I am a Highland Bagpipe player or piper in street talk. It is an instrument with which I have had a love-hate relationship for almost forty years now. For the longest time I wondered what might have gone through my parents’ minds when, at eight years of age, I loudly proclaimed my overweening desire to begin lessons immediately. That is, until I mused lately on the fact that both of my sons are rock drummers. I’m sure that bears at least some resemblance.
The Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB) as it is called by the musicology muck-a-mucks is an instrument uniquely designed to be heard. A perfect wake-the-dead alarm, they have been used for centuries to alert clans of forthcoming gatherings, oncoming battles and soon coming dignitaries. A piper on a hill is not just a cliché or quaint tourist post card. It does in fact typify much of bagpipe history. Moreover, as either clever tactic or cruel joke (depending upon whether one is a piper or not), the bagpipes were always the first line of defense in any conflagration. Apparently, troop commanders figured they could simultaneously amuse, entertain and confuse their enemy with a burly, red-haired, stumpy man in a dress, himself attacking the weapon of choice and tossing note after screaming note at them as a monkey flinging musical feces.
Like an octopus missing some legs the GHB consists of three drones – a bass and two tenors; a blowpipe through which ample air must pass into the bag acting as reservoir for this purpose, and a chanter that accommodates fingers eager to surprise the world with music both raunchy and wild, pristine and sweet. Heard under a best-case scenario in which all of the varied factors of its engineering converge successfully and wielded by someone with a modicum of experience lassoing them into submission, it is undoubtedly the most mystically beautiful thing I’ve yet heard. However, the usual encounter of the average passerby is a rather less than desirable auditory experience not unlike a grumpy orangutan humping an unsuspecting cat on the rush-hour freeway after a losing football game. That said, I confess such a description as that which I have yet to see.
Yet, it is what many might actually prefer when they hear this baffling instrument. It is, under any circumstances, an instrument that, like a crying baby on an airline, demands center stage. It is a sound that captured me even as a boy of seven years old. I well recall my first visceral experience with the bagpipe.
I grew up in a tiny bungalow in Calgary, Alberta the adopted son of a brewery worker and his house-wife, my mother. As I, along with my younger brother and sister, continued to grow, it became abundantly apparent that our consistent brushing of shoulders would only lead to inner-family disaster. My father set about building me a bedroom in our not-quite-finished basement. For some fifteen years to follow it would be my sanctuary – my monastery and the place where I found music, booze, girls (don’t mention that to my parents, they only know about the previous two) and ultimately salvation.
The spring before my eighth birthday I moved in. Kismet. I was also sick as a dog. My parents in true devoted fashion brought me hot soup, books (I’m a total nerd) and best of all, a TV to help wile away the hours spent in sniffly, coughing boredom. Changing channels one afternoon I happened upon a presentation of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an annual display of pomp, circumstance, bright lights, booming cannons and bagpipes – lots of bagpipes. It is filmed live at Edinburgh Castle. From the very first sound I was hooked. I cried through the entire thing, later asking my parents if I could learn to do what I had just seen but thought I had dreamed.
A love affair had begun.