As ithers see us

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

“To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church” is one of my favourite Robert Burns poems. The lines above, “translated” from the Scots to common English, are roughly, “Wouldn’t it be great if some divine power could give us the ability to see ourselves as others see us?”

There was a recent cartoon in The New Yorker magazine that to put the Highland pipes on the same level of abuse as the American banjo. We all know that the pipes are much maligned (mainly by those who only know them by the ear-wrecking sound of rank novices who refuse lessons, with no interest in improving, who insist on publicly displaying their inabilities – our own worst enemies), but the banjo? I always thought it added instant happiness to all genres of music, including its native bluegrass. Who doesn’t like the banjo?

The Internet and social media have made researching just about anything easy. Pick a topic and you can get a snapshot of what people think in a few keystrokes. In a sense, it gives us the power to see ourselves as others see us.

I have many continual searches set up for all kinds of things for work and piping and other hobbies, and use Tweetdeck to take a read of Twitter activity. Of course, I have a column for “bagpipe.” What’s found is generally a depressing series of jokes and abuse, often involving shoving drones up various orifices and well-worn jokes and myths about the instrument. (The one about a bagpipe originally being made from a sheep’s liver; the difference between chopping up an onion and a bagpipe – no one cries when it’s a bagpipe, and so forth).

But what about a banjo? How does the tweeting public view that instrument? Is there, as the cartoon suggests, the same level of abuse against it that we see hurled at our treasured bagpipe? Hardly. With few exceptions, and after weeding out references to Ashley Banjo, the vast majority of mentions are respectful and loving references. There are the odd mentions of hitting a cow’s backside with a banjo, but these aren’t against the banjo itself.

The accordion also seems to be mocked as an instrument. But a search of mentions on Twitter brings up pretty much nice stuff about France and bread shops and joyful ensembles. Like the banjo, there is the odd person who thinks it’s dorky but, unlike the Highland pipes, there is nowhere near the level of ignorant hatred that we endure.

I kind of hoped that a social media search of “banjo” and “accordion” would bring some degree of comfort that, yes, the pipes have common ground with a few other instruments in terms of public misperception. But, no, we might never change the thinking of the unwashed masses, and perhaps “to see oursels as ithers see us” isn’t quite so useful after all.

The 5 O’clock Tune

The British Army doesn’t already have a memorial to pipers and drummers killed in action over the country’s long history of wars? I guess I assumed that there was one somewhere, since there are so many tales of the heroism of courageous pipers, like George Findlater at the Heights of Dargai or Bill Millin at Normandy, who risked everything for the sake of motivating the troops with a tune. (And let’s not forget about the pipers and drummers killed by the English when they were fighting for an independent Scotland, but I digress.)

That there does not appear to be a record of pipers and drummers killed in conflict is also strange. After all, these soldiers were there, yes, as soldiers, but most of them carried a specific and important distinguishing role as pipers and drummers. There are probably records of orderlies killed in action, but none for pipers?

And the British Army won’t even contribute to a memorial? I can just hear it. “Well, if we do that then we’ll have to make one for orderlies, and then one for cooks, and then where does it end?”

Anyway, it’s all good. I hope enough funds are collected for a memorial cairn at Redford Barracks. But here’s a better proposal:

Build a memorial cairn for pipers and drummers killed in action, and erect it at Edinburgh Castle where so much piping history and teaching has occurred. And, like the traditional 1 O’clock Gun that’s fired from the Castle ramparts every afternoon of every day, create a tradition of a “5 O’clock Tune.” Every day of the year, like clockwork, an army piper appears at the cairn at 5 pm to play a lament.

What a great thing this would be for piping and the British Army. Hordes of tourists would collect at 5 o’clock for the daily tune. They can snap photos and perhaps even learn a little about piping and hear how a good Highland pipe sounds. The British Army can showcase how thoughtful it is, and shed positive light on one of its great traditions to, eventually, millions of people around the world.

“The 5 O’clock Tune.” The British Army can thank me later.

Downton piping

The British soap-opera Downton Abbey could just as well be about the piping world. The highfaluting British soap opera is about many things, but the core theme is a separation and then a mingling of the upper, middle, and lower classes, and the changing attitudes that resulted after World War I.

Piping was much the same. From the era when Downton Abbey takes place (1910s to the 1920s) until the 1950s, the jobs of competing pipers and drummers would look something like:

Soldier, policeman, soldier, miner, factory worker, soldier, soldier, shipbuilder, riveter, joiner, bagpipe turner, reedmaker.

In fact, in most cases the competitors had to work, while for the judges it was an option. The competitors would be downstairs while the judges were upstairs. The competiting pipers were far better players than those who judged them, who never of course competed because it would be mingling with the lower classes. Back then, adjudicators usually would be born into their wealth, or esteemed “professionals” with degrees from universities that they had no choice but to attend.

Until maybe the 1950s, when the likes of Seumas MacNeill, a university lecturer who was not wealthy and who, according to custom, should never have competed, decided that he would earn his place on a bench through competition success. It was no coincidence that Seumas was a member of the League of Young Scots, a nationalist group that preceded the Scottish National Party.

Piping and pipe band judges back then would generally be wealthy landowners, lawyers, Cambridge dons, the local laird. Often they didn’t even play, much less compete. They were members of “society” and societies, like the Royal Scottish Pipers, which today still looks to men with money and “class” over accomplishments in piping for non-honourary admittance into the group.

But gradually, that class division in piping has changed, sped up by class-unconscious countries like the US, Australia and Canada taking a big interest in the art. The wealthy American Shirley McLaine comes on the scene on Downton Abbey and simply can’t understand the class traditions. In the 1970s there was an onslaught of doctors, lawyers, and “professionals” who simply wanted to compete to the best of their ability and earn their spot in piping. The lawyer Bill Livingstone, perhaps, is our Shirley McLaine.

At the same time, former competitors like MacNeill, the Bobs of Balmoral, Donald MacLeod and Captain John MacLellan transitioned to the judging benches. Power in piping was decided by achievements rather than wealth – no doubt an ethic that MacNeill taught and instilled in students and teachers at his College of Piping.

Today, we often don’t even know what our fellow competitors do for a living. But thinking about it, I can count lawyer, doctor, actuary, professor, magazine publisher, physicist, rocket scientist, neurosurgeon, and even the Attorney General of the United States of America as fellow competitors. This would never have happened in pre-1950s UK piping.

If you take a turn around the Scottish games you can still see some holdovers from that bygone era of class distinction. Lochearnhead games clings to its tradition of having Royal Scottish Pipers Society members judge. The occasional games has a local “piper” adjudicate the jigs. For the visitor it can be an amusing diversion from reality. Witness it while it lasts.

The ridiculous and often comical class divisions of Downton Abbey are not so far removed from our own little world.

Resolutions #9

New Year’s resolutions are usually about improving on a personal shortcoming or two. Pipers and drummers have no shortage of those, since improvement and striving towards perfection is really what the competition thing is all about. We want to be the best we can be.

I like to make a resolution or two at New Year. This year it’s to listen to more live music – that is, more non-piping/drumming live music.  That and play my pipes every single day.

If you’re stuck for a New Year’s resolution, why not look to broaden your appreciation of things in the piping and drumming world? Some of us tend to put down the things that we don’t understand, or discredit what threatens us, which is completely unfair. Here are a few resolution suggestions:

  • For the person who “hates” piobaireachd – resolve to learn a piece of ceol mor, memorize it, and play it on the pipes. Start with a copy of Piobaireachd Fingerwork, earn the ceol mor rudiments and, even if you’re not a piper, understand how it works. I guarantee your “hate” will turn to appreciation.
  • For those who don’t take tenor-drumming seriously – try it. Get yourself a set of tenor mallets and learn just a bit of flourishing technique. You’ll have a more positive outlook on the difficulty of the art.
  • If you think stewarding is easy – volunteer with your association to help with a contest or two. Find out what the challenges are, and then offer to make positive suggestions to make it better.
  • Sign your real name to every online comment you make – that’s all. You’ll feel a lot better.
  • For the piper who can’t understand why his/her band lags in ensemble – pick up a pair of snare sticks and take a year’s worth of lessons. You’ll start to hear the snare work completely differently, and can help bridge the gap between sections.
  • If you think your association doesn’t serve you well enough – attend branch meetings and discover just how much spare-time work these volunteers put into trying to make things happen for members like you. Don’t have the time? First resolution lesson: be like them and make time.
  • For the person who rarely likes his/her band’s medley – try your hand at composing a tune or arranging harmony. Who knows? You might be a composer-arranger-genius in hiding.
  • Can’t understand why scoresheets don’t always have great feedback? – resolve to put on a solo piping CD, put two minutes between each track and during that time write a crit-sheet. You’ll appreciate just some of the pressure that piping, drumming and pipe band judges undergo accounting for their decisions in writing.
  • Volunteer to write an article for pipes|drums – I happen to have inside information that your story ideas are always welcomed.

The best resolutions are those that make both you a better person and the world a better place. Here’s to a happy and healthy and improved year ahead.

Tomorrow never knows

Will Highland pipes ever have a Ravi Shankar? The great Indian sitarist died last week at the age of 92 and the entire world seemed to take notice, paying tribute to his life.

But would we have ever known about him, or even the sitar itself, had it not been for the Beatles in 1960s going all guru-India, George Harrison learning to play a bit and then incorporating sitar into a few songs? Probably not.

To take nothing away from Shankar’s obvious skills as a virtuoso sitar player, but I would bet that back then and ever since there were a dozen or more sitar players just as good. Harrison more than likely heard the sitar while tripping on acid and asked the maharishi, “Hey, Sexy Sadie, who’s the best sitar player in India?”

A few paisley-clad photo ops later with Ravi imparting his wisdom to the mystical Beatle, and George Martin had no choice but to allow the sound into “Norwegian Wood,” “Love You To,” and “Within You Without You.”

As a relatively ghetto-ized ethnic instrument, the sitar is perhaps not unlike the Highland pipe. In the 1960s and ’70s the sitar might have been heard on obscure folk LPs, but it was not part of the mainstream until the Beatles attracted millions of people to embrace it.

Maybe the pipes are waiting for a similar big break. What if the biggest pop act of today decided to make a serious pitch towards the pipes? What if Coldplay or U2 or the “Gangnam Style” dude sought out the greatest piper and hung out with him in the Highlands, surrounded by media, dressed in tartan, committed to making several songs that featured the GHB?

Imagine Stuart Liddell or Roddy MacLeod or Willie McCallum tripping with the Edge or Chris Martin or PSY beside the MacCrimmon Cairn as they diligently worked together on the scale and G-gracenotes, and then produced several massive hits that brought the pipes into worldwide acceptance as a “serious” instrument.

The pipes have been used in pop music, in one-off ways. But the pipes haven’t been an ongoing part of really big pop music, not in a Beatles/Harrison manner, with a champion for the sound, becoming synonymous with the instrument, played seriously and respectfully.

Sometimes an instrument just needs a big break.


Toronto, like so many other Commonwealth-country cities, was built by many Scots. Though the city has become much more multi-cultural from the days of white Europeans settlement, a walkabout most older neighbourhoods uncovers evidence of the role that Scottish played in laying bricks and pavement, carving stones and wood.

Most days when I ride to work I go across plenty of streets with Scottish names – “Dunedin,” “Colbeck,” “Strath,” and even “Craic.” Sometimes I think these roads must have been named by homesick builders and bricklayers.

I carry on to the toney Forest Hill area, home to many of Toronto’s business elite and the neighbourhood where Aubrey Graham – much more famous as “Drake” – grew up. And every trip I ride along Dunvegan Road and, after a few blocks, turn at Kilbarry, not spelled the same as piping’s notorious Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, but it’s a confluence of streets that every time I cross it I wonder if somehow there wasn’t come piping connection back in the 1920s when these large homes were constructed.

I can’t think of a much better, or more ironic, piping crossroads as the intersection of Dunvegan and Kilbarry, but I got to wondering if other such piping and drumming road coincidences exist.

Thanks to the officious folks at Google, who kindly mapped the planet, and somehow took away from the charm and serendipity of discovering such things, here are a few others:

Maybe you have a few favourite piping and drumming roads more travelled.


I stumbled across this photo that my dad took in 1978. He snapped pictures of everything. My dad used a camera then almost like we do today in the digital age. He used slide film because it was cheaper, and he’d print only the good ones. Every few weeks he’d hold a “slide show” and force us grumpy kids to suffer through his images when we would rather be outside running reckless.

This is Christmas 1978, when Jimmy Carter was President and disco raged and computers still ran on punch cards. My father always got a photo of the presents under the tree, and you’ll maybe notice here the presence of things for my sisters, an 8-track stereo, a suitcase (?!) and a piping record – specifically an LP by Donald MacLeod. I was 15 then, and had been at the pipes for three years. I didn’t have to put piping and pipe band records on any list; they’d always just appear. (Like T.J. Eckleburg eyes, MacLeod symbolically peers over the top of boxes of model trains, the other shared hobby that my dad nurtured.)

These Donald MacLeod records were hard to find then and rare today. God knows how my dad sourced them in the days of stamped letters and “surface mail.” MacLeod made two of these records on a trip to New Zealand in the ’70s, and they had very limited release. Apart from these, I don’t believe that he made any other commercial recordings, even though he might be the most recorded piper in pre-digital history through his broadcasts and instructional tapes.

At any rate, do kids in 2012 even ask for or get piping and pipe band CDs for Christmas or their birthday? Have recordings, like photos, become so throw-away and commonplace that the sheer volume of them here, there and everywhere make them undesirable? I don’t know.

I do know that I still have those Donald MacLeod vinyl records and all of the 35,000-plus slides that my dad took and meticulously saved. I’ve scanned the slides and the records to digital formats. Gifts that keep on.


Highland pipers and pipe band drummers owe so much to . . . sheep. And it’s high time we thanked them.

The bag: nothing beats a natural sheepskin under the oxter (or so say the purists, traditionalists, superstitious, discerning or  paranoid; take your pick). Flocks of pipe bags go in and out of makers such as Begg and Bowes, and even support a rather smelly fellsmongering industry in China.

The tunes: “Shepherd’s Crook,” “Ca’ the Ewes,” and “The Ewe wi’ the Crookit Horn” (not really about sheep at all, but the inspiration’s there). We used to commemorate sheep in one way or another, but we’ve been quiet recently. Call it a silence of the lambs. Here’s a call to the Armstrongs, Sauls and Greys of the world to pay homage to these blissfully ignorant creatures that make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of all of us.

Seasoning: did you know that Airtight Seasoning is made of mostly lanolin? What’s lanolin, you might ask? It’s a by-product of sheep and, strangely or obviously, depending on your perspective, absorbs moisture . . . or something . . . making it a perfect ingredient for soaking up slavers. Sheep stand out there in the rain, seemingly impervious to a soaking. It only makes sense that this animal, which does not demand an Inverness cape, should contain a substance that makes getting wet tolerable.

Drum skins: okay, so these are no longer made from super-stretched sheepskin, but they used to be. The poor old sheep made original pipe band drumming possible, and some purists (see pipe bag above) pine for the days of rope-tensioned drums with true “skins.”

The 20 pounds of wool we must wear: Pipers and drummers, unless they come from Brittany or Pakistan, in order to compete are almost always required to don a garment from head-to-toe made from the hair of at least a small family of sheep. This is a reasonable idea when lowing a lament in the horizontal rain in the north of Scotland, but quite absurd in 40-degree heat in July in Chicago or February in Sydney. All the same, thank you, sheep, for making us so colourfully uncomfortable.

Powder Horns: Donald Cameron famously had one, and the late, great John D. Burgess acquired and jauntily sported it, only after Donald MacLeod memorialized it in one of the greatest jigs ever written.

Trophies: some of the world’s greatest piping trophies are designed somewhat bizarrely using the curly horn of a ram that ended up mutton. The overall trophy at the Glenfiddich Invitational – perhaps the biggest award in the solo piping world – is an award for the horny, who are of course turned on by piping perfection.

Haggis: let’s not forget this staple of the serious piper and drummer’s diet. While it’s completely acceptable for regular people to consume putrid hotdogs and bio-engineered Chicken McNuggets, the mere mention of “haggis” sends punters into mock-convulsive retching, even though it’s made from all-organic innards and oats wrapped in an ex-sheep’s stomach.

So let’s all say, Thank you, sheep! You make our art all the more interesting and notorious.

Spirited & lively

Scott MacAulay, 2008.Once or twice each year of judging, something indelibly memorable occurs. Yes, there are good performances that stand out at almost every contest, but I’m thinking here about events that transcend the music, when circumstances converge to make a perfectly magical merger.

I was enjoying a morning of solo competitions this June at the Summerside Highland Gathering at the idyllic Prince Edward Island when one such event was conjured.

The College of Piping is always associated with its first director, the late Scott MacAulay. Scott was a good piping friend and a wonderful piper. His personality was larger-than-life. He found the party and upside in everything, it seemed, and when his life was cut down by cancer it was a huge loss for the scene. We will always miss him.

Scott discovered piobaireachd later than most. In the 1980s, when he was into his late twenties, he found ceol mor or, rather, ceol mor found him. A product of Lewis-born parents, and someone who seemed to enjoy things Hebridean and Gaelic way more than most, even as a teenager it seemed odd to me that Scott focused only on light music and pipe bands. But in the early-1980s he dived head-long into piobaireachd.

After, say, age 18, “discovering” piobaireachd is a difficult thing to do, not because the music can’t be learned, but because your fellow competitors and adjudicators might not take you seriously. Back then, anyway, a certain amount of ceol mor capital had to be banked before the prizes would be paid in dividends.

Scott was as smart a person as you could ever meet. A canny man, one might call him. He could size up a person or an entire room in a second, and work his way in with his incredible wit and charm. One could even say that he charmed his way into piobaireachd. Within a few years he had learned enough tunes and put his musical smarts and technical skills to work his way into the prizes.

He set his sights on winning a Silver Medal, which he did at the Northern Meeting in 1985 just a few years after taking on the big music. He learned up four Silver Medal tunes, and had particular success with “Queen Anne’s Lament.” Going around the Scottish games with him that summer, that tune seemed always to be picked – so often, in fact, that we started to refer to him jokingly as “Queen Anne,” which I remember him laughing at with his unique cackle.

But back to Summerside. Not wanting to lug my piobaireachd books to PEI, I managed to borrow a complete bound Piobaireachd Society Collection from the College. It turned out, though, that the big book had belonged to Scott, with his name custom-embossed on the front and spine in Scott’s typical spare-no-expense style. There were relatively few solo competitors, and some time between each, so I decided to browse through Scott’s old book to check out a few of the tunes I remembered he had played: “Sir James MacDonald of the Isles,” “The Company’s Lament,” and, of course, “Queen Anne’s.”

And then, in the Grade 1 Amateur Piobaireachd event, young Sarah Simpson of Cavendish, PEI, submitted her three tunes. “Queen Anne’s Lament” was one. So, here’s that special confluence of serendipity: College of Piping, misty day, Scott’s book, Scott’s tune. It had to be.

As she built the tune, I found myself rooting for her to see it through, for the pipe and nerves to hold. With a terrific instrument that featured a perfectly tuned and blown high-G, Sarah Simpson delivered a spectacularly musical and almost technically flawless rendition of Scott’s best tune.

Scott MacAulay was all spirit. For 10 minutes or so on that day, on that field, at that time, with that tune, his spirit happily returned.

For the parents

The world of piping and drumming can be a strange and unusual place for the non-piping/drumming parents of young kids becoming involved with the art. As a child of a mother and father who knew nothing about the mysterious and exclusive club before allowing their boy to become involved, I recognize now how difficult it can be, even more so after teaching young pipers who are plunging into our pool of competition, decorum and tradition.

So, here are a few tips especially for the parents of young pipers and drummers who might be struggling with the decision as to whether to allow their boy or girl to continue with what will become a life-long involvement.

Piping/drumming prepares them for life. Your son or daughter will be surrounded by adults from every background, every profession, every ability. They will learn to conduct themselves in a mature way, and have the benefit of weekly interaction with very smart people. Religion or social status does not exist in piping and drumming. The music is the great equalizer. Your boy or girl is more likely to appreciate people for their skills and character, rather than discriminate or prejudge.

Piping/drumming creates lifelong friendships. Your child will meet other kids his/her age within the band, at competitions and at summer schools. These friendships will last forever. And wherever your son or daughter goes, he/she will find instant friends in the piping community.

Your child will always be “the piper” or “the pipe band drummer.” Do not underestimate the value of being in this exclusive club. It will help your kid stand apart from all of the other mundane hobbyists. Listing “bagpipes” on a university application or resume will be noticed and remembered, and virtually everyone has some sort of positive piping-related connection. It’s an immediate common-bond.

If all else fails, there’s always piping/drumming. Once your child becomes good at his/her art, it is a constant safety net. Your kid can always find paid gigs or teach beginners either part-time or even professionally. Piping at ceremonies is increasingly popular. And once your child learns rudiment-based pipe band drumming, other drumming will be easy in comparison.

Your child will learn to fail. Sounds strange, but it’s a great skill to possess. I’ve said before that even Willie McCallum or Jim Kilpatrick – winningest competitors who they may be – have had far more non-first-prizes. In our competition-based world, your boy or girl will learn to accept defeat, learn from mistakes, and work harder to be better next time. Unlike junior’s football team or dance group, there are no medals in piping/drumming for those who don’t earn a prize.

Competition is preparation for real-life pressure. Standing solo before a wizened judge can be a knee-shaking thing. Delivering when your band-mates are counting on you is even more nerve-racking. At the beginning, you might consider this unnecessary pressure for your child, but understand that each time he/she competes and improves with each event is practice for that university interview, the class presentation, the job interview or the seminar for colleagues. Once you’ve stood at the trigger at the World Pipe Band Championships, or climbed the boards at a big solo event, that real-life stuff is cake.

It’s music. Because of the competition-driven nature of what we do, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that your child is making music. It’s art from nothingness. Like fireworks, it’s beautiful for a second, and then it’s gone forever. And your kid is creating it to the best of his or her ability. Don’t ever forget that that is a true miracle more valuable than anything above.

So, I hope these points are of use to parents of young pipers or drummers delving into our little world that, once seen in a bigger view, is full of benefits for life in general.

Please please me

Show me your mother's Freudian slip.It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that solo pipers are an odd lot. A more solipsistic pastime I can’t imagine: playing for prizes that almost no one on earth – except the piper him/herself – gives a damn about. I’m not condemning it; it is what it is, as they say, and there’s nothing wrong with pushing one’s self to be the best he/she can be, whether it’s solo piping, golf or basket-weaving. It’s what we humans do, and who is anyone to get in the way of someone’s good time?

I’ve heard many very good, even great, solo competition pipers say that he or she doesn’t or didn’t actually enjoy competing. It’s a lonely and self-absorbed hobby, fraught with tension and anxiety and pressure. Even for the greatest pipers, the times that you’re first are far, far less frequent than when you’re second, third, fourth or not in the list at all.

I don’t think I ever really enjoyed competing, either. It was more like I became an adrenaline junkie, perhaps tricking myself into looking forward to each event being done, rather than enjoying the performance itself. (Yes, I know what a few of you nice people are thinking: You weren’t the only one looking forward to the end.) The blessed end would justify the means.

My daughter has been playing the piano now for five or six years. She’s getting pretty good but, like almost all kids and their instruments, she despises practicing. With luck, the correlation between playing the piano and the pure magic of making music will sink in. If not, I hope she’ll stop, but I think she’s pressing on for fear of disappointing her parents whose hearts leap up when they hear her play.

Looking back, I wonder if my raison-d’pipe was to please my dad, who absolutely cherished my piping. Again, like many children, I cruelly tried to keep him from it, and I’ll regret that forever. But I will always remember his thrill at various contests he attended when that illusive prize came my way. As a parent, I understand that feeling.

He died in 2001 (congestive heart failure), and my mother in 2003 (car crash). It was a year or so after that when my obsession with solo competition piping died, too. I’m pretty sure now that I must have in my subconscious felt like there was no one except myself left to play for, so I stopped. What was the point? I could still play with a band (in a band, your band-mates appreciate what you do), and continue to learn new tunes, play for my personal enjoyment, and do some teaching. But I think the treadmill that the boards had become got unplugged because there was no one left to please.

We pipers and drummers are psychological case studies, every one of us. The desire to please parents can make presidents, start wars and even win Clasps.

A pipe for the people?

Truly humble.The death of the “fabulous Donald MacPherson” (as Seumas MacNeill described him) was made even more poignant by the announcement of the available-for-sale of the Lawrie drones and Hardie chanter with which he won just about all of his prizes. If John Wilson’s dilapidated MacDougall drones went for $13,000, who knows what price MacPherson’s instrument will realize? $15,000? $20,000?

The truth is that the instrument is not just a bagpipe of one well-off piper’s dreams, but a historical piece that would be better shared by as many people as possible, whether as part of a permanent museum collection, or, even better, an instrument that could be loaned out to deserving and needy players.

I know that some organizations in the classical music world purchase world-class violins and cellos and then rent or loan them to artists who otherwise could not possibly afford to purchase such an instrument. Now, these instruments I believe are generally valued at hundreds-of-thousands, if not millions, of dollars. We all know that a decent violin bow can cost $10,000 or more, so the parallels with Highland pipes perhaps separate there.

But wouldn’t it be great if the late, great Donald MacPherson’s pipes could be acquired by a venerable organization like, say, the National Piping Centre, and then loaned each year to a deserving young piper? “The MacPherson Prize Pipe” could become the most meaningful award going in the piping world, making a true difference to a young player’s career. The MacPherson family could realize the value of the instrument in monetary terms that they truly deserve, but the piping world becomes the true beneficiary.

In truth, a bagpipe is only as good as the player. No one will ever again attain the distinct sound that Donald MacPherson achieved and, chances are, the highest bidder will be a player who can only dream of having the ability to walk on a professional-grade competition platform.

Donald MacPherson’s piping legacy will live in the memory of his performances, the standard he set with his sound, and the tunes that he wrote. Making his pipes accessible to deserving players would be a true reflection of his humble and giving character.


Basking.You may have heard that Vancouver recently banned Highland pipes as a busker’s instrument. Following a story in one of Canada’s national newspapers, The Globe and Mail, there was enough hue-and-cry from pipers and drummers and enthusiasts around the world – not to mention the mayor of Vancouver – that the bylaw was rescinded.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. On one hand, Highland pipes should not be singled out for being too loud, since it’s no louder than many other instruments heard on the streets. On the other hand, what person who knows and appreciates good piping would want terrible “pipers” playing in public at all, let alone for hours on end?

The stated reason for the ban in Vancouver wasn’t about the poor quality of piping, it was about the volume of the pipes. But we all know what was going on: the Highland pipes once again were stereotyped and, as the latter Globe article leads with, “likened to the cries produced by a clowder of dying cats” (which begs the questions: Who knows what a bunch of dying cats really sounds like? and, Is “clowder” really a word?!).

Since moving to Canada 24 years ago, I can’t recall anyone here saying that they dislike the pipes. In fact, they tend to rave about it. Mention that you play the pipes and Canadians inevitably drift back to a ceremony like a wedding, funeral or graduation where the pipes transported them to an uplifting and poignant place.

That’s not to say that there aren’t Canadian bagpipe-haters out there. Obviously there are a few in Vancouver. But when I busked on Princes Street in Edinburgh for several years, every day every 15 minutes or so someone would walk by holding their ears or even stop to tell me how much they hate the pipes (Yes, okay, make your jokes now about my playing, but I was essentially practicing for the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting). Members of the Lothian & Borders Police even would move me along.

I’ve remarked before that busking is about the most honourable way to make money. People will pay you what they think your skill is worth. It’s a completely venerable profession. But I do understand that any music foisted on people who never requested it can be a nuisance. Inasmuch as I dislike Muzak or loudspeakers blaring from storefronts, I can see why some don’t want to be subjected to busking bagpipers, especially unskilled ones.

Maybe the solution is for accomplished pipers, when they hear a less-savvy piper playing in public, to kindly offer to tweak their reeds, or at least give their drones a few twists. The more people hear good-sounding pipes, the less inclined they’ll be to put us down.

What musical milestones?

Smashing.I was watching the movie Superbad again the other day. Seth, played by Jonah Hill, says about some girl’s boyfriend who he can’t compete with, “He is the sweetest guy. Have you ever looked into his eyes? It was like the first time I heard the Beatles.”

The hilarious crassness of Superbad aside, people talk about moments that changed the course of music. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Clash and London Calling. Nirvana’s Nevermind. Your choices will vary.

But how many game-changing musical moments has piping had? Not those that inspired you on a personal level (we all have those), but musical moments that altered the direction of everything. It’s an interesting and debatable question. Here are a few that I would suggest.

1957 – Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band debuts selections of small strathspeys and reels – never before had pipe bands ventured outside of marching tunes or “heavy” MSRs.

1967 – Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band‘s rendition of “The Old Woman’s Lullaby” – a groundbreaking pipe band take on ceol mor, complete (or replete, as some people may still believe) with cymbals and other colouristic percussion.

1980 – General Motors Pipe Band performs a glissando, or “slide-note,” in “My Lagan Love.”

1987 – 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band, “Journey to Skye,” Balleymena, Northern Ireland – first suite by a pipe band, composed by a jazz musician, no less.

Maybe not enough time has passed yet to decide whether the Toronto Police’s 2008 “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions” should be included, but it may well be.

Interestingly, I’m having a hard time thinking of solo piping examples. Certainly many of the compositions of  G.S. McLennan and Gordon Duncan, for example, moved the art in a different direction, as have those of other tunesmiths. But by and large groundbreaking new musical artistry is made by individuals, but made famous by pipe bands. Perhaps there was a precise moment when G.S. first performed “The Little Cascade” in public. I don’t know.

And, yes, Donald MacPherson is credited with being the first to refine consistent tuning of Highland pipe, and bands like Strathclyde Police, Field Marshal Montgomery, Simon Fraser University and Victoria Police have set standards of tuning and unison, but not sure if they sent the music in a completely new direction.

What are other examples of great musical moments in piping and drumming and pipe bands that turned things upside down?

Travelling band

All the young dudes.I think every pipe band dreams at some point about doing “a tour.” The glamourous concept of the rock n roll lifestyle, hitting stops along the way, rolling into towns to do a show, partying all night, then hitting the road again for the next concert.

Hello, Cleveland!

British military bands are the only ones in our musical realm that can hit the road – they’re ordered to do so and the government coordinates the venture, which is as much about entertaining as it is about waving the flag. The problem with a civilian pipe band is, of course, no one has the vacation time to commit to such a thing. We all work for a living, and playing in the band isn’t a realistic income source.

The mythical rock n roll road lifestyle seems to have taken hold of several professional pipers and drummers (“professional” meaning they make a living from teaching and performing) for the first time with the “Pipes n Sticks on 66” tour planned for April. Mike Cole, Stuart Liddell, Jim Kilpatrick, Willie McCallum and Angus MacColl seem to be the first to make fantasy reality by tracking the famous old US Highway glamourized so often in song to get their kicks in a mini-bus, stopping along the way, fighting off the chicks and hoping a roadie or two will look after their gear.

It’s all part of our rock n roll fantasy: five guys in their forties (mostly) in search of the dream and the bleary lifestyle of the troubadour and the stories that will inevitably be told from the trip. To most, Bon Scott notwithstanding, Highland pipes are about as far removed from rock n roll cool as can be imagined, so the tour is a great story on its own. It should get a number of curiosity-seekers wondering if Stuart Liddell will play vintage Henderson Stratocaster drones.

We pipers and drummers secretly wish we could be rock stars. Instead we play mostly traditional music, clad in 20 pounds of wool, often standing in the rain on a farmer’s field before a crowd of family and bored friends. Some may shake their head at the Pipes n Sticks on 66 tour, but I think most of us deep down know that these guys are ticking off a box on their list of things to do before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

It’s the stuff that rock n roll dreams are made of.

Bling on the sound

Bulls-eye.Are pipes with more expensive ornamentation better instruments? It’s an age-old question. Bagpipe makers invariably insist that there’s no difference in craftsmanship between entry-level drones and those fully mounted in chased sterling silver, but only they know the truth.

My own feeling is that you get what you pay for and it only stands to reason that, the more a customer invests in the instrument, the more care is taken with its creation. It’s pretty much true of every industry: the luxury model generally lasts longer with fewer problems and better customer satisfaction. A manufacturer wouldn’t be around for very long if the higher-margin product – which is almost always the more expensive one – didn’t foster customer satisfaction and loyalty to the brand.

It’s probably why you just don’t see any Gold Medallists competing with a set of circa 1976 orangey-plastic-mounted Grainger & Campbell drones.

I remember one year in the 1970s when my dad – a child of the Great Depression who saved everything, collected things and always seemed to think he was one bad decision away from the soup line – took me to shop for a new car. In his lifetime, he purchased maybe three automobiles, so this was a big occasion. The model he was interested in came with a radio as standard equipment, but my father thought it was an unnecessary expense that he had no interest in buying, since he never listened to the radio, anyway.

He would only buy the car, he insisted at first, if they removed the radio. It was only when they finally got through to him that it would actually cost him more to have it taken out, since it was factory-installed. So he begrudgingly left it, in all its AM-only glory, but his stance was that all cars were the same, so buy the cheapest thing possible. He’d then spend a lot of time going back and forth to the mechanic to have problems fixed.

His compulsive frugality probably had much to do with my opposite attitude about purchases: buy the very best product that you can realistically afford, even if it means waiting until you have the money. And, until you can afford the best, make do without.

Bagpipe makers will maintain the premise that all of their instruments are created equal in terms of bores and wood quality and workmanship. It’s something of a tradition, and I wonder if it’s the right thing for them to do. The mounts on Highland pipes serve a functional purpose: ferules and caps protect and bind the wood that might otherwise crack and chip; projecting mounts are like bumpers – again protecting the precious wood. Lucky for pipe-makers, it’s a great opportunity to use different materials that vary in their blinginess.

If I were a marketing strategist for a bagpipe maker, my plan would be to include even more superior craftsmanship with the more adorned instrument. In fact, I would position the expense being for, first, the better musical instrument, and then many of the bells and whistles would be factory-installed, but a few extra “packages” could be bought. Take a page from the auto industry.

That’s not to say that my entry-level instruments would be poorly made – on the contrary. I would simply emphasize the fact that those who purchase the all-chased-silver model would also get the very best, darkest, most seasoned blackwood, made by hand by the most experienced turner or, if it’s a CNC machine spinning it out, finished with the discerning eye and talent of a recognized expert human being. A “premium” instrument is more about premium sound and performance as it is about decoration. People will ooh and ah over your 7-Series BMW, but the thing also performs like a rocket. No contest.

I’m not a bagpipe maker, and they know their target markets best. But I am a marketer, and something tells me that the traditional approach to pipe-making, in which all instruments are said to perform equally well, and pricing is only determined by decoration, might well be the wrong way about the whole business.



Crookit horns

Sweetheart . . .Why are there no pipe tunes about love with gushy titles along the lines of “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose”? Sure, we have “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart” and “The Clumsy Lover,” but the first is named after a cow and a brown hill and the latter is perhaps an unfortunate pre-Viagra-era experience.

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and I’d bet not a few tunes were composed for loved-ones and presented on the day. But I’d also bet they have bland, modest titles consisting of the lover’s name, e.g., “Donella Beaton.” “Betty Hardie.” “Lily Christie.” Zzzz.

Burns knew how to rip a good bodice now and again in his poetry, so it’s not like there isn’t a tradition of lusty overtures in Scottish art. But we pipers keep things positively Puritanical in our tunes. Like Donald MacLeod’s “Cockerel in the Creel,” we dance around the topic, rather than say what we really mean. What’s “Tam Bain’s Lum” really about, anyway?

One hears endlessly how the Highland pipes are full of passion and ceremony. We celebrate battles and commemorate deaths and marvel at ewes wi’ crookit horns (ooh-er!), but when it comes to outward displays of affection, we’re as inverted as a good cane bass drone reed. (Which reminds me of a great anecdote about synthetic reeds and, um, “marital aids” . . . )

So, let’s start with piobaireachd. There are salutes, laments, battles and gatherings – all a bit dour. “In Praise of Morag” is hardly lusty and, besides, wasn’t “Morag” supposedly Bonnie Prince Charlie in drag? I recommend we create a new ceol mor category that suggests something a lot more passionate, even suggestive, for tunes written especially for significant others. It will be our very own heart-shaped box of a tune.

But what would that be? A sonnet? A lovesong? A fawning? A stalking? Your suggestions are welcomed.

Independent thought

The indomitable Scottishry.The real possibility of an independent Scotland has been all over the news in Canada because of Canada’s similar (but not really comparable) situation with Quebec. On Facebook I see all sorts of pipers and drummers – Scottish and not – appearing to support the idea of Scotland as a nation.

I was brought up to back the Scottish Nationalist Party. My parents were close friends with James Halliday, leader of the SNP from 1956-’60. From about the age of four on my American dad kitted out me and my brother and sisters with badges, posters, stickers and t-shirts with SNP slogans with the ingenious thistle-ribbon emblem (still one of my favourite logos anywhere).

When I went to the University of Stirling for a year in 1983-’84 there was a club day. My main reason for being in Scotland was of course piping, but I figured I should try to do something else. There was a table for the university’s SNP Club, staffed by fairly radical-looking students. Clackmannanshire is a traditional SNP stronghold, and my mother was born in Tillicoultry, so I figured, what the hell, I’ll join up.

I went to a few meetings that I remember consisted of a lot of callow raving about the English and the “Westminster government.” After a month or two came the club’s election of officers. As with many volunteer groups, lots of people were nominated as president, but no one accepted.

It was then when they tried to convince me – an American – to be the president of the University of Stirling’s Scottish Nationalist Party Club. It was also then that I realized how absurd this was. I wasn’t Scottish. I played the pipes and had a Scottish mother and liked to read Hogg and Burns and Stevenson, but that was as close as I could be. I understood at that moment that I had no business getting involved with serious Scottish politics. It was the last meeting I attended.

We non-Scottish pipers and drummers tend to think we have a right to be Scottish. Because we play the Highland pipes and strap on the kilt most weekends and often visit the country and usually enjoy a dram and a bit of haggis, we make the mistake that we can get involved with Scottish politics, and fancifully support the very serious concept of Scotland as a separate nation.

A great thing about piping and drumming is that these arts are a great equalizer. Lawyers mingle with high school students. A police officer plays next to a dentist. A refuse collector can also be a genius composer. An Obama supporter can serve a member of the Tea Party as a pipe-major – and not even know it. We get along because we’re equalized by a common passion for music.

I like the notion of an independent Scotland, but I also respect the serious implications of such a move. “The indomitable Irishry” was how Yeats described his countrymen, and that has always stuck with me. But just because I play the bagpipes doesn’t entitle me to campaign for the SNP. It’s up to the real Scots to decide for themselves, and everyone else should just stick to the music.

Pass the pipe

Breeding ground.There was a time when passing around a bagpipe to let anyone who could play and who wanted to “have a tune” was commonplace. It seemed like at any informal gathering of pipers there would be a bagpipe that was going well, and no one had any reservations about having a go.

It seems like that tradition has all but died away in this era of germaphobia. Passing the pipe has fallen victim to marketing’s discovery that creating a fear of unknown and unseen bacteria, and subsequently selling all manner of “germ-killing” products from hand sanitizer to dish soap to toothpaste, has worked to kill off our willingness to share a germ-infested blowpipe and pipe bag.

I’m not sure if passing around a single instrument at a party of harmonica players or clarinetists or Jew’s harpers has ever been a thing, but I do know that it was because of the pass-the-pipe tradition that I first had the opportunity to play a really good instrument. It was probably about 1978, and the bagpipe was Gordon Speirs’ MacDougall drones and Sinclair chanter. I had been used to playing a basic set of Hardies and some sort of newfangled plastic band chanter. To be sure, the tenors were tuning about a quarter-inch from the projecting mounts, if they were tuned at all.

Suddenly, when Gordon’s MacDougalls were passed to me I had under my arm a wondrous sound alive with resonance. Relative to my hurricane-like instrument, his pipe took almost no effort to blow. It stayed in tune. I could feel each note of the chanter on my fingers. I could have played all day on that instrument, and wanted it back as soon as I passed it to the next person. I had experienced a sound that I knew I wanted to achieve.

And, as far as I can remember, I didn’t get sick from any saliva-borne disease. Because of society’s fear of germs, I wonder how many kids today miss opportunities to play great instruments.

I was recently at a party where a good-going pipe was passed around. There were several excellent players there, but there were also a few lower-grade amateurs, and I noticed one kid in particular whose eyes seemed to light up, not with fear of catching a horrible canker sore, but with the feel and sound of a well set-up bagpipe.

I’d think that in this age when synthetic bags and reeds are more common than the virtual Petri dish that is sheepskin and cane, passing the pipe would be safer than ever. I do know that, back in 1978, the only thing I caught was a lifelong addiction to achieving good sound.


Unforgettable. [Photo:Linda Graham]I read about the rock legend Peter Frampton recovering his beloved 1954 Gibson Les Paul guitar after losing it 31 years ago when he thought it was destroyed in a cargo plane crash in Venezuela. (It begs the question of why he would put it on a cargo plane in the first place if it was so beloved, but never mind.)

Most pipers I know won’t part with their instrument at any time. When away from home, they keep it by their side, closely watch it or, at the very worst, ask a trusted friend to look after it while they go to the toilet. In a beer tent, they will leave it on a pile of pipes, knowing that pipers don’t steal from other pipers. I’ve known pipers to walk away from a flight when some idiot ticket agent insists that the case must be checked.

I’ve had a few embarrassing moments in piping. Maybe the most shameful was in the early-1990s at the old Fort Erie Games. Fort Erie always had a good beer tent and the weather was always hot and humid. Add those elements to solos in the morning, a McAllister band reed in the afternoon and a designated driver and . . . well . . . you know . . . one forgets.

There was no band practice – and no practicing of any kind – the next day. Or on the Monday. Band practice was on Tuesday night and it was then that I was overcome with panic. My pipes – at the time ivory and full nickel Lawries from the 1950s – were gone. The mind raced. I don’t know about you, but when I think I’ve forgotten something really important – passport, laptop . . . anniversary – I get a weird rush of blood to the head, dizziness and a strange sick sensation.

I can’t really remember what I did after tearing apart the house looking for them, but I eventually realized that I must have left them at the games park, under the big tree where the band tuned up. I remembered that much, anyway, and figured they were gone for good. With the band practice to start in a few minutes, I figured I go along anyway, and set to take what would come.

When I got there, it was of course Ken Eller who asked me if I had been looking for the box and contents that he happened to notice and gathered up before he left – since The Captain always but always closes down a beer tent. The feeling then was the exact opposite of the losing one. I’m not usually a hugging person, but I’m sure I hugged Kenny then. Once everyone stopped laughing, all was right again in the world.

Until I tried to blow up the pipes. They didn’t seem to work. At all. Another rush of blood to the head. Clearly, Kenny couldn’t let the joke end at giving me back the pipes. He had extracted all of my reeds – which I still consider a compliment. (I’m pretty sure he returned my chanter reed back when he couldn’t manage it. More on that theme another time.)

Given the circumstances, I’m amazed that more sets of pipes aren’t lost. We hear about the concert violinist who leaves his multi-million-dollar Stradivarius in a taxi. There must be a few good stories out there about lost bagpipes and their recovery.

True-love giving

“Twelve drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping” . . . these are maybe the greatest connections to piping and drumming we have when it comes to bridging to the non-playing public. Everyone loves “The 12 Days of Christmas.” It’s the “Scotland the Brave” of Christmas Carols.

I’m not sure about your part of the world, but it seems that Christmas windows at big department stores have made a comeback in Toronto. That’s nice. I’d hate to think that kids never get the chance to gaze dreamily at the mechanized glittering windows before they become completely inured to consumerism. It used to be that department store Christmas windows were a marvel of technology; now, they’re a quaint throwback to the days of Hornby trainsets and Meccano.

The fancy Holt-Renfrew store on Bloor Street this year has a really clever series of windows that have a fashionista take on “The 12 Days.” Their interpretation of 11 Pipers Piping is quite brilliant: 10 female mannequins in plaid/tartan with “drones” sticking out of their designer handbags. Get it? Bag-pipes. (The eleventh mannequin appears to be a man smoking a pipe, to keep everyone honest, since I’d imagine about one out of every eleven Holts customers is male.)

Sadly, the 12 Drummers window is made up of mannequins in a tin soldier motif. Drummers can be many things, while pipers to most punters, at least in the western world, are Highland bagpipers. Ed Neigh said many years ago that pipe bands must be eternally grateful to drummers, who have so many other musical options, but instead chose to play in, of all things, a pipe band.

Every year you see financial calculations of how much it would cost to buy or rent the entire 12 Days. For the 12 drummers, they always seem to go with a marching band of some kind, while the cost of 11 pipers is mainly that which the local pipe band would charge for what today would often mean about half of its pipe section. I’d imagine that hiring 11 of SFU or Field Marshal Montgomery’s pipe section would set you back at least a thousand dollars, or about the price of five decent gold rings — six if you throw in both Lees and a Parkes.

Swans, a partridge in a pear tree, geese a laying – all very doable, and I’d bet you could wait around Westminster to get 10 Lords to leap on their tea break. I’m not sure what eight farm-girls go for what with the cost of their dairy cows, or if eight wet-nurses are even possible in this age and day.

“Eleven pipers piping”: a true gift to our art.

Flatten the grass

BzzzzzzBzzzzzplop . . . . . . BzzzzzBzzzzzplop  EEEEEEEELike many other people I’ve been listening to Ceremonials, the new disc by Florence + the Machine. Of course, it reminds me of a great pipe band. Florence Welch’s powerful, instant-on voice makes me think of a pipe chanter, except one with a three-octave range, multi-layered, with complex harmonies and counter-melodies textured in.

I just read that her new album has hit the number-one spot in the UK charts, so there must be a market for BIG music that carries certain sameness, and which is highly infused with Celtic style, crazy outfits and wispy heather visions of the moors. She also often uses lots of lower-toned drums, often in rhythmical, chant-like ways, which fits with the current sound of many bands.

Bill Livingstone once talked about listening to the 1980s vintage Strathclyde Police when they were “in full sail,” conjuring an image of a clipper meeting the waters head-on with wind. The pipe band-sailing ship analogy is even more apt today with much larger bands developing huge visual and sonic power.

I could see Florence + the Machine doing something with a pipe band, just as I could hear a pipe band covering one or two of her songs in a concert. Our music is often criticized by outsiders for always sounding the same with unwavering loudness and a dearth of dynamics. But there is no denying that a pipe band at its best produces impressive and beautiful energy that, as George Campbell would say, “flattens the grass.”

I’ve also read some criticism of Ceremonials, contending that the songs remain the same from track-to-track. But Florence Welch clearly works within a formula that rings true with many people. Sometime, pipe bands try too hard to be something they are not and can never be. Instead of working with what they have, they strive to overlay pipes and drums with other stuff, seemingly never content with, It is what it is.

I’m not saying for a second that there is anything wrong with that. I’m a vocal proponent of pushing the boundaries. But some artists are able to hit upon a formula without ever becoming formulaic. They recognize what they’ve been given, their limitations, and get on with making the most of them.

Awesome simplicity

Mingus.“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

“Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

The great jazz cat Charles Mingus famously said these things back in the day. He was speaking particularly about his own music; it also applies to ours.

My favourite tunes – bagpipe or other – invariably have extraordinarily simple, memorable melodies. They’re uncluttered and pure in their distinctive structure and sound. “Lochanside,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Lament for Mary MacLeod,” “In My Life,” “The Little Cascade,” “A Case of You,” “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein” . . .

We pipers play a rather complicated instrument, and many composers – especially those just starting out – seem to think that complexity is the root of cleverness. As listeners we can’t help but be impressed by our fastest-handed players doing things that we can only dream of. We associate clever with complicated.

But we’re moved by the simple. The simple stays with us. A blur of notes and impressive technicalities generally leave us cold, while pure memorable melody puts us in the mood for more.

Pipe bands have a particularly difficult time with this concept. The temptation is to impress with “innovation” rather than wow with sound. The real challenge is to present the pipe band’s complicated intricacies in a simple and meaningful manner that resonates long after the sound stops. The task is made yet harder when snare drummers are rewarded for technical rather than musical achievement, and complicated yet again when bass sections are inserted into places they’re really not needed.

Maybe it’s because our music is so simply nine notes that we strive to over-complicate it. We gild the lily. Perhaps it’s overcompensation for what we feel we lack in terms of octaves and dynamics and time-signatures, but it’s the simple, and the confidence to be awesomely simple, that sustains.


Over the sea to Rum, actually.A few weeks ago I was trying to think of my first real exposure to the pipes. I mean, the instrument, and how it works, not just the sound. My Toledo, Ohio-born father used to play vinyl records of Jimmy Shand and various military pipe bands (my Scottish mother wasn’t as keen on Scottish music aside from Burns and the odd waulking song from Barra), so I guess I had the sound rattling in my head.

But, really, it was in the third grade at Flynn Park Elementary School when I was introduced to how the bagpipe worked. (See previous post on another Flynn memory.) I would have been eight years old; a good two years before I put my hands on a practice chanter. My teacher was Ms. Durr and one day for music time we all were taught to sing something Scottish.

Extraordinarily, it was “The Skye Boat Song.” Remember, this is in suburban St. Louis – about as far removed from the Hebrides as you can get in the western world. And I knew then that it was weird but highly coincidental that we third-graders would be singing Scottish music, the stuff that my dad irritated us with on the weekends.

But here’s the thing. Ms. Durr broke the class in half. One side would sing the words and the melody, and the other side would be what she called “the drone.” This, she explained, was how the bagpipe worked. But we weren’t just any drones. No. We were wangers.

She said that the drones side would, in sort-of rhythm, sing “wang” – as in, “Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang!”

I can’t remember, actually, if I was on the wang side or the song side. In any case, I recall Ms. Durr getting the wangers going:

“Okay, wangers! Start wanging!”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Okay, now the song side! Sing!”

“Speeeeed bonnie booooat, like a biiiirrrd on the wiiiinng!”

“Keep wanging wangers!”

“”Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Onward! the saaaaiiilors cryyyy . . .”


“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Carry the laaaad that’s booorn to be kiiiiinng!”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Keep on wanging, you wangers!”

“”Ooover the seeeea to Skyyyyye . . .”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

So, this, I think, was my first real introduction to how a Highland bagpipe functions, and since I was the first piper in my family it may have been a determining moment. I remember coming home and trying to describe the experience to my parents, who reacted with a combination of humour and horror. To this day when I hear the tune I picture a little rowboat with a kid with a crown floating on top of a giant seagull’s wing and even the most perfect drones start wanging in my head.

But even though my third-grade experience with Ms. Durr at Flynn Park forever ruined “The Skye Boat Song” for me, in its way it must have influenced my desire to take up the pipes. There must be other unusual tails of inspiration to wang out there, so, Follow I’m sure you’ll dare.

Living salute

We pipers and drummers all too often pay tribute to those who contribute only after the person’s left us and we realize that it’s too late to show him or her the appreciation we have for the life-long contribution to the art. That’s not something unique to the piping and drumming world, of course, but perhaps we’re too caught up too often in our own competitive concerns to acknowledge the work of others.



The Georgetown Highland Games in Georgetown, Ontario, on June 11, 2011, was a rare exception. One of the games organizers had the good idea to pay tribute to Bill Livingstone and his nearly 50 years of work and accomplishment in the art. A few folks put the word out only a few days before the event, asking anyone who might be at the event who had played under Bill over the years to participate in a tribute at the massed bands ceremony at the end of the day.

A good number of folks gladly stepped up, and, led by new 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe-Major, Doug MacRae, played a mass rendition of “Lord Lovat’s Lament” and “The Mason’s Apron,” two tunes closely identified with Livingstone.

It was one of the nicer gestures I can remember seeing by the piping and drumming community. There are life memberships and posthumous tributes and trophies and things, but I would think an actual playing tribute is about as meaningful as it gets for someone who’s committed most of his life to the art, and, better yet, is around to hear it, still living strong.


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