May 24, 2016

A non-Scots guide to Scotland

As the summer gathers steam so too do the plans of North American, Australian, Kiwi, South African, European and other non-Scottish pipers and drummers making their pilgrimage to our musical Mecca . . otherwise known as Scotland.

Some of us have been there many times, even lived and worked there for extended periods, playing around the Scottish games and with bands. Most will be relative newbies to the wild and wonderful home of Highland piping and pipe band drumming. For them in particular, here’s a brief list of well-intentioned tips to help get what you deserve musically and avoid receiving the judging equvalent of a Glasgow kiss.

Shut up about the weather. Yes, it rains. A lot. It can also be gloriously sunny. Scots generally like to complain about their own weather, but they hate to hear you brag about how hot and sunny it was when you left Podunk, Iowa, and your ruminations about why you left behind your wonderful summer for “all this rain.” Instead, convert your dank misery into bright optimism. Think of being battered down by horizontal rain at your pre-World’s band practice as the authentic Scottish experience! Bagpipes were made for the Scottish weather. Embrace the wet.

The food: shut it! Scottish cuisine is what it is: delicious! Contrary to 25 years ago, Scotland is full of wonderful restaurants serving exquisitely prepared food and drink. But they are often too expensive for the average travelling pipe bander. Most will subsist on cheap pub food and fried whatever from the chippy. Live a little. Ignore your diet for a week, and for God’s sake keep your lip buttoned down about your disdain for the deep-fried “Cheese-and-Burger” surprise.

Never, ever ask a Scot, “How can you live here?” It’s a small island nation, and in general things are more expensive than where you’re from. But the Scots live good, fulfilling lives and their standard of living might actually be better than yours in many ways (universal health care, majestic scenery, bike lanes . . .). And their standard of piping and drumming is positively better. No one is interested in your bragging about how gas costs half as much where you’re from or that you can buy a bunch of broccoli for a dollar back at home.

Stop with the lame Scottish accent. For some reason North Americans in particular like to put on a Scottish accent when they’re visiting Scotland. They’ll even say things like “aye,” and “ya ken,” and “pure dead brilliant.” Would non-Jewish folks go on holiday to Israel and make attempts at Yiddish? Oy vay! Enough with being such a putz. Speak normally, whatever your normal might be, and keep the Gardener Willie impression to your inside voice.

Watch what you wear. This one is tricky. Some residents of Scotland enjoy wearing shorts, shades, flowered shirts and flip-flops (standard Majorca holiday attire) when the sun’s out. But even though that might be the official state uniform of Florida, you as a visitor wearing that stuff in Glasgow will look like a goof. Stick to a more conservative ensemble, otherwise it comes across as slightly disrespectful.

Scotland rules. If you are competing in Scotland you are implicitly accepting their rules – or lack of them. You won’t always like that you don’t get scoresheets at most solo events, or that the guy judging your band at the World’s didn’t ever play at anything better than a Grade 3 standard, or that your band was disqualified because the pipe-major didn’t say “Quick March” at the command, or that the march past comprises two hours of bladder-busting boredom, or that . . . well, you get the drift. It’s their house so you accept their rules and customs.

Flagism. Since “overseas” bands started competing in Scotland in the 1960s, for some reason they often like to wave their flags. Pipe bands are – or should be – neutral. You are no more the national pipe band of America or Australia or Brittany than, say, Shotts & Dykehead is of Scotland, and you don’t see them with a saltire adorning their bus. These music competitions are only about music, not bragging rights for a country. If nations were ever to assemble pipe bands comprising their very best players for a Pipe Band Olympics, then that might be the time for flags. Until then, leave your maple leafs, stars and bars and tricolours at home.

Be humble. You might arrive acting like you’re going to open a big can of whoop-ass on the Scots, but, if you do, you’re going to get schooled big time. There’s a fairly well-known non-Scottish piper who’s earned the acronym nickname around the Scottish solo circuit of “CTHB,” or “C^&% Thinks He’s Burgess.” This is not the sort of name you want. Be quiet and let your playing do the talking.

In short (but not in shorts and flip-flops), you’re a guest. Imagine a guest coming to your home and telling you how much better the weather, the food, the rules, the whatever are at home. You wouldn’t want them back.

Happy, respectful travels.



  1. Most of this is common sense — which, unfortunately, many apparently do not possess, so these tips are helpful to such people. (Key word: Respect.)

    Regarding the weather: I guess I got lucky my one-and-only trip to Glasgow, as the weather was clear, cool, and beautiful for the entire week leading up to the World’s and was a magical reprieve from horrendous New York heat and humidity in August. (Of course, there was Biblical rain on the day of the contest, which was in ’99, but it was fun in a perverse way.)

    When I tell Scots that I’ve been to Glasgow and thought it was absolutely enchanting, they invariably say “Oh, Glasgow’s a pit; you must visit Edinburgh!” I wish Scots wouldn’t dump on Glasgow, verbally, to the extent that they do — so maybe this is a tip you can pass along to your native Scottish friends.

  2. Hey Chris,
    Just a small comment in reply – from a native Scot. I’d suggest that whoever said that ‘Glasgow was a pit’ came from somewhere around the Eastern end of the M8 motorway – i.e. Edinburgh or its environs. There’s a (usually friendly) rivalry between East and West. I guess there must be many similar examples elsewhere in the world.

    Ask a Glaswegian about Edinburgh and you might well hear: “All fur coat and nae kn*ckers” – so it does work both ways.

    I reckon most folk who diss Glasgow have never really spent any quality time there!

  3. About Flagism, I don’t agree. It is nice to have your nation of origin made visible on your bus or other points of reference. Certainly not in competition, but peripherically, yes. Think of Glasgow Green as sort of Olympic Games venue, and no identification of your home country anywhere, be it competitors or visitors. It’s missing half of the reason why you are there. Better show your flag than suffer in self-flagellation.

  4. LOL. Sitting in my back garden, on the slightly Western side of the M8, beer in hand, shorts (and flip flops) and dinner fae the BBQ. Yes my friends Scotland has been basking in 10 days so far of glorious (to us) sunshine with temperatures Between 25 and 30, oh yes we use Celcious here so that’s 80-90 for our NA friends. As someone who transatlantics for work to the USA most months I found this article funny as I see both sides. And Philidelphia where I work most has had terrible weather until this week when it was sunny.

    In general we Scots of the piping and drumming fraternity will put up with most things because of our mutual love of our music and we love to welcome you.

    Two things not mentioned here is never talk religion, we are in general not an overly religious country, and it NEVER interferes with the pipe band world (not even in Northern Ireland), which in this small country is a breathe of fresh air. Talk religion in this Country and you can easily offend many people of many faiths within minutes; and they were getting on just fine until that subject came up 🙂

    And Politics, it’s ok to talk about them just realise that Scotland and in particular the West of Scotland is a very left of centre country, we welcome all, judge little, have a very diverse culture and we like that. We are more than two party state and there’s a place for everyone. But our country is almost entirely governed by the Scottish National Party. They lost an independence vote last year by a very small margin but when it come to running Scotland have been the party of choice for many years now even by those against independence. Donald Trump voters beware, many people in Scotland (Turnberry or not) do not like his politics or his opinions. Be carefully with these two topics, enjoy the music and the culture and everyone will get on fine.

    And yes Gas is $10 a gallon, don’t get a hire car, we have a great public transport system. And if you’re in Glasgow, well there’s no need to go anywhere else, leave Edinburgh for the real tourists lol.

    We are not perfect but we all love it here, weather and all 🙂

    Best wishes to all our pipe band fraternity who are destined for our small wonderful (and often wet) country in 2016.



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