From the Lowlands to the Highlands

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By Jaco Koster

It was a rainy Sunday afternoon in Scotland last summer [2018] when my girlfriend and I decided to pay a visit to Blair Castle near Pitlochry. We had visited the ruins of Caisteal Dubh – the Black Castle of Moulin – that morning, where I played my pipes for a bit, and since we were in the area we decided to visit another of Scotland’s famous castles.

When we arrived to the gates, the lady at the entrance noticed my kilt and uniform and asked me if I was here to play. “Yes!” I replied eagerly. She thought this would be lovely and told me that a piper played in the castle forecourt each day in summer. Apparently, he was just about to finish for the day. If I hurried, I could still catch him. We parked the car quickly, I grabbed my pipes, and made haste to the entrance of the castle. And that is how I met our editor, Mr Letford.

We had a brief conversation about my travels and piping in general. I played a few tunes and so did he. When he asked me the purpose of my visits – I told him I aimed to visit every year – he asked me to write an article about my piping trip around Scotland.

And so, here we are.

The beginning of my story starts long ago, when I was a wee lad of around the age of 10. I got my first taste of Scotland through a children’s television series on the telly and was blown away by the castles, the outfit and the music. Though I wanted to have lessons as soon as possible, my parents were less keen on me playing the pipes. It wouldn’t be until I reached 21 that I would have the opportunity to join a band. I joined the Friends of the Pipes from Emmeloord [in Flevoland, the reclaimed province in the centre of the Netherlands, where the former Zuiderzee was – Editor] in June 2009. From the moment I joined, I gave it my all, even at the expense of my studies (much to the chagrin of my university teachers) and within 10 mere months, I was out on the streets playing with the band. My lifelong dream was finally fulfilled!

The author has a tune among the ruins of The Black Castle of Moulin, Pitlochry. The castle was built in 1326 by the Earl of Atholl but abandoned in the early 16th century and set alight due to fears it harboured the plague. Ben y Vrackie glowers in the background.

The story doesn’t end there. Indeed, this is only the beginning.

I had developed an undying love and passion for the pipes. I had to finish my studies in the meantime, of course (history and English teacher respectively), but my work could not keep me from my passion. I practiced nearly every day. I had the luck to live close to a large heather field. I chose a remote spot to practice, but even so many people sought me out and throughout the years I have become a well-known figure in the area. My level of playing was progressing fast and, after a couple of years, I was no longer a student but a teacher within the band. In 2012, three years after I had started playing, my Pipe Major said there was nothing that he could teach me anymore. This was perhaps the biggest compliment that he could give me. But it also presented me with a problem. What now?

There were a couple of options before me, such as joining another band or getting a private teacher, but I figured that if I needed to learn something, I might as well learn it from the very best. So, the very next year I went to Scotland. 2013 marked the first year of my annual pilgrimage to Scotland. For the next three years I would apply for the summer courses at the College of Piping. I had several teachers throughout the years but one teacher was present every year and taught me most of what I know: Caitlin McDonald. Under her tutelage during those short weeks my skill improved tremendously. After the first summer course I knew that I would be return regularly. I went to Scotland for three consecutive years, each year taking part in the College’s summer schools, and of course also enjoying the Piping Live! festival followed by the World Pipe Band Championships.

“I have a proposition for you …” Jaco and Patricia Klappe at the Falls of Tarff in the summer of 2018.

In 2014, something special happened; I met a girl in the band and we started dating. Her name was Patricia Klappe. Sharing the same hobbies and passions, it wasn’t before long that we became an official couple. Unfortunately, she had to quit the band due to time constraints, but her love for the music remained. I couldn’t wish for a better woman by my side. I took Patricia to Glasgow in 2017 to show her the places of my pilgrimages, but even though it was a fun week, Glasgow is hardly a proper representation of all that Scotland has to offer. For 2018 we wanted to do something different. We planned a ten-day trip throughout the country, wanting to visit as much of it as possible. This was going to be the trip of our lifetime. And, unbeknown to my girlfriend, it was going to prove to be a very special trip …

We decided it would be best if we would take our own car. On April 20 we took the ferry from the port of IJmuiden to Newcastle. We arrived the next day after a quiet and uneventful crossing. Being from mainland Europe, we soon had our first experience of driving on the ‘wrong side of the road’ but we adjusted quickly. We headed north through Northumbria and entered Scotland at Carter Bar. We had our scares going up and down the mountain. Soon, we made our way past Edinburgh and Perth to our first destination: Pitlochry.

It was no accident that Pitlochry was our first destination. I was aware of its history and Queen Victoria’s famous visit in 1842. Indeed, the town did not disappoint. Most of the buildings in the town centre had an old, cosy feeling belonging to times past and the people were very hospitable. We even enjoyed some live music at a pub that evening.

“So, you play on the hour every hour? You are more or less Blair Castle’s version of a cuckoo, yes?” The author chats with the castle’s Duty Piper that day. “Aye, but we need to ditch the white hose, chap. They’re so 1980s.”

The next day we wanted to see the sights. We didn’t have anything planned, but a quick look on the internet revealed two castles in the area: Black Castle and Blair Castle, both nearby. We decided to visit both. We went to Black Castle first. It was a short hike. Even though only ruins remain, it was still impressive to see. I was wearing my uniform and brought my pipes with me (I was going to visit several Scottish castles, so why wouldn’t I?). I explored the ruins and played a couple of tunes.

Throughout my playing, I was a bit worried that we were trespassing or that locals would view us as a disturbance; we were close to an urban area after all. But nothing could be further from the truth. We got several friendly cheers from passers-by, and were invited for tea by a Dutch woman who moved to the town with her Yorkshire husband. A huge coincidence! We enjoyed their company and in the early afternoon we made our way to Blair Castle where we met Mr Letford who lives locally and who was the castle’s Duty Piper that day after stepping in at the last minute for another piper who had to be elsewhere.

On that day I completed several personal objectives. I played the pipes in Scotland on some historic sites, I met a few of the locals and I met a fellow piper! These are the experiences I’m looking for when I go to Scotland. It is because of these things that I grow, both as a piper and a person. Sitting at home and studying gains one only so much, but through going out and experiencing the Scottish culture is how I want to learn and gain confidence in who I am: a Dutch piper.

Our travels continued. Patricia and I visited Glencoe, where God was kind enough to bless us with real Scottish weather … suffice to say that I chose not to play that day! Onwards through Fort William all the way to Fort Augustus on the shores of Loch Ness. The next morning, we climbed the hills and mountains near the River Tarff where I played at the falls. We then made our way through the highlands to our next destination: Portree, on the Isle of Skye.

We were received very hospitably at the guesthouse by a lovely old couple. The house was amazing; we couldn’t wish for a better accommodation. I actually practiced Gaelic a bit before our holiday and it was fun exchanging a few sentences with the hostess. It may be a language not spoken by many these days, but it is a very interesting one and I am keen on learning it. The hostess even raised the Dutch flag at her guesthouse when we went out the next day. It was a nice touch. That evening, we met Allen MacKenzie, the Pipe Major of the Isle of Skye Pipe Band who invited me to play a couple of tunes with the band.

The author has a tune at the Falls of Tarff in the wilds of Atholl.

There are certain moments in life that we will always treasure, memories that will always stay with us. We had one such a moment during our trip. Whilst on Skye we visited the Fairy Pools. It was a tough walk. The road was rocky, the rain was drizzly and I hadn’t slept well. Although the pools can be seen from a distance, it nevertheless took us about half an hour before we reached them. The sight was one to behold. And there on that day at the Fairy Pools, after playing Amanda McBroom’s song, The Rose for my girlfriend, I proposed.

Though that was definitely the highight of our trip, it didn’t end there. We travelled to Ullapool where we met Ruairidh MacLean, an accordion player who could put many a piper to shame with his bagpipe impression and quick finger work. We stayed at the Farr Bay Inn at Bettyhill and met a few wonderful people there who were also staying for the night.

Jaco and Patricia in Sutherland.

Finally, we headed south to Newcastle via Elgin (with an obligatory stop at the Glenfiddich distillery) and Saint Monan where we came in contact with some lovely people including some of my fellow countrymen. A Scotsman was so impressed with my playing at the docks of that he recited a Scottish toast for me:

The cover of the August 2019 Piping Times.

May the best ye’ve ever seen
Be the worst ye’ll ever see.
May a moose ne’er leave yer girnal
Wi’ a tear drap in his e’e.
May ye aye keep hale an’ he’rty
Till ye’re auld eneuch tae dee.
May ye aye be jist as happy
As we wish ye aye tae be.

This was the most amazing, exhilarating journey I’d ever had. There are many more stories that I could tell you that happened to us during our ten-day trip. Experiences make us who we are. These are the things that make us grow as a person. For me, I hope that this taste of Scotland and its culture will make me a better piper. I would go back in a heartbeat.

And my girlfriend? Of course, she said yes!

• From the August 2019 Piping Times.

* Postscript: Stuart Letford writes: “I remember well the day I met Jaco and Patricia. I had recevied a phone call from the Blair Castle office first thing that morning advising that its Duty Piper that day had a last-minute appointment elsewhere. So, I threw on the garb, grabbed the beast [the great highland bagpipe] and drove north to be the Duty Piper that day.

Jaco and Patricia appeared just after lunch time. Jaco was resplendent in the garb and had the ‘beast’ under his oxter. We had a great chat. He was a fascinating chap and we discussed possible piping places for him and Patricia to visit on their holiday. Jaco even allowed me a break at the 2.00pm stint when he took my spot – while I had a cup of tea and a scone. He played really well.

I really hope that when this pandemic is over that he and Patricia return to Scotland and I can meet up with them again and have a tune … maybe even up at the Falls of Tarff.”