Blowhards: The Stuart Highland Pipe Band

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

During today’s competition, the Stewies played big, in sound and in size—seven snare drummers, three tenor drummers, a bass drummer, and 21 pipers. Hours after the results were announced, their performance was uploaded to YouTube and has been viewed by thousands. In the following weeks, it will be analyzed and scrutinized by discerning ears around the world. When the Stewies are on point, tearing through a medley with their drones locked and snares sharpened, it’s a sensory experience that can spark a primal desire to chug a keg of ale and bareknuckle box the ghost of William Wallace. But achieving this thunderous output is a study in harmony. Competitions are judged on the integration of pipes and drums, the quality of the group’s sound, and its precision, among other factors. Rarely does one player make or break a performance. This afternoon’s competition, however, wasn’t like most.

As the sun drops and the U.S. border draws closer, the darkness on the bus flickers and then, briefly, lifts: A dozen or so bandmates begin chanting, “Char-ly. Char-ly. Char-ly.” Campbell Webster chuckles, offers me a gulp of scotch, and joins the saucy chorus: “Char-ly, Char-ly.”

Charly Slagle is a 25-year-old piper who’s been with the Stewies since 2011. He flew in from Denver, where he moved a few months ago, for today’s event. Exhausted, Charly is a few beers deep and doesn’t care for the attention. “Definitely one of the longest days of my life,” he’d later recall.

 

The day starts at 6:30 a.m., when carloads of Stewies pull into a parking lot behind Macy’s at the Crossgates Mall, in Albany, New York. Though headquartered just outside of Boston, the band attracts elite players from New Jersey to New Hampshire. Today’s itinerary is not for the weary: On the road by 7 a.m., drive to Canada, rehearse, compete, drink, climb back onto the bus, and return to the Albany mall’s parking lot by 1:30 a.m.

Make no mistake: Pipe bands do not travel light. It’s windy outside as players load the undercarriage of the bus with an endless array of items: pipes, drums, tuners, harnesses, kilts, ties, vests, dress shirts, brogues, Glengarries, capes, cases of water, a few bottles of beer and booze. At 7:09 a.m. we’re rolling, and Adam Holdaway, the pipe major, is on the PA for the first time of the day. “Thanks for being on time everyone,” he says. “That’s a fucking record first.”’

Today, the Stewies are out to prove a point—that they deserve to be in Grade 1, bagpiping’s elite upper echelon. To understand the chip on their shoulder, and the blend of eagerness and anxiety looming over the 222-mile ride north, we need to venture briefly into the weirdly bureaucratic weeds of competitive piping and the long, sometimes violent history of the Great Highland bagpipe.

Early versions of the instrument date back to at least the 16th century, when Scottish clans would blast battle tunes to ignite the warrior spirit and intimidate opponents before slaughtering one another in bloody, ruthless clashes. As the region stabilized over time and warlords stopped fighting, they needed something to fill the competitive void, so they sent their greatest athletes, their best dancers, and their finest pipers to huge Olympics-like competitions known as Highland Games. The current championships are descendents of these games.

stuart highland pipe band

18-year-old Campbell Webster is the youngest professional piper in the United States. / Photograph by John Kealey

Today, bagpiping is a worldwide pursuit: There are more than 285 competitive bands in the United States alone, made up of thousands of pipers and drummers. The bands are divided into grades based on skill: Grade 5 is the lowest, akin to Little League; Grade 1 is the majors. To compete at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow—attracting more than 200 entrants from countries such as Japan, Oman, Pakistan, Ireland, France, and Canada—bands must register with the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, commonly known as the RSPBA, which uses a grading system nearly identical to the one in America. For years the Stewies were, by both U.S. and RSPBA standards, a Grade 2 band. But in May 2014, Holdaway received a letter from the RSPBA informing him that the Stewies had been bumped up to Grade 1. In its letter, the RSPBA said the decision was based on the fact that the Stewies had absorbed several players from a respected Grade 1 band in Albany that had shut down.

For those who read Pipes Drums magazine religiously and scour bagpiping message boards, the Stewies’ upgrade was shocking, and high international drama. After reading the letter, Holdaway felt blindsided. It was as if the Pawtucket Red Sox had been called into Fenway for Game 7 of the World Series. “It was an oh-shit moment,” he says.

The upgrade meant that the band now had just weeks to orchestrate and master an additional medley. Many of the Stewies were pissed that they had spent months practicing for Grade 2, where they expected to place among the top teams, but now—having to compete in the major leagues—were almost sure to be creamed. Rumors spread through the piping community that a disgruntled Albany player or a pissed-off Grade 2 competitor in Scotland had tipped off the RSPBA about the Stewies’ influx of talent. Holdaway even went so far as to formally appeal the decision—asking to be moved back down to the minors—to no avail.

Here’s the thing, though—in Glasgow, the Stewies exceeded everyone’s expectations. “We were one place away from actually qualifying [for the finals], believe it or not,” Holdaway says. “We had nothing to lose, and I think everyone just left it all out on the field. It spoke volumes.” In light of the group’s 2014 world-championship performance, U.S. pipe-band officials decided to upgrade the Stewies as well, making them one of only two Grade 1 bands in the country. (The other is California’s LA Scots, a rival the Stewies hope to stomp at this year’s world championships.)

Which brings us to today’s competition in Ontario: It’s the Stewies’ North American debut at the premier level, and the first time they’ve competed since the 2014 world championships. The stakes are high. There are naysayers who argue that the band is a fluke and didn’t deserve the upgrade. A win at a season opener, on foreign soil, would send shock waves from Boston to Scotland and silence their critics. To emerge victorious this afternoon, they will need to outperform three other Grade 1 bands, all Canadian powerhouses: The Toronto Police Pipe Band, the Ottawa Police Service Pipe Band, and the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band.

Near the Canadian border, the bus passes a final American outpost, Fort Drum. Pondering its battalions and weaponry, piper Andrew Douglas, the bus’s resident wiseass, quips that it’s a good thing the United States has a fort so far north to defend against possible Canadian attacks. Think John Candy in Canadian Bacon. A few minutes later, as we arrive at the checkpoint, everyone quiets down save for Douglas, who is still cracking jokes: “I’d laugh if we pull up and they’re like, ‘Is Campbell Webster on the bus?’”

It’s an inside joke, but the truth is that if we do get pulled off the bus for a long and exhaustive probing at the border, it will almost certainly be Campbell Webster’s fault. As everyone onboard knows, the last time the baby-faced teenage phenom with jet-black hair traveled to Canada, he sparked an international incident involving elephant ivory, a set of bagpipes, and the queen of England.

  • B. D. Colen

    Really wonderful piece.