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Helen Harper

Pipe Dreams

A rarely advertised fact about myself is that a long, long time ago, I used to play the bagpipes.


Those of you who aren’t Scottish might imagine that this is a rite of passage for a Scot. Actually, even my fellow students at school thought it was really weird. There were 1200 pupils at my high school and there was only ever one other who played the pipes as well (and she was far, far more skilled than I ever was).


While a foolish drunken boast next to a piper in a Scottish themed pub a few years ago in KL has proven that I’m no longer even vaguely capable of blowing out a tune, the mechanics of playing the bagpipes aren’t as hard as people often suppose. You don’t need a lot of puff because once the bag is blown up (and you do that part before you start playing), it’s all about control – not how much air you have in your lungs. Deftly managing to play a complicated tune and not sound like a strangled cat is harder. I could learn the notes and hammer them out but the control part was never my forte.


Certainly as a teenager, it was an interesting life. We’d spend all winder practising and preparing for the summer season. There were many long dark evenings spent in school halls. It was ten months of practice (with the odd Hogmany, Remembrance Day and local festival appearances thrown in) for two months of dedicated competing. Every weekend we travelled by rickety bus to another competition –sometimes north on a Saturday and then south on a Sunday. I saw far more of Scotland as a piper than I ever have before or since. We’d play one tune for the judges and then spend the rest of the day at whichever Highland Games we happened to be attending for the results. I quickly discovered that it was damn easy to get served alcohol when you were dressed as a piper. I’m not sure it would hold up these days but I’m convinced that back then, people saw the uniform – the hat, the blazer, the kilt, the handy sporran, the damned itchy socks and the shiny skean dhu (dagger) – and didn’t look at how old I was. It wasn’t healthy. Or a good idea. But it was fun.


There was the other local band from the town next door who were our bitter rivals. There was the crazy in-fighting within our own band and the politics between the Drum Major and the Pipe Major. There was rampant sexism against the older women who played which (I hope) was nothing more than the times themselves. Despite it all, I remain intensely proud of those years. I like to imagine myself moving back to Scotland one day and taking the pipes back up again. Realistically, it’ll never happen. I was never very good. I do hope that one day, however, I’ll be able to use all those stories and knowledge and come up with a novel about a pipe band. There’s really nothing quite like being part of a pipe band.


Note – all the memes here are from a wonderful FB page called the Moray Neep that I happened upon a few days ago and which inspired this post.

Photo by conner395

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