cursed place even more confused and fuzzy-headed than when I arrived. (One of the judges, who never actually ever competed himself, told me weeks later, only after I contacted him, that he had a problem with a few taorluaths. Oh. How informative.)

Comparisons of our competitive art with sport are frequent. There are many similarities, but perhaps the most striking is our mutual all-out drive to compete. After being conked on the head, hockey and football players force themselves back onto the ice or field for both the desire to be seen by their peers as a “gamer,” or for fear of losing their spot on the team. The mind wins over the body.

Despite common sense or doctors advising otherwise, we pipers and drummers also go to such extremes that it can be positively unhealthy. We’ve all seen competitors and ourselves let competition get the best of us.

Sometimes we just need to give our head a shake.


The USPF’s decision to make its solo piping championship solely for North American pipers could turn out to be an important moment in piping and drumming history. I don’t know if organizer Maclean MacLeod’s move was in direct response to the Glenfiddich no longer including the USPF as a qualifier for their event but, if it isn’t, it’s a remarkable coincidence.

For the record, I don’t care one way or another if an independent competition makes its own rules. Limiting a piping contest to regional competitors is a long-established tradition in Scotland, especially for junior events limited to “locals.” Go ahead; fill your ghillies.

I also don’t feel one way or another about the Glenfiddich’s qualifying process. It’s a privately run event, and if they feel a contest isn’t up to snuff, then that is their prerogative. I hope they explained to the USPF folks exactly why they made their decision and outlined the things they might do to return to the qualifier fold.

But ignoring the specifics of the Glenfiddich’s decision  (which I didn’t consider to be a big deal), what may be most interesting is that the USPF’s apparent counter-move may be the first time that a non-Scottish event retaliated in a significant way to a perceived slight. Associations, events and competitors from outside of Scotland are used to being pushed around. “Overseas” band gradings not honoured by the RSPBA. World’s qualifying contests held only the UK. Non-UK competitors being tacitly made to compete at little Scottish games that often feature iffy judging, non-standard events, no formally accredited judges and always with no accountability for results – to establish a “track record” to have the honour of being accepted to the Argyllshire Gathering or Northern Meeting. The list goes on.

Normally, non-UK folks just lump it. You dare not retaliate or even gently rock the boat, for fear of making your own situation even worse. To some, it’s the definition of bullying.

Last week, though, the tide may have finally started to change. The USPF’s change seemed to upset a number of prominent folks based in Scotland, who were in high dudgeon that they were suddenly being treated in a manner similar to what non-UK pipers and drummers put up with all the time. Perhaps they got a little sample of the disrespect that Americans, Australians, Bretons, Canadians, Kiwis and all other pipers not living in Scotland are told is just “part of the game.”

I’m not a fan of knee-jerk reaction to problems. I’d rather discuss, find common ground and move forward with clarity. Tit-for-tat behavior usually just makes things worse.

But bullies aren’t generally big on diplomacy, so sometimes the only way to deal with them is to fight back and let actions speak louder.

Say what?

The good folks with Hear Toronto at the Toronto Indoor.At Highland games, bouncy castles, Scottish sweets-stands and greasy pies are pretty much the norm. You get the odd Ham-a-lot or Montreal smoked meat, and of course the essential beer-tent. Naturally, there are the vendors of Highland gear and pipes and drums. All of this is pretty familiar and predictable stuff.

I’m a big fan of marketing ideas that resonate so immediately that you can’t believe that they took so long to appear. Sometimes, the most obvious stuff is the smartest.

At the recent Toronto Indoor Games I had a eureka marketing moment when I did a double-take after almost walking by a little booth with folks who were selling hearing protection devices. I’m so used to the same-old-stalls that it’s easy to bypass something like this.

But it made perfect sense. Here’s an indoor piping, drumming and pipe banding event held in a cavernous hall. Pipers and pipe band drummers play loud instruments, and hearing loss is a serious concern with players over time. Of course! The audiologists from Hear Toronto set up shop and were selling serious protection devices by Etymotic Research, including custom-fitted models. They were even taking silicon impressions on-the-spot for anyone who wanted to pay $200 to protect their hearing while providing “uniform 15 dB sound reduction across frequencies,” i.e., quieting, not degrading, the sound quality of the pipes, drum, pipe band or nagging spouse.

I was talking – or, rather, shouting over the piping/drumming din – with the venerable Brian Pollock, a veteran of nearly five decades of top-level piping, hundreds of competitions and, I’d guess, more than 10,000 practice sessions. Brian seems to have all his faculties still, including hearing, and he’s also got serious business acumen. I mentioned that it was impressively smart for Hear Toronto to do some marketing and selling at the Indoor. Bagpipes, drums, pipe bands = hearing loss.

We both wondered why it had to stop there. Why not look at other afflictions that we pipers and drummers face? Can’t they, too, come on out to our events? We started to brainstorm.

  • Massage therapists – anxious competitors could take a load off and get a good rub-down before their event.
  • Psychiatrists – just set up a little screened-off booth for discreet visits and I bet this would be booked solid by neurotic competitors.
  • Loan accountants – is there a piper or drummer who doesn’t need more money to support his/her affliction? Cha-ching!
  • Hypnosis therapists – who doesn’t know a piper or drummer who couldn’t use a little of this? “look into my eyes. . . . you are getting sleepy . . . sleepy . . . when you hear the words ‘quick march’ you shall play perfectly until you must stop . . .”
  • Marriage counselors – maybe this little booth wouldn’t get much action, since, as I’ve only witnessed on TV (honest!), marriage counselors need both parties to attend the counseling. The many who need it of course wouldn’t be at the contest with their spouse . . .

So, forget the big lemonade stand and the taffy booths. The real marketing and selling opportunities at the games are with stuff we really need. I’m sure you have your own ideas about what would sell.


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