By Iain MacDonald, Regina
[Originally published in the old print Piper & Drummer magazine in March 2005, the precursor to pipes|drums.]
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
[Shakespeare; Richard III]
Richard III should’ve tried a winter of discontent in Saskatchewan. Here, the winter of our discontent is enhanced by the early daffodils in Vancouver, the soon-to-blossom cherry trees along their city streets, and reports of Highland games well underway in the sunny southern states of the USA. Saskatchewan registered the coldest temperature on the planet recently. You can practically hear blackwood cracking at band practice, and the reeds that played so robustly in the summer are but shriveled tonal skeletons of their former selves, clever containers notwithstanding.
Casting an eye back and forth at the same time, we see what has just past, and what is to come, as we survive yet another winter of piping hilarity in Saskatchewan.
Hogmanay, the traditional Scottish celebration of New Year is now well past. Pipers awoke from their holiday sloth to get the pipes out for a blast at New Year. This custom is very important in many parts of the world, and especially in Saskatchewan. It proves the piper’s unshakeable faith in the powers of alcohol and haggis to make the hands work in any conditions, and it proves that sheepskin, simulated elk hide, Gore-tex, rubber duckie bags, plastic and carbon fibre can all sound crappy in the cold.
Just when head clears from Hogmanay, we lurch into preparations for the annual round of Burns Suppers. This is when people everywhere don Highland dress, play Highland bagpipes, and Highland dance to celebrate the life of a Lowland poet who spoke a different language, wore trews his whole life, and whose main attraction to the Highlands was a lassie named Mary.
Still, facts aside, it’s a great night for all Scots, and pipers play a special role in these celebrations. You’ll be called upon to “pipe in the haggis,” or possibly the head table . . . or both! Following that, you must drain a quaich of really cheap bar scotch, and pretend that it was a rewarding cultural experience. The big question as you fire up the bagpipe for your annual trip to the head table: Is it heavy or light D-throws this year in “A Man’s a Man?” If you’re really unsure, start a new topic on the Bagpipe Forum [the now dead wretched early online cesspool for anonymous haters], and the world’s top 5000+ experts will be there with the answers.
My first experience at a Burns Night was at the Legion in Regina, when I was about 10. My mother gave the reply to the “Toast to the Lassies” and I was there with the junior pipe band. I remember . . .
two things very clearly about that night. One was the gentleman who’d wet his grey wool trousers, and either was unaware or didn’t care. He swirled and twirled on the dance floor, with a great spreading wet mark heading toward his knees.
The other clear memory is a visit to the men’s washroom, where one of the band dads was on his knees fishing in the toilet with his hands. He’d been sick, flushed, and was trying to get his false teeth back. Robert Burns, himself no stranger to the excesses of drink, may have had this kind of incident in mind when he wrote:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us.
Now there’s a cultural experience that’ll mark you for life. I’ve been to many Burns Suppers since that night, and none have left me with such clear images as that first experience. A close second might be the time the bass drummer for the “O’er the Hill Pipe Band” fell onto his back during the warm-up, but even that memory fades compared with the original Burns Supper.
February in the piping calendar is mostly spent making up to people you may have offended at either Hogmanay or Burns Night . . . or both! If you haven’t been too offensive, then February is a great month to finally learn the new band music, get your solo tunes finalized, and start planning your summer activities. The University of Stirling sends out its enticing brochures in February, in the hopes that you and your band will be staying with them in August. Of course, you’ll miss the Piping Festival [now Piping Live!], the recitals, the SLOT concert . . . but no worries: the ducks are really nice in that pond in the middle of the campus, and that Tesco is the best shopping in Scotland.
Early in February, we have the Saskatchewan version of “Celtic Connections.” I’ve heard it suggested that in fact Celtic Connections was based on the much older “Mid-Winter Celtic Festival.” You can pretty much hear the conversation:
“Oh aye, we cannae afford the band from Regina, so Shotts or Scottish Power ‘ll have t’dae.”
“Aye, and we’ll save a few bob havin’ local bands: Black Rose, Shooglenifty . . .”
In Saskatchewan, of course, we have the real thing, and not only that, we provide a venue that is actually warmer than the outside temperature. Nothing like hitting the Celtic Festival on a cold winter night, and waiting ten minutes until the fog clears off the glasses.
In our part of the world, February is the month of the Winnipeg Scottish Festival. Essentially, this is a cruel trick on judges from Florida, Ontario, California . . .
and even Scotland. They get invited here to freeze their hindquarters and slip around on icy sidewalks while wearing brogues. The contest is inside, of course, so you are either deafened by the crash of drums and so many dried-out bagpipes in one room, or you catch your death walking to the pub. This is also the contest where total professional prize money if you win all three events is $75, and the entry fees are $12 per event. You do the math. Still, it’s a great “ice breaker” for the season.
March brings the most celebrated Scottish day in North America: St. Patrick’s Day! St. Patrick came from Scotland, right, so that’s why all over the world, Scottish bands, playing Scottish tunes and instruments, get called up to play. Hey, if they don’t ask, I’m not telling. That’s my policy. Every year, our band makes three or four days out of this, and there’s always at least one puzzled – possibly sober – bar patron who says, “So . . . I don’t get it. Why are all these Scottish bands out on St. Patrick’s Day?”
Faith and begorrah! Who cares?! Get your green vest, a green tie, and some sparkly Irish party wear, and off you go! If you start with “Minstrel Boy,” and finish with jigs. “It’s all good,” as the kids say. There are a few cautions for this one, however. St. Patrick’s Day has started to take on the flavour of big urban festivals, where people wear masks and costumes and get away with behaviours that would be criminal code offences on other days. Also, bar owners seem to think there is something appealing about gassy draft beer with green food colouring. No matter how festive you feel – don’t drink the green beer.
So great has been the draw of these Scottish events, that even the Irish are having them now! Dublin has tried to re-capture its own event by hosting the St. Patrick’s Festival, and you’d best check out St. Paddy’s Day in Russia. If your band is looking for that really special St. Paddy’s Day gig, maybe Moscow, Seoul, or Munich is where you need to go?
Q: What’s green, two miles long, and has an ass every three feet? A: Any St. Patrick’s Day parade.
The spring months fly past in a whirl of indoor contests, first attempts at new medleys, and breaking in the new piobaireachds. We labour to get the green dye out of the system, and to subdue memories of green pancakes, green muffins, and lashings of . . .
soggy cabbage and fatty corned beef. Eventually, it happens. We emerge butterfly-like into the spring air, green grass, flowing water and a certain snowstorm on the May long weekend at the Regina Highland Games. Okay, I exaggerated. Last year it was only freezing rain.
Ah, well, this is what makes us live long on the prairie, or flee to gentler climates. This abusive climate has been very good for other bands and piping organizations across North America. Consider how many ex-Saskatchewan players have crept out into the bigger, warmer world. Currently [written in 2005, remember], SFU, Alberta Caledonia, Toronto Police, Peel Police and the 78th Highlanders (Halifax) all have Saskatchewan players. Two of those bands have Saskatchewan pipe-majors.
Ever thought about where John Fisher got his start? Can you pronounce “Saskatoon?” Don’t let that west coast cool fool you – John’s brogues have prairie dust all over them. There is, for a’ that and a’ that, something beyond a good drink at Burns Night for a Saskatchewan player who wants to go places.
For those of us who stayed, or were foolish enough to return, the end of May signals the real potential end of winter. You can be about 90% certain that winter is over by June. An old joke says Saskatchewan has 10 months of winter and two months of bad sledding. It’s not really a joke – it’s a coping mechanism.
Nevertheless, we prepare for the outdoor season in Saskatchewan, which lasts exactly one weekend. Yes, the one with the snow and/or freezing rain. We emerge from our winter of discontent into the glare of our summer of discontent, wherein we must travel to other places to get a game, to feel the pulse of a piping culture, to re-live the Donnybrook Fair at each beer tent along the road.
March on, join bravely, let us to’t pell-mell
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.
[Shakespeare; Richard III]
“Iain MacDonald, Regina” has been a contributor to this magazine since at least the 1990s. He’s the Pipe-Major of the Grade 2 City of Regina Pipe Band.