Pipers tell how to bring a ‘little bit of character’ to the Highland Games

The sound of the bagpipes is a much-loved tradition at the Highland Games.

From mass bands entertaining guests throughout the day to solo and group competitions, bagpipes are an integral part of the games.

For some pipers, this season will be their first competition in nearly three years.

The Aberdeen Highland Games on Sunday was the first event for Turriff and District Pipe Band.

Our medley went on from today, great to see a lot of new members making their debut with the band, some were only 12! Excuse the noise of the wind 💨

posted by Turriff & District Pipe Band Sunday, June 19, 2022

Piper Andrew Gray said it was their first competition in nearly three years due to Covid, and they had quite a few new members taking part.

“It feels really good to be back,” he said.

“It was the first time in a while with a lot of new members, but it was good to see the band continue after Covid as we had a lot of time without being able to practice or reunite.”

‘An integral element’

The pipe band began preparing for the season over the winter and will be competing in major competitions as well as a few Highland Games.

Mr. Gray has been playing bagpipes since the age of five and now teaches children to play at schools in Banff, Turriff and Oldmeldrum.

He believes that children who learn in schools will then progress to play in local pipe bands. According to the tutor and pipe major, the Highland Games give musicians a chance to develop social and performance skills.

He said, “It plays a big role in their development as musicians, so we try to bring them along as much as possible.”

The pipe band at Hazlehead Park for the Aberdeen Highland Games. Provided by Turriff & District Pipe Band.

Mr Gray also described the pipes as an “integral element” of the games.

He said: “The pipes are the sound associated with Scotland and that’s important to the tourism element of the games and also the traditional element.”

“They’re an integral part – with the tartan and the uniform, it’s colourful, it’s Scottish, it gives the games a bit of character.

“It’s important that all games embrace piping and drumming in some form or another.”

“Keeping tradition alive”

Dougie Pincock, Director of National Center of Excellence in Traditional Musicsaid the Highland Games have been a “lifeblood” for competitive piping.

Mr. Pincock has spent most of his life playing the bagpipes and has previously competed in the Highland Games. Provided by Dougie Pincock.

“It is undeniable that the Highland Games have been an essential part of keeping the tradition of the competition whistle alive.

“In pipe bands and soloing, the most common public outlet for music is in competitions, it’s one of the very few art forms that looks like it.”

Mr. Pincock represents a “third tier” of bagpipe performance, namely pipers in folk bands that have been around for about 50 years.

However, only a small number of pipers are involved in folk bands while hundreds participate in solos and pipe bands.

How has the relationship changed?

Mr Pincock says the Highland Games have become a circuit where solo pipers can practice before major competitions.

“It serves a good purpose,” he said. “Historically, this has been going on since the end of the 18th century.

“In the 19th century it was really important because it was the only place people played.

“Today the playing circuit is a little less important to pipers than it used to be because there is now – when I say now, I mean in the last 60 to 70 years – a winter circuit of indoor competitions which pipers may use for the same purpose.”

The main competitions are held indoors, which means that the winter circuit is the perfect place for pipers to practice before competitions.

Mr. Pincock also mentioned that the venue for bagpipe competitions at the Highland Games is normally in a corner of the pitch.

He argued that pipers can be hard to find at games because they are so far removed from the main events and poorly signaled, while commentators focus on heavy events.

Meanwhile, some Highland Games no longer host piping events at all.

“More people are interested in traditional music now”

However, he said there is still great interest in bagpipes, but the school finds that most young pipers aren’t as interested in competing.

“The actual number of young people learning the pipe is huge,” he said. “There are a lot of them, but the number of those learners who really take it seriously and go the competitive route is decreasing all the time.

“It’s changing a lot, and in fact there are more people interested in traditional music than ever before.”

City of Inverness Pipe Band competing in Piping Inverness 2019.

Despite this, Mr Pincock assured that the competition scene is still “very healthy” and will not die down.

The big competitions are all oversubscribed and people travel from all over the world to participate.

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[Pipers tell all about bringing a ‘bit of character’ to Highland Games]

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Jennifer R. Strohm