October 09, 2022

Boiling over: for the sake of better music and good health, we need to change what we wear

Wool-clad competitors huddle under available shade at a typically parched Highland games.

15.5 pounds.

That’s the weight of typical “Highland dress” – when it’s not soaked in sweat. We know because we weighed it. (And that wasn’t while carrying a five-pound bagpipe or 10-pound drum.)

The facts show that the world is getting hotter, and this summer in the northern hemisphere, we’re seeing pipers and drummers competing in record temperatures having to wear 15+ pounds of thick wool and leather. At the same time, spectators are donning the lightest brimmed hat, t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops they can find.

What is wrong with this picture?

It’s interesting to us that when pipe bands perform in non-competition events like concerts and parades, they readily swap their woolly attire for polo shirts and ball caps. The notion that we must wear “proper” Highland dress goes out the window.

To get this straight, we are required to wear full Highland dress, replete with strangling necktie, vest and jacket, brimless thick wool hat, wool socks and military-style brogues when competing because it’s respectful of the audience and the “show.” Yet, when it’s an actual show, we wear t-shirts and baseball caps?

What’s more, we strip down to casual attire more conducive to comfortable playing and better delivery of the music . . . and the audience could care less, even loving seeing us in more normal light.

It’s important not to mistake any of this for lack of respect. As we repeatedly prove in parades and concerts, we can be comfortable and still respect the audience, and they will respect us in return.

Our current woolly get-up evolved from a pastiche of Victorian military uniforms explicitly designed for the rainy, cold Scottish climate and the pageantry that pleased Queen Vic. This was eventually melded with a version of civilian “daywear,” also designed for cool, damp Scottish conditions.

Scots Guards World War II desert uniform.

Yet, if we look at the British military more than a century ago, they decided that Scottish troops in Borneo, South Africa, India, or Egypt would have a uniform that was more conducive to operating in oppressive heat. And wherever soldiers were, they needed a uniform that would, at the very least, not hinder them from getting the job done.

Could you imagine today’s soldier dressed head to toe in thick wool while doing battle? That, in effect, is what we demand of pipers and drummers competing with incredibly finicky and physically demanding musical instruments. 

So, if the pipe band uniform derives from the military, shouldn’t we also try to accommodate pipers and drummers performing intricate music on fickle and physical instruments with attire that doesn’t hinder comfort and musical excellence or go against the recommendations of healthcare professionals?

Competitors sometimes mistakenly think an adjudicator will judge them more favourably if they’re well turned-out in the typical tartan garb. That is not true – or, at least, that should not be true. Piping, drumming and pipe band judges don’t critique costumes; they’re there to assess music and only music.

If pipe band associations are there to promote the music, then they should change their antiquated rules on what to wear:

  • No more air-constricting neckties are required.
  • Headwear can include ball caps or brimmed hats, or none at all.
  • Wool socks, flashes, brogues, etc., can be replaced with comfortable shoes and socks.
  • Lightweight polo shirts are welcome.

Even the wool kilt is up for debate. Why not leave it to the discretion of the competitor to wear a traditional kilt, tartan trews, or even a utilikilt or cotton tartan shorts?

Well, maybe not tartan shorts, but you get it. Even the Scottish regiments wore khaki shorts in desert conditions. 

“Highland dress” is a misnomer, anyway. Nothing about our current attire is typically worn in the Scottish Highlands. If anything, Highland wear would be more about a Barbour jacket and wellies than a seven-yard worsted wool kilt and a vest that makes us look more from the waist up like a taxi driver than a serious musician.

There’s also the matter of health and safety. It’s bad enough that associations and competitors ignore experts’ advice to avoid physical exertion on 35-degree days, but to then require them to wear the equivalent of winter woolies is just plain stupid.

It’s important not to mistake any of this for lack of respect. By all means, wear the “traditional” kilt ensemble at formal functions or where it’s conducive to playing well, wherever that might be. Nothing should stop a band from wearing the traditional wool and leather garb on a roasting day. Go ahead. But why would any serious musician choose to do that when an outfit that’s conducive to playing well is permissible?

As we repeatedly prove in parades and concerts, we can be comfortable and still respect the audience, and they will respect us in return.

So, why not do that and play music even better at the same time?

What do you think? You can contribute your thoughts and opinions using our Comments tool below. 


  1. I don’t really agree. While I do sometimes see positives for evolution and adaptation, concert formation option for Medleys is an example, I don’t think this is that big of a deal. Bands typically have a variety of uniform options and mine probably has around 5, including a short sleeve shirt which could be worn without a tie if it’s really that hot out. I only wear my glengarry when I’m performing and many pipers and drummers do the same, tucking their glen in their kilt or putting it in their case and donning a baseball cap when not playing. As for ghillies and wool hose? My ghillies are quite comfortable, I can wear them all day without any pain or discomfort and the wool hose breathe and keep my feet pretty dry even on a long hot day. There’s nothing wrong with respecting traditions and dressing the part.

  2. Off the bat I don’t entirely agree
    I just LOOOVE the debate.
    Please more competitors with knowledge and experience
    toss your hats into the ring.
    Change for the sake of change is PROBABLY wrong
    NO change at all is SURELY wrong.
    Great topic

    1. I completely agree. In fact it needs to go further. In this day and age why should we be sweating our cods off with the exertion of blowing bagpipes in 40 o C global warmed Scottish summers? It should be all about the dexterity of the fingers, not the physical fortitude required to blow a bagpipe in the blazing sun. Bands should have the option to play electronic pipes, hooked up to amplifiers and speakers (solar powered obviously) dragged behind them in a small shopping trolley, tied to the tails of their tartan Hawaiian shirt by a short length of waxed hemp.
      If it’s too warm for the tartan shirts and beach shorts, uniforms should be something akin to tartan versions the outfits worn by beach volleyball players. Alternatively, given that highland warriors would often ditch the feileadh mor before charging into battle in the scud, bands should have the option to remove the kilts at the line and march into the circle au natural. Of course given the strong sun that will mean a lot of sunblock will be needed, but since the band tuners will no longer have a role due to the use of electronic pipes, they can be redeployed to lube the bandsmen up with factor 50 in the final tuning ring.

    1. One of our band’s major local events is in mid-August, and our leadership this year required us to put on the full competition dress “for presentation.” As a midsection drummer, I’m getting enough of a cardio workout–I don’t want the extra sweat. I do what I’m told, though. And to be honest, even the June and September contests can be toasty.

  3. Instead of completely forgoing traditional highland dress, it seems the obvious first step is to simply forgo the long sleeves and vests which almost every band wears of it’s own choice. No one is forcing us to wear that. That, in and of itself makes a notable difference. Also, I think that hats could become optional and no one would really care. I could also see a band logo polo looking sharp as a more casual look.

  4. A reasonable suggestion is to hold more events under the shade. This year’s Alma Highland Games in May, for example, literally had no shade and we were all terribly sun-burned. It took lots of enjoyment from listening to the band music. The Chicago Game was a little better and at least there was some decent shade along the lake. More shade and not less clothe may be a easier solution.

    1. Another suggestion is why not to have the competitions in the beer tent. Have some good beer while listening to some great music. The players will also get some much needed shade.

      1. I do agree with this. I have competed in 50 degree Celsius weather on an early August day and watched player after player complain of heat exhaustion, dehydration, and just generally wilt into the shade after a play. Ties come off, hose come off, and ghillies come off until it’s time to play again, as we all languish in the general moistness of the day. On cool day in spring, summer, or fall? We’ll the whole shebang. I like wearing it all! But on these blisteringly hot days? It is never worth someone’s health to win a contest because you’re turned out well. Let us compete in comfort.



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