by Michael Grey
Piping Today #62, 2013.

I was at lunch with a work friend the other day when the subject came up:  just how old is the general public’s idea of the stereotypical pipe band? You know, Scotland the Brave, Black Bear, Green Hills and yards and yards of tartan.  Oh, and “bear skin hats” — yes, big honking bear skin hats, aren’t they grand — along with pristine white Johnnie Walker spats and big hairy purse things that swing on the march — on the outside of the kilt.    

We hardcore piping types may bristle at the thought but for those in the world who like bagpipes and pipe bands, the old school sartorial number one dress is what people see when they think of bagpipes — or, at least, as I say, pipe bands.  

So to the question:  Has the world’s idea of pipe bands and bagpipes been around forever?  And how old is it?    

You might think that a weird sort of query, especially from a “non-piping” person, one from a non-piping workplace — which is mine. For instance, a lot of people outside of family and hardcore piping types think what I do (talking about bagpipes now) is at best wildly eccentric and at worst, just crazy, if not a little bit sad [“oh, all that practice”].  I have a feeling you can relate.  

Still, I thought Adam R’s question a good one.  He was genuinely interested.  His folks emigrated from Scotland; he spent an away year at Glasgow University; he knew a Glasgow Friday night. He’s a young first generation Canadian — and — bonus — he loves the music of the pipes; the first sounding of chanter and drones apparently prompts, without fail, a (sober) tear.  Forget for a moment the always interesting idea of racial memory, his question got me thinking.

After a few reflective bites of my Club sarnie I told him I thought the pipes — as known by the general public in most places in the world where pipers and pipe bands are heard a lot — sit in a time space that occupies the 1910 to 1930 period.  Blur your eyes and ears for a second; put yourself in the shoes of people, people from outside our game, punters. Think about it. They don’t think waist coated, white-hosed pipe bands, complete with open fifth harmony, “functionally tuned” tenor drums and “great up-take to E”.  No.  To them bagpipes and pipes bands are all about the Tunes of Glory. Drum major, kilts, big sounds — and — that “song”: neer-neer, neer-neer-neer, neer-neer — Scotland the Brave.

Adam R was genuinely surprised. He’d always thought of the whole pipe band thing as ancient, at least medieval-ish (note: for him, pipers and pipe bands are pretty much the same thing — they fit in the same cultural box to his way of thinking). Well, we know that the idea of piping and pipe bands as viewed by the average Joe or Shaniqua, is just not that old, and yet, the general public’s perception is clearly not reflective of reality.

Does it matter?  I’m not sure. On the one hand, that high-minded bear-feather-bonneted idea of a pipe band keeps the idea of the bagpipe at a grand level.  Where’s the complaint in that?  On the other, it’s a stereotype, way out of line with the truth as represented by our best role-model bagpipe combos. For instance, wouldn’t it be great to have the world drink from the cup of the Grade 1 medley final at Glasgow Green (instead of just our mums, dads, friends and favourite aunties)? That’s the place where Tunes of Glory are redefined in the very best way.

But to me the interesting part in all of this is how is it that the bagpipe has found its way, in the second decade of the 21st century, to be hog tied to a stereotype with century-old origins? Well, guess what — bagpipes are in good company.  

Consider classical “European” music, you know, orchestras like, say, the Berlin Philharmonic. I suggest most of the world thinks of a certain sound, a certain feel and only a few composers when they think orchestras.
Beethoven’s Fifth and maybe Rossini’s William Tell Overture might be standard bearers for what makes the common idea of an orchestra’s sound, one that sits in the ear of the general public. High brow, poncy and bum-numbingly long music to take in make up what people imagine when they think classical music, an idea that is based around an early 19th century impression. We know this form is more than that and the orchestra is a hot-bed of new, sometimes avant-garde music composition. Vivaldi’s orchestra can be Phillip Glass cool.

I guess what we’re really talking about is our impressions that just don’t reflect the truth of something — or someone. Music aside, there are misplaced stereotypes galore in our world. Think people:  Americans? They’re loud.  Scots?  Mean, as in tight fisted. The French?  Prone to safe havens. And Canadians? Kindly saints — or, maybe, more accurately, boring and cynical — but with “good hands”.

I’ve worn feather bonnet, plaid, tunic, cross-belt, spats — the whole nine yards — while playing the so-called Tunes of Glory — guilty: a contributor to the blurred world view of bagpipes. And yet I pine for the day where we break through all of that and find a way to get people, people beyond our little world, to see the music we love as something more than a skirling PR stereotype. 

Happily, rare firms like William Grant & Sons, in their investment in our premier event, The Glenfiddich Piping Championship, are helping our cause. Still, we have a long row to hoe.

With that, I’m off to fluff my feather bonnet (as if).  •