Blowhards: The Stuart Highland Pipe Band

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

Once the bus unloads its passengers onto the Ontario campgrounds, the Stewies split into clusters of drummers and pipers. As far as competition venues go, this is as bare-bones as it gets. A dirt parking lot gives way to a few hundred acres of flat fields littered with picnic tables, porta-potties, and a midway of Canadians selling everything from Celtic jewelry to barbecued brisket. Toward the center there’s a stretch of grass—roughly half a football field long—that’s been spray-painted with a white starting line and the white circles in which the bands must perform. With their gear unloaded, the Stewies stake out a small plot behind a few mobile homes and claim it as their rehearsal turf.

In a corner of the park, young girls in dresses of shimmering green and red tartan leap, skip, and twist through centuries-old Highland dance moves. The beer tent serves cups of Steam Whistle and a stand sells pink-hued sausages the size of billy clubs. Vendors hawk argyle wellies and sweatshirts adorned with the Union Jack. The Kiltmaker booth, run by a woman named Margaret Jackson, will sell you an eight-yard, hand-sewn kilt for between $780 and $840, depending on the tartan. Nearby, another booth offers a 52-inch William Wallace sword for $130, a medieval warrior ax for $80, and a Walking Dead sword with a leather shoulder strap for $350.

After an hour spent traipsing through the world of tartans, sausages, and cheap beer, I make my way back to the bus, where Holdaway informs me that he’s cut one young piper from today’s performance for hitting a single wrong note in rehearsal, calling him “a liability.” Fletcher has also decided to cut a drummer who has yet to master the rapid-fire sections of the tune. Despite being dropped from the performance, benched players are expected to stay in full uniform, help tune instruments, and take care of whatever other needs arise. With everyone in full dress, the band runs through a few more practice sets. At 4 p.m. they amble over to the designated final tuning area, a grassy square marked off by a series of wooden stakes. “No sunglasses,” Holdaway booms.

stuart highland pipe band

Holdaway tunes the drones of Kathleen Brown moments before the competition. / Photograph by John Kealey

Playing the bagpipes is hard. Playing them in competition is really hard. Performers who’ve perfected the art of circular breathing are able to feed air from their lungs into the blowpipe, which fills a bag that in turn funnels the air up into the three drones to form a chord. Meanwhile, they’re simultaneously fingering notes on the chanter. And on top of that, they’re marching in close formation to gracefully form a circle inside the area marked by white spray paint.

Perhaps the most difficult part is keeping a group in harmony. Tuning more than 20 sets of bagpipes is a process one piper describes as akin to “riding a wheelchair in sand.” Highland pipes have three drones rising from the bag—the tallest is the bass drone, the shorter two are tenor drones—and each has its own reed. If a single drone on one player’s instrument is out of tune, the resulting discord can sink a band. But that’s not the only hazard. There’s also the chanter, which plugs into the bag and also has its own reed. It needs to be tuned, too. And there’s the unsettling fact that a bagpipe is an instrument built for the outdoors—but that responds, sometimes aggressively, to the elements. A change of just a couple of degrees, or a slight jump in humidity, can make perfectly tuned bagpipes sound like a goose trapped in a suitcase.

Throughout the afternoon the Stewies have kept their cool, but the mood shifts to an impenetrable seriousness during the final tuning. “Let’s do an attack,” Holdaway orders. The attack is arguably the most critical element to a clean performance: It’s the point at which the pipers simultaneously strike their bags and deliver the introductory E-note, a staple of every medley. The dry run is precise; the instruments are in tune and roaring. Still, Holdaway barks, “Let’s do another attack.”

At 4:20 p.m., the Stewies march in formation to the starting line. A few hundred spectators circle the field, eager to hear the Americans. Holdaway checks in with one of today’s four judges—there are two to evaluate the piping, one for the drumming, and one who rates the overall ensemble. He then turns and faces his legion: “Right, quick, march,” he shouts. The drums roll, each player begins marching, the pipers drop their left elbows on the bags, and the drones scream to life. It is a majestic union of sound and step as they march toward the white circle on the field.

Just as the performance gets under way, however, a spectator next to me throws up his hands in disbelief. “They blew the attack,” he says. “They just lost the competition in the first two seconds.” Personally, I didn’t hear a thing.

The Stewies work their way through the medley that they’ve been perfecting for half a year. Tenor drummers flourish their mallets, spinning them above their heads and snapping them back into place on beat. The bass drum reverberates through the circle and into the crowd. The snares pierce the air and punctuate the pipes’ layered melodies. The four judges circle the band, stone-faced, jotting notes on clipboards like large-animal veterinarians inspecting a Clydesdale. Six months of training boils down to less than six minutes of performance.

As the band exits the field, tensions are high. The drummers are confident about their performance, but the pipers are not. They bicker and blame one another for a minute or two before their nerves settle. Holdaway is unsure of how well they did, and tells me the band’s immediate reaction is the same after every performance—over-analysis and self-doubt. They never walk off the field thinking they’ve won. While the pipes weren’t as clean as he would have liked, he says, he didn’t hear anything catastrophic.

There’s just enough time to suck down a cold one from the coolers on the bus before the ceremonious gathering called Massed Bands, during which every group that competed today lines up and plays a thunderous rendition of “Scotland the Brave,” one of Scotland’s unofficial national anthems. A small white drone hangs in the sky, filming the synchronized throng of tartan, drums, and pipes. When the tune comes to an end, the results are read aloud into a microphone. For the Stewies:

First in drumming
Last in piping.
Last in ensemble.
Last overall.

 

It’s all poor Charly’s fault. Charly Slagle, the piper who flew in from Denver, blew the attack. He came in a split second too early on the E—maybe it was nerves, maybe he had too much air in the bag. Whatever it was, it’s a fluke, like spending months training for a marathon, getting into the best shape of your life, and then tearing your Achilles tendon as you push off the starting line. The best pipers in the world have blown attacks, and it’s a damn hard mistake to recover from.

In truth, it’s the kind of wound that calls for alcohol. After the results are announced, Slagle and most of his bandmates pack into the beer tent, which is at capacity and spilling out onto the lawn. There’s a palpable division of frustration and jubilance between the Stewies’ pipers and drummers. Scott Fletcher comes by with four beers in hand, which he distributes to members of his drum corps—his group had performed flawlessly.

A half-hour later, Holdaway and Fletcher are the last ones to board the bus, sharing a brief exchange just outside the door. When they finally climb the stairs, Holdaway hoists a nearly drained bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and sends it down a line of clamoring hands and thirsty lips until it reaches Campbell Webster, who dumps the remaining drops into a keg cup. A few miles away from the U.S. border, real-world stress—deadlines and final exams, angry bosses and expectant wives—come flooding back to the band members, and they know there’s a whole season ahead to make up for today’s abominable fail. Tensions ease, camaraderie takes over, and the chant begins: “Char-ly. Char-ly. Char-ly.”

  • B. D. Colen

    Really wonderful piece.