November 30, 2001

Kilt by association

[Originally published as an Editorial]

There is perhaps no other instrument so popular and so connected with a national costume as the Highland bagpipe. When most non-pipers think of the bagpipe they think of the kilt. It’s not unusual for pipers to be asked by the uninitiated (at least in North America) whether one is actually able or permitted to play the bagpipe without wearing the kilt.

But does the kilt help or hinder the image of the instrument? When attached so firmly to the kilt, is the Highland bagpipe destined to be forever considered a musical oddity, a bizarre instrument played by those with a penchant for fancy dress?

Serious pipers often bemoan the fact that their instrument, talent, and music are not taken seriously. They wonder why the public does not readily appreciate the beauty of Highland pipe music, and watches the piping and drumming events at the games with furrowed brow. Why is it, pipers and drummers often wonder, that the only people appreciating the music are other pipers and drummers and their immediate family?

We suggest that the Highland bagpipe and its music will never be taken completely seriously unless they are separated—at least occasionally—from “Highland” dress.

The origins of “Highland” dress as we know it today are really as much English as Scottish. The tartan fad spurred on by Walter Scott and perpetuated by Queen Victoria’s charming view of life at Balmoral Castle resulted in the Scottish regiments being all tarted up by Anglo-fied uniform designers. Because of the bagpipe’s close ties with the Scottish regiments, the instrument has been knitted into the fabric of the garb of auld Gaul.

It’s interesting to note that many popular Celtic folk groups that feature Highland pipes—the Tannahill Weavers, Battlefield, Skyedance, for example—feature a kiltless piper. Could it be that these groups understand that in order to distance themselves from the stereotypical distracting image of the tartanned piper they purposefully dress normally? We think so. In fact, it would be downright unusual, and not just a little nerdy, to see a Highland piper in a folk group wearing “proper” Highland dress—a kilt, maybe, but rest assured it would be with a tee-shirt, jack boots, and ponytail.

Don’t get us wrong. We love the kilt and will continue to wear it proudly. It does get tiresome, though, when a great band or solo piper finishes a great performance only to have spectators (not listeners) desperate to find out what tartan they’re wearing.

About fifteen years ago Nigel Kennedy (who now goes by just “Kennedy”), turned classical music on its head by ditching the predictable concert tuxedo for a punk ensemble. Here was a virtuoso violinist, whose technique could hold up on any world stage, purposefully shedding “traditional” classical garb, clearly attempting to attract a new audience that might not otherwise give classical music a second thought. After a year of outcry and hand wringing from purists, Kennedy was soon lauded by his musical peers for bringing classical music to millions of new listeners. Simply by changing clothes, he set aside an age-old stereotype.

Perhaps it’s time for a few piping-only competitions and performances to lift the ban on trousers and let the music rather than the spectacle take center stage. Unless we more regularly separate the Highland bagpipe from the kilt, the instrument may be forever unfairly connected with shortbread tins, sweater shops, and military tattoos.




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