Published: March 31, 2012

By the left . . . Geezerhood and piping and drumming: Age-old questions from the front-lines

By Bill Livingstone

I was poring over pipes|drums the other day, looking for news, gossip, the general down-low on piping, drumming and pipe bands. If you’re like me, you do this once or twice a day, so starved are we for regular scoopage. Sadly, our art produces little in the way of truly juicy scandals. We don’t seem to generate much in the way of the Kardashians, Brangelina, Newt Gingrich, or to be a bit parochial the scandalous machinations of the Stephen Harper government in Ottawa.

My glance, however, hit upon a recent poll, where readers were asked to respond to questions about the age of the members of their various bands. The results of the poll were, at the very least, remarkable in the true sense of that word, and perhaps more accurately described as being akin to a smack in the gob. Or so it seemed to me. So here’s what was disclosed:

  • 25 % of respondents told us that the oldest member of their band was 70-plus.

  • A further 23% said that their oldest member was between 60 and 70.

What’s to be made of this? Are pipe bands to be populated by geriatrics wandering loose from their retirement homes, caregivers calling for them to come home, playing old vinyl LPs from Shotts and Edinburgh cops on huge loudspeakers to beckon them on back?

Now all of this is of particular interest to me. A few days since the date of this scribbling, my odometer tripped 70. If you think that sucks, you may be right, and you’re not alone. I have very strong views about the whole process of passing years (note my avoidance of the term “aging”). On one hand I actually don’t believe in aging. I ain’t doin’ it. On the other hand there is something inexorable and undeniable about the objective fact of the actual number of one’s years on the planet.

See, there were times when I was the youngest member of the band . . . whatever band at the time. Now here it is with me as the character referred to by the 30% of the respondents to the poll, and it’s disquieting to say the least. I long for those days when folk would look at me rather adoringly and comment on how cute I was, patting me on the head, and stuffing small bills into fox-head sporran, standard gear that I wore for the gigs I was asked to play at.

And it’s not the lost youth I mourn; it’s more the complete acceptance of, and affection for, a human being playing bagpipes. These gigs were a mixed bag to be sure: Shriners parades, Legion parades, Remembrance Day ceremonies, doing the haggis thing at Burns suppers, and even Orange parades on the 12th of July, following King Billy on his white charger, who seemed always to have a diet very high in fibre, and whose owner usually neglected to attach the customary courtesy bag to his hind-quarters. This created an obstacle course which often had the pipers both piping, and tripping along in sort of hip-hop version of a schottische. Little kids playing pipes get a skewed vision of what their piping career will really bring as they mature.

The reward I speak of is the rejection and scorn we have all come to know. “A gentleman is someone who can play the pipes but doesn’t.” Or how about the octopus who can play any musical instrument and whose attempt at the pipes is turned into a ribald and vulgar joke?

And now I fear the 60 to 70-plus members of pipe bands will bring about even more dislocation. Should we treat this as a manifestation of the phenomenon of aging population? Experts tell us that we will all have to work longer, retirement ain’t a slam-dunk, and our government old age security . . .

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