Over the sea to Rum, actually.A few weeks ago I was trying to think of my first real exposure to the pipes. I mean, the instrument, and how it works, not just the sound. My Toledo, Ohio-born father used to play vinyl records of Jimmy Shand and various military pipe bands (my Scottish mother wasn’t as keen on Scottish music aside from Burns and the odd waulking song from Barra), so I guess I had the sound rattling in my head.

But, really, it was in the third grade at Flynn Park Elementary School when I was introduced to how the bagpipe worked. (See previous post on another Flynn memory.) I would have been eight years old; a good two years before I put my hands on a practice chanter. My teacher was Ms. Durr and one day for music time we all were taught to sing something Scottish.

Extraordinarily, it was “The Skye Boat Song.” Remember, this is in suburban St. Louis – about as far removed from the Hebrides as you can get in the western world. And I knew then that it was weird but highly coincidental that we third-graders would be singing Scottish music, the stuff that my dad irritated us with on the weekends.

But here’s the thing. Ms. Durr broke the class in half. One side would sing the words and the melody, and the other side would be what she called “the drone.” This, she explained, was how the bagpipe worked. But we weren’t just any drones. No. We were wangers.

She said that the drones side would, in sort-of rhythm, sing “wang” – as in, “Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang!”

I can’t remember, actually, if I was on the wang side or the song side. In any case, I recall Ms. Durr getting the wangers going:

“Okay, wangers! Start wanging!”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Okay, now the song side! Sing!”

“Speeeeed bonnie booooat, like a biiiirrrd on the wiiiinng!”

“Keep wanging wangers!”

“”Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Onward! the saaaaiiilors cryyyy . . .”


“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Carry the laaaad that’s booorn to be kiiiiinng!”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

“Keep on wanging, you wangers!”

“”Ooover the seeeea to Skyyyyye . . .”

“Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . . Wang! . . .”

So, this, I think, was my first real introduction to how a Highland bagpipe functions, and since I was the first piper in my family it may have been a determining moment. I remember coming home and trying to describe the experience to my parents, who reacted with a combination of humour and horror. To this day when I hear the tune I picture a little rowboat with a kid with a crown floating on top of a giant seagull’s wing and even the most perfect drones start wanging in my head.

But even though my third-grade experience with Ms. Durr at Flynn Park forever ruined “The Skye Boat Song” for me, in its way it must have influenced my desire to take up the pipes. There must be other unusual tails of inspiration to wang out there, so, Follow I’m sure you’ll dare.

Judgment and sorrow

It’s too soon to try to put the death of Alasdair Gillies into any words or perspective. It’s a sad, sad loss for his family and friends. Anyone who knew Alasdair couldn’t help but to like him.

I’ve written about this before: the hardest decision as a journalist aspiring to professional standards is to know when it is appropriate to report news. Our community of pipers and drummers is a far cry from a tabloid paper or even a more respectable broadsheet for a mainstream audience. Several years ago I made a bad judgment call on reporting too quickly on a prominent piper’s death and will regret it forever. But I learned from the mistake of trying to be “first” at the cost of human sensitivity. Our news is different and it takes finesse and sensitivity when the worst sort of information hits you right in the guts.

My guts were hit crossing the Minch. I was on a CalMac ferry back from one of the small isles, where there had been no mobile signal. I will always remember my phone suddenly buzzing alive in my jacket pocket for the first time in two weeks. I opened the phone to see three messages, each with “Alasdair Gillies” in the subject line.

The connection was very slow, so it took several minutes for the body of the messages to come through and, if I were a person of prayer, I would have prayed for something, anything besides the ominous news that I always dread when I see a subject line with only a person’s name.

And then it hit. In that bright sunlit Hebridean morning of August 27, 2011, my worst fear became real, and I exhaled after holding my breath for that agonizingly long wait. My only emotion was pure sadness, and my only thought was with his family and for Alasdair as the extraordinary musician and gentle soul he was.

I can’t say that I knew Alasdair well, but I had the extreme honour of playing alongside him in a pipe band a few years ago and sharing a few exceptional, fleeting moments at the World’s. I will always remember several of his extraordinary Silver Star performances at Eden Court when he was in top form and, just as memorable, the extraordinary hush that fell on the packed hall when he approached the stage, several hundred passionate pipers bracing to be once again dazzled by his virtuosity with a Highland bagpipe – and the ovation explosion when he finished.

pipes|drums will mark Alasdair’s passing in due course, when the time is appropriate. For now, we lament the loss of one of our greatest, and hope that his family and loved ones – for he was clearly loved by many – may eventually find peace.


Eilean ChanaighAnother World’s is in the books, and I’d have to say it was the best yet. I think I say that every year, but this one seemed to run spectacularly well. Say what you will about the RSPBA, but these people know how to run some of the most complex events on the pipe band calendar.

After a fun and exhausting week in Glasgow, I’m off to a little island in the Hebrides to create a few altogether different life memories with my girls. Access to the Internet (not to mention my desire to access it) could be scant or even nonexistent, so things could be relatively quiet around these pages for a spell. As always, we’ll try to do our best.

I do hope that you enjoyed the coverage from Piping Live! and the World’s. We’re all indebted to great writers like Pete Aumonier, Michael Grey, Iain MacDonald and Meaghan Proudfoot and many others behind-the-scenes for their pith and insight.

For now, I’m on the West Highland Line to Mallaig, camera and mind trained on things other than pipers and drummers.

Well, at least some of time . . .