September 06, 2011


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.


  1. As a lad in Scotland there was a piper lived on the second floor of our building and when he went out in his kilt we as kids would serenade him with “Kiltie, Kiltie cauld bum” so I arrived in Canada with no thoughts either way about the GHB. However when Memorial day came around our first year in Canada my father, brother and I stood on the kerb as a legion pipe band passed by and I was shocked to see a tear in my taciturn, Scottish father’s eye. That the sound of the pipes affected him that deeply led me slowly into a love affair with the instrument, the music and the whole bloody thing.

  2. My first exposure to bagpipes was also via vinyl records that my father bought in England in the early ’50’s. As I recall, the records were not just full of piping, there was singing too. No one in my family played bagpipes or celebrated anything of a Scottish nature. To this day I have no clue why the sound of the bagpipe captured my imagination at the age of 10.
    It was much later that I learned the reason we had the bagpipe records was due to the fact that my father, a US Army veteran was visiting a British Army friend whom he met and fought with in World War 2. Both were in “Operation Torch” the amphibious invasion of North Africa in November, 1942. As my dad’s landing craft approached the beach, he heard a piper playing and promised himself if he survived the war, he would learn them. He never learned but I hope he was proud of my learning to play.

  3. I was drawn to the instrument and its music by an aunt and its her story that is quite inspirational. As a child, she liked to blow air into her cheeks and hold it there. Her siblings would come along and with a slap on each cheek with their hands, force it out. But she kept filling up her cheeks with air and holding it there. Next time a tramp visited, my grandmother asked him if he’d any tin whistles among his preens, and sundries, and she bought a whistle for Mamie. When times got tough in the 1920s for the coal miners, some of them came walking across the hills in search of piece work on the shepherds places. One such job-seeker happened to be the Pipe Major of the Cumnock Pipe Band. On seeing what Mamie could do with her whistle he promised to bring a practice chanter with him next time. He did, and gave her a lesson at the same time. They came to an arrangement whereby every time a drove of hogs was being taken the 14 miles over the hills to Cumnock to the market, she and her sister would walk with the herd, stay a night with the Pipe Majors family and have lessons while there, and get back home the next day with the herd and whatever sheep he was bringing back across the hills. I think she was about 8 when her mother noticed the air in the cheeks and bought the whistle, and she was still playing her pipes the day she died, aged 93, in 2003. I’ve always thought it a great example of how if you observe a child very closely and take their habits seriously, they’ll tell you themselves what they are inclined towards–instrument-wise, as well as in other ways.

  4. CRM — no, I was more a man for Ms. Vandevort at that age. But she got pregnant and that was that. By her husband, I mean.
    Speirs — oh, there are more like this if I think hard enough. But none that involve a wee wang, which is of course only a normal thing to do and nothing to be ashamed of. WOFTT.

  5. My first exposure to bagpipe music came in about 1960, when my mother took me to see a film called The Buccaneer, with Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston. It’s about Jean Laffite, and the Battle of New Orleans. Brynner played Laffite, and Heston played Andrew Jackson. I was four years old. In the big battle scene, the Brits come marching through the fog with rockets firing overhead, and led by several kilted pipers. I was duly impressed. I loved the sound immediately, and wanted to learn to play them. Not a lot of pipers in southern Arkansas in the early 60s though. We moved to Denver in 1965, and there were bands there. The Highlander Boys was a sort of private paramilitary organization that had a band, but we didn’t have the $2000 it cost to join. I occasionally heard pipe bands in parades, but it never occurred to me to ask a piper where to get lessons. It would have been like asking God where to go to get religion. Finally, at the age of 39, and after many years as a guitar player (The Beatles got to me first), I decided if I didn’t learn to pipe right then, I never would, so I asked around and found a band that taught adults, and I was on my way. Now I play every day, and hear pipes around me constantly as we have the pipe band here at the college. In a touch of poetic justice, shortly after E-bay came on-line, a costume company put costumes from The Buccaneer up for auction, and I acquired one of the red piper’s tunics from the movie for $50. It hangs in the closet at home, and one of these days I’ll put it on a mannequin in the living room, with a kilt and some Argyle hose.



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