Bag Pipes in Scotland // © 2008
A good part of my life in Scotland was spent listening to the pipes, the massed bands of bagpipers and the passionate solo music of the Piobaireachd or pibroch. Next year, for the first time, Scotland will be celebrating Homecoming Scotland 2009, a full year of events guaranteed to lift the heart of anyone with a drop of Scottish blood. Like many of the 9.2 million Americans of Scottish descent who head “home” next year, I will be there, and I will head for my favorite places to hear haunting pipe music.
There’s hardly a day when you won’t find notices of piping performances and massed bands in and around Edinburgh, a gracious and enchanting city with a dream castle and a golf course right in the heart of the city center. The Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which takes place annually in August as part of the Edinburgh Festival, is a richly presented, truly military display of piping and drumming. For less formal piping, ask in any pub where to go to hear the best pipes.
Pipers and bands come to Scotland from all over the world to compete in the Highland games each summer. The prototype is the Royal Highland Gathering, about 50 miles from Aberdeen in the village of Braemar. It was originally the called Braemar Gathering, created to raise funds for the casualties of the battle of Waterloo. Now held on the first weekend of September, the two-day piping contest is passionate and sometimes stunning, and the games are traditionally attended by the British Royal Family.
If I am in Scotland in August, I will always be at the Argyllshire Gathering and Oban Games, taken very seriously among pipers. They are held in the charming town on Scotland’s West Coast, a great destination in itself and a perfect jumping off place for the ferries to the Western Isles. The World Class Solo Piping Competition is a wonderful opportunity to hear great pipers, and Oban’s own pipe band competes with cheers from the crowd. Even more fun in some respects, there are pipers and Scottish dancing among Oban’s restaurants and pubs all through the summer months.
Loch Lomond is a wonderful center for piping, solo and full bands and in July during the Games in Balloch groups of pipers tuning under the trees takes care of any need for early morning coffee. World championship solo piping and national and regional awards for bands guarantees that some of the greatest will attend, and the area’s pubs and halls offer ceilidhs – gatherings with piping, dancing, storytelling, etc. - all summer.
Portree, Isle of Skye
Skye is an amazing place anytime, where ancient and modern Scotland come together with only a thin veneer of time in between. Year round you can find posters announcing ceilidhs in various halls, restaurants and pubs. However, at Dunvegan castle one evening a year during the August Highland Games Skye hosts an ultimate experience of solo piping: The MacCrimmon Memorial Piobaireachd Competition brings five pipers by invitation only to compete, building amazing variations on the traditional tunes by the MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan. The trophy is a silver chanter, as a MacCrimmon was said to have been awarded one by a fairy as a sign of his magical skill.