Ya gotta go
The first summer that I went to Scotland to compete was 1983 as a wide-eyed 19-year-old. I somehow made my way around the country to compete at various games until I had to start my third university year in Stirling.
Montrose was the first contest I ever played at in Scotland. It was a hot day and the competitions were held on the links course. My bass drone stopped while I was tuning in one event, so I figured I’d just shlump off, not knowing the protocol, which was, I was told by a prominent piper there, like any other place: “take it out, flick it, and resume tuning.” Hmmm. This place was no big whoop. I was on my way.
Really memorable was the Skye Gathering. I can’t actually remember how I got there, but it must have been by train and bus. Here was an event where some of my piping heroes were actually competing at or judging. Iain MacFadyen was still competing then, as were John MacDougall, Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald and Gavin Stoddart. I was amazed that the Scottish system allowed me to compete against these iconic folks, and I’m still amazed that today any piper older than 18 can compete against Clasp-winners at most Scottish events.
But a vivid memory of that day was actually in the toilet at the Skye Gathering Hall. I was, um, relieving myself, when the great John D. Burgess sidled up in the, um, urinal, beside me to do the same.
Good God. Talk about stage fright. John D.’s LPs were what I played constantly as a learner-piper. The old blue-covered album he made in the late 1950s was in constant rotation at my house, me listening to his inspiring playing of “The Hen’s March,” “Parker’s Welcome to Perthshire,” and, most of all, “Lament for the Children.”
Later I got my hands on his records with him on the cover festooned with medals, powder horns and of course a sporran that looked like Dolly Parton’s wig. Man, this guy was the Willie Mays of piping, and now he was peeing right next to me!
Well, I got over it, but I couldn’t wait to tell friends that John D. Burgess actually was willing to share a toilet with me at the Skye Gathering Hall. But what Montrose and Portree served to tell me was that solo piping and pipers everywhere operate pretty much the same. If your bass stops, take the reed out and give it a flick, and even the greatest pipers put their kilt on two legs at a time.