Bagpipes and Americans: There’s work to be done here.

The United States may be a super power and a great neighbour, but the naiveté among some of its citizens can sometimes be a bit overwhelming.

In a country raising many of its children to the glare of the flat screen TV, an addiction to video games, the histrionics and bad behavior of Snookies and pals and the dominance of mush music stars and mediocre actors, it’s little wonder that most of the ink spilled by writers when referring to the bagpipes is simply misinformed, unintelligent and downright embarrassing.

Here’s an example from the January 26 Abilene Reporter-News, from Abilene, Texas:

“It begins as a little squawk. Then a steady droning begins to build, as if a swarm of angry hornets is descending upon the Church of the Heavenly Rest parish hall. The reality, to some, is much worse. Six people are playing bagpipes at the same time. Nowhere in America is there a more misunderstood and feared musical instrument than the bagpipes.” (Obviously the pipers of local band The Abilene Pipers are a fearsome bunch in this town.)


This kind of newspaper clap trap is not as unusual as you may think.  Months ago, I set up a specific search on Twitter, searching for every utterance of the word “bagpipes”.  The amount of ignorant, often profane and generally moronic remarks coming from mainly US tweeters is staggering.  Here are some tweets from January 27 alone:

“Aliens playing bagpipes outside of my house, please stop”

“Why do people who play the bagpipes feel it’s ok to subject the public to that crap?”

“What is the difference between bagpipes and an onion? Nobody cries when you chop the bagpipes into little pieces.” (Oooooh, that’s a new one!)

“Why can they make silencers for guns but not for bagpipes? Surely one of those inventions would actually help people…?”

“Welcome to heaven – here is your harp and wings. Welcome to Hell – here are your pitchfork and bagpipes.”

This ignorant attitude may well explain that out of the 34 grade one pipe bands globally, the United States currently has four. (Canada has six bands) To their credit, each one of those bands is excellent and do a fine job of developing musicians up through the grades. These bands, however,  should be given extra credit for developing musical talent in a country of 307 million people, many of whom have no clue what a bagpipe is, what a proper pipe sounds like or the long history of this historic instrument (as evidenced by the Abilene report.) There are many fine pipe band organizations in the US, including New York and Philadelphia and the tradition of pipes at police and firefighter funerals has been around for at least a century.

For many American, the bagpipes appear to be a strangely shaped contraption creating a sound that simply does not fit in with their omnipresent pop or rap music, isn’t played by anyone significant (i.e. movie stars or other pop icons) and deserves a good thrashing of whatever pops into their minds whenever one gets their fingers on their smart phone.

I live in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.  And while there are three million plus people in this region, we likely have 700+ bagpipers and dozens of bands, including the five times World Champion SFU Pipe Band and of course, Triumph Street Pipe Band.  A pipe band or a lone piper will always draw a crowd no matter where or what country, but in BC, I have found a great amount of respect from people who listen to me.

Case in point: I played at a funeral in North Vancouver this week and was approached by a gentleman who patiently waited until I finished a tune then commented on the nice sound and execution. It was one of those days where I had to quickly tune my pipes, but with a temperature around 12 degrees, it was almost a nice day to play outside. The pipes sounded great and while the tunes were fairly simple, it was nice to provide a good example of what a nicely tuned bagpipe can sound like.  I appreciated the comments.

I have no doubt that if everyone rushed off and “tweeted” that they heard a nice sound and well executed tunes, the impression of “angry hornets” and “feared musical instruments” would soon give way to a more respectful and intelligent discourse on the Great Highland Bagpipe.

About Mike Chisholm

Official Piper: Rocky Mountaineer Rail Tours. Pitt River Resort. Exec. Dir. ScotFestBC: The British Columbia Highland Games, Director, BC Pipers' Assn. Former journalist, Nova Scotian, Dad.
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5 Responses to Bagpipes and Americans: There’s work to be done here.

  1. Scott says:

    I have loved the pipes, and been very proud of my Scots heritage, my entire life; but, i have always known that rare is the middle ground for the listening public.They either love em or hate em.
    As far as the media and it’s relevance in this country, utter crap doesn’t even approach a good description.

  2. Denise Mc Anally says:

    Being in Mexico right now. I’d like to know if there is a reason for the bagpipes at sunset. Being on vacation. There is a man that plays the bagpipes every night as the sun goes down. Is there an underlying reason for this???? Then they raise their wine glasses and yell something???????

  3. Bagpipes at sunset has less to do with the sun setting than it does with end-of-supper music. Traditionally, the Chief of a Scottish Clan (like MacLeod or Chisholm) would finish his supper and then call for his piper to play. Often the Chief asked for a piobaireachd, which is the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipes. Following the dissolution of the Clan system in Scotland, this tradition was carried on by British officers, who even today can call for a regiment piper to play a piobaireachd or some ‘light music’ like marches, strathspey’s and reels after their supper. Civilian pipers will often do likewise, but for many who feel a bit of a romantic or nostalgic bent toward the bagpipes, will play as the sun sets. As for the hooting and glass clinking, there is no tradition for this other than a piper being ‘paid’ with a drink after his performance. I only hope your beach bagpiper in Mexico is a decent player. I’ve always said ‘there’s nothing like a good bagpiper. But there’s NOTHING like a bad bagpiper’. MC

  4. It may well be a genetic component, but I have loved ‘the pipes’ all my life. It sturs something deep within that is drawn toward values and things everlasting. If my soul stood on the final battlefield, let my sacrifice and courage be beconed by the pipes.

  5. Silk says:

    I suggest you check out the story of the Kincardine, Ontario bagpiper at sunset tradition… it has to do with a Scottish family lost in the lake fog… look for the video on Youtube, it’s really interesting. They have been doing it since the late 1800’s.

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