The Scottish Parish of Piping


by Michael Grey
Piping Today #53, 2011.

It’s that time of year when Scotland is especially magnetic for travellers.

Games season, the big pipe band championships and August’s Piping Live! festival all do their bit to attract pipers and drummers from all over. I was 20 when I first visited Scotland and almost embarrassed to say I’m not really sure how many times I’ve visited. Let’s just say I’m pretty sure my mortgage would’ve been paid many times over had I not been stung by the piping bug.

We all know Scotland is a country of great beauty and remarkable history. Barring a few tricky moments in the 14th and 18th centuries, it’s been a tourist hotspot forever. This annual flocking of honking PFAs — people, or pipers, from away — what must Scots think of it all?

As a Canadian, it strikes me that for Scots it’s got to seem a bit weird: all these ‘overseas’ piping people converging on the country, laying out their tunes and bellying up to the bars. From Rottenrow to Invergordon to Mallaig, a Scottish summer sees non-Scottish people everywhere. Like the chip, they’re ubiquitous.

I remember once making my way to Skye with Bill Livingstone and Jim McGillivray and stopping in at the Marine Hotel in Mallaig. A moment after a stop at the bar I hear from a seat off in the corner, “Look, it’s Michael Grey!” Thinking, “Oh, crap, not another fan”, [joke!] I turned around and there sitting with bubbly G&Ts (I don’t really remember the drinks, but indulge me) were Andrew Berthoff’s sisters, Margaret and Clarissa, diligently fortifying themselves for their sail to Canna. OK, so they’re not pipers, but still, what are the chances?

That serendipitous little happening just underscores my completely uninsightful idea that summer sees Scotland absolutely full-to-the-brim with PFAs.

Take Todds Bar at the University of Strathclyde: during the Piping Live! week it’s vibrating with flat, sometimes drawly, North American accents — among a good sprinkling of others. Forget a fresh cultural experience and the single-cask delights on offer by west end pubs, for the overseas brigade, this university bar is the place for visiting pipers and drummers. That’s fine. I just have to think Scots must scratch their collective head, er, heid, over it all.

Small country games that once would’ve provided a (mostly solid) platform for local pipers to have a tune now commonly see the majority of entrants from far, far over Struy — overseas, in fact. The Worlds too, is, well, packed with global pipe band reps. As it should be, for sure.

Not so long ago a non-Scot at the Worlds was a rarity. I have to think this PFA onslaught has changed the vibe of the whole Scottish piping scene. Changed the whole scene — period.

I sometimes wonder what Canadians would think if, every winter, a relatively similar number of people converged on the country to compete and participate in the whole of the winter ice hockey scene. Hockey’s an obsession for an awful lot of Canadians — and that’s putting it mildly. It’s “Canada’s game” say the Canadian punters … and beer commercials.

So, what would Canadian hockey players think if the whole winter hockey season was awash with PFAs? (If you’re not Canadian, substitute the word hockey here for your own national obsession — and reflect. Rugby? Football? Morris dancing?)

I’m not really sure, to be honest. I could prevaricate [sorry — no lie — I was determined to use that word today] and say without doubt that the Canadian ice hockey world would welcome allcomers. I strongly suspect that this would be the way of things. However, when we see rioting in the streets after a Canadian team loses — as was the sad case in Vancouver this past June following an American team’s victory in the Stanley Cup final — well, I just have to say, I’m not completely sure.

When thinking of the complex and highly nuanced elements that all go in to making up a country’s nationalist feeling or perspective, the sport of ice hockey and Highland bagpipes might not make the best comparison to help understanding. Still, I suggest it’s an interesting thought-provoker.

People like to talk (because people like to talk) but I’ve never seen or experienced any seriously direct anti-PFA sentiment in the Scottish piping scene. That’s a hard thing to imagine, really, in a place that produced the likes of David Hume. Anyway, I’m not talking about banter and teasing and all the usual, normal stuff that happens when people get together — especially when they get together to compete against each other. Anti-PFA feeling would look something like bitter, resentful crabbiness and I’ve never seen that.

Only Scots can say how they feel about the annual congregation of pipers and drummers on their soil. However, knowing what I know, what I’ve learned along the way, I’d have to think Scots are good with PFAs.

Come to think of it, maybe we should think of the annual Scottish gathering of PFAs as a congregation.

After all, for most of us, the enthusiasm and passion associated with the pursuit and study of the music of the Great Highland Bagpipe often approaches religious-like fervour.

Summer in Scotland makes for a fine cathedral of piping and we all — Scots and PFAs — make a grand congregation and thanks to the Scots for making it so.

Amen. •