Speak Out with your Geek Out:  Bagpipe Anarchy
WD Robertson

“…To the make of a piper go seven years of his own learning, and seven generations before.  At the end of seven years, he will stand at the start of knowledge, and, leaning a fond ear to the drone, he may have parley with old folks of old affairs…” (Neil Munro)

Wow.  That’s a hard act to follow. 

Yes, I’m one of those people.  I play the bagpipes.  I listen to bagpipe music of all sorts from all around the world.  I think bagpipes played with Folk Metal* and techno-trance bagpiping is about as cool as it gets. 

“Music they have, but not the harmony of the spheres, but loud taurean noises, like the bellowing of beasts. (description of Highland Scots bagpiping, 17th century)

*Check out “Inis Mona” on Eluveitie’s album “Slania” for a great example of death metal with fiddles, bagpipes and a hurdy-gurdy.

I was listening to Mark Saul’s brilliant album “Mixolydian” earlier today* and thought, “Yeah, I’ll ramble about bagpipes and why I do what I do that so annoys neighbors and terrifies cats.”  So here’s the ramble.

 “Some men there are love not a gaping pig; some, that are mad if they behold a cat; and others, when the bagpipe sings i' the nose, cannot contain their urine.” (Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1).

I’m not sure I even want to know, good Bard, what you were getting at there.

*I can’t recommend “Mixolydian” highly enough.  If you only listen to one song, I recommend “The Gateless Gate.”

Much to the chagrin of other pipers, I cannot read a bar of music* and play by ear.  Consequently, I am doomed to “folk music” rather than traditional piping.  Groovy!  I’m not a big fan of all that marching in neat rows anyway. 

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.
(Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

*A geeky side note:  I used to read music a little in public school.  I played the tuba and played it well, but mostly by ear.  How geeky is that?  

So I play for myself (and everyone else within a mile or three).  I’ve made a bit of money as a musician over the year, but when you’re getting paid for something it seems to me to be too much like work.  I’m a self-described Anarchist Bagpiper.  Music doesn’t need more structure – it needs more spirit. 

Give the piper a penny to play and two pence to leave. (English proverb)

I play parlor pipes, tin whistle, bodhran and several other instruments as well, but this is about the big guns.  The Highland bagpipes.  A rant about rants, as it were.  Kudos to you if you get that joke.

Playing the bagpipes in public is sort of like throwing a javelin in public:  you don’t have to be a master to attract a lot of attention. (anonymous)

I once played seven straight hours, pro bono, at a Muscular Dystrophy fund raiser.  That’s also the day that I discovered some Hells Angels wear kilts* and like bagpipes and worry about kids with MS.  One of the bikers bought me a hamburger and the others some beer, and that was my pay for the day (which was a lot better than nothing).  I ate the burger, drank the beer, and played another four hours.  We made our donation goal, by the way.

A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne, And therwithal he brought us out of towne. (Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales)

*The following quote always reminds me of those guys. It’s a description of Gaelic mercenaries (Gallóglaigh/Gallowglass) in the 16th century:


"…picked and selected men of mighty bodies, cruel without compassion, the force of the battle doth lie in them choosing to die rather than surrender … the weapon they most use is a battle-axe or halbert, six feet long, the blade whereof is somewhat like a shoemakers knife, and without pike; the stroke whereof is deadly where it lighteth…”

The first time I heard bagpipes, specifically Great Highland Bagpipes (the ones you see in parades), was around 1970 at a bluegrass festival near Buffalo, Oklahoma.  I was hooked, but it wasn’t until grad school that I finally got around to playing them.  I could barely afford my first bagpipes, and couldn’t afford lessons at all since graduate teaching positions pay slightly less than indentured servitude, but I didn’t let that stand in my way.  Since I play by ear I listened to a lot of bagpipe tunes on a Public Broadcast radio station out of Dallas and scrounged every used bagpipe cassette I could find.  It took a few months, but I got it sorted out.*

 “The Brazilians call the bagpipe gaita de foles, which is Portuguese for “screams of the tortured monkey.” (anonymous)

*I’d had the bagpipes blown in (i.e. playable) for a couple of months when I met some members of a Wiccan coven.  Their priestess said I played too well for someone who had no instruction and went on to suggest I’d played in a former life.  Maybe so.  Maybe not.  And, as always, it’s not what I believe that should concern you.  Only what you believe should matter to you.  But all that aside, I made some new friends through bagpiping. 

Incidentally, I don’t forget many things without trying.  Tunes I heard 20 years ago I can still recall today, complete with the static on the radio.  My (cluttered) brain is a library of music pieces, which really comes in handy when someone is trying to describe a tune to me.  Unfortunately it means that my original compositions exist only in my brain unless one day I bother to play them to someone who can write musical notation. 

Traditionalists always complain that my fingerings aren’t proper military piping style.  Well, so what?  I’m not a military style piper and do not enter military piping contests.  So who cares about my finger positions or posture?  And more to the point, why would I care if they care?  I don’t, which simplifies things a lot.  Anarchy and bagpipes.  Mwahahahahaaa!

Q: What’s the definition of a gentleman?
A: Someone who can play the bagpipes, but doesn’t.

Bagpipes are cool.  They are ancient.  Bagpipes are mentioned in the Old Testament in the Book of Genesis.  Ancient Greeks and Thracians played them for the gods and for each other.  Roman legions marched to them.  Marco Polo heard bagpipes in eastern Asia.  There are dozens, if not hundreds, of types of bagpipes played in the world today.  If you play or otherwise enjoy the bagpipes you are part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years and that encompasses much of the world.

As I cam in by Dunidier
An doon by Netherha
There were fifty thousand Hieland men
Cam mairchin’ tae Harlaw…”
(Scots, traditional song, “The Battle of Harlaw”)

If you study the Great Highland Bagpipes, you also can’t help but learn about Scots, Highland Gaels, Irish Gaels, and their history and folkways.  That’s fine with me, being descended from the Highland Gael Clan Donnachaidh.  Garg 'nuair dhùisgear!”. 

No one in Scotland can escape from the past.
It is everywhere, haunting like a ghost.
(Geddes MacGregor)

My wife and I took this interest in Scots and Gaelic history and music a step further and attend local Renaissance Festivals as mid-16th century Highland Gaels and Irish Gaels.  Despite common belief, this era predates the clothing item most folks think of as a kilt.  But that’s a whole ‘nother topic, and a lengthy one at that.

 “Several wild Scots followed them and they were naked except for stained shirts, and a certain light covering made of various colours.” (description of Highland Gaels, 1549).

 “… tight trousers and short loose coats of very coarse goat’s hair.  They cover themselves with blankets… (description of Irish Gaels, 1588).

Suffice it to say that the clothing lends itself well to cold rainy days, but is less than comfortable in Texas autumn heat.  Add weapons and armor for my outfits and the weight gets up over fifty pounds.  Yeah, I never was all that bright.  But accuracy has its place, and one can always retire to the hotel afterwards to recover*. 

“The Irish invented the bagpipes and gave them to the Scots as a joke.  The Scots still haven’t caught on.” (anonymous)

*A geeky side note about Renaissance Fairs and zombies:  my wife and I used to go to the Texas Renaissance Festival every year on our anniversary**.  We’d get a room at a nearby hotel.  And every year for four years straight we’d arrive, turn on the TV, and find George Romero’s 1985 movie “Day of the Dead” on the Sci-Fi channel (this was way before it became the Syfy Channel).  Zombies?  Bagpipes?  Claymores?  Anniversary?  It doesn’t get much better than that! Heheheh.

**Our anniversary is Samhuinn, nowadays called Samhain, the Gaelic harvest festival.  And Halloween.  And a high holy day for some belief systems. 

On a related note, one of the best things about playing bagpipes is that there is a never ending stream of jokes and clever comments.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Q: What’s the difference between a bagpipe and a chainsaw?
A: You can tune a chainsaw.

Q: Why do bagpipers walk while they play?
A: It’s harder to hit a moving target with a haggis.

“Thank God there’s no smell.” (Oscar Wilde)

 “I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm.  Unfortunately, the man-made object never equaled the purity of sound achieved by the pig.” (Alfred Hitchcock)

“If thy neighbour offendeth thee, give his children bagpipes.” (anonymous)

“Bagpipes are the lost connection between music and noise.” (anonymous)

So there’s that about bagpipes and bagpiping and the making of a piper. 


WD Robertson

“Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.” (Scots proverb)