Dead men don’t wear plaid

Land of maits.This is a story about a tartan. Not just any tartan, but the tartan that I have worn the most since 1983 when I happened upon a very fine kilt in Fort William, Scotland, where I spent the night before competing at the Glenfinnan games (got nothing) as a wide-eyed 19-year-old.

While killing time meandering around the town I came across a Highland wear place. It was my intention to get a kilt while I was in Scotland as a third-year student at the University of Stirling studying pipin . . . er . . . I mean, English. I went into this place without meaning to buy anything, but there was a kilt lying there in a tartan that I very much liked. I asked about it, and the manager (who I recall was a bit of a dink, probably beaten down by American tourists like me all day) said that it had been made for a man who quite unfortunately died before he could claim it or, I suppose, be buried in it.

It was a bit ghoulish, but what the hay, I tried it on, and it fit perfectly. So I somehow cashed in enough traveler’s cheques to take it away later that evening. The tartan was Maitland. As far as I could recall, I’d never seen it before, and in the 27 years I’ve worn the kilt I have rarely seen it on others.

That’s because the tartan is exclusive to those with a direct link with the Maitland “clan.” My dad discovered this when he tried to find a tie in the same tartan. One has to prove one’s right to wear the tartan before a mill will weave it, he found out. So, being the historian he was, he researched my Scottish mother’s genealogy and discovered a relative named Maitland.

I’d forgotten all that until I’d decided this summer to replace the now frayed and faded kilt with an exact replica. When the kiltmaker took the order to the mill, they refused to run it for fear of being fined for breaking the rule of the Earl of Lauderdale, the head of Clan Maitland.

So, I have had to go through the process of formally joining the Clan Maitland Society. Its North American branch is headquartered – of course – in Las Vegas. I submitted my case and application, and after a month or so, I received a letter of welcome from Lauderdale himself: “Greetings, Kinsman!”

I like this. Anyone in theory can wear any tartan he or she chooses, and that’s originally what I intended to do, but we Maitlands carefully protect ours. None of this commonplace plaid for us!

I’ve played in at least one band that had a quite extraordinary tartan that became a symbol or brand of the band itself, but gradually other bands started to wear it, so my idea was to have an exclusive tartan custom designed and registered, which is what happened. (I left the band before I ever actually wore it.) Other bands, like FMM and SFU, have followed suit, creating their very own exclusive look.

But I wonder whether any of these bands protect their trademark tartan as steadfastly with weavers as my very own Clan Maitland, with an earl upholding the rite.

Tapadh leat

Just about all of the recent Grade 1 pipe band comings and goings have been much better communicated to the outside world by the bands and people directly affected. Without going into private and tawdry details, they have been clear and honest with a direct eye to the future. And most have a common element: saying thanks.

I’d imagine that some view these statements of thanks as being insincerely politically correct. Wrong. Plain and simple, saying thanks shows good manners and common sense.

Traditionally, pipers and drummers are often pitifully poor at thanking people. Ours is generally a volunteer-driven hobby, reliant on the skills of those who step forward to commit their talents to some common goal and good – in their spare time. It’s all very well when helpful and talented pipers, drummers, judges, administrators, executives and stewards provide their time, but when they decide to step aside or retire, we so often forget the simple act of saying thank you.

I have noticed that associations are often particularly poor at saying thank you. Often piping and drumming societies and associations are so busy just focusing on the here-and-now that they forget about how they got to the here-and-now – through the voluntary efforts of committed folk.

I have often said that the competition-laden culture of Highland piping and pipe band drumming teaches us to suspect the worst in one another. We often tend to view most things rather cynically: suspecting ulterior motives in others even when they don’t exist. At the heart of what competing pipers and drummers do is simply music and fun. They want to enjoy a tune and hang out with others who desire to do the same. That’s pretty easy to understand.

What’s a more difficult leap is understanding that those who serve with associations as stewards, judges, committee members and executives are doing so because they want to make things better, because they want to contribute to a common good. We mistakenly think they’re volunteering their time for some perceived personal gain, rather than the common truth: that they’re working for you.

Often when I write something like this a few people (ironically cynical, here) ask, “Who are you talking about?” With this I can say that I’m thinking of no one or no organization in particular, but the worldwide culture of piping and drumming as a whole. The general view of those who volunteer is often jaded, even within the associations themselves. It’s no wonder that those who volunteer for association roles are few, since they’re all too often simply cast aside and forgotten without even acknowledgment – let alone thanks – when they’re done.

So, we should all take a cue from the more genteel trend that seems to be happening within pipe bands, that simply saying, “Thanks for all your contributions, your commitment and your time,” goes a long, long way.

Kilt of personality

Celebrity is always relative and dependent on your perspective. Right now the Toronto International Film Festival is in full-swing, and I work in the area that’s heavily frequented by movie stars. During the festival – which they keep telling Torontonians is “the second largest after Cannes” – there are people who star-gaze, making it their mission to catch a glimpse of some adorable actor or another. But in 16 years I’ve never seen one during the festival.

That’s probably because I’m not looking for them. I like movies as much as the next person, but I don’t have a lot of time for putting “celebrities” on pedestals, or considering them as anything but famous regular people – who more often than not have serious off-screen personality and self-esteem problems.

As with every niche, piping and drumming has its celebrities. I remember as a Midwestern kid wondering what it would be like to see in-person great pipers whom I’d only heard on record or read about in that bitter little monthly digest.

When I finally got to Scotland and Canada, I was bowled over by how good these players and bands were in-person. But, when I got to speak with them and see them do something other than play their bagpipe, it was something of a let-down. We too often expect “celebrities” to do everything at the same level of excellence as the thing for which they’re famous.

There’s nothing like seeing one of your boyhood piping heroes physically sick with nervousness before competing, or swearing like a lobster fisherman, or getting falling-down-drunk to make you realize real fast that they’re just people, too, with familiar faults and frailties.

But things have changed a lot since the early-1980s. Just like movie-stars, famous pipers and drummers have a lot more to lose when they lose control of their celebrity persona. They’re far more conscious of their actions and how they may impact public perception. They’re not about to let down their guard at competitions and concerts. Their music is, increasingly, their job.

I also think that the piping and drumming competitive elite aren’t treated the same way, and perhaps we can blame – or credit – the Internet and social media for that. I think many people feel that they know a piping/drumming celebrity because they’re a Facebook “friend.”

I’ve written about the old-world hierarchies of class and “society” in piping being broken down over the last 40 years, to the point where income and social status mean nothing on the boards and in the circle. But with it also goes our notion of “celebrity” and, perhaps, our unreasonable expectations of our greatest artists to be perfect people.