Pipe down – and learn to love the peculiar beauty of the bagpipe

Pipe down – and learn to love the peculiar beauty of the bagpipe


Can there be anything more evocative of Scotland than the bagpipes? North of the border, they are the drum roll, the accompaniment to every grand occasion, the busker’s instrument of choice, drowning out all other musicians and all other cultures.

To Scots far from home, the very sound of the pipes can induce patriotic tears, which helps explain why many impecunious expats – Alastair Campbell apparently among them – have been able to pipe their way around Europe, and further afield.

But do you have to be Scottish to appreciate the not so sweet tones of the Highlands? It seems that the marches and reels so beloved of the Scots are not palatable to the untrained ear, especially when blasted out first thing in the morning.

In a move that has dismayed locals, the Royal Regiment of Scotland has caved in to complaints in the Aberdeenshire village of Ballater, near Deeside, and agreed to abandon its customary 6am pipe tunes. Instead, the army pipers will strike up at 7am and won’t play at all at weekends. Villagers are blaming second home owners and holiday makers for the break with a practice that dates back half a century.

It is tempting and often justified, especially in rural Scotland, to attribute any parochial dispute to the influence of incomers. But this spat is perhaps more understandable than others.

The bagpipes are an acquired taste; I know that from experience. At first, when you hear them on every corner of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, you think, ah, I’m in Scotland! But as the noise becomes familiar – the ubiquitous greeting as you emerge from Waverley station, and the backdrop to all outdoor conversations during the summer Fringe – you grow more discerning.

On my arrival in Scotland, I associated the pipes with romantic notions of authentic Caledonia, but, on closer listening, that affection curdled into contempt for the out of tune amateurs and their torturous renditions of highlandcathedral.

Badly played, bagpipes are Scotland’s muzak, unenjoyable and unavoidable, though not background because they are the extrovert of instruments, foreground only. But in expert hands, bagpipes can transcend their limitations and even contribute to the beauty of classical scores, such as in Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise.

It took a proper musician to restore my faith. Tom, a friend and champion at pibroch (the high end of pipe music), revealed the difference between Princes Street pop piping and bagpipes as art form. He also plays a cool highlandcathedral. From the day he warmed up in our sitting room before performing at my husband’s surprise 50th, Tom has been the star turn at every christening, significant birthday party, and leaving do. I hope, if my daughters get married one day, he’ll be there too.

I haven’t heard the Balaklava Company 5th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who piped at Ballater’s Victoria Barracks, but our forces’ pipers are fine musicians as well as soldiers, with a worldwide reputation – testified by Edinburgh’s Military Tattoo, packing in the crowds in Scotland’s capital this month.

To those folk new to the bagpipes, I’d say, give them a chance; they don’t all drone on and on and some, Ballater’s included, will be music to your ears.

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