The pipe band uniform doesn’t exactly put pipers and drummers at the cutting edge of high fashion. There can’t be many of us that take up the instrument so that we can walk around wearing all the kit – dead animals for pockets, the world’s scratchiest socks and ten tons of wool that on a rainy day smells like the wrong side of a boxer’s jockstrap. Even in Scotland, the kilt, with all its associated paraphernalia, can leave us open to scrutiny or even ridicule. You can’t walk down the street without stares, whistles, or someone shouting out “kilty kilty cauld bum.”
Yet tartan and all things Scottish are becoming increasingly cool around the world. Kilt makers are experimenting with new patterns and materials. The kilt shops in Edinburgh are all about leather, pin stripes, saltires and lion rampants, modeled by chiseled Adonises. Even Madonna’s been in on the act with the long kilt look.
In our little pipe band world, we are in danger of becoming dated. We have an established look and very little has changed over the last century. When it does change, the pace is glacial. A stylish new tie is about as racy as it gets.
Yet in the past we have considered ourselves the doyens of kilt fashion. We look down our noses at those – typically expats – who revel in wearing the most garish Ancient Boke of Caledonia tartans. My old band colleagues used to have great fun having their photograph taken with anyone who went for the Mel Gibson in Braveheart look – all covered in pheasant feathers, road-kill sporrans, with a tartan tablecloth wrapped around their hips and over their shoulder. Each year at the band dinner there was a slide show and everyone voted for the most outrageous dresser who won the title “Dink of the Year.”
However, it wasn’t that long ago that bands were competing in number-one uniform complete with horse hair sporrans, feather bonnets, spats, cross belts and plaids. I’ve worn that gear before, and could hardly move, never mind keep a pipe bag up under my arm for more than 30 seconds. It’s bad enough now trying to navigate the port-a-loos, but I couldn’t imagine doing it back then.
I recall one unfortunate band colleague at the games wondering why he was getting so much mud on his spats, only to realize that he’d sat down in the Port-a-loo with his plaid dipped in the bowl. It took him a few years to admit to everyone what had happened. How we laughed until we realized that he had been the band’s quartermaster in charge of the kit and had simply replaced his old plaid with a new one. None of us were that keen on the number-one kit after that.
Pipe bands were still wearing white socks, long after Crocket and Tubbs and the Miami Vice look of the 1980s lost its cool. It’s amazing that we’ve moved on at all from those days. Back when all bands still wore white socks I remember a very well-known pipe-major, clearly a fashion visionary ahead of his time, suggesting that the band should change the colour of its socks to complement the tartan. This was a move that really would set the band apart, making a statement that it was different.
There was almost a mutiny.
People thought the band would become a laughing-stock and threatened to leave to shouts of “over my dead body!” Coloured kilt socks were the preserve of the much less cool solo player. What next? We’d all end up looking like piobaireachd players; the sort of pipers who go to summer schools and mix heavy knit woolen socks with Jesus sandals. Quite what the logic is that mixes the summer heat with the world’s warmest socks, and sandals to keep the feet cool, is beyond me. Next we’d be growing facial hair on the tops of our cheeks and wearing Harris Tweed kilt jackets made from the coarsest camel pubes.
Well the piobaireachd look is the future of fashion in piping. And that’s not coming from me as a lover of piobaireachd. That’s from the coolest man on the planet. When in New York on a trip with the band, we played at a publicity event at which none other than Henry Winkler, “The Fonz,” was the star turn.
This man was so cool he even managed to ignore the assault on his senses that met him when confronted by 30 Scotsmen who’d been enjoying all that New York had to offer – by which I mean that we did what all good Scots do when they’re abroad: we hung out in a Scottish bar drinking pints of Tennent’s. On spotting a friend of the band, resplendent in his Harris Tweed kilt jacket, The Fonz took one look at him, stretched out his hand to feel this beautiful green fabric and proclaimed, “That is a cool coat man!”
Iain Speirs at least the third generation of piping Speirses to don a road-kill sporran, which hasn’t hindered him becoming one of the world’s solo greatest pipers, with a raft of Silver Chanters, Gold Medals, and two straight Glenfiddich Championships to his name. He lives in Edinburgh, busy teaching his two young children just who The Fonz is, or was.