February 23, 2024

Andrew Wright’s extraordinary two weeks in Southern California – Part 1

Andrew Wright, 2016.

In May 2016, 80-year-old Andrew Wright travelled from his home in Dunblane, Scotland, to Riverside, California, a distance of more than 5,100 miles that took more than 24 hours to complete.

The renowned master of piobaireachd, at the invitation of the school, spent two weeks teaching, discussing, and performing ceol mor for students at the University of California, Riverside. Twenty miles southeast of Los Angeles, UCR has an enrollment of about 22,000 and a solid Scottish tradition. Its sports teams are called the Highlanders, and the school supports more than one pipe band.

Ian Whitelaw

Until he retired a few years ago, the well-known award-winning piper Ian Whitelaw was the music director of UCR’s pipe bands and a lecturer on bagpipes and Scottish music for 15 years.

Born in Manchester, England, he and his family moved to Canada when he was three, settling in Hamilton, Ontario. He would play with the Grade 1 City of Toronto and Erskine pipe bands before he moved to Vancouver in the late 1970s, joining Grade 1 Triumph Street.

Ian Whitelaw eventually settled in Redondo Beach, California, in 1979, living an idyllic life in Southern California for the next 40 years. He was a front-rank piper with the Grade 1 LA Scots and Simon Fraser University pipe bands, and played for a few seasons with the New Zealand Police, gaining a reputation worldwide as a supreme soundman with a keen ear for tuning and tone.

His competitive solo piping career was deep, gaining prizes throughout North America and in the major solo competitions in Scotland.

Ian Whitelaw (left) being presented with the Banner of the Mountains (Bratach nam Beann) for piobaireachd at the annual Couer d’Alene, Idaho, summer school by Andrew Wright.

After meeting him in the 1970s, Whitelaw became a devotee of Andrew Wright through the annual summer schools in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and other workshops. For over four decades, Wright was Whitelaw’s mentor in piobaireachd and a close friend in life. Though 5,000 miles apart, the two spoke almost daily, discussing piobaireachd and all things piping and more general matters of living, as close friends do.

“I asked Andrew if he had a photographic memory, because I never saw him look at a book. Ever. He said, ‘Well, I don’t know if I have a photographic memory, but once I learn a tune it’s mine forever.'” – Ian Whitelaw

At the University of California, Riverside, Professor Ian Whitelaw taught a Music of Scotland course that included canntaireachd and classical music and was the ensemble director of the pipe band and the bagpipe degree program. UCR students could actually get their music degree with a piping major.

Ian Whitelaw in Southern California.

After retiring three years ago, he moved to Bellingham, Washington, to be closer to his two daughters and grandchildren.

As Whitelaw was nearing the end of his time at UCR, he decided that it was time to bring Andrew Wright to Riverside. He convinced the powers at UCR that a fortnight with the piobaireachd master would be an excellent use of funds.

The result was full-on piobaireachd immersion for Whitelaw and his students. They listened to Wright’s words and heard his music through canntaireachd and piping performances.

Andrew Wright passed away in 2022, leaving a legacy of piobaireachd teaching and study that positively impacted the music and its performance. Part of that legacy is his time in Southern California, about as far removed from Borreraig on the Isle of Skye as can be imagined.

We were pleased to connect online with Ian Whitelaw to discuss the experience and gather several video pieces that help communicate what went on for those two weeks in May 2016 at the University of California, Riverside.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our conversation with Ian Whitelaw and a few very special and exclusive pieces by Andrew Wright himself.







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