Blowhards: The Stuart Highland Pipe Band

On the road, down the bottle, and across the border with Boston’s greatest competitive bagpipe band.
stuart highland pipe band

Drum sergeant Scott Fletcher began playing the snare at age six and won the North American Amateur Drumming Championships in high school. / Photograph by John Kealey

Born in Windsor, England, to a pair of professional bagpipers, Campbell Webster started playing the instrument shortly after his fourth birthday. At the time, his father, Gordon, was serving a four-year stint as Queen Elizabeth’s personal piper. Wherever the queen was in residence—Buckingham Palace, Balmoral Castle, Windsor Castle—so too was Gordon Webster. If the queen desired to have pipes accompanying her eggs Benedict, Gordon performed. “He was actually the only man to ever be the pipe major of both the First and Second Battalions of the Scots Guards, as well as being the personal piper to Queen Elizabeth,” Campbell tells me with pride.

Everyone on the bus is, to some degree, a pipe geek, but Campbell has centered his entire life around the instrument. “Everyone I surround myself with and everything that’s around me is all about piping,” he says. Now living with his family in Concord, New Hampshire, he works 40 hours a week at the nearby Gibson Bagpipes factory, where he spends most of his days painstakingly handcrafting reeds—the small slivers of cane that allow woodwind instruments to produce sound. He also teaches piping, and picks up wedding and graduation gigs in his spare time. Given his pedigree and intense focus, it’s not surprising that the 18-year-old comes off as cocky; he tells me that he’s a stronger piper than his father.

When Gordon Webster retired from competition, he gave Campbell a set of pipes that had been built in 1936, with decorative ivory mounts and ornate silverwork on the drones—the very set he had played every day while serving the queen. Campbell cherished the gift and made it his primary instrument. Less than a week before heading to Scotland with the Stewies for the 2014 world championships, Campbell traveled to Canada for a small competition with his mother, his sister, and his friend Eryk Bean, who is also a piper in the Stewies. After the event, when the group attempted to cross back into Vermont, it was as if the U.S. Border Patrol agents were waiting for them.

“Do you have your ivory pipes with you?” one asked at the checkpoint. Campbell and Bean explained to the agent that they had called ahead to make sure it was legal to travel with their instruments, and had obtained the necessary permits required under the 1975 Convention on International Trade in End angered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Because the pipes were built long before the treaty, the ivory was exempt from seizure. Still, the small Vermont border crossing wasn’t an officially designated port, and there was no Fish and Wildlife inspector on hand to process such items. After hours of frustrating negotiation, the talks began to get heated, and then collapsed. “Finally, one of the [Border Patrol] guys comes out and says, ‘Listen, we seized your pipes. You’re not getting them back. You’re most likely never going to see them again, so you might as well go home.’”

Campbell’s heart sank. The pipes had priceless sentimental and historical value—but, more important, he needed them to compete in Scotland the following week. The Stewies took to social media, and soon the story was picked up by the Associated Press and relayed around the world. Reaction to the news was overwhelming: An online petition demanding that the pipes be returned garnered thousands of signatures in the first 24 hours. Pipe makers in Scotland offered loaners. Conservative bloggers howled about the horrors of a bureaucracy so vast, vile, and heartless that it was seizing heirloom instruments from teenagers. Finally, the Republican U.S. senator from New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, stepped in and pulled a few strings. Campbell and Bean got their pipes back mere hours before leaving for Scotland. “We made sure that they worked,” Campbell says, “we did a TV interview…and drove straight to the airport.”

And that was the last time Campbell had crossed the Canadian border. The entire incident was such a media nightmare that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that in light of Campbell’s experience, the agency would review its rules pertaining to ivory imports, noting that musicians “have a unique situation.”

Back in the Albany parking lot, Campbell had assured me that he’d left his ivory-adorned pipes at home today. Now, at the checkpoint, two polite and cheerful Canadian officers scan our passports, not bothering to check the undercarriage. Moments later we’re across the border, on schedule. A few minutes past noon, we roll into a dusty parking lot at Rideau Acres Campground in Ontario. It’s go time. Holdaway grabs the PA: “I want everyone in uniform by a quarter to two. I don’t want people scrambling to get their shit together.”

 

Pipe bands are not democracies; they are dictatorships with strict chains of command that roll up to one of two leaders: the pipe major and the drum sergeant. The two men who presently reign over the Stewies are Holdaway, who’s been with the band since 2002, and drum sergeant Scott Fletcher, who joined in 2012.

Standing 6-foot-1 with a broad chest and a cinderblock head, Holdaway cuts an imposing figure when dressed in full uniform. The 34-year-old grew up in Somerville, where as a kid he’d ride his bike the length of the city’s Memorial Day Parade every year so he could listen to the crew of parading pipers. “The sound and the pageantry of the uniforms really kind of got to me,” he says. He picked up a practice chanter—an instrument similar to the plastic recorders forced on children in elementary school—and learned “Amazing Grace” the first night. He took classes, which in turn opened up doors to a few local bands, which in turn benefited from Holdaway’s youthful ambition. He tried a year of college in North Carolina on a piping scholarship before returning to the area and staking his livelihood on his talents.

If you want to piss off Holdaway, all you have to do is ask what’s under his kilt, do your best Mike Myers–inspired Fat Bastard impression, or tell him that his instrument sounds like a bag of drowning cats. Piping is Holdaway’s life, and his only means of supporting his wife and soon-to-be-born son. Whereas most Stewies are weekend warriors with full-time jobs, Holdaway is a working musician who takes on 200 to 250 piping gigs a year—weddings and funerals, corporate fundraisers, private parties. Like any good dictator, Holdaway can dress down the rank and file with a few words and a sharp tone, then lift their spirits with his next breath. During a practice early in the season, he cringed when he heard a young player, whose instrument was woefully out of tune, strike a sour note. “That’s my backup bagpipe that I play at negative-22-degree funerals,” he scowled at the offender. “Hopefully you can get yours to sound like it.” Minutes later, though, he reassured everyone that they were “further ahead than [they’ve] ever been in February.”

Leading the drum corps is Scott Fletcher, who is far more subdued than his counterpart. The 27-year-old is 5-foot-5 with a carved jawline swathed in stubble. Like many of the Stewies, Fletcher came to piping through his family: His dad was a piper, and his two older sisters were accomplished Highland dancers. He exhibited the markings of a prodigy from the moment he picked up the sticks at age six. Together, the family performed at Faneuil Hall, Harvard Square, and the Boston Common, busking for loose change. As Fletcher excelled, he found himself on bigger stages. In high school, he was the North American Amateur Drumming Champion—a fact he made abundantly clear to his school’s marching-band instructor when he quit in order to focus solely on playing in pipe bands. “I was a little wanker at that stage,” he says. “I was beating people three times my age, and I rose through the ranks really quickly. I got to the pro class within just a few years.”

Fletcher, who works as a consultant for an insurance company, had crossed paths with Holdaway countless times over the years, but it wasn’t until 2012 that they joined forces under the Royal Stuart tartan. The Stewies have thrived under their leadership, and the band now has more than 70 dues-paying members. In addition to the Grade 1 ensemble, the Stuart Highlanders also have bands at Grade 5 and Grade 4. Having multiple bands helps lower the barrier of entry to the craft and creates a natural pipeline of fresh talent to be groomed for Grade 1.


Chris Sweeney Chris Sweeney, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine csweeney@bostonmagazine.com